The Origins of the Second World War

This document originally appeared on the Stellenbosch Website at

This page went down in September 2010, so I have copied it here.


These notes to accompany a Military History unit were written by 'Ian'.

Military History Department

Study Theme 1: The Origins of the Second World War



This study theme is designed to familiarize the student with the causes of the Second World War. Upon completion of the series of lectures and after studying the prescribed sources, the student should be able to explain the following:

a. The influence of geopolitical theories, 1900-1939.

b. The influences upon the peace negotiations in Paris, 1919-1920.

c. The imperfect peace treaties concluded after the First World War and the reaction of the various states to these treaties.

d. The expansionism (imperialism) of Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan.

e. Distrust amongst states, power politics and the establishment of power blocks through the conclusion of treaties.

f. The role of totalitarian leaders like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.

g. The Alliesí reaction to Germanyís territorial claims and the German invasion of Poland as immediate cause of the Second World War.



The Second World War is cataclysmic in terms of the broad flow of the twentieth century. No event caused as much human suffering and physical destruction; and provided impetus to such diverse and dramatic change. There are several reasons for the attraction of lay and professional historians, to the study of the Second World War:
bullet fashionable nostalgia
bullet the background of intense ideological struggle between fascism, communism and democracy
bullet the decisive contribution of the war to the decline of western Europe from the political pre-eminence enjoyed for four hundred years
bullet the mass of public and private papers - never before have historians been able to write so close to events with the benefit of archives
bullet it was a peoplesí war, involving all the machinery and resources of the modern state

The Second World War was vital in the making of the modern world: far more so than was the case of the First World War. It was sui generis. Death camps were introduced for the first time. On both sides, the war was fought with savagery and barbarism. The fighting was more destructive than ever before - aided by the harnessing of the latest technology. The lives of more people were disrupted, many still bearing psychological and physical scars. The results of the war were also more far-reaching than those of 1914-1918. The effects of the War on individual countries - and both the victorious and the vanquished - were cataclysmic. What unleashed this unprecedented disaster (yet also important change) upon the world?


Ruth Henig, in her useful little book The Origins of the Second World War, argues that it is not easy for students to work their way through the daunting mass of material and form a balanced historical judgment on the origins of the war. Causal oversimplification is an easy path for the undisciplined and educationally naïve. Yes, the six years of Hitlerís pre-war chancellorship are crucial but any study concentrating solely on this period must be incomplete. A complete explanation cannot be provided without searching for long-term causes.


Study the prescribed material and identify the complex of long and short-term causes of the Second World War. Remember that these causes cannot be viewed individually: when one plucks at one historical strand, the whole Ďweb of historyí shudders.

Have you identified the following main causes:
bullet Influence of the geopolitical theories, 1890-1939
bullet Imperfect Peace concluded after World War I
bullet Imperialism of Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan
bullet Ideological Differences and Mutual Distrust
bullet Influence of Totalitarian Leaders
bullet Power Politics and the Formation of Power Blocks (Treaties)
bullet The Arms Race
bullet The Struggle to obtain/control Minerals and Markets
bullet Allied Reaction to German Territorial Expansion
bullet German Invasion of Poland, 1 Sep 1939

You will clearly note that these various Ďcausesí were of differing duration. Any influence the geopolitical theories may have had, can be traced back to at least the previous century; while the invasion of Poland was clearly the precipitating cause. Now differentiate between the long-term and short-term causes.


Argumentatively, your division should include:

Geopolitical Theories. The Swede Rudolf Kjellen coined the term "geopolitics". Make sure that you understand what geopolitics is and the influence geopolitics has. In essence, according to this theory, the direction of a stateís foreign affairs and conduct of war is determined by its geographical character. What influence did Mahan and Mackinder have upon the formulation of American and German strategy, respectively.

Inconclusive outcome of the First World War. The Central Powers were clearly defeated but (most importantly) they were not beaten.

Paris Peace Treaties. Fragility. Non-acceptance by Germans. Who was able / willing to police the implementation of the treaty. Relationship with Germans outside Germanyís borders.

Economic Crisis. First World War left Europe economically weakened and politically unstable. "The allied and associated powers spent 2½ times as much to win the war as their opponents did to lose it" (Henig, p 7). War indemnities. Currency fluctuations. Wall Street Crash (1929).

Ideology and Distrust. Social psyche of the Germans and their belief that the outcome of the First World War was a temporary setback. The post-Paris states were saisonstaaten and were partly populated by Germans. This alarmed the French particularly and increased the disunity among the former Allies.

Disunity Among Former Allies. The Allies had common goals but their approaches differed. The emergence of an international ideological divide, cutting across national pre-occupations, further complicated matters. Intensified ideological divisions sharpened social conflicts, ultimately paralyzing Europe.


The short-term causes must include:
bullet Consolidation of the Nazi régime
bullet Germanyís rearmament
bullet The remilitarization of the Rhineland
bullet Appeasement
bullet The Spanish Civil War
bullet Anti-Comintern Part (1936)
bullet The rapprochement between Italy and Germany
bullet The Anschluss with Austria.
bullet The Czech Crisis.
bullet Invasion of Poland.

Ensure that you have a good understanding of each of the long-term and short causes of the Second World War.


The debate concerning the causes of the Second World War started immediately, that is as early as 1945. This was induced by the capture of large quantities of German documents and further stimulated by the verdicts at the Nuremburg trials. And for the first decade after the war, historians largely accepted the Nuremburg verdict: the Germans bore sole responsibility for the war and its horrendous short-term legacy. For example, this is clearly the thesis of Elizabeth Wiskemann, The Rome-Berlin Axis (1949), and Alan Bullock, Hitler, A Study in Tyranny (1952).

The only issue under debate was the so-called "appeasers" who were portrayed as stupid, pathetic and frightened. Perhaps the most important example is Sir Winston Churchillís The Gathering Storm (1948); whose subtitle reads as follows: "How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm." There are of course numerous other examples.

German historians, on the other hand, emphasized Hitlerís rise to power and his unstable power base. The lack of support from German electorate, the shabby political intrigues, use of intimidation, the ramshackle party structure, and the resistance against the Naziís were recurring themes. A major refocus in West German historiography took place following the publication of Fritz Fischerís Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961. This book which sparked the so-called Fischer controversy, was published in English in 1967. In the wake of the controversy, West German historians returned to a critical examination of the recent German past: with an emphasis upon social structures.

At about the same time, the so-called Taylor controversy flared in Britain and the United States. This resulted from the publication of A.J.P. Taylorís The Origins of the Second World War (1961). Taylor added two ingredients to the debate:
bullet He argued that Hitler, far from being a uniquely villainous German leader, continued the policy of previous German governments in seeking eastward expansion.
bullet For Taylor, the vital question lay in the policies of Western leaders. He thus shifted the debate away from "Hitler the war planner" to "Hitler the opportunist". There was also the heavy implication that the Western leaders were at least partly responsible for the coming of the Second World War. (Henig, pp 37-39).

The massive reaction to Taylorís thesis was predictable. The debate widened considerably with most emphasis upon Hitlerís intentions and the relevance of his writings and speeches. Other issues included German rearmament; the German economy; British and French policy (reappraisal of the policy of the appeasers); and the Guarantee to Poland as the precipitating event leading to the Russo-German Pact of August 1939.


According to Ruth Henig, "there is a general agreement amongst historians that the ambitions of Hitler constitute the major element in the outbreak of war in 1939. Mussolini played a subordinate but by no means unimportant role. Theirs was the primary, if not the sole, responsibility. Considerable room for argument remains about Hitlerís aims and methods, about the degree to which he cold-bloodedly planned for war in pursuit of a German empire in the east, or seized opportunities that came to him, or was a compulsive gambler who took risks for ever higher stakes. But there is no dispute that Hitler was Ö in a general way committed to expansion Ö and that he became the less hesitant ... in seeking new successes" (pages 44-45).

The central debate about Hitler will continue. However, one cannot but agree with Henigís statement that the debate must take place within "a broad framework which involves at the same time a careful examination of the economic, political and social problems and policies not just of Nazi Germany but of other leading European powers as well. And no account of the origins of the war can ignore Japanese ambitions and the reluctance of the United States to become involved in foreign affairs on a global scale" (page 45).

In evaluating the causes of the Second World War, each student must come to a personal, though reasoned, conclusion as to the importance of each different element present in 1939 as a relative cause of the war. Bear in mind, however, that no single cause can be studied in isolation. The World War which erupted in 1939, was caused by a complex web of factors of varying duration.


Anthony P. Adamthwaite, The Making of the Second World War (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977). Contains a short historiographical statement and a good selection of source documents.

P.M.H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (London and New York: Longman, 1986). Perhaps locus classicus - the best book on the subject to date. Contains some theory, philosophy and historiography. In-depth discussion of underlying forces (ideology, economic issues, and strategy and armed forces) and coming of war in 1939. Good guide to further reading.

Ruth Henig, The Origins of the Second World War, 1933-1939 (London: Routledge 1985). A good concise statement of only fifty pages. Short historiographical statement.

A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London 1961; reprinted with new preface, 1963). The controversial opening statement in the debate on the origins of the Second World War.

W. Roger Lewis, The Origins of the Second World War: A.J.P. Taylor and his critics (New York, 1972) and George Martel, The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered; The A.J. P. Taylor Debate after Twenty-five Years (Routledge 1986). Two good summaries of the debate.