The outbreak of World War II can be understood as the culmination of a series of steps taken by Germany in the early 1930s to rebuild her power after World War I. The outbreak could also be explained as entirely the fault of Adolf Hitler and his plans for world domination, eradication of the Jewish people, and overturning the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The story of the outbreak of World War II is not only the story of Hitler's seizure of power, but of the failure of the Weimar Republic to heal the wounds of Germany after the defeat of World War I.
The Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh penalties on Germany, which spurred her on to rebellion rather than acquiescence. The European background to World War II is the story of Hitler's rise to power, racist policies, and the inability of Britain and other Allied states to confront him.
To understand the European background of World War II, one should understand the terms imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, mismanagement of the Weimar Republic and the desperation of the inter-war years which eventually caused Germans to turn to Adolf Hitler.
One should also have an understanding of Hitler's bid for power and the policies he proposed. The reception these policies received in his time should be considered, not only the revulsion these are viewed with today.
The long-term causes of war included the growth of nationalism among other countries in Europe such as Germany and Italy which created a climate of political extremism. Extreme right wing governments, such as Hitler's Nazis and Mussolini's Fascists, promised economic recovery and stability.
The immediate causes of war included the steps Hitler took in achieving his policy of Lebensraum, living space, which ultimately led to war. See animation
The end of World War I
Some historians see the origins of World War II as a result of the outcome of World War I (1914-1918). Germany was defeated and the victorious Allied nations imposed harsh terms upon her in the Treaty of Versailles.
World War I was caused by the militant nationalism of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II as he attempted to expand the German empire into France, dragging the rest of Europe, and the world, into war. The result was four protracted years of military stalemate and devastation in Europe.
When World War I ended and Germany surrendered, the leaders of the Allied countries, Britain and the Commonwealth countries, France, the United States, met at the Palace of Versailles in France in 1919.
The victors of World War I drew up the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. France had the strongest demands of the Allied countries - she had been the victim of German militant, nationalist and expansionist policies. She wanted to exact a revenge on Germany that was lasting. See image 1
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles officially ended World War I. There were many terms imposed upon Germany:
Germany lost huge tracts of territory. She was stripped of overseas colonies in Africa. The Alsace-Lorraine region of France was returned to France. Land that Germany had acquired through military means was returned to Denmark, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Lithuania. The Saarland was placed under the control of the League of Nations. Danzig (modern Gdansk) in Poland was made the 'Free City of Danzig' under the League of Nations. Germany was forced to acknowledge and respect the independence of Austria.
Of significance for the Pacific background to the war, Article 156 of the treaty transferred German control of Shandong in China to Japan, rather than China. This enraged the Chinese and further widened the diplomatic rift between China and Japan.
Germany's military was severely restricted. Her army was allowed a maximum of only 100 000 men. No tanks or heavy artillery were allowed. All enlisted men had to remain in the military for 12 years, all officers for 25 years, to limit the number of men who could receive military training.
The navy comprised 15 000 men, a fleet of six battleships, six cruisers, and twelve destroyers. No submarines were allowed.
The air force was abolished.
The economic penalty forced upon Germany was excessive. In January 1921, the reparations bill stood at 269 billion gold Deutsche Marks. It was predicted that it would take Germany until 1984 to repay the debt to the Allied nations. There were many moves made in the 1920s and 1930s to reduce the debt to a more reasonable amount.
It was first reduced to 132 billion Deutsche Marks. The Dawes Plan in 1924 modified the reparation payments.
By the 1929 Depression, Germany had only paid 1/8th of the reparations requirement.
In 1930 the Young Plan reduced the payment to 121 billion Deutsche Marks to be paid over a 58.5 year period.
The most humiliating part of the Treaty of Versailles for the German people was Article 231 - the War Guilt clause. Germany was to accept full responsibility for causing the war, all damage suffered by the Allies, and had to agree to pay reparations to compensate the Allies for their losses.
Little did the Allies know that the terms and articles in the Treaty of Versailles would plant the seeds of discontent among the German people and allow a radical leader named Adolf Hitler to ride the wave of discontent in German society and come to power with the expressed purpose of overturning the humiliation of the Treaty.
Post-War Germany and Weimar Republic
The surrender of Germany in World War One found the defeated country leaderless and in the throes of political and social upheaval. People turned to extremism in the hopes of re-establishing order. Radical democrats, socialists and communists all tried their hand at gaining control.
In the chaos that ensued, a socialist republic was proclaimed on November 9, 1918. From November 1918 to January 1919, the Council of People's Commissioners used dictatorial control to establish order.
On January 19, 1919 a National Assembly met in the city of Weimar and created a republic with a semi-presidential system. The Reichstag was elected by proportional representation.
The establishment of a liberal democracy in Germany did not go uncontested. There was intermittent fighting between extreme socialist groups, such as the KPD (the communist party of Germany) and the Spartakus group, and the right-wing conservative Freikorps. The government was under constant pressure from left- and right-wing groups. There were a series of bids for power by right wing parties.
On March 13, 1920 the famous Kapp Putsch took place. Putsch is the German word for an attempt to overthrow the government. The Freikorps captured Berlin and installed Dr Wolfgang Kapp, a right-wing journalist, as chancellor. The government collapsed within days.
There were also communist uprisings in the industrial Ruhr area. 50 000 communists formed a red army and seized the Ruhr. The Reichswehr and Freikorps ended the uprisings violently.
Among the Putsches that took place in the early 1920s, on November 9 1923 in Munich, Adolf Hitler staged the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler was the leader of the NSDAP or German Worker's Party. Hitler declared a new government and marched on Munich with 3000 rebels. They were arrested and Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison. He served nine months before being released.
The Weimar government was also plagued by serious economic problems created by the post-war economy and the reparations due the Treaty of Versailles. Loss of German territory meant the loss of raw materials and food stuffs. The Deutsche Mark's value plummeted to 1 trillionth its former rate.
Unemployment was rampant. Living standards dropped.
By 1923 the German economy was pushed to the edge. Workers held strikes in the Ruhr. The Weimar government responded by printing more money which led to hyperinflation, where prices increase rapidly as currency loses its value. To solve this problem, the government adopted a new currency the Rentenmark.
Some relief arrived with the politician Gustav Stresemann who was chancellor in 1923 and foreign minister from 1923-1929. The Stresemann era was a period of relative stability. The economy gradually recovered and there were fewer uprisings. See image 2
Stresemann died in 1929. The Great Depression arrived. Unemployment reached 33%. The Weimar Republic could no longer provide effective leadership for Germany. Political instability reared its head.
From 30 January 1930 to 23 March 1933, the Weimar Republic reverted to presidentially appointed dictatorships.
Hitler coming to power
Hitler was elected as the head of the NSDAP in July 1921. After the failed Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923, Hitler spent nine months in prison where he wrote his famous Mein Kampf (My Struggle) and decided to gain power in Germany via legal means.
Initially, Hitler was not taken seriously by politicians.
The Nazi party wanted to revoke the terms of the Treaty of Versailles - end humiliation, abandon democracy, and punish Social Democrats, communists and Jews (responsible, as Hitler saw, for all evil in the world). The party had a strong nationalist outlook.
Hitler blamed the Weimar government for betraying the German people with two decades of instability and economic depression. His party appealed to a broad range of the populace. The Nazi's rode on the back of the workers, unemployed, despairing peasants, middle-class people. It promised the prosperity of autocratic rule before World War I.
In the early 1930s, Hitler made his bid for power.
General elections in July 1932 saw the NSDAP as the largest party in the Reichstag with 37.2% of the votes. A majority vote was not enough for Hitler as he demanded the chancellorship. He was refused by Chancellor Von Papen and President von Hindenburg on August 13, 1932.
Faced with discontent, the Reichstag was again dissolved and elections were held on November 6, 1932, in which the NSDAP won 33% of the votes. General von Schleicher became Chancellor on December 3, 1932.
January 29, 1933 Hitler and von Papen united. The Papen-Hitler coalition found the NSDAP holding 3 of the 11 cabinet seats. President Hindenburg and von Papen believed that they could control Hitler if he was installed as chancellor. See image 3
January 30, 1933 became known in Nazi propaganda as Machtergreifung - the seizure of power. Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor. Nazi Germany was born.
In early February 1933, Hitler's government started to eliminate their opposition - left-wing party meetings were banned and moderate parties were threatened.
On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag burned down in an accidental fire. Hitler used the opportunity to target communists, although it was commonly believed that the Nazi party was responsible for the fire.
Hitler invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to gain emergency powers. He suspended civil liberties and the Nazi government started the process of eliminating their opposition and threatening moderate parties.
The Nazi government was confirmed in Reichstag elections held on 5 March 1933. Hitler used broadcasting and aviation facilities to publicise his party.
The Enabling Act 1933 (Germany) passed in Reichstag on March 23. The Act gave Hitler and the Nazi government power to pass legislation, make foreign policy decisions, and alter the constitution without consulting the Reichstag.
The Act gave the Nazi party the means to remove all opposition to their plans. Citizen rights were revoked, non-Nazi members of the civil service lost their jobs, all other political parties and workers unions were banned.
President Paul von Hindenburg died on August 2, 1933. So ended the Weimar Republic and began the Third Reich, the Nazi empire.