The answer to the question “Why did the Second World War happen?” was to be found to a large extent in the story of the incompetence of successive British governments in the 1930s; and, more particularly, in the stupidity of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Munich conference in 1938 when he agreed that Adolf Hitler could annex part of Czechoslovakia – the German-speaking Sudetenland. The German leader in the 1930s, we were told, following the Taylor line, was a politician “much like any other” and the war had been completely preventable had not near idiots been running Britain.
When did World War II begin?
Some say it was simply a continuation of the First World War that had theoretically ended in 1918. Others point to 1931 when Japan seized Manchuria from China. Others to Italy’s invasion and the defeat of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935, Adolf Hitler’s re-militarization of Germany’s Rhineland in 1936, the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), and Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 are sometimes cited. The two dates most often mentioned as “the beginning of World War II” are July 7, 1937, when the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” led to a prolonged war between Japan and China, and September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, which led Britain and France to declare war on Hitler’s Nazi state in retaliation. From the invasion of Poland until the war ended with Japan’s surrender in September 1945, most nations around the world were engaged in armed combat.
Origins of World War II
No one historic event can be said to have been the origin of World War II. Japan’s unexpected victory over czarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) left open the door for Japanese expansion in Asia and the Pacific. The United States U.S. Navy first developed plans in preparation for a naval war with Japan in 1890. War Plan Orange, as it was called, would be updated continually as technology advanced and greatly aided the U.S. during World War II.
The years between the first and second world wars were a time of instability. The Great Depression that began on Black Tuesday, 1929 plunged the worldwide recession. Coming to power in 1933, Hitler capitalized on this economic decline and the deep German resentment due to the emasculating Treaty of Versailles, signed following the armistice of 1918.
Declaring that Germany needed Lebensraum or “living space,” Hitler began to test the Western powers and their willingness to monitor the treaty’s provision. By 1935 Hitler had established the Luftwaffe, a direct violation of the 1919 treaty. Remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936 violated Versailles and the Locarno Treaties (which defined the borders of Europe) once again.
The Anschluss of Austria and the annexation of the rump of Czechoslovakia was a further extension of Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum. Italy’s desire to create the Third Rome pushed the nation to closer ties with Nazi Germany. Likewise, Japan, angered by their exclusion in Paris in 1919, sought to create a Pan-Asian sphere with Japan in order to create a self-sufficient state.
Competing ideologies further fanned the flames of international tension. The Bolshevik Revolution in czarist Russia during the First World War, followed by the Russian Civil War, had established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a sprawling communist state. Western republics and capitalists feared the spread of Bolshevism. In some nations, such as Italy, Germany, and Romania, ultra-conservative groups rose to power, in part in reaction to communism.
Germany, Italy, and Japan signed agreements of mutual support but, unlike the Allied nations they would face, they never developed a comprehensive or coordinated plan of action.
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