Why the World Went to War in 1939
An essay on the actions of Hitler, the Treaty of Versailles and the Nazi-Soviet pact.
At the start of September, 1939, the Nazis began an invasion of Poland. The leaders of France and Great Britain responded with a severe declaration which, in retrospect, is known to have been the start of the Second World War…
The irony of the circumstances is that, for the last twenty years, all the powers in Europe and America had been trying their hardest to prevent an international conflict from occurring, yet they had unwittingly started it. The reason for their part in this achievement* can be traced back to the end of the First World War. With all the major European states having lost a significant proportion of their wealth, goods and indeed population to the fighting, they were quick to pounce on any hope of paying back the massive costs. Inevitably, the bill was given, via the Treaty of Versailles, to the losing side. For the “good guys” (mainly Britain and France), this was seen as a reward for their victory, and as a punishment for the Germans. In their eagerness to milk the circumstances, however, they set up a series of further international conflicts for years to come. Their mistake was that they punished Germany far too much, in the hope that it would teach the Germans a lesson, but instead the bitterness held by the German people, further amplified by the economic disaster that resulted from their attempt to pay off the reparations, made them hungry for revenge. In particular, the Treaty practically took away all of the territorial and military power that Germany had built up over the previous years. Remember, in 1914, Germany’s motive for starting the war was to compete with the imperial height of its neighbours, with all the major European nations (plus Russia) having controlled vast empires either at the time, or at some point in history. By taking away all of what Germany had accumulated in the forty years since its formation, the Treaty effectively reset the country to its original status, not realising that this would obviously lead to history repeating itself…
Though the Treaty of Versailles had started the chain of events, another element would be required to carry them forward. This came in the form of Adolf Hitler. He had fought in the trenches, and was distraught by Germany's defeat, so he set up the National Socialist party to make the country strong again. Even at the time, some of his visions and ideas may have seemed somewhat unrealistic (the "Aryan" race, for instance), but with 350 marcs equalling one British penny, and the German infrastructure in tatters, people could only look to extremist parties for salvation. What's more, in the short term at least, their dreams came true. Hitler repaired the nation's broken economy, rebuilt their industries, ended the hunger, and restored Germany's military. There was only one piece remaining: the Empire. In order to complete the picture, and to unite the German speaking people, Hitler would need to take control of a fair deal of European territory, meaning he would need to invade other countries. In the beginning, this was easier than you might imagine.
One of the terms laid out in the Treaty in 1919 was the establishment of the League of Nations, a union between several European powers designed to manage problems around the continent and ensure that, from then on, peace could be maintained. However, the plan never really made it into reality, because the League could never organise itself.
Firstly, despite their president having suggested it, the Americans never joined the League of Nations, which left it seeming incomplete, with no-one to "bridge the gap" between European powers. Secondly, Germany was not allowed to join for many years, thus adding to the resentment that the Germans felt. this exclusive act ensured that Germany could not work together with the other countries, and so would remain an enemy (actually, it rather encouraged the Germans to go to war since, if the purpose of joining the countries together was to prevent them from attacking each other, keeping Germany out effectively made them exempt). Thirdly, the powers which did become part of the League never learned to co-operate. The representatives of its members (particularly France and the UK) were concerned only with advantaging their individual countries' own governments, rather than working as part of the greater whole. This meant that the League remained weak, especially in that while various members had vast imperial and military might, the League itself had no army, and therefore little in the way of authority. As a result, misbehaving members could not be dealt with severely (or, indeed, at all), so when Hitler sent in the troops to capture the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia he was virtually unchallenged. Far from the harsh punishment they had unleashed upon the Fatherland in 1919, Britain and France were sympathetic to Hitler and thought that if they "appeased" him, he would eventually be satisfied - Chamberlain even had a note from Mr Adolf to prove it - but when the Nazis invaded Poland they finally realised that their plan had failed.
There is, however, another reason for the League's inability (and even unwillingness) to oppose Hitler, one far more specific than a general lack of confidence and competence, and it came from the far end of Europe. Having overthrown the oppressive Tsar regime during WW1, the soviets had set up a vast communist expanse in what had been the Russian Empire. The aristocratic Britain and the other capitalist nations were afraid of this new ideology becoming a threat to their ways, and would give anything to fight Stalin off. Unfortunately, the other end of the spectrum was not to promising either, with Hitler and Mussolini quickly establishing great fascist dictatorships. With super villains left and right (politically speaking), many of the countries' citizens were torn as to which was the greater of the two evils, and thus the main priority. Ultimately Britain and France sided with the U.S.S.R. for the time being, in the hope that it would have kept Hitler at bay. But then, in August 1939, the two enemies signed a non-aggression pact (as well as a deal to split Poland between them). The Allies were shocked that two men of such different ideologies (and moustaches) could make such an agreement. Furthermore, the pact meant that Stalin had betrayed the rest of Europe, who had been relying upon him to protect them against Hitler**. Now the Nazis were free to set about world-domination. I believe that, overall, this is the crucial reason as to why Hitler's advances were not stopped, and why, by extension, the world went to war once again.
*That is, becoming the first to make this paradox occur outside of science fiction.
**Though Stalin was, in turn, betrayed by Hitler 2 years later.
Originally written June 2012 by Robin Taylor. Given National Curriculum Level 8C.