In 1918, the French population referred to a certain war as La der des der, which in English was translated as “the war to end all wars”. This event was the First World War, the most widespread and casualty-filled conflict the world had witnessed to date. Unfortunately, they were wrong in saying this, for 21 years later, global bloodshed was about to begin anew in the Second World War.
In both wars, Germany was a major player, even more so in WW2 as they started the conflict, Hitler was operating with vengeful expansionism, a vengeance which will have been brought about by various factors, but the most important being the Versailles Treaty. Of course, both wars were not fought by the same ‘teams’, albeit the fact that there was always clearly a Franco-British alliance against Germany, players like Russia and Italy fought on both sides.
The theatre of war was also geographically similar but considerably different. After the Versailles treaty in 1919, Marechal Foch would qualify prophetically pronounce these words “This is not peace, this is an armistice for twenty years”, a sentiment that, in 1944, would be echoed by Churchill himself in a letter to Stalin, he would tell the Russian dictator, that from 1914 onwards, the events that had followed had been more of a “second thirty year war” than two separate conflicts.
The continuity that Churchill’s words suggests concerning WW1 and WW2 is what I will be investigating in this essay. I will start by introducing the Versailles Treaty and its surrounding context and controversy, I will then follow by explaining how this treaty ensured the existence of a second World War. This essay will mainly be entertaining the idea that the Second World War is indeed, due to the treaty, a continuation of the First World War but arguments proving the contrary will be interspersed in this essay when the contrary can be observed.
If asked this question, one would probably say that the Second World War is surely a continuation of the First World War, but as Taylor puts it “If one asks the rather crude question, “what was the war about”, the answer for the first is : “to decide how Europe should be remade”, but for the second merely: “to decide whether this remade Europe should continue” but Taylor also states that “The Second World War was, in large part, a repeat performance of the first” .
The causes and incentives behind WW1 are not easy to discern and this war can easily be dismissed as a considerably pointless conflict which merely served to waste human lives. WW2, on the other hand, served a clear moral purpose; that of eliminating fascism and stopping Hitler from spreading his Nazi ideals and the massacre of thousands of Jews. Taylor also clearly illustrates the situation with WW1 “The combatants sought to ‘impose their will on the enemy’ [… ] without any clear idea what that will would be. Both sides found it difficult to define their war aims”
A detail which, as trivial as it may sound, can nonetheless be observed is the nomenclature of the conflicts themselves, World War One and World War Two. They are numbered, not unlike a succession of numbers in mathematics, or maybe like monarchs in a line of succession or an original film and its sequel. This suggests that one could not exist without the other, that one picks up where the story left off in the other. This is a borderline comical detail but that should not be ignored. The Treaty of Versailles was signed on the 28 June 1919, following the Armistice from November 1918.
The general consensus concerning the Versailles Treaty is that it is the main event which ultimately instigated Germany’s “revenge”. Germany “denounced the treaty of Versailles as an affront to Germany and a prime source of its economic ills” . The whole german population, regardless of their political views and social differences, deemed the sanctions imposed on Germany to be harsh and tainted by the bitterness of countries like France and Belgium which had been greatly affected.
The sanctions operated on Germany were of various natures; economical, territorial and military. Germany’s refusal to accept the verdict of 1918 and resentment against the terms of the peace treaty” , all the resentment felt against the Allies and the Rise in Nationalism witnessed in Germany at the time seems to stem only from the terms of this Treaty. What the Allied Powers thought would stop Germany from being able to wage war in the near future, actually gave the German population a common cause, erased all their differences in the face of the evidently vengeful terms of the Treaty. A sense of unity that would ultimately help Hitler gain power and convince the population of his ideology.
The German nation was not allowed to have tanks, artillery or any kind of military aviation in its possession. Its naval fleet was to be handed over to the British. Military service was to be abolished and the army was to consist of a maximum of 100 000 men. The valley of the Rhine was to be demilitarised. An observer has to take into account that this was still a time, due to imperialism, where a country’s standing in the world was still mainly based on the power of its military. The german army having been the most technologically advanced at the time this was a great disappointment for the German people.
This proved to be a fatal blow to the nation’s pride, increasing the resentment that was already generally felt towards the Allies. The economic sanctions imposed on Germany were simply those of repayment for destruction. The amount was estimated at 132 Billions Marks ( ? 284 Billion nowadays). This was a very large quantity, one deemed too high than it should be by many individuals, not only of German nationality. One could argue that while Germany was made to pay a hefty price for its transgressions, its industrial sector was left unscathed by the allies.
This, on the other hand, alienated the German people, something Hitler took advantage of “Hitler was able to appeal to millions of Germans who could ‘know nothing of the war but that the bill for it will outlast their lifetime’ ” The last but also the most important sanction imposed on Germany was that of losing some of its territories. Some of them went to the victorious countries, others went under the supervision of the League of Nations. Not only did it lose territories that were directly adjacent to its borders but also its colonies, greatly diminishing the spread and size of the German empire.
The reason Germany was so eager to wage war was to recover all its lost territories, hence recover its pride and glory. This is where the we can see an element of continuation between the two wars, thy were ultimately fought because of land, as Taylor said, the first war redesigned Europe’s geography and the second world war decided whether this change would be permanent. These sanctions all helped the rise of a Nationalism wave, along with an ever-increasing resentment of the Treaty.
This feeling was emphasized with the Stab-in-the-Back-Myth, a German notion that the country had, in 1918-19, been betrayed by those in power in the Weimar Republic who had signed the Treaty even though Germany was still in a powerful military position. The notion angered the German population because the contemporary politicians capitulated before a single enemy soldier had trodden on German soil. This notion also helped increase the sentiment of anti-semitism as the Weimar Republic politicians were labeled as Jews. A sentiment that would greatly help Hitler in his endeavour.
It is also thought that the reason these politicians accepted the terms “was to improve their strategical position for the next war” This feeling of resentment created by the Treaty of Versailles was emphasized by obvious manipulation by the victorious party of the national self-determination of peoples “ These terms were harsh [… ] They also came to be considered unjust, on the case that the war guilt clause was a vindictive oversimplification of the causes of the war, that the reparations were excessive, that the plebiscitary principle was applied only to Germany’s disadvantage”.
The treaty was promoting the free will to choose which country an individual wanted to belong to but also forbade Germany and Austria from forming a single german-speaking entity. This was understandable from the Allied Powers part, they had not “defeated” Germany just to see it flourish into an even bigger state than it already was. Where France, Britain and the USA also made a mistake with the Treaty was to ignore Italy’s request for Land but more importantly to exclude Bolshevik Russia from the Treaty “The new Russian regime was also treated as a pariah state”.
This means that in 1939, when a Franco-British mission goes to Moscow to try and convince Stalin to protect Poland from invasion, the Russian dictator is not willing. This is thought to be due to the fact that the Poles do not want Russian soldiers marching through their country but their is a hidden motive; Stalin is entertaining the thought of becoming allies with Hitler, a much more attractive proposition; that of greatly increasing his territory without much effort, in contrary to a war against Germany which would not only be costly but also not bring him much of a profit.
The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact is signed. If Hitler were not to have an alliance with Stalin, he could not have fought a war both on the western and eastern front. The situation is similar with Italy, after the Versailles Treaty, it is alienated by the fact the other allies will not grant her land in the Adriatic, a decision which will influence their choice to fight on Hitler’s side. One must ask himself, in the scope of continuity between the wars, would there have been a second war if the first one had not occurred? But also would there be a second war without Hitler and his ideology?
One has to analyse whether WW2 would be an inevitable war. Given the feelings of resentment and the increase of an already present nationalism and anti-semitism created by the Versailles Treaty, Hitler only acted as a generic catalyst to a German uproar against the Allied Powers. Hitler understood this and knew what to tell the german people “Adolf Hitler was careful to emphasize that this was a defensive war and one meant to restore what had been taken unjustly from Germany, rather than a means of personal and national regeneration” .
Taylor also concisely presents the idea that the Second World War was more about regaining lost territory and bringing Germany back to its former glory “Germany fought specifically in the second war to reverse the verdict of the first and to destroy the settlement which followed it” . As I mentioned previously, Jews were more used as a scapegoat for all of Germany’s ills than the actual perpetrators of Germany’s downfall. One fact that goes against the idea that WW2 is in fact a continuation of WW1 is that of the warmongers’ mentality when facing the war.
During WW1, “the spirit of 1914 was a call to adventure and manliness” , this is what is referred to as the Myth of the War Experience. “War-time camaraderie, together with the cult of the fallen soldier, stood at the centre of the Myth of the War Experience, making it possible to attach positive meaning to life in the trenches” . This was essentially a glorification of the soldiers and their actions. Mosse suggests that “The absence of an effective Myth of the War Experience constitutes one of the most important differences between the first and second world wars” .
The difference here is that in WW2, this mentality of men being able to overcome anything that was thrown at them and the war just being a test of virility, was not adopted by the soldiers. This time around, it was about finishing this conflict as fast as possible and protecting their motherland, it was more about survival against than Hitler’s scheme than about glory and pride “And yet the outbreak of the Second World War could not re-ignite the spirit of 1914” , it is hard to determine whether WW2 could indeed be a continuation of WW1 if the mentality of the warmongers was on opposite ends of the spectrum in both cases.
World War One and World War Two in themselves, were basically different conflicts; they were not fought by the same parties, not always in the same geographical contexts but most importantly the mentality adopted by the warmongers in both cases were very different. In WW1, an ultimately pointless conflict, the focus was on camaraderie and virility, glorifying soldiers and their deaths. In WW2, the focus was on avoiding the immense destruction and death observed during the First World War, there was a clear moral objective to the war.
The event that links the the two wars together, and permits us to entertain the idea of one being the continuation of the other is the Versailles Treaty. This Treaty created a common sentiment of resentment in the German people, bringing people of all social backgrounds into one Nationalist entity, regardless of their political leanings. Due to the stab-in-the-back legend, this also permitted the German people to use Jews as a scapegoat for Germany’s ruin.
All these sentiments that brought the nation’s population ‘under one banner’, with a growing hate of the Allied Powers and their vindictive treaty, Hitler was well aware of this and used it to his advantage, convinced Germany that he would bring it back to its former glory. Not only did they make Germany one disheveled entity, the Allies also alienated Italy and Russia by respectively refusing land to one and refusing access altogether to the treaty to the other, a decision that would affect these countries’ opinions of the Allies and Hitler.
It is not a question of merely labeling WW2 as a continuation of WW1, it is a tad more intricate than that; The Versailles Treaty was the event that ended the First World War, and the consequence of this treaty was the Second World War. It is rather a sequence of consequences, each stemming from the previous which link the two wars together so it can be said that WW1 and WW2 are connected by the Versailles Treaty. The Treaty which ended the first war is the event that triggered a whole process that would ultimately lead to the second war. As Thomas Childers puts it: “the seeds of the Second World War were sown at Versailles” .