What steps did Germany take to start the Second World War in Europe?

Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Graff Galeazzo Ciano before Munich Agreement Sept. 9, 1938

The second world war (1939-1945) was the most destructive war in human history. It is believed that between 35 and 50 million people died in the conflict.[1] There are many causes of this conflict, including nationalism and the failure of the League of Nations, but ultimately the primary cause of the greatest conflict in human history was Nazi ideology and its aggressive policies.

Background

The Treaty of Versailles, that ended the first world war is perhaps the most controversial peace treaty in history; ‘many have judged it to be too harsh and others have judged it to be not harsh enough.’[2] Germany and the other defeated Central powers lost territory, had their military forces limited and were obliged to pay reparations. Germany was especially treated harshly. The German public was outraged when the Treaty’s terms were publicized because they believed that Germany had neither started the war nor been decisively defeated on the battlefield. The Treaty was treated Germany as if had been conquered and they felt that was both their country unfairly and inaccurate. Germany lost about one-fifth of its territory as a result of the Treaty. Overnight millions of Germans became citizens of other countries, such as Poland. The Treaty legally limited the size and scope of the German armed forces which was intended to prevent that the country from starting another war. The Nazis benefitted from the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles helped the rise of the Nazis and it allowed them to not only justify their aggressive policies but portray Germany as the true victim of the Great War.[3]

In the 1930s, Europe was a divided continent. There were still bitter disputes over borders. The Treaty of Versailles had redrawn the border of Europe but it seemed to have satisfied no one.[4] These ongoing disputes meant that the political class still regularly used nationalism to retain power. There were almost no functioning democracies in Europe at this time and there were many military dictatorships. The continent was also divided between the left and the right. Almost every society was internally divided between communists and socialists and those who opposed them.[5] Then in many countries fascism had made great strides often because of a fear of communism. Europe was unstable and it seemed likely that the continent would descend into another conflict. This was to occur in 1939 and it was caused by the ambitions of the Nazi government in Germany and its extreme ideology.

Nazi Ideology

Portrait of Adolf Hitler in 1933

The Nazi ideology was premised on the idea that the German people were ‘the master race’ and they were biologically superior to other people. It was genuinely believed that Germans were physically mentally and morally superior to races such as the Slavs in Eastern Europe. This led to the belief that the German people should dominate the other races in Europe. The party’s leader preached that other races such as the Jews were determined to prevent the German people from achieving their destiny.[6] Their ideology also demanded that all Germans live in a German state and they wanted all non-Germans expelled from Germany. The Nazi believed that the German people had the right to ‘living space’ in order to create a great nation. The Nazi’s saw international relations as a struggle for power and that only the strongest nations would survive. As a result, they rejected all forms of international law and ignored the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations. Their ideology, under the influence of the German philosopher Nietzsche, developed a moral code where strength was admirable and that might was always right. Because the Nazi’s worshiped power and strength they admired war and they even believed that war was a positive good and necessary for the good of the nation.[7] The Nazis firmly believed that a nation’s greatness was determined by its military strength.

The Nazi Party and Rearmament and Expansionism

The Nazi’s had achieved power by constitutional means in 1933. They had soon established an authoritarian state with Hitler as the all-powerful leader or Führer. The Nazi government was determined to end the Treaty of Versailles. Their ideology encouraged them when in government to embark on two policies that greatly destabilized Europe and led directly to war. These were military rearmament and territorial expansion.[8]

Under the Treaty of Versailles, the German army was limited to 100,000 men and Hitler ignored these limitations and expanded the military. He also began an ambitious rearmament program. This at first did not alarm other nations but as the German army and navy grew in numbers they became extremely worried. This was especially the case after the German army occupied the Rhineland, which was technically, under a de-militarized zone. Hitler was technically breaking international law but the western allies were reluctant to challenge Germany over their rearmament program. Rearmament was a key Nazi policy based upon its ideology of power and militarism. The growing might of Germany alarmed its neighbors and by 1939 there was a full blown arms race throughout Europe and various nations were readying for war.

Nazi ideology demanded that Germany seize the land it needed to become a powerful nation. It also required that all Germans be united in the Third Reich. This led the Nazi government to embark on a policy of expansion and this included recovering lands lost to the French, Czechs and Poles. Beginning in 1936 the German army had reoccupied the Rhineland in defiance of international law and the Versailles Treaty.[9] Nazi Germany then engineered a unification between it and Austria, in what was known as the Anschluss. Hitler and the Nazi’s then turned their attention to Czechoslovakia. There was a large ethnic German population in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia and the Nazi’s wanted them to re-join Germany. [10] Hitler threatened war and Britain and France, who had adopted a policy of appeasement to prevent a war, encouraged the Czech’s to give up the Sudetenland. After occupying the Sudetenland, Hitler then occupied the rest of the country, despite the Munich agreement. This became known as the ‘Rape of Czechoslovakia’.[11] The Nazi ideology meant that territorial expansion and disregard for international treaties was part of government policy. As a result, Hitler adopted an aggressive foreign policy that made war inevitable.

Road to War

In 1939 the rest of Europe were preparing for war. The British and French had been betrayed and humiliated by the ‘Rape of Czechoslovakia’.[12] Hitler had won territory without war and had largely dismantled the Treaty of Versailles. Germany again was the leading country in Europe. However, Nazi ideology and its extreme views meant that Hitler had to seek ever more land and engage in confrontations with other nations. The Nazi’s sought war in order to further their objectives. In 1939, despite the tensions in Europe, Hitler demanded the return from Poland of territory that was inhabited by ethnic Germans. If Warsaw had agreed to this, it would have lost its only port. The Nazi government was warned not to invade Poland by France and Britain. London and Paris both signed a treaty with Poland and they guaranteed her security and sovereignty. Despite knowing that any invasion of Poland would plunge Europe into war, Hitler ordered an invasion. Nazi ideology demanded that Germany have ever more territory and that this could only be secured through war. Furthermore, the ideology of the German government was one that stressed the value of war and stated that the Germans as the ‘master race’ would win this conflict. In September 1939, the German army invaded Poland and the Second World War had started in Europe.[13]

Conclusion

In the 1930s Europe was very unstable. The rise of fascism and the ascent of Nazis in Germany destabilized Europe. Their racist and nationalistic ideology meant that they believed other nations and people were their enemies. More importantly,the Nazis promoted a toxic belief that Germans were the ‘master race’ and above any international laws or moral standards. These beliefs pushed them towards war with Europe.

References

  1. Bell, P. M. H. (1986). The Origins of the Second World War in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 326.
  2. Bell, p.77.
  3. Bell, p. 144.
  4. Finney, Patrick. The Origins of the Second World War. Penguin Books: Hamondsworth, p. 48.
  5. Finney, p. 57.
  6. Paxton, Robert (2005). The Anatomy of Fascism. London: Penguin Books Ltd., p 123
  7. Paxton, p. 117.
  8. Hillgruber, Andreas (1995). Germany and the Two World Wars, translated by William C. Kirby, Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, p. 67.
  9. Young, Robert (1996). France and the Origins of the Second World War, New York : St. Martin's Press, p. 78.
  10. Young, p. 111.
  11. Hillgruber, Andreas (1995). Germany and the Two World Wars, translated by William C. Kirby, Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, p. 67.
  12. Hilgruber, Andreas (1995). Germany and the Two World Wars, translated by William C. Kirby, Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, p. 67.
  13. Bell, P. M. H. (1986). The Origins of the Second World War in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 346.

Contributors

Admin and Ewhelan