Could World War Two have been prevented? It is a haunting question for historians and, more importantly, for those who suffered the direct and indirect effects of this catastrophic war. History allows us the opportunity to look back at past events with a critical eye. It is a valuable opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. What is often difficult to grasp is how complex history is at the time it unfolds. It is like the difference between looking at a picture of a place and actually being there.
One popular interpretation of history is that World War Two is directly traceable to the harsh armistice terms imposed on Germany after the First World War, along with the failure to establish an effective League of Nations with full participation. The reality is more complex, however. These events merged with other powerful social and economic forces to set the stage for the war. These larger forces were beyond the control of any single nation or governmental entity.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that World War Two could have been entirely prevented.
The War Could Have Been Prevented. The mishandling of the post WW1 situation essentially created the conditions for World War Two to occur. For better or worse Europe was dependent on the participation of the United States in European affairs. Polish statesman Ignace Paderewski wrote, for example, that “Poland has set up a democracy under the inspiration of the American people. Had it not been for American intervention in Europe we might possibly have had some semblance of independent Government under an autocratic overrule” (Horne, 1923).
When America showed signs of withdrawing from participation in Europe, stability was undermined.
Harsh treaty terms only exacerbated the situation. The Germans, under the terms of the Versailles Treaty were only allowed to retain a token army of 100,000 men. Not only was it humiliating for the nation, it also put them at risk to outside neighbors such as Bolshevik Russia. German politicians, Hitler in particular, would use this as justification for the buildup of the German war machine. Germany should have been permitted to have a force large enough to defend itself. Germany had been forced to accept blame for World War One and pay hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations to the Allied nations.
This created an additional drag on the German economy at a time when economic problems were already ravaging Europe. It also created an additional resentment for the German people. A partial forgiving of the reparations might have reduced tensions in the economic climate of the Great Depression. Instead, this disarmament and reparations were tipping points that drove Germany toward radicalism. The post-war division of Europe was also poorly handled. Ethnic and religious rivals were often pitted directly against each other in competition for resources.
Hitler used this as another excuse for invading neighboring countries to “liberate” oppressed populations. President Woodrow Wilson proposed formation of the League of Nations in the hope that it could prevent future conflicts. The U. S. Congress, however, failed to ratify the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Without the U. S. the League had little power over world events. This development also sent a bad message to the world – the U. S. would become an isolationist nation once again. Aggressive actions in Europe would not be confronted. The U. S. ad entered World War One only when the Allies had reached the point of utter desperation. Hitler could not be blamed for thinking if he could move the next war faster, it might be over before the Americans could even mobilize a force. The combined result of these mistakes was that Europe never really gained a sense of stability in the interwar years. Once the German war machine was built, the other European nations had little choice but to appease him. Had the rest of the world spoken with one voice, the entire chain of events could have been prevented.
The War was Inevitable. Even with the failure to control Adolf Hitler, the opportunity for him to rise to power would not have been present had it not been for powerful socio-economic forces. Hitler’s open expressions of racism were tolerated by the German public. In fact, these expressions hit home for many. Europe had a centuries-long tradition of anti-semitism. The feelings werent expressed as openly in the early 20th century, but they certainly did not disappear. Originally the anti-semitism in Europe was religiously based. Over time it permeated the European culture. Stereotypes of Jewish people were rampant.
Hitler himself did not create the anti-semitism that played a significant role in starting the war. A one man movement could have indeed been prevented. Hitler merely capitalized upon a long-standing cultural prejudice at a time when people were looking for a scapegoat. The nature of German culture at that time would have made it difficult to prevent Hitler or some other madman from rising to power. For many, Hitler provided a voice of legitimacy to feelings they had always had. Actions can be prevented to an extent. Feelings and beliefs cannot. When a strong voice is given to those feelings they can become an unstoppable cultural force.
A second force playing a vital role in the war lead-up was the Great Depression. In the 1930s the Depression spread worldwide. Germany was still trying to repay the war reparations imposed in the Treaty of Versailles over a decade earlier. More importantly the average German was struggling to find a job and a place in society. The future looked dim. The masses of German unemployed combined with the alienated veterans of World War One to create a ripe audience for radicalism to take root. Theoretically, preventing Hitler’s rise to power could have prevented the war.
Doing this would have required a powerful League of Nations and aggressive restrictions of liberty within Germany. The Weimar Republic tried to control Hitler. He was imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government. Hitler, in turn, used the time to craft his self-serving autobiography Mein Kampf. Hitler entered German politics with a populist appeal. He was the classic political outsider, someone who promises to come in and shake up the establishment on behalf of the ordinary German citizen. In addition to his appeal to deep-seeded cultural prejudices, Hitler promised a quick fix to the economy.
Adolf Hitler never gained an electoral majority, but he did gain enough support to position himself as a powerful political actor. From there he manipulated his way to the top. In ordinary times, if a man simply declared himself both President and Chancellor the public might have resisted. In the context of the Great Depression the public allowed radical change in the hopes that it would bring about a better day (Overy, 1982). Once in position Hitler drove the war preparations forward with little internal or external resistence. In the early 20th century the world was in the midst of a technological revolution.
It is a historical reality that much human innovation is driven by the potential for its usage in war. New, terrifying weapons and tactics were created in response to the frustrating stalemate of World War One. Freed by Hitler from the shackles of the Versailles Treaty, the Germans were at the forefront of weapons development. Nazi Germany wanted to re-fight World War One. This time they would win decisively. An old axiom states that “you can’t stop progress”. Progress allowed the Germans to have confidence that they would succeed. In that context World War Two was part of an ages long cycle of war.
When one group becomes better armed than another, circumstances will eventually cause them to attack aggressively. Numerous peace movements and international organizations have never been able to stop this cycle. If Hitler did not start World War Two, someone else would have. The cycle of major wars was not altered until the introduction of nuclear weapons. At that point, humans had to face the possibility that the entire world could be destroyed in the blink of an eye. Hitler took advantage of a world that was not ready to confront him. This was a direct after effect of the horrors of World War One.
As late as 1939, the United States was still playing the role of a neutral country. Hitler’s aggressive actions were minimized. In a letter to the Polish President, Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote “They recognise that disputes, claims and counter-claims will always arise from time to time between nations, but that all such controversies, without exception, can be solved by a peaceful procedure” (1939). Roosevelt knew that public opinion in the United States was strongly against direct confrontation of Hitler. In that context, there was little that the U. S. or other nations could do to stop him.
A strategy of appeasement never had a chance to work. In fact, it made a larger war even more inevitable as Hitler was able to gain momentum in Europe. An appeasement strategy can only be successful if both parties can be trusted to abide by agreements. There were plenty of warnings that Hitler could not be trusted. Ambassador to France William Bullitt said that “you cannot appease the unappeaseable” in one of many such warnings (Associated Press, 1940). International organizations like the League of Nations and today’s United Nations are part of a noble attempt to prevent the outbreak of war.
To some extent they also try to address the underlying causes of war such as poverty, hunger and the lack of freedom. The degree to which they have actually been able to prevent conflicts is open to scrutiny, however. The onset of the nuclear age has prevented another World War more so than diplomacy or any other effort toward peace. Meanwhile, localized wars still rage all over the planet. The League of Nations, even with the U. S. participating could not have prevented the actions of madmen who came to power in the wake of economic and social upheaval.
Meanwhile the United States was being distracted by the growth of Stalinism in Russia. Many Americans saw Communism as a far greater threat than anything Hitler was doing. Ominous reports about Soviet troop strength began to surface in the 1930s. An article by Walter Duranty in the New York Times stated “it is thus apparent that the Soviet could put in the field in the event of war a front-line force of 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 men, with 10,000,000 or so semi-civilian volunteers behind them” (1931). Stalin’s imperial intentions would be confirmed after World War Two. Had Hitler not started the war, Stalin eventually might have.
Conclusion Mistakes were made in the post-World War One years that contributed to the eventuality of World War Two. Preventing those mistakes was much more difficult and complex than it might seem in retrospect. Each of the specific events and actions that led to war was tied to an underlying social, economic or political force. Despite numerous attempts to do so, humans have never really been able to effectively control these forces. The Great Depression was a key event in the run-up to the war. Preventing an economic depression probably would have prevented a war, pre-empting Hitler’s rise to power.
A bad economy doesent automatically cause war, but in this case it gave an unprecedented platform for radicalism. The abject failure of appeasement shows that diplomacy means little to radicals such as Hitler and Mussolini. Unless the League of Nations had an economic magic wand to use in the early 1930s it could not have prevented the war. To say that the war could have been altered in some way, better or worse, or delayed is possible. Concluding that it could have been prevented entirely is too idealistic given the realities of the world and the strong forces driving it toward conflict.