Causes of World War II

From Academic Kids

World War II may be the single most complicated conflict in all of history and it is therefore difficult to explain its origin. Never have so many nations gone to war in so many different ways and by so many different means. Regardless, there are a few basic causes of the war which are recognized by most authorities. Many people see the Second World War as a continuation of the first, so many of the Causes of World War I are applicable to World War II. When reading this page, it is suggested that the reader have a basic knowledge of World War II and of dates pertaining to it.


Underlying Causes of World War II

  • Nationalism: Perhaps the greatest underlying factor causing the war, nationalism was the primary reason for German, Italian and Japanese aggression. Fascism in these countries was built largely upon nationalism and the search for a cohesive "nation state." Hitler and his Nazi party used nationalism to great effect in Germany, already a nation where fervent nationalism was prevalent. In Italy, the idea of restoring the Roman Empire was attractive to many Italians. In Japan, nationalism, in the sense of duty and honor, especially to the emperor, had been widespread for centuries.
  • Militarism: A highly militaristic and aggressive attitude prevailed among the leaders of Germany, Japan and Soviet Union. Compounding this fact was the traditional militant attitude of the first two (see below).
  • Territorial Issues: All the nations that started World War II were left wanting for territory in some way by World War I. Germany lost territory after the war. Notably the Polish Corridor (see below), the Memel Territory (to Lithuania), the Province of Posen and the most economically valuable eastern portion of Upper Silesia. The economically valuable regions of the Saarland and the Rhineland were placed under the authority (but not jurisdiction) of France. Italy, which was part of the Allies in World War I, had been promised large chunks of Austrian territory. Italy received large portions of Austrian territory, such as the South Tyrol, however promises made regarding Albania and Asia Minor were ignored by the more powerful nations. Hungary, an ally of Germany had also been stripped of enormous territories after the partition of Austria-Hungary and hoped to regain those lands by allying with Germany. Japan had also, in 1915, joined the Allies and taken a German colony in China and a few islands which it had occupied, as well as swaths of Siberia and the Russian port of Vladivostok. Japan was forced to give up all but the few islands she had gained in the war. All of these nations were left stinging by the loss (or little gain) they received from the war. This attitude led many members of these nations to support those individuals and political parties who wished to gain territory for these nations.

Causes of World War II in Europe

The causes of the war in Europe are closely linked to the causes of the rise of fascism. The most important points are:

  • Treaty of Versailles: The Treaty can be said to be the single most important, indirect cause of the war. It placed the blame, or "war guilt" solely upon Germany. Secondly, harsh reparations imposed by the treaty hampered the German economy by causing rapid hyperinflation (the Weimar Republic printed trillions to help pay off its debts) and caused people to support authoritarian parties like the Nazis and the Communists. In Germany, the Treaty forced the country to limit its armed forces to 100,000, forbade it having an airforce, demilitarized the Rhineland, a region in western Germany next to France, and placed the Saar region under the League of Nations' control. These restrictions not only hampered the German economy (the Saar region, though small, was fairly industrialized) but also created bitter resentment towards the victors of the First World War within Germany making it easy to whip up popular sentiment against the Western Allies. A part of that resentment was that many Germans felt that they had never been truly defeated in battle since the country had never been conquered; many felt that the German government had agreed to an armistice on the understanding that Wilson's Fourteen Points would be used as a guideline for the peace treaty. However, the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent peace treaties disregarded the Fourteen Points in many instances.
  • World War I: The so-called War to End All Wars did not solve any of the problems of that had caused it; indeed, many scholars have begun to think of World War I and II as World War Part I and Part II. Large groups of nationalistic minorities still remained trapped in other nations. For example, Yugoslavia (originally the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) had 5 major ethnic groups (the Serbs, Croats, Macedons, Montenegrins, and the Slovenes), and it was created after the war. Other examples abound in the former lands of Austria-Hungary which were divided up quite arbitrarily and unfairly after the war. For example, Hungary was held responsible for the war and stripped of two thirds of its territory while Austria, which had been an equal partner in the Austro-Hungarian government, had its territory expanded.
Missing image
Hitler and Chamberlain after signing the Munich Pact which basically awarded Czechoslovakia to Hitler
  • Appeasement: A major part of the blame for the war lies with British and French politicians. Both these nations repeatedly followed a policy which not only gave Hitler what he wanted and therefore made him more likely to push for more, but also gave the Germans time to rearm. Hitler himself said that when he reoccupied the Rhineland, "that the Army had a standing order to retreat" if the French showed any resistance. When he invaded Poland, he doubted that France and Britain would intervene any more decisively than they did for Czechoslovakia, Austria, or to enforce the disarmament provisions of the treaty. The policy of appeasement was followed because large portions of the British and French public had decided that the Treaty of Versailles had unfairly punished Germany and that its demands were unreasonable even if Hitler maintained an unpleasantly nationalist government. At the same time most people had vivid memories of the first war and desperately wanted to avoid a repeat.
  • The Great Depression: The Great Depression hit Germany second only to the United States. Severe unemployment prompted the Nazi party, which had been losing favor, to experience a surge in membership. This more than anything contributed to the rise of Hitler in Germany, and therefore World War II in Europe. After the end of World War I many American industries and banks invested their money in rebuilding Europe. This happened in many European countries, but especially in Germany. After the 1929 crash many American investors fearing that they would lose their money, or having lost all their capital, stopped investing as heavily in Europe.
  • Deaths of Key Figures: Gustav Stresemann was a dynamic and resourceful German statesman, called "the greatest master of German foreign policy since Bismarck." [1] ( His achievements included work on the Dawes Plan (1924), the Locarno Pact (1925), the admission of Germany to the League of Nations (1926), the Treaty of Berlin (1926), and the Young Plan (1929) which reduced Germany's Versailles-imposed reparations payments. Stresemann also formed a friendship with leading French statesman and foreign minister Aristide Briand, with whom Stresemann had shared the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize. The sudden death of Stresemann in 1929, at the age of 51, and the unexpected death of Briand in 1931, followed by the assassination of Briand's successor, the capable Louis Barthou in 1934, created a vacuum of statemanship in the two major Continental powers, easing the way for the rise of Nazism in Germany and hardening the path to war.
  • Anti-semitism: Although anti-semitism played an indirect role in "causing" World War II, it was important in Adolf Hitler's rise to power, and since Hitler's program sparked the war in Europe, it could be seen as a factor leading to war. Some scholars disagree with this logic, however, it is an example of where an underlying condition can become the tool of the right person as an excuse for starting a war, in this case Hitler in Germany and World War II. After the war started, Hitler and his propaganda machine often blamed the war on the Jews. In his will, Hitler placed the sole blame "for all the deaths" on the Jews.
  • The "Italian reason": Italy entered the war because Mussolini hoped to grab French territory (he got a couple of hundred yards). He had only entered after France was obviously defeated. Mussolini hoped to create a kind of New Roman Empire around the Mediterranean. This caused him to invade Albania in early 1939 (before the official start of the war) and to later invade Greece (where Hitler had to save him from being defeated by Greek troops).
  • Poland: The creation of Poland in itself was not the issue, but a little known territory called the Polish Corridor. This was a narrow strip of land separating East Prussia from Germany allowing access for Poland to the Baltic Sea. This was a continual annoyance for the Germans that eventually led to the Polish September Campaign.
  • The Russian Revolution and Western Anti-communism: The Russian Revolution created a new fear in many German business men of communist insurrection in their own country. Shortly after World War I, there had been an attempted revolt by the communists to seize power in the country, which had been put down by ex-soldiers operating under former commanders. These men then began to give Hitler and his Nazi Party money and their own support. Most conservative and right wing sections within the Western Allies, including Neville Chamberlain were venomously anti-communist; though they had failed to win support for their war against the Soviet Union from their war weary countries in the 1919-20 interventions; they encouraged and supported right wing fanaticism in buffer states like Germany and Poland and tacitly supported fascism by starving its opponents of supplies and weapons in the Spanish Civil War. They saw in Fascism a force that would militarily attack the Soviet Union as proxy for Western Capitalism, the fact that Britain and France constantly betrayed their European alliances particularly Czechoslovakia in appeasement and only honoured a mutual defence pact once the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact had come into force and it was clear Hitler's aggression would not be restricted to anti-Soviet activity, supports this viewpoint. Hitler appealed to this audience in Mein Kampf and duly received its support, his expectation of England and America eventually making peace with the Third Reich was based on support he received during the 1920s and 1930s. This reasoning supported his "suicidal" attack on the USSR in 1941, and the hope of joining the USA and Britain as allies against Russia was nursed by the Nazis right up till the last days of the war.

Causes of World War II in Asia

  • Raw materials: One of the most alluded to reasons is actually Japan's need for raw materials. Other than a few coal and iron deposits, Japan lacks true natural resources. Japan, the only Asian country with a burgeoning industrial economy, feared what a lack of raw materials might lead to. Japan invaded Manchuria in order to procure these resources, and hoped to acquire more areas throughout the Asian mainland and western Pacific.
  • Japanese-American Tensions: For a variety of reasons Japan and the United States were deeply suspicious of each other in the early to mid twentieth century, especially after the end of World War I, in which both fought on the same side. Japan feared American power in the region and the US did not trust Japan. The two were often heated competitors economically in the region, with incremental advances by one side seeming as a serious challenge to the other.
Attitudes in the United States varied, but for various reasons the United States had expanded its presence in the Pacific quite significantly between 1898 and the 1930s. Many in the United States had an interpretation of Manifest Destiny that saw the United States expanding ever westward. With the annexation of Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines this was certainly one of the activities of the USA. Japan felt threatened by this perceived expansion, especially when the United States began building up its naval presence in the Pacific with the construction of a base at Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal. Many Americans at the time were also quite racist toward the Japanese which was a further irritant in relations. Several laws were also passed in America which were more or less prejudiced against the Japanese and other Asians, such as restrictions on land ownership. The United States also opposed a clause in the charter of the League of Nations which would have affirmed the equality of all races, much to the disgust of the Japanese. These measures alienated liberal opinion in Japan, weakening their arguments, resolve, and influence there. By the 1930s, liberals had been marginalised and a military, conservative dominated government took power, leading to imperialistic and expansionistic foreign policy. (See also: Taisho_period and Japanese expansionism)
Japan, led by a militaristic government had an increasingly imperialistic and expansionist attitude in the 1930s. Most Japanese at this time had a racist attitude toward other Asian peoples such as Koreans and Chinese. Rapid Japanese progress through the 19th and 20th centuries had left them economically and technologically ahead of their neighbours. This made officials in Washington highly suspicious of Japanese actions, especially during the 1930s when officials worried that the United States would lose its markets in Asia. Compounding worries, China was unable to effectively counterbalance Japanese power at the time due to a number of factors: the Chinese Civil War, lack of strong leadership, and technological inferiority, especially in aircraft.
  • Militaristic leadership: Japan, although technically an absolute monarchy, was dominated by a group of militaristic generals who did not hesitate to use Japan's standing army to solve the nation's problems rather than relying on diplomatic means. Their army was by far the best in Asia, which at the time was dominated by weakening Imperial armies and disorganized domestic armies, often warring amongst themselves.
  • Traditional practices in Japan: The centuries old respect, almost worship, for the Emperor played into the hands of the militaristic leaders of Japan. They exploited his name and image to create support for the war. They used him to silence the opposition to the war in Japan.

See also

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