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Research Paper: The Root Causes of World War II
It seems ironic that World War II erupted just 20 years after the most devastating war the world had ever seen at the time. That World War I was dubbed the war to end all wars begs the question of why World War II happened in the first place. This research paper attempts to answer that question by looking at the factors that caused the war. Events show that in the same manner that geopolitical tensions caused by imperialism and militarism were among the root causes of World War I , power-hungry leaders of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan in Asia advanced ideologies that extolled perverted nationalism, anti-Semitism, and racism in society . World War II, however, was not the result of a single event; rather, it was the culmination of various factors that coalesced into the most destructive war in the history of the world. Chief among the factors that caused the war were the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of fascist regimes, the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and the invasion of Poland.
The Treaty of Versailles (1919)
Comprehending the causes of World War II requires tracing its roots to its predecessor, the infamous World War I, and its aftermath, the Treaty of Versailles. Following its defeat in World War I, Germany was pressured into signing the Treaty of Versailles on the 28 th of June 1919. The treaty’s provisions stripped Germany of its colonies and territories, forbid it to form a military, and forced it to pay reparations equivalent to over $35 billion in today’s money (Blakemore, 2019). Needless to say, the treaty was utterly loathed in Germany. People saw the treaty as unjust and humiliating, especially after it led to hyperinflation that dragged Germans through years of suffering and deprivation (MacMillan & Holbrooke, 2002).
The negative effects of the treaty on Germany sowed seeds of deep resentment among Germans and greatly contributed to the rise of nationalism, especially since Germany was not allowed to determine the terms of the treaty. In particular, the “war guilt clause,” which held Germany responsible for the war and therefore tasked with paying the reparations, was viewed as unjust by many Germans (MacMillan & Holbrooke, 2002). By the time the Nazis came into the picture, their rhetoric that promised to reclaim Germany’s glory was welcomed with open arms by the people and catapulted them into power. It can therefore be said that the impact of the treaty on Germany was in part responsible for the rise of the Nazi Party. Had the treaty been fairer, Germany would have had a better chance to avoid the economic disaster that made its people resentful of the rest of Europe. But as history shows, it was this ruinous state the Germans went through that gave the Nazis the chance to seize power. Hence, the very treaty that brought World War I to an end helped pave the road for World War II.
The Rise of Fascist Regimes
The Treaty of Versailles planted the seeds of resentment in Germany, and this in turn paved the way for another factor that contributed to the war: the emergence of fascist regimes, particularly the rise of the Nazi Party . As mentioned earlier, Germany was left destitute and in ruins following the destruction caused by World War I and the sanctions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The discontent made the country desperate. Thus, when the Nazis came with the promise of lifting Germany and reclaiming its glory the people were quick to embrace them. The rise of fascism in Germany comprised many events, but perhaps one of the most important was the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor in 1933 since this solidified the power of the Nazis and secured control of the government for them (McDonough, 2014). Then the Nazis advanced a supremacist ideology that centered on the superiority of Germans, whom they called the Aryan race. The Nazis also identified the Jews and other minorities as burdens and enemies of Germany. The Nazis, for instance, accused the Jews of Marxism and undermining undermine the Germans. Laws were drafted to systematically disempower, isolate, and persecute the Jews. The Nuremberg Laws , for instance, identified who qualified as German citizens as well as prohibited marriage between Germans and Jews (Michalczyk, 2017; Bazyler & Bazyler, 2017). Other laws were enacted that prevented Jews from owning businesses, deprived them of their properties, and forced them to live in ghettos. By the time the war was nearing its end, millions of Jews and other people from minority groups had fallen victim to the Nazis’ system of deportation and extermination.
The Annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland (1938)
The penultimate events that led to war were the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. One of Hitler’s goals was to unite all Germans under a single German empire. However, many Germans were living outside of Germany. Austria, for instance, was viewed as ethnically German and therefore should be part of Germany in a movement known as the Anschluss. The Nazis actively encouraged pro-unification sentiments among Austrians. Under mounting pressure from Germany and from within, the Austrian government held a referendum on the 13 th of March 1938. But before this could happen, German troops marched into Austria. A plebiscite was held on the 10th of April of the same year under heavy German influence. The results showed over 99% of the Austrian public was in favor of unification, thus signaling the annexation of Austria (Hochman, 2016). That same year, Hitler forcibly took vast areas of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland where many ethnic Germans resided. Though this was in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, France, and the United Kingdom were powerless to stop Germany. The French and British opted for appeasement, which essentially involved allowing Germany to take the territories in exchange of promising to go no further. The Munich Agreement, as the event came to be known, failed as Hitler eventually invaded the entirety of Czechoslovakia (Goldstein & Lukes, 2012).
Invasion of Poland (1939)
Finally, the last act that ultimately led to war was the invasion of Poland. At the beginning of 1939, Hitler was already bent on invading Poland and was anticipating swift victory. The preceding year, Germany had successfully annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich. For its part, Poland had the assurance of Anglo-French defense and remained confident of security in the possibility of a surprise German attack. Hitler’s intention to overrun and invade Poland had long been present, but first, he had to obtain a guarantee that the Soviet Union would not quash the German advance in Poland. Covert negotiations led to the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in Moscow, informally known as Molotov-Ribbentrop, which was named after Soviet Union Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his Nazi German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop. Included in this pact was the secret mutual agreement that Poland would be divided, with the western third of the country going to Nazi Germany and the eastern two-thirds to be controlled by the Soviet Union (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2021). No longer surprised by Nazi Germany’s relentless military aggression, the rest of Europe was nevertheless left stunned by the pact, mainly due to the extremely different and invariably opposing ideologies that the two countries espoused. This was the case despite the fact that the partition of Poland was initially kept secret. This formal alliance solidified a prior temporary agreement in 1939. Germany’s aggressive expansion that violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles indicated that Europe was once again on the path toward war. World War II was now just around the corner.
Shortly after noon on August 31, 1939, Hitler commanded the Wehrmacht to attack Poland at 4:45 AM on September 1. While Hitler anticipated a swift, unimpeded advance, it was only a matter of time before Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. On September 3, 1939, at 11:00 AM, Great Britain formally declared war on Nazi Germany. France followed suit six hours later. World War II had started and would only end six years later (Commager & Miller, 2010). In essence, Germany’s complete political takeover by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi ideology in 1933, as well as its ultra-aggressive foreign policy and alliance with militarist and fascist regimes, were the foremost reasons behind World War II. To put it less mildly, the moment Hitler became chancellor in 1933, along with his seizure of absolute power, was the moment that can be considered as the prelude to World War II. It had been shocking, but not necessarily unexpected, especially when viewed in hindsight.
Few events in world history have had such an impact as World War II. Indeed, this war changed the face of the world in just a few years and it eclipses many other events. It would not be inaccurate, for instance, to say that the effects of World War II surpass the impact the Renaissance had on the Western world or the effects of the wars waged by Napoleon Bonaparte . The consequences World War II had for society can be seen even to this day. World War II irrevocably changed not only world geography and politics but also culture and society itself. It ended European militarism, paved the way for the invention of the atomic bomb, and birthed two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. It changed the balance of power. Like other major wars, the roots of this war dig deep into history. In this case, the war was caused by a multitude of factors including the resentment caused by the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the leeway the German-Soviet Pact gave Germany to start a war. These factors are a testament to the complexity of the armed conflict. Much has already been determined in terms of the war’s aftermath. It remains a question, however, if World War II succeeded where World War I failed—that is, if World War II finally showed humanity the horror and futility of unjust war.
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Bazyler, M. & Bazyler, M. J. (2017). Holocaust, genocide, and the law: A quest for justice in a post-holocaust world . Oxford University Press.
Blakemore, E. (2019). How the Treaty of Versailles ended WWI and started WWII. National Geographic . https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/treaty-versailles-ended-wwi-started-wwii
Commager, H. S. & Miller, D. L. (2010). The story of World War II. Simon and Schuster.
Goldstein, E. & Lukes, I. (2012). The Munich Crisis, 1938: Prelude to war. Routledge
Hochman, E. R. (2016). Imagining a greater enemy: Republican nationalism and the idea of Anschluss. Cornell University Press.
MacMillan, M. & Holbrooke, R. (2002). Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world. Random House.
McDonough, F. (2014). Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party. Routledge.
Michalczyk, J. J. (2017). Nazi law: From Nuremberg to Nuremberg. Bloomsbury Publishing.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2021, August 20). German-Soviet Pact . https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/german-soviet-pact
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