German forces entered Polish territory on 1 September. Two days later, on 3 September 1939, the British and the French governments declared war on Germany. The Second World War had begun.
Why did the Second World War break out?
In March 1939 Germany invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France took no action. Hitler then turned to Poland. Having taken Czechoslovakia without any resistance, he thought that Britain and France would not try to stop him over Poland. Hitler said that the city of Danzig must be returned to Germany and Germany must have access to Danzig through Polish territory. The Treaty of Versailles had taken Danzig from Germany and put it under League of Nations control.
The fall of Czechoslovakia, however, had convinced the British and the French that appeasement had failed. Chamberlain's reaction when he heard the news from Czechoslovakia was to say, 'After this I cannot trust the Nazi leaders again.' On 31 March the British government stated that Britain would stand by Poland in case of war.
British politicians had concluded that Hitler had to be stopped otherwise he would eventually challenge the existence of the British Empire. Similarly, the French Prime Minister, Daladier decided that only war would stop Hitler from dominating Europe and controlling France. Hitler thought that Chamberlain and Daladier were bluffing.
On 23 August 1939 the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed. This was part of Hitler's plan for the conquest of Poland. He thought that without Soviet support Britain and France would not feel strong enough to risk a war with Germany. The pact led Hitler to make an enormous mistake. He did not realize that by this stage Britain and France were prepared for war.
The governments of Britain and France were not as frightened t the German-Soviet Pact as Hitler had hoped. They did not think much of the Soviet army so they were not too worried by Soviet neutrality. Italy and Japan were annoyed by the news of the pact and they refused to help Hitler.
The loss of Italy and Japan was good news for leaders in Britain and France. The British government was also heartened to know that the dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand supported a new tough line and had abandoned appeasement. To Hitler's surprise, Britain and France responded to his attack on Poland by declaring war.
During and immediately after the Second World War the cause of the conflict seemed very simple: the war was caused by the aggression of Hitler. More recently, historians have argued about the part played by Hitler. Some of them have put more emphasis on other causes. Several of these causes have been explored in earlier sections of this book.
One war: Many Causes
• The Treaty of Versailles, 1919
Most Germans disliked the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. They were unhappy at the way land was taken from Germany.
• The failure of the League of Nations
After the First World War people hoped that the League of Nations would sort out arguments between states. The League and its policy of collective security did not work well. It was unable to stop aggression in Manchuria and Abyssinia.
• The Depression of the early 1930s
The political results of the Depression made the world a more dangerous place-there was an increase in isolationism in the USA; support for the Nazi Party in Germany; disarmament and a sense of weakness in France and Britain.
• The Policy of Appeasement
Britain and France were reluctant to take a firm line against Germany 1936-1938.
• Stalin's decision in August 1939
The Soviet leader rejected an alliance with Britain and France. Instead he signed an agreement with Nazi Germany.
An argument among historians
Debate about the start of the war has centered on a number of questions:
• How far was Hitler to blame for the war?
• Did Hitler have a plan to get Germany involved in a world war.
• Were Hitler's policies before 1939 any different from those of earlier German leaders, such as Wilhelm II and Stresemann?
Taylor asserted that:
• Hitler did not stick to a grand plan. He made his policies up as he went along.
• He hoped to make gains through threatening war but wanted to avoid war.
• Hitler's views were similar to those of many other Germans.
• Other factors, besides the personality of Hitler, played a crucial role in the outbreak of war. These factors include the appeasement policy of Britain and France