There were many factors that led to the outbreak of war in 1939. There were long-term factors, such as the Treaty of Versailles as well as trigger factors such as the Nazi-Soviet pact.
In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed by sixty countries but the most important and influential countries at the agreement were France, Britain and America. The aim of the treaty was to work out what to do to punish Germany, the losers of the war. The treaty of Versailles imposed many harsh consequences on Germany. It made Germany accept the war guilt clause. This meant Germany had to accept blame for the war, which meant they had to be punished. Germany lost a lot of land, was never allowed to re-unite with Austria, and was made to pay very, very heavy fines. Obviously Germany resented this, as the war was not their fault at all.1 This created friction between Germany and Britain and France. The Treaty of Versailles has been called the “Seed bed for World War Two”.
Unfortunately due to Britain and France’s own problems they never really truly enforced the Treaty of Versailles. At the same time America became isolationalist and no longer wanted to be involved in European matters. For example in 1924 America came up with the Dawes Plan as they realized Germany would never be able to pay off her debt without help.2 It let Germany borrow 800million marks from America and let them pay off the debt more slowly. In 1929 Wall Street crashed causing worldwide depression. This further weakened Germany by escalating the problems of the Treaty of Versailles. It also weakened Britain and France. For example in Britain in 1932 there were 2.8 million unemployed. This meant that Britain and France were far more concerned in their own affairs to be supervising Germany. Over time Britain and France let more and more violations of the Treaty of Versailles slip by. This was because they were following a policy of appeasement in desperation to avoid another war.
Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister from 1937 until 1940 is most associated with appeasement. He ‘loathed war and was well aware of the damage it would do to Britain’s prosperity and status in the world.’ 3 He was aware he could not risk war, as Britain was too weak. Her economic decline was rapid yet her worldwide commitments were larger than they had been before the First World War. The British public certainly didn’t want another war4. Most families had lost a friend or relative in the First World War and because of the reform acts of 1918 (and later 1928) more people had the vote and therefore if the government wanted to be popular and stay in power it had to listen to the views of the people. Lots of British people felt the Treaty of Versailles had been too harsh.
He realized he had to pacify Germany then he could concentrate on Britain’s own problems such as pensions and housing. He also realized that revisions of the Treaty of Versailles such as the Dawes plan would make Germany more economically sound and therefore able to trade with Britain. He also saw that the empire was far-flung and therefore vulnerable. The British forces were too overstretched to defend it. After World War One the British forces had lost their pre war supremacy because of demobilization and disarmament. The RAF, for example went from 22,000 planes to 120. The ten year rule, played a great part in this.5 Chamberlain realized due to all these factors appeasement was really the only option for Britain. Chamberlain would do anything to avoid war.
Hitler came to power in 1935. In the same year he introduced conscription, disobeying the Treaty of Versailles. Britain turned a blind eye. Britain actively appeased Germany by signing the Anglo-German agreement.6 In March 1936 while the British and French were occupied with dealing with the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland. He was testing the Allies by seeing what they would do as now he was breaking the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaty.7 This only proved to Hitler that neither Britain nor France were willing to defend the Treaty of Versailles. This view was backed up two years later when Germany re-united with Austria.
The biggest weakness, as Hitler saw it, was in the Sudeten Crisis in 1938. The Sudetenland contained a population where over 50% of the people were German. After Anschluss8, Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland were the obvious choices for Hitler and his plan to revise the Treaty of Versailles and achieve “Lebensraum”9. While stirring up the Sudeten’s with a speech at Nuremberg, September 1938 he said “the German’s in Czech are neither defenseless, nor are they deserted” Britain and France were desperate for a peaceful solution. Chamberlain said, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible that we should be digging trenches because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” In desperation he flew to meet Hitler on 15th September.
He thought that although he was an aggressive dictator he would be a realistic and reasonable man. He agreed to give Hitler the areas where over 50% were German. On the 29th of September the Munich agreement was called. Hitler was given the Sudetenland on the condition he didn’t attack the rest of Czechoslovakia. Hitler and Chamberlain also signed a pledge to never go to war with each other again. “Peace in our time” – Chamberlain. However this compromise with Britain only encouraged Hitler that Britain and France could be walked upon and would avoid confrontation at all costs. “Our enemies are small worms, I saw them in Munich”
However in March 1939 Britain appeasing Germany began to come to a close. German troops were sent to the Czech frontier and then the troops promptly occupied Czechoslovakia. These events happened too quickly for Britain and France to act. Britain and France saw that Hitler had no justification for this takeover and that his aims were unlimited. This prompted Britain and France to guarantee Poland as this was the obvious place Hitler would attack next. In April Britain introduced 6 month universal conscription in preparation at the risk of conflict with Germany.
At the same time both Britain and Germany realized the importance of the USSR because of its location. Hitler could not take any action against Poland without the risk of a two front war if the Allies signed and alliance with the USSR.
However if Germany allied with USSR it would leave him free to attack Poland. In the summer of ’39 both parties negotiated with the USSR. However discussions with the allies reached deadlock as the British had a traditional policy of non-intervention with Eastern Europe but the USSR insisted on a full military alliance. On August 23rd 1939 the Molotov and Ribbentrop pact was signed.11 This destroyed any chance of a successful defense of Poland and gave Hitler freedom of action. On the 1st of September Hitler launched an attack on Poland.
1 The trigger factor leading to the First World War was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serb nationalist in 1914. This led to Austria declaring war on Serbia, Russia mobilized to help Serbia and France and Germany becoming involved to help their respective allies.
2 Although they were isolationalist they realized that they would make a lot of money from this loan. Germany would borrow 800 million marks with interest. Germany would then use the money to the pay war reparations to Britain. Britain in turn would then give the money, plus interest back to America to pay of a loan they took to pay for the war. It was a very clever way of making na lot of money on America’s part.
3 Andrew Boxer, 1998
4 In 1935 there was an appeasement petition. It had 11 million signatures.
5 The Cabinet formed the Ten Year Rule in August 1919. It agreed that “It should be assumed that the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years, and that no expeditionary force is required for this purpose” It justified immediate cuts to Britain’s armed forces. The expenditure dropped from ï¿½692 million in 1919-20 to ï¿½115 million in 1921-22. Conscription was abolished in 1920.
6 Anglo-German Naval agreement, June 1935 – Allowed Germany to have a navy 35% of the British Navy. Britain signed it in a bid to keep Hitler happy but also to ensure that he wouldn’t get to powerful in comparison to Britain.
7 The Locarno Treaty of 1925 guaranteed the western frontiers of Europe
8 Anschluss was when Germany and Austria became re-united.
9 Lebensraum was the drive to acquire adequate living space for all the Aryan (Blonde haired, blue eyed, German “master race”) without being polluted by the “untermenschen” (the subhuman race) e.g. Jews.
10 “When the next crisis came, Hitler was even more confident that he knew his adversaries: “our enemies are small worms” he would tell his generals in August 1939. “I saw them in Munich”…. The Manchester Guardian shrewdly noted, “Hitler will be able to advance again, when he chooses, with greatly increased power. – Taken from “Hitler: Nemesis” By Ian Kershaw.
11 The Molotov – Ribbentrop pact compromised of a ten year non aggression pact, promise of economic co-operation and a secret protocol for the division of Poland and Eastern Europe into two spheres of influence – Lithuania and Vilna to be German, Estonia and Latvia to be Russian.