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Principal Causes of the Second World War

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The Second World War began in 1939 and lasted six years. Most of the major powers of Europe were involved, battles were staged in all four corners of the globe and over 45 million people were killed, making it the most devastating war in history.

This entry looks at some of the issues that caused such a horrific war to begin.


The First World War

At the end of the First World War, many of the disputes that caused it still needed to be settled. When Germany surrendered, the German people still felt a huge amount of resentment for other countries interfering in the infrastructure of Germany itself. The level of bad feeling coming from Germany and other countries was so great that they weren't even invited to participate in the peace treaties that were put in place at the end of the war. The Treaty of Versailles that dealt specifically with the future of Germany left no room for discussion on the part of the German people. The result was that Germany was left bitter and full of hatred for those who had sought to demean them as a race - hatred that Hitler would exploit in the 1930s in his rise to power.

Hitler stood under the banner of revenge against the other countries for Germany's defeat. His desire for power was justified by claims that he wanted to get rid of the government that surrendered in the First World War, and replace it with his own organisation (the National Socialist German Workers' Party, which became known as the Nazi party) so that he could have full control of the European powers that had subjugated Germany after 1918. It's fair to surmise therefore that the First World War was the main cause of the Second World War because it was the first in the chain of events that ultimately led to the declaration of war in 1939.

The Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles angered the German people for many reasons. The first was that it was a Diktat ('Dictated Peace'): Germany had no say in the formulation of the treaty and was forced to agree to the terms of the treaty regardless of whether its people liked them or not. Over time, other European powers came to realise that the original terms had been too strict. When Hitler broke the treaty many years later, the reticence of the other powers to react immediately was taken as an indication that many of them agreed with Hitler that the treaty had been implemented wrongly anyway. In effect, the Treaty of Versailles didn't settle any disputes; it created more issues between countries already fractious and struggling to recover from the last war.

A significant sticking point was a clause in the treaty that made provisions for the Rhineland (which borders France and Belgium)to become a demilitarised zone - Germany would be prohibited from stationing any military troops in the Rhineland. Additionally, Germany was ordered to disarm, supposedly the first step towards world disarmament, but no one else was encouraged to join Germany in disarmament. Germany would technically be defenceless should France decide to invade them - which they eventually did in 1923 when Germany was unable to pay the reparations owed to France that year.

Reparations - effectively a 'fine' for the damage done by Germany in 1914-18 - was possibly the most unpopular part of the Treaty of Versailles. At the end of the war, land had been destroyed all over Europe, but especially in France. The treaty said that Germany had to make reparations by paying regular sums of money to France. What this clause failed to recognise was that the war had equally damaged Germany's economy and they simply could not afford to pay. The German solution to this was, in retrospect, foolish - they printed more money. The effect was that the German currency devalued to the point where the economy was on the verge of total collapse. This issue of reparations was eventually solved by the Dawes Plan and Germany were able to pay France again.

The Dawes Plan

The Dawes Plan was created so that Germany could afford their reparations to France, but it also seemed to solve many of the world's money problems. America loaned money to Germany, Germany used it to pay for the reparations, France used it to pay Britain the money they owed, and Britain used it to pay America the money they owed. This seemed to be the perfect solution to everybody's problems, and countries started getting along with each other again. However, it had one major flaw - if anything went wrong, and one of the countries was no longer able to pay another, then conflict would ensue and the economic and diplomatic situation could be worse than it was before. This happened in 1929 with the Great Depression.

The Great Depression

The stock market crash in America caused economic strife throughout the world. America could no longer loan Germany money for reparations, and they even wanted the money back. The result was that America went into isolation with the intent of nursing their own economy and avoiding being dragged into another costly European war. Countries all over the world were facing economic crises, and distrust started to form again between countries. Unemployment was high all over the world, and countries solved this problem by creating large armies. The global depression was therefore a contributing cause of the Second World War as it gave Germany an excuse to break the Treaty of Versailles and establish larger armed forces on their own turf.

The Japanese Invasion of Manchuria

The economic depression even affected Japan; the people of Japan were suffering from starvation, unemployment and a general lack of resources. To solve these problems, Japan invaded Manchuria, the first of a number of steps that made their involvement in a World War more inevitable.

Cause OneJapan was a poor and starving country. It wanted more and so it invaded China.
Cause TwoTrade barriers between China, the USA and Japan meant that Japan's economy faltered so they decided to build an empire of their own through force.
Cause ThreeJapan had no raw materials such as coal or iron. These were traditionally imported from China.
The EventIn 1931, Japan claimed that China had sabotaged the Manchurian Railway and invaded Manchuria and threw out the Chinese forces there. In 1932, they set up a 'puppet government' in Manchuria (or Manchukuo as it was called), which answered to the Japanese army. They then bombed Shanghai. The government in Japan ordered the army in Manchuria to leave, but they were ignored. China appealed to the League of Nations, but because Japan had such a stronghold in the League no decision was reached.
What the League DidThe League did nothing until September 1932. Then they made a report on the Manchurian Crisis, saying Japan had acted unlawfully and Manchuria must be returned to the Chinese. In 1933, Japan invaded China again. Japan then resigned from the League. The League became powerless. It was interested in keeping up good relationships with Japan rather than giving sanctions.
Consequence OneThe League appeared to be weak and ineffective as it offered lame excuses and the idea that one country would have protection from all the others was completely shattered. China received little help from the League.
Consequence TwoAs the USA and USSR were not members of the League, their capability of removing the Japanese from Manchuria was lost and Japan continued their occupation.
Consequence ThreeBoth Mussolini and Hitler, when they saw how the League of Nations reacted to this invasion, followed Japan's example (Abyssinia and Czechoslovakia - see below) and six years later the world erupted into full-blown war.

The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia

Cause OneIn 1896 Italian troops tried to invade Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), but were defeated by a poorly equipped army of tribesmen. Mussolini wanted revenge for this humiliating defeat.
Cause TwoMussolini wanted the fertile land and mineral wealth of Abyssinia.
Cause ThreeMussolini wanted glory and conquest. He wanted to restore the glory of the Roman Empire.
The EventIn October 1935, Mussolini's army launched a full scale invasion of Abyssinia. The Abyssinians were no match for the modern Italian army, who were equipped with tanks, aeroplanes and poison gas.
What the League DidIn the months leading up to this, the League were supposedly negotiating with Mussolini. There was much talk but nothing happened. In the end the League put forward a plan that would give some of Abyssinia to Mussolini. He rejected it. After Italy invaded Abyssinia, a committee was set up to impose sanctions. Each week a decision was delayed, Mussolini would be able to build up his stockpile of raw materials. The League banned arms sales, loans and exports of rubber, tin and metals to Italy, and imports from Italy. However, it took two months for them to decide to block oil exports to Italy.
Consequence OneIn Britain, about 30,000 coal miners were in danger of losing their jobs because of the ban on coal exports to Italy.
Consequence TwoThe League of Nations didn't do much to stop Italy, and other countries like Germany thought they could invade other countries as Italy did.

The League of Nations

The League of Nations was an organisation created by the Treaty of Versailles. The idea was that the League would become the world's 'police' and enforce peace in Europe. The idea was that when one country attacked another, the aggressor would have sanctions imposed against it. First there would be material sanctions, with trading with that country being stopped, and this would be followed by military sanctions. This process is called collective security, as all the other countries were supposed to support the league and contribute to stopping the aggressive country. The League failed in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria. Japan was one of the main countries in the League, and Britain and France did not want to have bad relations with them. Italy saw how the League appeased Japan, and in 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia. All the League did was talk with Italy, and they never got anything done. They only really cared about their own problems, and they did not want to get involved in other countries' problems. Once again, the League of Nations appeased Italy, just as they had done with Japan, and let them have what they want. Now nobody trusted the League to protect them, and it wasn't long until Germany, under Hitler's rule, followed Japan and Italy's example.

The weakness of the League of Nations was a major cause of the Second World War because if it had worked, then there would have been peace within Europe, and there wouldn't have been a Second World War. However, because it failed to fulfil its promise to protect member states, countries broke the rules to get what they wanted.

Hitler's Foreign Policy

Germany was, as already stated, still reeling from their defeat in the First World War. The nation's desire for 'revenge' for how they had been treated over the previous two decades influenced Hitler' foreign policy:

  • To go back on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles - Hitler acknowledged his country's hatred of the Treaty of Versailles. He was also aware that a majority of Europeans agreed with him that the treaty was harshly implemented. So when Hitler began to break the terms of the treaty, he was allowed to do so by the League of Nations, who were effectively paralysed with guilt over the handling of Germany's situation. However, if Hitler was going to re-gain everything that Germany had lost because of the Treaty of Versailles, then he was going to have to invade other countries.

  • To re-arm - Hitler wanted Germany to be a dominant power in Europe again, and to do this he needed to re-arm. He was given an excuse he needed in the early 1930s when there was high unemployment in Germany. Providing the nation's youth with military training would reduce unemployment and provide the country with pride in itself - the perfect solution to their problems.

  • To unite all German-speaking people in one country (GrossDeutschland) - The Treaty of Versailles had given each nation their own country, but of course an after-effect of the now-defunct Prussian Empire was that German speakers existed all over Europe. Ownership of territories such as Alsace-Lorraine had historically been the cause of debate between France and Germany, so if Hitler were to reclaim all former German territories and unite them all as one country, it would restore his nation's pride. To do this, he would have to invade those countries that had been divided among the other powers after 1918 and take over any country that could pose a challenge to a new German Empire.

  • To win living space (Lebensraum) for Germany - The only way that Hitler could do this was to take control of the countries around Germany, even if such a move could lead to war.

  • To racially cleanse the Reich - Again, to engender German pride, Hitler promoted the notion that the German race was the most pure and perfect, and that other races were below it. If Hitler were to cleanse the Reich, then he would have to remove elements that would sully his racial vision - in effect, he was declaring his willingness to commit genocide in Germany and the surrounding countries for the survival of the Germanic race.

  • To destroy Communism - To do this, Hitler would have to wage war with the USSR. To get to the USSR, they would have to go through Poland - most likely resulting in a war. However, Britain and France had also shown opposition to the ideals of Communism, which could potentially mean they'd support Germany taking a stance against the USSR. Though the USSR became part of the League of Nations in 1934, they left in 1939 when they realised that the League would not protect them from a German attack.

As Hitler tried to achieve his aims, Britain and France appeased him, and thus allowed Germany to become more powerful. Hitler's foreign policy aims, which were made public, were a major factor in the build-up to the Second World War, as they showed that, as the representative of an 'oppressed nation', Hitler was prepared to fight countries for what he wanted. It was obvious from the very beginning, that the only way to stop Hitler would be through war. The table below shows in basic form how Hitler went about achieving his foreign policy Aims and going against the Treaty of Versailles.

Terms of the Treaty of VersaillesWhat Hitler Did and WhenThe Reasons he Gave for his ActionsThe Response from Britain and France
Germany's armed forces to be severely limitedIn 1933, Hitler increased Germany's armed forces. In 1935, he made an agreement with Britain to increase naval forces, and he introduced conscription in 1936.He needed larger armies to protect Germany, and large armies also provided jobs and solved unemployment problems caused by the Great Depression.Britain sympathised with Germany, agreeing that the Treaty of Versailles had been too unfair. The French were angry with Britain, but there was little they could do.
The Rhineland to be a demilitarised zoneIn March 1936, Hitler moved troops into the Rhineland, going against the Treaty of Versailles.France and Russia had made a treaty to protect each other from Germany. Hitler said that he should be allowed to place troops on his own frontier.Many British people felt that Hitler had a right to have troops in the Rhineland, and France wouldn't do anything without Britain's help, so nothing was done.
Germany forbidden to unite with AustriaThe Nazi party stirred up trouble in Austria. In 1928, Austrians has a vote to decide whether they would unite with Germany. Germany sent troops into Austria to make sure the vote was fair. A total of 99.75% of Austrians voted to unite with Germany.There were lots of German people living in Austria and Hitler said the people of Austria wanted to unite with Germany. Austria was economically weak and Hitler promised to solve the problem.France and Britain refused to help Austria. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain felt the Treaty of Versailles was wrong and that Austria and Germany should be united.
The Sudetenland taken into the new state of CzechoslovakiaIn 1938, Hitler said that he was ready to fight Czechoslovakia. After meeting with Britain, France and Italy, Hitler was given the Sudetenland.There were lots of Germans living in the Sudetenland and Hitler wanted to unite them. He also claimed the Czech government were mistreating the Germans.On 29 September, after numerous meetings, Britain and France made an agreement to give Hitler the Sudetenland. However, Britain and France also said that if Hitler invaded any other country, then they would declare war on Germany1.
The Polish Corridor given to PolandOn 1 September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west. On 17 September, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east. They split Poland between them.There were Germans living in Poland, and Hitler wanted them to be united with Germany. Hitler also wanted more living space, as this was one of his foreign policy aims.On 2 September, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Germany did not expect this, as Britain and France had appeased Hitler before and had not acted on their threats.


When Hitler began to break the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations (that was mainly just Britain and France) appeased him, just as they had done with Japan and Italy. As Hitler broke more and more rules, Germany became more powerful, but Hitler was still appeased. In the end, there came a point where Britain and France realised that if they didn't attack now, Germany would be come too powerful for them to defeat, however, by this time, Germany had gained lots of land, soldiers and technology and were a powerful force in Europe. If Britain and France had attacked Germany in the beginning when they began to break the Treaty of Versailles, when Hitler sent German troops in the Rhineland, then, as Hitler himself said, the war might only have lasted six weeks, instead of six years. Appeasement was a large cause of the war as it allowed countries to get what they wanted, and in the end, allowed Germany to become such a powerful force in Europe. It was through appeasement that Germany got what they wanted, and it was only when appeasement failed, that the most devastating war in history began.

How the Causes are Linked

There were many different factors that caused the Second World War. The main cause of the Second World War was the First World War. From the time the First World War ended, with Germany being forced to surrender when they wanted to carry on fighting, another war was inevitable. From the distrust countries had for Germany, the Treaty of Versailles was created. This led on to the Dawes Plan, which caused problems throughout Europe when the Great Depression came. The Treaty of Versailles also created the League of Nations, which ended up failing countries when it should have protected them. The appeasement of the League led to Japan and Italy invading other countries, but still being appeased. This caused Germany, with Hitler's foreign policy, to follow their example.

In the end there came a point when the League of Nations had to stop appeasing Hitler - reluctantly, Britain and France declared war on Germany. However, by this time, Germany had become powerful, and the war was the most devastating in history. Though there were many different causes to the Second World War, almost all of them originated from the embers of the First World War, 'the war to end all wars' that did anything but. The Second World War was therefore necessary to solve these problems. Hitler's Germany wasn't solely to blame for the outbreak of war in 1939; almost every country played their part, whether actively like Britain and France did when they appeased Hitler for so long, or by not doing anything, as with America, whose isolationist stance lasted until 1940.

1Neville Chamberlain was considered a national hero for managing to avoid another war. However, three days after he returned to Britain, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France once again did nothing and appeased Hitler.

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