It seems ironic that World War II erupted just 20 years after the most devastating war the world has ever seen. That World War I was dubbed as the war to end all wars begs the question 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. Event 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. In Asia, Japanese militarism and aggression would prove to too much to contain, hence the need to counter its expansion. In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power as chancellor of Germany. Emboldened by a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and by an alliance with Italy and Japan, Hitler’s campaign to subjugate the entire European continent and reclaim Germany’s glory following its humiliation in World War I would prove to be the main catalyst for World War II.
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. The treaty’s provisions held Germany responsible for the war, stripped it of its colonies and territories, forbid it of militarization, and forced it to pay reparations equivalent to over $35 billion in today’s money (Blakemore). 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 (Schmidt 3-19). The negative effects of the treaty on Germany sowed seeds of deep resentment among Germans and greatly contributed to the rise of nationalism. 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 Treaty of Versailles’ role in causing World War II gives the illusion that the war could have been avoided. In essence, World War II can be considered as inevitable and adjudged only as the culmination of unmatched German aggression. At the beginning of 1939 Hitler was already bent in 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 defence 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 (“German-Soviet Pact”). 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 towards war. World War II was now just around the corner.
Finally, another root cause of the war was the fact that Germany was ruled over by leaders bent on waging war. 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 (Royde-Smith). 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 impact as World War II. Indeed, this war changed the face of the world in just a few years that it eclipses many other events. It would be 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 the 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 testament to the complexity of 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.
Blakemore, Erin. “How the Treaty of Versailles Ended World War I and Started World War II.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/treaty-versailles-ended-wwi-started-wwii/. Accessed 30 November 2020.
“German-Soviet Pact.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/german-soviet-pact. Accessed 30 November 2020.
Royde-Smith, John Graham. “World War II.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-II. Accessed 30 November 2020.
Schmidt, Carl T. German Business Cycles, 1924-1933. E-Book, National Bureau of Economic Research, 1934.