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The Second World War began on September 3rd, 1939, almost exactly two decades after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, a peace treaty ending World War I. There were countless causes for the war, but the causes can be broken up into seven main points.
The Treaty of Versailles itself was a document that stirred anger amongst the Germans. The treaty ended the war between Germans and the Allied Powers, a group including the United Kingdom, France, and Greece, but unfairly required the Germans to accept responsibility for the start of the First World War. In addition, according to the treaty, Germany would have to make certain territorial changes, including giving major chunks of land to Poland, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, the nation would be forced to completely disarm itself, and the German emperor and many other army members would be tried as war criminals. Naturally, the German government opposed this treaty, calling it a blatant violation of national honour, but considering the weak position of the German army, Germany had no option but to ratify the treaty. However, even after Germany was disarmed and the First World War ended, anger and resent grew in Germany for nearly two decades. Adolf Hitler, dictator of Nazi Germany from 1934 onwards and a decorated veteran of World War I, capitalized on the resentment of the people by promising to avenge the wrong done to Germany by strengthening the German Army and waging a war on the Allied Powers. Two years after his appointment of Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Hitler started to actively drive the people of Germany to militarization, encouraging a war by advocating nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Pan-Germanism (unification of the German-speaking parts of Europe). Italy, like Germany, was also bitterly dissatisfied with the Treaty of Versailles and felt similarly resentful. Benito Mussolini, the Head of Government in Italy, strongly supported war and preached that expansion could only be achieved through conquest. In 1937, Italy, Germany, and even Japan joined hands in waging war against the Allied Powers, though it would be at least another two years before any battles started.
In addition to discontentment due to the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of fascism and Nazism were major factors in causing the World War II. Adolf Hitler became a leader the Nazi Party (short for National Socialist German Workers Party) in the 1930’s and gathered popular support for the ideology of the Nazi Party: rebuilding and restoring Germany’s glory through war. The ongoing resentment of the people of Germany was fueled by the reparations still being collected for World War I, and the people urged to repudiate and officially renounce the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler was all the more in their favour and promoted Nazism as making the German dream alive. Hitler extolled war and turned Germany into a war camp by enthusiastic employment of people in the army and arms industry. Meanwhile, Benito Mussolini promoted Fascism in Italy as a way of achieving political goals and reviving the Italian nation to the great Roman prosperity of olden times. Mussolini disliked the socialist doctrine in Italy and sought to reform the government to an authoritarian one. Groups of World War I veterans in support of Fascism actively lashed out against anarchists, socialists, and communists, and in turn the Italian population grew to praise war as a means of achieving their political goals. Mussolini put Fascism’s main principle as “Everything is the State, nothing outside the State and nothing against the State”. In essence, this meant that the interests of individuals were subordinated to the interests of the state. Fascism denied freedom of individuals as well as freedom of speech and expression and it opposed communism, socialism, and internationalism. As the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany and Italy from possessing arms, rearmament of the nations was done in secrecy and programmes of defence against possible aggressions were launched simultaneously, also in secrecy. Thus the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the countries of Europe was the perfect recipe for the start of a war.
Moving away from Europe, Japan’s development as an imperialist power was effectively a leading cause of World War II. Within Asia, Japan was the first country to adopt the policy of expansion and mercantilism and begin to industrialize. After signing the Anglo-Japanese Treaty in 1902, Britain recognized Japan as an equal to other European countries. Later in 1904, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, a war over rival imperial ambitions to conquer Manchuria (a region in the northern part of China) and Korea. During the First World War, Japan joined hands with the Allied Powers and took control of German colonies in China following the end of World War I. By 1931, Japan had a Fascist military regime and launched an invasion of Manchuria. Manchukuo, a nominal sovereign controlled by a Japan, was established and remained in China until the end of the Second World War. Six years later, Japan’s victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War between Japan and China resulted in the signing of certain treaties with Germany and Italy and the formation of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis, which in turn led to the emergence of the Axis Powers (also simply known as the Axis). The Axis was a unified body of countries that would oppose the Allied Powers in the Second World War. However, Japan’s ambitious expansion came into conflict with that of the United States, and this became the primary cause of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But before that, secret Fascist treaties were signed and Japan, Italy, and Germany were all given a free hand to expand in their respective regions. The main contributing factor to the Second World War, however, was Japan’s joint inception of the Axis Powers. Had the Axis not unified the countries planning to fight against the Allied Powers, the attack on the Allied Powers most likely would have been unorganized and consequently unsuccessful.
Another significant cause of the Second World War was the joint fear of communism by Japan, Germany, England, France and Italy. The rise of the Soviet Union and the success of communism were incited fear and apprehension among many countries in Europe. For capitalist countries like the United Kingdom and France, communism posed a major threat: peasants and other low-class workers might be angry at the nonexistence of a communist government that would make them equal to higher-class citizens, so they might be inspired to organize a socialist revolution. In other words, the governments of these capitalist countries feared having a socialist rebellion on their hands due to the spread of communist ideas. The Fascists, unlike the capitalists were generally opposed to the communists as they did not like the non-authoritarian principles of communism and did not want any other forms of government interfering with the spread of Fascism in Europe. Additionally, the left-wing egalitarian nature of communism clashed with the right-wing authoritarian nature of Fascism just as communism’s egalitarianism clashed with capitalism’s elitism, so this was another reason Fascists considered communists their enemies. The Fascist-Communist enmity was only budding, however. With the aid and support of the Soviet Union, Popular Front governments, or governments mainly consisting of leftists (left-wing or egalitarian politicians) were formed in many European countries to check the Fascists. By 1935, the communist presence in Europe had increased so much that a Comintern (Communist International) was held to unite the communist parties of all different countries together. Such movements lead Japan, Germany, and Italy to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1937 that made Fascists committed to fighting against communism. Germany was even bold enough to declare its ambitions to conquer the Soviet Union. The growing hostility between the Fascist nations and the communist parties furthered the general division between the Axis and the Allied Powers, thus making it a cause for the Second World War.
A prominent cause of World War II was the policy of appeasement adopted by the Western powers (primarily England and France) which rose directly out of the rise of Fascism in Central Europe. England and France allowed Germany and Italy to continue with their acts of aggression towards the communist parties in the hope that favouring Fascist powers would help weaken the Soviet Union. Recall that England and France are, like the Fascists, also against communism, but for different reasons (specifically, because it contradicts capitalism and is capable of spurring socialist revolutions). In addition to using Fascism favouritism against the Soviet Union, the Western powers felt that they could stop the spread of communism to the western part of Europe by using Fascist-dominated central Europe as a bulwark or defensive wall. Also, for reasons of self-protection, Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of the United Kingdom, and Édouard Daladier, prime minister of France, appeased Germany to lessen the chances of Germany attacking Western Europe. This policy of appeasement seemed harmless enough and was simply put in place because of Western fear of the spread of communism, but it actually strengthened Fascist powers to dangerously high levels and put the world on the verge of World War II. A few examples of the Western powers’ favoring of fascism are evident in the 1930’s. First of all, when the Spanish Civil War started in 1936 as a result of communist and Fascist parties fighting within Spain, Germany and Italy sent enormous amounts of troops to Spain to help the Fascists, but Britain and France, to whom the Soviet Union appealed to collectively aid the communists, remained steadfastly indifferent, adopting a policy of non-intervention. Another example can be seen in 1938 when Germany attempts to acquire Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia because of the high number of German-speaking people there. Germany demanded the land from Czechoslovakia, but when Czechoslovakia rejected Hitler’s request, Hitler sought out England and France for help. The Western powers, who were happy to support Fascism, didn’t turn an eye towards Czechoslovakia and readily signed the Munich Pact, giving Germany the free hand to seize all of Czechoslovakia. To recapitulate, the Western powers’ policy of appeasement was a key cause of the Second World War because of the hostility it furthered between communist and Fascist groups.
Another Fascist-related cause of World War II was simply Fascist aggression. As mentioned earlier, Japan invaded Manchuria, China, in 1931 following it’s new imperialistic ambitions. Though China appealed for help from the attack to Britain, France, and even the United States of America, all three nations remained indifferent and refused to intervene, a silent sin of omission. This was because of their policy of appeasement, of course, but simply letting an unprovoked act of war pass obviously is aggression, if not by Fascists, then by Fascist supporters. China being a member of the League of Nations, the League of Nations protested strongly against the Japanese attack, but to no effect. Japan simply left the League and, emboldened by the formation of Manchukuo (the Japanese puppet island in Manchuria), continued to invade the rest of China in the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Similarly, Mussolini attacked Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935 without any justification. Again, the League of Nations made a scene and declared Italy an aggressor. But since the major members of the League of Nations were following the policy of appeasement, no action was taken against Italy, and as a result, Abyssinia was conquered by Italian Fascists in 1936. In yet another flagrant violation of established rules (treaties in this case), invaded and annexed Austria in 1938. Though it was such a huge affair, neither France nor Britain protested as they adhered firmly to the policy of appeasement. So Fascist aggression was an indirect result of the policy of appeasement adopted by the Western powers as once the Western powers agreed amongst themselves not to intervene in any international affairs involving Fascist/communist wars, Fascists were completely free to be aggressive and conquer however much they wanted; without the Western powers, there would be absolutely no one to step in and stop them. However, such aggression angered the affected nations and again created tension and resent between nations, bringing the world yet another step closed to World War II.
Basically as a direct result of the Americans, Brits, and French adopting the policy of appeasement and non-intervention, the League of Nations failed and became powerless. As Britain and France were two major members of the League of Nations, without their support, the League was powerless to enforce anything, impose sanctions, or take military action where needed (i.e. to prevent or counter Fascist aggression in Abyssinia, China, etc.). Furthermore, the League of Nations was helplessly unable to do anything about the policy of appeasement adopted by the major powers, so it was simply stuck in limbo, not able to function anymore without the support of its members. This inability of the League of Nations to maintain law and order between nations only served to encourage aggressors like the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis to continue with their conquests and unprovoked aggressions. In essence, the failure and collapse of the League of Nations was the direct cause of Fascist aggression, which in itself was a cause for the Second World War.
Finally, the Polish question was the final vital cause of World War II. This conflict arose when the growingly ambitious Germany demanded possession of the city of Danzig, Poland in the late 1930’s. Possession of Danzig would allow Germany to be connected to Prussia again as their ties had been broken after the First World War. After witnessing the rapid expansion of the German Empire, both Britain and France had grown apprehensive and were considering withdrawing from their policy of appeasement. Because of this apprehension, they decided to protect Poland and threaten to wage war against Germany if Polish independence were threatened. However, the geographical distance between Poland and Britain/France was quite long and there would be no way to come to Poland’s aid before Germany conquered Danzig. This only left one option: the British could form an alliance with the Soviet Union and request them to aid the Polish to save their independence. However, after witnessing Britain’s and France’s policy of non-intervention and appeasement, the Soviet Union had gotten smart and was convinced of the Western powers’ scheme of using Germany against them. Moreover, Poland had been pursuing anti-Soviet policies, so having Russians fight for Poles would not have worked out well. For this reason, the Soviet Union refused to join forces with the Western powers and instead made a pact with Germany not to attack one another. On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Mutual Non-Aggression Pact that promised peace between Germany and the Soviet Union. However, below the surface, the Russians and the Germans secretly agreed to invade Poland and take half of it each. This pact gave the Russians adequate time to prepare themselves for an encounter with Hitler, back in Eastern German Empire as the split conquest of Poland ensured temporary neutrality between Hitler and the Soviet Union. On September 1st, 1939, Germany launched the attack on Poland, assured that the Western powers would not and could not do anything about it. However, two days later, both Britain and France declared war on Germany, and thus the Second World War begun. As exemplified above, the Polish conflict was really the direct cause of the Second World War, but many other causes led to the conflict, namely the policy of appeasement and non-intervention, so this was not necessarily the leading cause of the war.
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