World War One was one of the greatest cataclysms in modern history. At the time it was called “The Great War”. Historians labeled World War I (WWI) as the war to end all wars. WWI was so lethal due to the introduction of new weaponry. Some of these weapons were mustard gas, tanks, aircraft, machine guns and mines. WWI had the most casualties than any other war in modern history. The numbers of deaths reached a staggering 17 million.
The international community faced a major predicament right after WWI. Many nations were not exactly sure how to punish Germany for all of the damage it caused. The League of Nations realized that Germany’s involvement in the war had aided in the deaths of millions, destroyed countless cities, and left most of Europe in financial ruins. The Treaty of Versailles was the document which made Germany pay for its involvement in WWI. The League of Nations presumed that creating reparations and a payment plan for Germany was the best policy. Moreover, the League of Nations agreed that Germany should lose its colonial empire and territories that other European nations claimed, which were all geographically close to Germany.
Another part of the Treaty of Versailles explicitly mentioned Germany limiting its military capabilities. Firstly, Germany could not have an army of more than 100,000 soldiers. Secondly, Germany was forbidden to have an air force and its navy was to be drastically downsized. Thirdly, all paramilitary forces were banned in Germany. Lastly, Germany could not construct any new military facilities or stockpile weapons of any sort.
Economically, Germany faced gargantuan financial difficulties. It had to pay back the allied powers money that it did not have. Over the years new schemes were implemented. These schemes included The London Schedule of Payments, The Dawes Plan, and the Young Plan. All of these plans would allow Germany to pay back their reparations over a stretched out period of time. Some historians believe that all of Germany’s payments could have been paid in full by 1988.
The biggest problem with the Treaty of Versailles was its punishing of Germany on many different levels. The principal concept of the treaty was reforming Germany’s borders. Germany had to give back Alsace-Lorraine and the Saar region to France and Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium. Poland, Denmark, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia were also to receive many territories from Germany. Under the treaty Germany also had to recognize the full independence of Austria.
The League of Nations had one common policy that was agreed on; it made sure that Germany would be isolated both economically and militarily. In theory, this strategy would implement long-term security and peace in most of Europe. Furthermore, the League of Nations believed it would demoralize Germans and make them think about the negative long-term effects of WWI.
In the early 1920’s Germany was plagued with massive economic problems. The country faced high crime and suicide rates, inflation, and massive unemployment. Many Germans were frustrated with Germany’s politicians and its neighboring nations. All of these problems allowed small right-wing political parties to become more popular over time. Small political parties consistently blamed Jews and communists for all of Germany’s current problems. One party that many Germans began to notice was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP). The NSDAP or Nazi party, used strategies of propaganda to convince average Germans that Germany itself was no to blame for these economic difficulties. The Nazi party’s popularity slowly increased until its leader Adolf Hitler was elected German chancellor in 1933.
Once elected chancellor of Germany, Hitler realized the Treaty of Versailles was one of the reasons that Germany was in such unprecedented trouble. Hitler had the knowledge to form a coalition government, which assured the German people that he played by legitimate rules, this was of course before he became absolute dictator of Germany. At the same time he attempted to end the economic crisis in Germany. In Hitler’s first year in power almost four million German citizens were put back to work. Several years later virtually the entire country was back at full employment. At the same time Hitler rebuild roads and infrastructure while he gave workers a place to live. Eventually the German economy recovered at a staggering rate, this was initiated by German workers investing their savings back into the economy.
Clearly by the mid 1930’s, the policies of the Treaty of Versailles began to backfire on the allied powers. German manufacturing was underway in secrecy and many German corporations were moving from civilian to military grade products. In 1934, Hitler had intervened directly with Austrian internal affairs as he ordered the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss. At the same time Germany began rebuilding the Luftwaffa. By 1935, Germany re-initiated compulsory military service. The German army and other paramilitary groups such as the SS would also rapidly expand in size.
At this time the allied powers became anxious when Germany reacquired the Saar region from France. This territorial acquisition was the first made by Hitler without firing a shot. From 1935-1939, Hitler would acquire half a dozen more pieces of territory without any response from the allied powers.
Shockingly, Hitler was clever enough not to convince the allied powers not to respond to his illegal actions. Why didn’t the allies threaten Hitler with more economic penalties? Why didn’t the allied forces deploy military units into these regions and stop German aggression?
Hitler annexed territories that were Germany’s prize after WWI. Hitler believed that these territories were earned by Germany. Moreover, Hitler could not understand why nations such as Poland were entitled to monolithic land grabs, especially because Poland didn’t exist as a nation during WWI. From 1935-1939 the world stood on the sidelines as Nazi Germany violated an international treaty. Many European leaders saw this strategy as a decent alternative to punishing Germany economically any further. Many European leaders felt that any form of economic sanctions would only increase Germany’s national deficit and lead to more hatred of the allied nations.
In 1939, Hitler decided to take an immense risk. Poland had formed a military alliance with Britain. The Anglo-Polish alliance would guarantee Poland security only if Germany had invaded. Britain saw this alliance as their only option to contain potential German expansion. At the time the Germans implemented new military tactics which were light-years ahead of Polish military tactics and weaponry, which were predominantly French. In September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland with full force. Obviously this triggered a war between Germany and Britain. Both Britain and France declared war on Germany and faced a enormous quandary. They did not know how to help Poland, which was completely surrounded. At the same time the Soviet Union annexed the other half of Poland.
Germany invaded Poland for many different reasons; one being for Lebensraum (German living space). Other reasons included: Poland’s aggressiveness towards ethnic Germans living in Poland, Polish claims of German territories belonging to Poland, and Poland denying access for ethnic Germans to leave Poland and return to Germany.
The period of the invasion of Poland was seen to many as the Phony War. This simply meant that Europe saw this conflict as an event that would never turn into a full scale war. Britain and France’s strategy which led to the Phony War; was clearly a piteous failure. Interestingly, many military experts and politicians at the time saw it differently. They believed that an Anglo-French invasion of Germany in 1939 could have been worse for the allies. Britain and France did have a powerful navy, which was spread around the world, although the invasion would have been conducted by both the British and French armies. Even if the allied powers including the Netherlands and Belgium invading Germany, the strategy could have fallen apart quickly. Another major allied concern was that Germany had its ally Italy. The Italians could have opened up another front causing massive casualties for the allies. Many British and French military strategists feared battles similar to WWI. The Italians had strong positions in North Africa and Albania as well, so the allies were not fully aware of Italy’s full military capabilities.
Mussolini’s campaign against Ethiopia in 1935 raised concerns by the allies, due to the Italians dropping poisonous gas from aircraft in certain operations. Furthermore, possibly Mussolini could have given these weapons to Germany. Other allied military experts feared a potential air war against Italy and Germany. Allied military experts knew that an air war can wreak havoc not just on allied military forces but on civilian populations. Germany and Italy used this strategy excessively during the Spanish civil war which killed thousands.
After the invasion of Poland the allies hoped that the Phony war would be Hitler’s final show of aggression. They believed that Germany’s economy seemed to have recovered and since Germany had a full functioning military, Hitler may have been satisfied.
Allied policy would continue to fail as Germany would later invade and conquer most European nations. Appeasement was seen as a policy to prevent another war. Appeasement clearly failed simply because the allies felt that Hitler would be satisfied after acquiring certain territories.
Today, many historians debate if Hitler really wanted Britain as an ally (this is stated in Hitler’s second book). Evidence of this is shown specifically during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Since Britain controlled such as vast empire it is possible that Hitler believed that Germany never could have been able to compete with Britain’s naval supremacy. Furthermore, other historians will state that World War II was chiefly a war between Nazi Germany and Britain.
Nazi Germany also saw the Soviet Union as a nation that forced Germany into submission after WWI. Communism was seen as the core reason that Germany lost WWI. The Germans also felt that the Soviet Union’s economic policies could possibly be implemented into Germany’s economy, especially if a communist party came to power in the early 1930s. The Nazis made sure that this would not occur. After the Soviet invasion of Poland, Stalin implemented new strategies for the Soviet Union to expand. The Soviets would wage barbaric military campaigns, not just against the Poles but also against the Finnish, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Romanians. Soviet expansionism was seen as a major threat to the survival of Nazi Germany. The Germans ultimately broke the Nazi-Soviet pact which attempted to eliminate the threat of Soviet expansionism.
When one studies the causes of World War II they must realize that the Nazi party was a result of WWI. Hitler’s frustration and anger led him to creating this right-wing political party. World War II was an inevitable war due to multiple factors. Firstly, Germany had a brutal feud with France. Germany and France would have had to go to war in order to solve their territorial and economic disputes. Secondly, Germany saw Britain as a potential ally, but Britain completely ignored Germany several times. Hitler viewed Britain’s empire as the preeminent military power on the world stage. Hitler also viewed Britain, Germany, and Italy as a potential unstoppable force all willing to adopt fascist ideas. Once Churchill failed to cooperate with Nazi Germany’s policies, war was inevitable. Lastly, Hitler’s hatred towards communism created a heartless policy towards the Soviets. If war did not occur against Poland in 1939, a war would have occurred against Britain, France, or the Soviet Union shortly after.
Hitler used his skills as a politician and orator to persuade millions of Germans into making them believe that Nazism was their only option. Nazi Germany made giant leaps in the fields of nuclear physics, armor, jet propulsion, medicine, and aeronautics. It was only a matter of time until Germany would use these new innovations to obtain new territories from former and future enemies.
Historians and military analysts must put into consideration not just the political ideological struggles Germany and other nations faced, but also the change in military doctrine in the 1930s. France, Britain and the Soviet Union all had military doctrine that was obsolete. France, Britain and the Soviet Union all focused on WWI tactics and strategies. If war had broken out between 1933-1939 casualties would have been colossal on both sides. Both military doctrine and military units of the allied powers were completely antiquated and dated back to military doctrine of the late 1910s and early 1920s.
Some serious concerns that allied military leaders thought were; supposed that French and British forces invading Germany lost major battles? Would it be a replication of the Battle of the Somme? What if Belgium and Dutch forces withdrew or would not fully cooperate? Lastly, what if the Soviet Union failed to cooperate logistically and militarily?
Distinctly we can see that the allied powers were hoping that appeasement would prevent a major war from breaking out in the 1930s. World War II was ultimately an inevitable war that European policies helped create. It was a conflict between nations that all believed that their territory, economies and military might could not be challenged. It also showed how the Treaty of Versailles, which was meant to be a peaceful negotiation, served as a means of deadly sanctions against an already bankrupt nation.