World War II: Preceding Years
The Impact of the Depression
After Locarno in 1925 it seemed that the world was entering a new period of peace. The years of optimism ended with the Wall Street Crash in October 1929. Many American investors were ruined when millions of dollars were wiped off the value of shares. This led to a great economic crisis that swept the whole world. Most governments made matters worse by 'protectionism': putting up taxes on imports.
The Depression had serious political consequences that made war more likely:
• The USA became more isolationist. Roosevelt was elected as US President in 1932. He was more concerned with rebuilding the American economy than foreign affairs.
• The Depression encouraged extreme politics in Germany. The fanatical nationalist, Hitler, became Chancellor in 1933.
• In Italy and Japan, leaders were keen to win new territory to offset the effect of the economic crisis.
• Both Britain and France went through political turmoil and felt less able to take a firm line against aggressive nationalism.
A Catalogue of Aggression
Japan, Italy and Germany went on the offensive in the 1930s. In each country the leaders believed in aggressive nationalism. They challenged the peace by seizing land from other countries. At first, other powerful countries did virtually nothing to stop them.
1931: Japan seized the Chinese province of Manchuria.
Japan was criticized by the League of Nations but no action was taken to stop Japanese aggression.
1932-3: A major disarmament conference ended in failure.
The new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, took Germany out of the conference. Germany also left the League of Nations.
1935-6: Italy conquered the African state of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia).
The League of Nations imposed a ban on trade with Italy but this did not include restrictions on the sale of petrol. The trade ban did not stop Italy from conquering Abyssinia.
1936: Hitler marched German troops into the Rhineland.
The positioning of German forces in this border area was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. The government of France considered sending troops to stop the Germans but they decided to take no action.
1938: In March Germany annexed Austria.
The unification of Germany and Austria was called the 'Anschluss'. In September Germany annexed the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France agreed to the takeover of the Sudetenland.
1939: Germany invaded the remaining part of Czechoslovakia in March. Hitler then threatened Poland and demanded control of the city of Danzig.
The Collapse of the Locarno Settlement
• In 1925 Britain, France, Italy and Germany accepted the borders in Western Europe established in the Treaty of Versailles. Agreement between these powerful countries ended in the 1930s.
• Germany left the League of Nations in 1933.
• In 1935 an anti-German grouping of Britain, France and Italy was established called the Stresa Front.
• In 1936, after Abyssinia, the Stresa Front fell apart.
• Italy, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936; they pledged to fight against communism.
In every international crisis between 1931 and 1938 Britain and France refused to use force to stop aggression. Often they tried to negotiate a deal and to give way to the aggressor states. This was called 'appeasement'. It was the policy of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. The climax of appeasement came at the Munich Conference in September 1938. Here Britain and France agreed to the carving-up of Czechoslovakia: the Sudetenland area was handed over to Hitler.
Appeasement has been widely criticized as a weak response to aggression. Some critics say that appeasement encouraged more aggression. Recently historians have been more sympathetic and have tried to understand why Chamberlain believed in appeasement.
• Appeasement was based on the idea that Mussolini and Hitler were reasonable men who had just grievances.
• The richest country in the world was the USA. Its policy was 'isolationist' - Americans wanted nothing to do with foreign problems. Without American support it was hard for Britain and France to take action against aggression.
• British leaders were very worried about the defense of the British Empire. They avoided conflict in Europe in order to protect the Empire.
• Under Chamberlain, appeasement went hand in hand with rearmament. He wanted to make sure that Britain was properly armed before risking war in Europe.
The End of Appeasement
Having been successful in the Rhineland, Austria and the Sudetenland, Hitler continued his aggressive foreign policy. In March 1939 he seized the remaining parts of Czechoslovakia.
In the early summer of 1939 Hitler prepared for a war against Poland. He created a crisis over the city of Danzig. He did not believe that Britain or France would help Poland. The complete take-over of Czechoslovakia led to an abandonment of appeasement in Britain and France. They got ready for war with Germany. Hitler thought they were bluffing.
Both sides tried to win the support of Stalin, the Soviet leader. Hitler was successful. A German-Soviet Pact was signed in August 1939. Hitler felt that without Soviet support Britain and France would not risk war.
On 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. To his surprise Britain and France responded by declaring war on 3 September 1939. The Second World War had begun.