(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News as “Long March Back to War,” on August 30, 2014.)
Seventy-five years ago today, Nazi Germany attacked Poland and began World War II, a war that lasted until August 1945, killing at least 50 million people and witnessing the only use of nuclear weapons in war. This war, even more than WWI, was a “total war:” forcing participants to mobilize and employ all segments of their societies.
The roots of this war lay in World War I and its aftermath. Indeed some historians consider the two wars as one war containing twenty-one years of unstable peace. In this view the most important factor in explaining its outbreak is the failure of the peace settlements at the end of WW I to establish a sufficiently stable international system, leaving too many major powers angry or unsatisfied. Germany, disallowed from the negotiations, felt that the Treaty of Versailles was “dictated” and that it was unduly harsh. Its army was reduced to 100,000, its navy was diminished, and its air force was eliminated. Most irritating was the so-called “War Guilt Clause,” declaring that Germany (and Austria-Hungary) was responsible for the war and ordering Germany to pay reparations for all the damages “imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”
Italy, one of the victors, was so upset that it abruptly left the peace conference when the lands it desired were given to other countries or given independence under President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of “self-determination.”
Even before World War I, the modernizing government of Japan—one of the victors in the war—sought to build an empire. It defeated the Chinese in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and annexed Korea in 1910. WW I seemed to whet its appetite for empire even more. When Western powers rejected its recommendation for a racial equality clause in the charter of the new League of Nations, it began its tilt away from the West.
After the WW I armistice, sincere efforts were made to ensure peace and to prevent aggression. The single most important demand of President Wilson during the peace negotiations was the formation of a “league of nations” to prevent future wars. While Wilson’s proposal was eventually adopted, the US Senate never ratified the Versailles Treaty and hence never joined the newly-created League of Nations. In 1921-22 the US hosted the Washington Arms Conference, the first arms control conference in history, resulting in three major arms limitation treaties. In1928 the US and France negotiated an international agreement, the Kellogg-Briand Pact signed by sixty-three states, which pledged “to renounce war as an instrument of national policy.”
Despite such efforts, world leaders seemed unable to make World War I truly the “war to end all wars.” The Great Depression only exacerbated the political tensions already in place, especially regarding Italy and Germany and their new ideology of fascism, named after the fasces of the Roman Empire. (This was a bundle of rods and an ax with a blade projecting outward, a sign of authority of a Roman magistrate.) This ideology was totalitarian in that it sought complete control of all segments of society. It was hyper-nationalistic and also pro-capitalism, seeking to exploit both for the benefit of the state.
In both Italy and Germany, strong, charismatic leaders took control of the governments and used intimidation and force to eliminate enemies and quickly control society. In Italy Benito Mussolini and his Fascist blackshirts took control of the government in 1922. In Germany an aging President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor in 1933.
Next to the failure of the WW I victors to establish a stable peace, the second factor in the coming of WW II was the rise of Hitler and his Nationalist Socialist Workers’ Party (Nazis). Hitler quickly moved to instill a sense of hope and pride in the German people and to reverse the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. In 1935 he publicly announced the rearmament of Germany, in violation of the Treaty. In 1936, Germany reoccupied with military forces the Rhineland, an area on Germany’s border with France which had been demilitarized after WW I. In 1938 it annexed the Germanic country of Austria (portrayed in the famous musical, The Sound of Music). He next demanded that the Sudetenland, a mostly German populated area within the boundaries of Czechoslovakia, be given to Germany. At the infamous Munich Conference of September 1938, the British and French government leaders acquiesced, an act that has become the most referenced example of ignominious “appeasement.” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed that he had achieved “peace in our time.” In several months however, Germany seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. A third factor then in the coming of WW II was the inability of the key Western powers to stand up to the rising fascist states.
Germans Marching through Warsaw
After concluding a Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union on August 23, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Soviet Union joined the attack on September 17.