adolf hitler and the reconstruction of the events in 1943 ending the Battle of Stalingrad

What Were The Main Causes Of World War II?

World War II began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. However, while this invasion was the sparkplug for the conflict, its underlying roots went back decades. Indeed, the legacy of the First World War, economic turmoil in GermanyAdolf Hitler's worldview, Allied incompetence, and Japanese territorial expansion all contributed to the beginning of the war. 

World War I And The Conspiracies It Fostered 

World War I ended in November 1918. Having failed to win any sort of decisive victory on the Western Front, Germany signed the November 11 armistice as the loser in the conflict. However, this outcome angered many Germans, causing widespread domestic unrest that included mutinies, attempted coups, and assassinations. Amidst this turmoil, conspiracy theories emerged about what "actually" happened at the war's end. The most popular of these theories was the "stab-in-the-back" myth, the notion that Jewish and communist politicians had betrayed the army by accepting the armistice. Drawing on these beliefs, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, or Nazi Party) eventually rose to power.

The Consequences Of The Treaty Of Versailles

Demonstration against the treaty in front of the Reichstag
Demonstration against the Treaty of Versailles in front of the Reichstag in Germany.

One must also consider the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty signed after World War I when assessing the causes of World War II. The terms of this agreement were as follows: Germany needed to give up all of its colonies and a significant portion of its European territory. There was also a stipulation that the German Army would be reduced to 100,000 men and that the Rhineland would be demilitarized. Germany was also forced to pay the equivalent of 33 billion American dollars in reparations to the Allied countries and take sole responsibility for the war. Much like the November Armistice, anger towards the Treaty of Versailles helped the Nazis rise to power. Furthermore, as will now be demonstrated, the agreement led to economic catastrophe in Germany. 

German Economic Turmoil In The 1920s And 1930s

Food riots in Berlin, 1918. A looted shop in Invalidenstrasse.
Food riots in Berlin. A looted shop in Invalidenstrasse during the economic turmoil in the country post World War I.

To pay off the aforementioned reparations payments, the German government began printing money, resulting in hyperinflation. Thus, by November 1923, one American dollar was worth 4.2 trillion Reichsmark (RMS). But, following the introduction of a new currency, the Retenmark, and the Dawes Plan, a more manageable series of reparations payments, the economy began to stabilize in 1924. This was all undone, however, with the onset Great Depression in 1929, and 33% of the working population was unemployed by February 1932. When combined with lingering anger toward the Treaty of Versailles and memories of the early 1920s, this paved the way for the rise of the Nazis. Indeed, after several elections in which they gained more and more support, Adolf Hitler was finally named chancellor on January 30, 1933. With the Nazis in power, Europe was now significantly closer to war. 

Hitler's Worldview

In 1934, Hitler became Germany's head of state with the title of Führer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor of the Reich).
In 1934, Hitler became Germany's head of state with the title of Führer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor of the Reich).

The major reason this was the case can be attributed to Hitler's worldview. To Hitler, "struggle," specifically struggle between races, characterized the nature of the world. Furthermore, he believed that gaining access to living space (Lebensraum) in the East, in particular the Soviet Union (USSR), was critical for the victory of the "Aryan race." This belief needs to be understood in conjunction with his understanding of Slavs and Jews. To Hitler, Slavs were inferior to Aryans, whereas Jews stood outside his racial hierarchy. Thus, "the Jews" were able to subvert the struggle-based nature of the world by introducing ideas, democracy, human rights, capitalism, and communism. Hitler thought that this was what happened in the First World War and was obsessed with preventing another such subversion of nature. This obsession, paired with the belief that the USSR was a Slavic state run by Jews, informed most of the Nazis' foreign policy decisions.

The Failure Of Appeasement

Cheering crowds greet the Nazis in Vienna.
Cheering crowds greet the Nazis in Vienna.

Another major reason for the Second World War was the Allies' failure to stop Hitler's aggressive foreign policy. For instance, in 1935, he reintroduced conscription. Then, on March 7, 1936, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland. Despite these actions clearly violating the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies did nothing, hoping that giving Hitler what he wanted would prevent another war. However, this inaction only made him more aggressive. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria. The Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia that contained mostly German speakers, was annexed in the autumn of 1938, followed by an invasion of the rest of the country in early 1939. Ultimately, the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 was the final straw for the Allies, with France and the United Kingdom (UK) declaring war on Germany days later. By all accounts, appeasement had failed.

Japan's Desire For Territorial Expansion

Japanese troops in the ruins of Shanghai.
Japanese troops in the ruins of Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Germany was not the only world power making aggressive foreign policy maneuvers during this period. Indeed, in the second half of the 1800s, Japan experienced massive population and economic growth. However, a lack of good farmland and few natural resources necessitated imperialism to sustain this prosperity. Thus, in the late 1920s, after years of military and diplomatic pressures, China gave Japan control of Manchuria's railways. Japanese forces then invaded Manchuria in September 1931 following a self-inflicted railway bombing and set up a puppet regime. Finally, following an exchange of fire between Chinese and Japanese soldiers near Peking in July 1937, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China. With that, the war in Asia began.

In conclusion, the legacy of World War I needs to be understood as a cause of World War II. Furthermore, Hitler's worldview should be considered when assessing the motivations of key actors. Moreover, the Allies' desperation to avoid another conflict ultimately contributed to increasing tensions. Finally, Japan's desire for territorial expansion was the sparkplug for war in Asia. 

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