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The first half of the twentieth century represented the swan song of Europe’s great power status. Those who so spectacularly gathered at King Edward’s wake in 1910 believed with certainty that the European progress and stability that had spawned such glorious empires would continue, if not ad infinitum, at least for the next century. Few could or would foresee the undiluted years of calamity, the destruction of once-proud imperial families, the brutal regimes of fascist, Nazi, and communist extremism. The squalor of trench warfare that slaughtered not only many of Europe’s best and brightest young men but also the mirage of liberal democratic government would be no more than a ghastly hors d’oeuvre to the bloody feast served up to Europeans, soldier and civilian alike, in the war of 1939-1945.
The following details some of the most significant works of the last fifty years on the historiography of the origins of that war in Europe.
After World War I, a treaty was signed by the winning and losing countries, called the Treaty of Versailles.
Germany, which was a losing country, was badly hurt by the severity of the treaty. Italy, one of the winning countries, was not satisfied with the territory that it gained. And Japan, also a victor, was unhappy about its failure to gain parts of China. The dissatisfaction of these three countries was one of the factors that lead to World War II. Later Germany, Italy and Japan formed an axis coalition to gain territory and respect from other nations, that these countries felt they had not received from the Treaty of Versailles.
The Treaty of Versailles made Germany pay huge reparations to the winning countries for the damage that they caused. Germany also had to give up land to specific ethnic groups to form new countries, which were weak and could easily be taken over. Germany was forced to decrease the size of its army and the amount of military equipment it had, so that it would be less powerful. Another thing the treaty did was it blamed Germany for starting World War I. Germany had a hard time paying the reparations because of economic issues and problems with the Great Depression. Because Germany had lost land in the Treaty of Versailles, there were too many people living in Germany, and not enough resources for them to live on. Later on, Germany took over Austria, Sudetenland, Poland, the Baltic Countries, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France to expand and gain more territory for the German people.
The Treaty of Versailles gave some land to Italy because they were on the winning side, but Italy gained less territory than it felt it deserved and wanted to become more powerful. Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy, wanted Italy to expand into a Fascist-Roman Empire and to rule the Mediterranean and African lands.
To achieve its expansion goals and to gain more living space and more resources for the Italian people, Italy took over Ethiopia and Albania. Because Italy had the same expansion goals as Germany, it joined an alliance with Germany.
Disarmament was one problem that the treaty attempted to solve. Statesmen looked at the situation before WWI and had decided that the arms race was a major cause of the war. Hence it was decided that in order for nations never to go to war again, each nation would disarm. However, the treaty (in the League of Nations Covenant) only stated that nations were to disarm to “the lowest point consistent with national safety.”(Alan Bullock). This created a problem; each nation considered the lowest point consistent with national safety to be the point at which they owned more arms than their potential enemy or their neighbour. Disarmament could never have succeeded in such an environment. There was much debate over disarmament in the 1920s and over how it should be implemented. However, by 1932 when a conference was actually held to address the issue, disarmament had already failed. Japan was in the middle of annexing Manchuria and in 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany – a man who had renounced the Treaty of Versailles and the concept of disarmament and vowed to repudiate the treaty and disregard disarmament if he were to come to power. The failure to achieve disarmament was an unsolved problem of WWI which definitely contributed to the outbreak of WWII. Nations, on the contrary rearmed during the 1930s.
The sine qua non of the Second World War, without which it never would have occurred, was The Great Depression, which started in 1929, one of the most significant causes of the WWII. During the First World War, whilst the countries that were fighting had to slow down their production, the young nations developed their own lands to supply the combatants in return for the price of gold. Take as an example the American giant. From 1913 to 1919 the annual production of corn rose in the United States from seven hundred and sixty-three to nine hundred and fifty-two million bushels; that of steel, from twenty-six to forty-two million tons.
After the war Europe rebuilt herself. In ten years she regained her productive capacity of 1913. Failing to appreciate this essential fact, the young countries indulged in the debauchery of stupendous credit transactions. In 1933, the American farmers piled up debts of more than eight milliard dollars in order to improve their machinery and raise their output. Nor was it sufficient to grant huge credits only to producers. These credits were also offered to consumers. Here is one example: the motor industry, the most important in the United States, sold on credit seventy per cent of its output. The crisis was of unparalleled violence in Germany. From six hundred and fifty thousand in August, 1928, the number of workless rose to two million and three hundred thousand in 1929, to three million five hundred thousand in 1930, and to six million by the end of 1932. The depression devastated the world economy. It was the worst economic downturn in modern times. As a cause of WWII, it was instrumental. As Alan Bullock has famously stated: “It was the depression which tipped the scales against the [Weimar] Republic and for the first time since 1923, shifted the weight of advantage to Hitler’s side.” The depression provided Hitler, who was more than any other factor responsible for the outbreak of WWII, with a chance to take power in Germany and put into practice his Nazi ideology and influence the disillusioned people of his country. “Germany was a special case. The Germans had experienced the terrible evils of inflation in 1923, and now went equally far in the opposite direction. (AJP Taylor)” Germans looked towards the two extremes (Communism and National Socialism) to provide a solution to this horrible depression. AJP Taylor claims that “The depression put the wind into Hitler’s sails.” The Great Depression was a major background cause to WWII – since it gave rise to Adolf Hitler, who was to a great extent responsible for the outbreak of WWII in 1939.
In The World in Depression, Kindleberger explained the need for the international economic and monetary system, during difficult periods, to have a world power to underwrite the world community, maintain a proper flow of investment capital, and take on bad debts. Britain had often performed this role through 1913; the particular virulence of the Great Depression stemmed partly from the lack of leadership of one dominant national state. In 1929, 1930, and 1931 Britain could not act as a stabilizer, and the United States would not. When every country turned to protect its national private interest, the world public interest went down the drain, and with it the private interests of all. The lack of leadership among the liberal states of the West fed the political extremism of regimes that eventually provoked war.
One of the finest works on European economic diplomacy in the decade leading to the outbreak of war is Kaiser, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War. Kaiser discussed at length the great European powers and their rivalry in the economic expansion of Central and Eastern Europe. As early as 1914 he detailed the German plan for dominance of Central Europe Mitteleuropa. With the Russian collapse of 1917-1918, it seemed as if the dream would come to fruition as Germany seized Romania and Ukraine. However, as Kaiser noted, the sudden collapse of the German armies in late 1918 led this desideratum to be foiled with the Allied and associated victory. It was revived some twenty years later with the relentless Nazi quest for Lebensraum. Kaiser concluded that because the Western pperowers failed to defend the status quo in Eastern Europe, many of the weaker nations were forced into economic dependence on Nazi Germany, especially after the betrayal of the Czechs by their British and French allies at Munich. He reasoned that the democracies would pay heavily for these mistakes in judgment, and that they did, in a ruinous six-year war. (Ruth Norden, 33-38)
The economic orientation of the Third Reich is compelling as a rationale for a military offensive, as in the German strike against Norway in April 1940 because British efforts to mine Scandinavian ports would have resulted in disruption of critical exports of Swedish iron ore to Germany. Later in Poland to Pearl Harbor that because of economic considerations, the real “point of no return . . . after which the Third Reich was irretrievably committed to war . . . occurred in the 18 months between the summer of 1936 and the spring of 1938. (R. J.B. Bosworth, 8-19)” The fact that Germany’s rivals had begun rearmament, however halting, made the Nazi preparations for war a self-fulfilling prophecy in the late 1930s.
Another cause of the Second World War was the personality of Hitler. Some day, Hitler recognized, Britain and France would be tempted to set limits to German power, even by war. In preparation for that day, he argued, Germany must not only strain her resources in military preparations; she must also win territory sufficient to feed her people during a long war – for war with the Western democracies would be both long and hard. Colonies would be of no value; their resources would be lost by blockade just when they were needed. The territory must be won in Eastern Europe. There, German skill could increase agricultural production, and the non-German population would provide a labor pool for farm and factory. Isolationist sentiment spread and overrode all internationalist tendencies. This fact had disastrous effects in Germany. Hitler became convinced that American isolationism would hold out against all provocation, and that whatever might happen in Europe, Uncle Sam would look the other way. This miscalculation of American feeling was to become one-and not the least effective-of the causes of World War Two.
Largely unfulfilled revisionism, laying the foundation for the rise of National Socialism, became one of the main causes of the Second World War. The denial of any responsibility for having started the war provided many Germans with a moral legitimization for revisionism. Others were willing to accept some blame, but only if the other nations involved would admit their own share of responsibility. However, this view was challenged by the popular historian, AJP Taylor in 1961. Taylor countered the ‘traditional’ argument saying that Hitler did not plan a war, he simply day-dreamed of one and let things fall into his lap so to speak by playing a waiting game. “Hitler did not make plans for world conquest or anything else. He assumed that others would provide opportunities and that he would seize them. The war of 1939, far from being premeditated was a mistake, the result of both sides of diplomatic blunders.( AJP Taylor)” As far as Taylor was concerned, Mein Kampf was written too long before Hitler came to power and can therefore not be used as evidence to prove that Hitler planned a war. Taylor argues that the Hossbach memorandum simply represents Hitler day-dreaming about things he didn’t think were actually possible to achieve in reality. This is the so-called ‘revisionist’ view.
After the end of World War I, many democratic countries worked hard to keep peace with other countries and tried to prevent another world war. Many establishments were made to resolve all disputes between countries, although most of them failed and did not prevent the second world war.
After World War I, the United States kept out of European conflicts and war. Laws that were passed to keep the United States out of World War II were called the Neutrality Acts. Britain and France could buy weapons from the United States, but they had to pay in cash because some countries already owed the United States money. Also, American merchant ships were not allowed to carry cargo to other countrie’s ports. World War I left Great Britain with a weak economy, so it was sympathetic to Germany’s recovery and did not interfere. When Germany took over Rhineland (the area of land between France and Germany) and sent troops there, Great Britain did not do anything about it even thought Germany was violating the Treaty of Versailles. In 1937, Germany signed an appeasement with Great Britain saying that if Germany got Sudenteland, than it would not take over the rest of Czechoslovakia, so Great Britain did not think Germany would take over any more countries. France’s economy was also hurt by World War I, so it was not strong enough to go against Germany by itself. France was unlikely to intervene against Germany because it could not rely on Great Britain or the United State’s support. France could not stop the German army from coming into France because Belgium would not let them send troops into their country. If the United States and Great Britain had helped France, Germany could have been stopped before 1939.
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