The immediate cause for the outbreak of war was generally considered to be Germany’s invasion of Poland. Hitler had established one of his key aims as leader of the Nazi party to be domination of Europe, which he clearly sought by force. In early 1939, Britain and France warned Germany that an invasion of Poland would cause them to declare war, so when, in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, war broke out in Europe. There were other tensions brewing under the surface which many historians believe contributed to the outbreak of war, but the invasion of Poland is certainly a crucial trigger-cause of the conflict.
Other more long-term causes certainly helped to create a situation in which Hitler could rise to power as he did. These include:
Dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles. Germany – having surrendered in 1918 – were forced to sign a treaty which included Germany taking the blame for World War One, reducing territories, agreeing to disarm and significantly diminish the military, and agreeing to pay roughly 6.6 billion pounds in reparations. The German people felt this was unduly harsh, and developed a deep-set resentment of the Allied victors of WW1 for dealing them this intense punishment. As the economic depression of the 1920s affected most of Western Europe, the League of Nation agreed to reduce some of the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles, but this did little to quell the resentment of the German people. When the Nazis came to power, some of the terms of the treaty were outright flouted, whereas others were easy to manoeuvre using loopholes. Hitler was able to systematically increase the military in Nazi Germany during the 1930s due to the treaty being insufficient in its rules regarding military growth. Had the treaty been stricter in the first place, perhaps there would not have been those loopholes for Germany to exploit. However, a harsher set of terms in the initial treaty may have led to an even stronger resentment in the German people. As such, though the treaty was not sufficient to prevent further outbreak of war, it is hard to see how a balance could have been struck.
Did you know – the final reparations were paid as recently as 2010? It took Germany 91 years to pay it all.
Lack of clear German leadership. Between 1918 and 1933, Germany had a succession of different leaders with very different visions for the future of Germany. After WW1 ended, the political situation in Germany became fraught, and many left-wing parties were established, and immediately gained significant support. The country became established as a republic, later known as the Weimar Republic, and suffered significant instability and internal disagreement in the early 1920s. The economic situation worsened with hyperinflation. Between 1924 and 1929, Germany became stable and incredibly liberal, but after the Wall Street Crash the people were once again angry and embittered, and lashed out at the Chancellors – of whom there were four between January and March 1933. With no clear political direction or leadership, the resentment amongst the people was allowed to develop, and when a leader emerged in the form of Hitler, the nation was quick to feel relieved at some stability at last.
Hitler and the Nazi party. Hitler provided the German people with a clear sense of leadership and direction. The Nazi party had existed as we know it since 1920, and had been active in the country by means of small-scale rallies. Hitler was imprisoned for a more ambitious rally – in fact, an attempted seize of power – in Munich 1923, and during his imprisonment wrote his infamous book Mein Kampf, which detailed his aims and ambitions as leader of the Nazis. He also explained his sentiments towards the Jewish race, nationalism, WW1, and other hot topics within contemporary German society. He and his party were firmly on the right-hand, conservative side of the spectrum, and once Germany had so spectacularly swung to the left during the somewhat unsuccessful Weimer Republic, many German citizens wanted a return to nationalistic, right-wing principles. He could provide a large proportion of the population with exactly what they wanted, and the situation was right in 1933 for him to seize power, and begin building his way up to him ultimate aim: domination. For six years he slowly expanded German territories, which gradually led to other European countries to realise his belligerent intent, and a series of agreements were made to prevent further expansion which Hitler blatantly ignored.
Appeasement. After initially dealing out very harsh terms in the Treaty of Versailles, some of the Allied countries later felt the pressure on Germany should be reduced. The reparation payments were reduced, and when in 1933 Hitler announced that the payments would stop, the Allies did little to protest. After the Munich Agreement in 1938 – Neville Chamberlain’s famous ‘peace in our time’ agreement – Germany flouted the terms of the Treaty by taking over what was then known as Czechoslovakia. This want of peace from other countries meant they almost allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security as far as Hitler was concerned, and he exploited this by re-arming and essentially preparing for war whilst other countries shied away from confrontation.
Threat of communism. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had taken other European countries by surprise, and a fear of communist sentiments spreading to other countries meant that anything radically left-wing was looked upon with suspicion. Though Russia was ultimately an Allied force in World War Two, as a country it was wrought with internal struggles and instability through the mid-war years, meaning other European powers thought of Russia as dangerous. This fear of communism led to a somewhat more relaxed approach to right-wing powers in the 1920s and 1930s, and once the Weimer Republic failed as it did, and social unrest began to brew up in Germany, a strong right-wing leader was the sure-fire way of avoiding a communist uprising. Other countries initially saw the Nazi party as less of a threat than the radically, uncontrollably left-wing powers seen in the East of Europe.
There are very few events one can call on as the ‘cause’ of World War Two other than the obvious: the invasion of Poland. Hitler’s earlier actions of the 1930s had caused the world to become suspicious, but the invasion of Poland acted as a trigger which sparked the conflict. The political situation in Germany was perfect for him to establish himself as the ultimate power, and an unfortunate set of other circumstances had led to other countries not stepping in and stopping him earlier. So whilst there is one key cause of the war, the other, more long-term factors made a significant contribution.
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