Back to Main Menu Modern World History: the Road to War
the Second World War in Europe began on 1st September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. No one could have predicted the scale and length or this war. Europe had underestimated Hitler and his ambitions.

In what ways did Hitler bring about war?

Why was so little done to stop Hitler's aggression?

Why did the war become worldwide?

In what ways did Hitler bring about war?
  When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933, he exploited the anger that Germans felt as a result of their treatment in the Treaty of Versailles. He also played on their feelings of despair brought on by the effects of the Depression to build up support for his foreign policy. Hitler set out to destroy the Treaty of Versailles and challenge the other countries of Europe:
In 1935 he began Rearmament. He introduced conscription and began to build up the Luftwaffe and the German Navy - these had all been banned by the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1936 Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised in 1919. This meant that he was able to station forces on the French border.
In 1936 Hitler sent forces (known as the "Condor Legion") to Spain to support General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. This was an attempt to try out the tactics of "Blitzkrieg".
In 1938 in March he carried out the Anschluss. the Nazis stirred up trouble in Austria, which Hitler then used as an excuse to invade. the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg could do nothing about it.
On 12th September 1938 Hitler demanded self-government for the Sudeten Germans. these were German speakers who lived in the state of Czechoslovakia, which had been set up in 1919. the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain flew to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden on 15th September and agreed to Hitler's demands. He then returned to London and persuaded the French Government to agree as well. the Czechs were subsequently told to accept Hitler's demands.

But when Chamberlain returned to meet Hitler for a second time at Bad Godesberg on 22nd March, he was presented with new demands. Hitler insisted that the Sudetenland should be handed over to Germany and other territory given to Poland and Hungary. Chamberlain was totally dismayed and returned to London expecting that war would break out soon. He immediately set up action plans to evacuate children and prepare air-raid shelters.
On 28th September 1938, Mussolini (the Italian dictator), suggested a Four-Power Conference to settle the matter. the four powers would be Germany, Britain, Italy and France. the leaders met in Munich on 29th September and signed the Munich Agreement. Hitler got everything that he wanted. the following morning Hitler and Chamberlain signed the "scrap of paper" by which they promised never to go to war again. That afternoon Chamberlain returned in triumph to London.
In March 1939 Hitler tore up the Munich Agreement and occupied all of Western Czechoslovakia. This became part of Germany. It was now obvious that Hitler was only going to be stopped by force.
In April 1939, Britain signed agreements with Poland and Romania and promised to defend them if they were attacked. In June, conscription was introduced in Britain for the first time ever in peacetime. Hitler took no notice and instead signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact on 23rd August. On the face of it this was defensive alliance, but it also contained secret clauses. the USSR would not intervene if the Germans attacked Poland and would allow them a free hand in Western Europe. In return the Soviet Union would be allowed to invade the Baltic States and Finland; these had only become independent in 1919.
On 1st September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. the British Government issued an ultimatum asking the German forces to leave by 11 am on 3rd September. This was ignored and Britain immediately declared war on Germany. Hitler was apparently taken by surprise. He had not expected Britain to react in this way. He did not understand that once the British government had made a promise, it was bound to keep it.
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Why was so little done to stop Hitler's aggression?
  One major cause was the collapse of the League of Nations, which many people and countries hoped would help prevent a second war. Three of the five permanent Council Members left the League in the 1930s; Japan and Germany in 1933 and Italy in 1937. This left only Britain and France. In both countries many politicians and voters went on believing that the League could settle disputes until the late 1930s.
Britain and France did not co-operate. In 1936 when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland, neither Britain nor France was ready to act without the other. In fact it would have been relatively easy to stop Hitler as he only had 30,000 trained soldiers and his commanders carried sealed orders to retreat if they were opposed. Hitler later said that the forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking of his life.
Both the British and French Governments adopted the policy of Appeasement. This came about as:
  1. Many people were horrified at the prospect of a second war and did not believe that Hitler was planning one.
  2. Hitler was also respected for his success in tackling the effects of the Depression and cutting unemployment.
  3. Some politicians also saw Hitler as an alternative to Communism. they believed that he would prevent Stalin increasing his influence in Western Europe.
  4. It was believed that if Hitler's demands were met, he would be satisfied and wouldn't make any more. Hitler continually stated that he had no further demands to make, but each time broke his word.
Neville Chamberlain believed in "Appeasement from Strength", but at the same time he was horrified at the prospect of a second war; he had lost a son during the Great War. It is very difficult to work out what exactly he was trying to achieve at Munich. He seems to have believed beforehand that if he met Hitler face to face all would be well. there are, however, two possible explanations of his actions:
  1. He believed that Hitler would keep his promise and that the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia was worthwhile.
  2. He was playing for time and sacrificed Czechoslovakia to put war off for as long as possible.
At the time the press greeted Chamberlain as a hero and a great peacemaker; since then his reputation has suffered.
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Why did the war become worldwide?   War was also made more likely by the emergence of other dictators in Europe and around the world such as Mussolini in Italy and Tojo in Japan. the power of these dictators depended upon military success and their combination with Hitler, the Axis, made war very difficult to avoid. In a democracy war is less likely to occur, as the decision will not depend on one person.
Japan was ruled by a military dictatorship, politicians had little influence, the army wanted to build an empire in the Pacific. Japan had a growing population and very little inhabitable land - only 15% of Japanese land could be lived on. In 1931, despite criticism from the League of Nations Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria. This showed the rest of the world that the League of Nations was incapable of controlling the actions of major countries.
Exactly the same thing happened in 1935 when Italy invaded Abyssinia. On this occasion the League did order economic sanctions, which meant that member countries could not trade with Italy, but oil was left off the list. This was the one sanction that would have forced Italy to withdraw. Italy resigned from the League of Nations in 1937.
In 1937 Japan attacked Shanghai. This was the first action of the Second World War, although most books use the date 1939. Japan soon occupied the coastline and most of the main cities in China. As a result of these aggressive Japanese actions America stopped supplying Japan with oil which infuriated the Japanese as they were reliant on these imports - having only a limited supply of oil and raw materials themselves. Japan retaliated by attacking America without warning, trying to catch them off-guard. they had convinced themselves that such actions were inevitable if they wanted to control the Pacific.
On 7th December 1941 Japanese forces launched a surprise attack upon the US naval base of Pearl Harbor on Hawaii. the US forces were caught completely by surprise, even though they had intercepted radio messages warning them of the attack. 3,400 Americans were killed, eight battleships were destroyed and about three hundred aircraft, but the main target of the attack, the three American aircraft carriers escaped; they were at sea undergoing trials. the USA immediately declared war upon Japan and Germany.