When The Great War came to an end in November 1918, the suffering of the nations involved was so appalling that many hoped never to repeat such an experience again. The fact that the Second World War took place just twenty years later is indeed intriguing. Until now, the debate on who is to be blamed for causing the war is still on, with many historians coming to different conclusions. There were three prominent underlying factors from the 1920’s onwards that can be evaluated when discussing the causes of the war. They are the Treaty of Versailles, the weakness of the League of Nations and the world economic crisis of the early 1930’s. In short, these factors formed the basis for the starting of a war by providing a tense atmosphere in Europe. However, the Treaty of Versailles and the weakness of the League could only be responsible to a limited extent as Europe in the mid 1920’s was on the road to recovery, with peaceful foreign policies that could have prevented war. Clearly, more major factors were needed in order for a war to breakout. In fact, the three main parties responsible for causing the war were the appeasers (British and French), the Soviet Union and Hitler. In addition, the different viewpoints of historians are also compared in the course of this investigation.
The policy of appeasement adopted by the British and the French was a factor that played a critical role in the outbreak of the war. As the British Prime Minister, Stanly Baldwin was the first to introduce appeasement in the mid 1930’s. However, when Neville Chamberlain came into office in 1937, he took appeasement to a whole new level. According to the British government, the meaning of appeasement was “pacification through the settlement of issues by negotiation and compromise”. The British pursued this policy with great confidence as they had several logical reasons to justify their actions. It was only after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, that many British began to feel that Germany was indeed “harshly” and unjustly treated. They were also afraid that Germany would turn towards aggression once again and perhaps spark another war. Therefore, Britain was willing to give in to Hitler’s demands as it was a way of “redressing Germany’s legitimate grievances”. Especially after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the British were interested for various reasons in the “preservation of peace”. With a crippled economy, Britain could not afford to spend on rearming her armed forces, and therefore was in no position to wage a war against aggressor nations.
Since an economically strong Germany was essential to achieve economic stability in Europe, appeasement seemed appealing as it would not only strengthen the German economy but also put an end to the political instability within Germany. Furthermore, Britain would also benefit from trading with a financially strong Germany. Besides, since most of the British still bared in mind the destruction and atrocities caused by the Great War, there was a “widespread appeal of pacifism” in Britain. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was therefore widely supported by the British as it was seen as a way to prevent another devastating war from taking place. Furthermore, as the League of Nations was proven to be unsuccessful in the preservation of peace, Chamberlain believed that only a personal diplomacy between leaders could resolve conflicts. Besides, as Chamberlain and other Conservatives feared Communism more than Nazism, they hoped that Hitler would stop the spread of Communism to the West. This was especially so during the 1930’s when Stalin’s Russia was strengthening due to rapid industrialization.
Although the policy of appeasement is often associated with both the British and the French, it is important to note that in the beginning, the French did not always support appeasement. Unlike Britain, France was more interested in ensuring her national security and the suppression of Germany. The French strongly believed that in order to preserve the peace in Europe, Germany had to be severely weakened. However, as France was significantly weakened and divided as a result of much political upheaval caused by a constant change in governments, the French subsequently subscribed to Britain’s policy of appeasement.
In the eyes of the appeasers, the policy of appeasement was intended strictly to preserve peace in Europe. However, this was misinterpreted by Adolf Hitler, who in turn saw it as a weakness of Britain and France. In 1933, Hitler came into power with a goal to make Germany into a great power again. Through his foreign policies, Hitler hoped to achieve this by overthrowing the Treaty of Versailles, strengthening the armed forces, recovering lost territory and uniting all Germans within the Reich. This ambition of his was another factor that played a critical role in the outbreak of the war.
Hitler saw himself as “catalyst of the will to Germanic greatness”, and he believed that Germany would only become strong again through the use of aggression and war. In 1934, Hitler posed a direct challenge to the Treaty of Versailles by rearming the German armed forces. He managed to do so by reintroducing conscription and ordering the mass production of submarines, tanks and aircrafts. Upon announcing Germany’s rearmament programme in 1935, the initial response of the British and the French “amounted to little more than solemn protestations and appeals to the League of Nations”. At the Stresa Conference, Britain, together with France and Italy did not attempt to stop Hitler’s rearmaments. Instead, they only assured the protection of Austria’s sovereignty. Similarly, even the League of Nations did not attempt to restrict Hitler’s aggressive rearmament plans as there were “no economic or military sanctions imposed”. As a result of appeasement, Hitler’s confidence grew significantly.
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed in June 1935 was Britain’s form of appeasement towards the German rearmaments. The terms of the agreement acknowledged the German rearmament of her Navy and it was limited to thirty-five percent of the British fleet. It was the first time where the British openly approved a German contravention of the Versailles Settlement. Besides, the signing of the agreement was solely made by Britain, without the consent of France and Italy. The agreement did not only undermine the mutual trust between Britain and France, but also compromised the Stresa Front. As the agreement was effective in helping Germany flout the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler felt assured that the appeasers would not stop his rearmament programmes and perhaps even his goals to overthrow the treaty.
In 1936, Hitler ordered the remilitarization of the Rhineland. As the Rhineland was a strategic “military position from which the French could have struck at the heart of Germany’s power” , reoccupying it removed a serious threat to Germany’s sovereignty. Prior to the reoccupation, the appeasers were well aware of Hitler’s plans to carry out a “coup”. However, they did not attempt to stop him from taking back what was originally Germany’s. France could have stopped Hitler by sending in troops, but however she was afraid of waging a war with Germany, given the lack of British support. Germany could then deter future French aggression by building heavy defenses and deploying troops in the Rhine region. As a result, Hitler grew even bolder and he began to challenge the balance of power in Europe.
The German annexation of Austria was finally successful in March 1938. Hitler saw the annexation of Austria “as a solution to the problems of Germany’s war-orientated economy”, and also as a way of uniting all Germans within the Reich. Following the demonstrations staged by the Austrian Nazis on Hitler’s order, German troops were sent to occupy Austria. As Britain believed that Austria was under the sphere of German influence, the responses of the appeasers were nothing more than protests. The Anschluss with Austria did not only strengthen the friendship between Germany and Italy, but it also provided Hitler with a “direct passage into Southeast Europe”. Appeasement from Britain and France once again gave Hitler a confidence boost to continue his conquest.
Following the Anschluss with Austria, Czechoslovakia was next on Hitler’s agenda. Assured by his previous successes, Hitler demanded for the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich. The Sudetenland was the wealthiest and the most industrialized region of Czechoslovakia, with the largest population of German minorities living outside Germany. In support of the Sudeten Nazis led by Henlein, Hitler caused a widespread political turmoil with his propaganda campaign. Afraid that a war might breakout, the appeasers called on the Czech President, Benes to make compromises with Hitler. Hoping to resolve the issues, Chamberlain met Hitler on three separate occasions. At Berchtesgaden, Hitler honored Chamberlain’s proposal that there would be self-determination for Sudetenland. However, at Godesberg, Hitler demanded the immediate impartment of Sudetenland into the Third Reich. Unwilling to compromise any further, Chamberlain returned to Britain and ordered the armed forces to prepare for war. At the Munich Conference, the Big Four gave in to Hitler’s harshest terms. The Czechs, on the other hand were forced to sign the agreement. Chamberlain then signed another pact with Hitler, stating that the two nations would never go to war again. As Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it was clear that the policy of appeasement was a failure. Hitler “had now reached the limits of what the appeasers were willing to tolerate from him”. Despite the rising tension, Hitler took a risk and invaded Poland. When he ignored the ultimatum issued by Britain and France to stop his invasion of Poland, the appeasers declared war on Germany.
Besides appeasement and Hitler himself, there were other factors that contributed to the outbreak of the war. Firstly, the Great Depression of the early 1930’s led to the rise of a totalitarian, Nazi Germany led by Hitler. By the late 1920’s, the German economy was on the road to recovery due to excessive American investments. As a result, Germany subsequently became heavily reliant on the US backing given to them. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, America withdrew its investments in Germany and demanded the payment of the loans given to them earlier. The German economy therefore went into a state of serious depression. Afraid of losing even more support from the people, the Weimar government was “unwilling to take the unpopular measures that would be required to bridge the gap”. Since the severe economic problems in Germany were not resolved, the masses started to look towards the Nazi Party for solutions to their woes. This significantly attributed to the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler.
Secondly, the weakness of the League of Nations made it incapable of preserving peace in the 1930’s. From the start, the League lacked the backing of the two super-powers, USA and Russia. Following the United States Senate’s rejection of both the Treaty of Versailles and the League, the USA subsequently adopted the policy of isolation. Russia on the other hand was not incorporated into the League as there was a widespread fear of Communism. Furthermore, its leading members, Britain and France each had their own self-interests. This in turn limited the purpose of collective security. This purpose of the League was severely undermined on two occasions, namely the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. During the Abyssinian crisis, Italy managed to conquer Abyssinia despite the economic sanctions imposed on her. As Mussolini “succeeded in flouting the League”, it was no longer seen as an effective form of collective security. The League was indeed effective in resolving humanitarian crises, but however when it came to preserving peace, it was filled with flaws.
In conclusion, the outbreak of the Second World War was a shared responsibility mainly between Hitler, Britain and France. The policy of appeasement which was intended by Britain and France to preserve peace was misread by Hitler as a weakness. The appeasers were partially responsible for causing the war as appeasement provided Hitler with a platform to increase his demands with each success he attained. Furthermore, they were inconsistent in their stand towards Hitler’s aggression. As the appeasers have been giving in to Hitler’s demands since 1936, Hitler assumed that they would do the same for his invasion of Poland. Unexpectedly, Britain and France declared war on Germany and this sparked off the war. Hitler himself was also partially at fault for causing the war as he misinterpreted the intentions of the appeasers and turned towards aggression. The other underlying factors such as the Versailles Settlement, the weakness of the League and the world economic crisis all played minor roles in the outbreak of the war. They were primarily responsible for creating a tense atmosphere in Europe but were too trivial to spark a war. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was also partially responsible as it provided the assurance Hitler needed in order to invade Poland without having to worry about a Soviet invasion. In short, the outbreak of the war was the result of a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations made by the respective leaders.