Why did war break out in 1939?

The Treaty of Versailles

When the Treaty of Versailles was written in 1919, the defeated nations of World War One; Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were not invited to the Paris Peace Conference. As a result, they were not able to negotiate or argue their case for better terms.

Many people believed that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair. There are a number of reasons for this.

All of these factors and impacts of the Treaty of Versailles geared up Germany for war and had a knock-on effect resulting in eventual war.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression, not only affected the US, but it affected countries all over the world! Especially Germany. It caused the American Loans to Germany (which their economy heavily relied on) to be recalled suddenly, causing the fragile German Economy to collapse and people lost all their savings.

By 1933, 40% of the working population were now unemployed. This caused extremist parties to rise in popularity as their ideas sounded ideal to helping the German Economy Recover.

The Nazis Benefitted from the depression.

Their popularity increased due to their proposals to solve the Great Depression. In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis won 230 seats. Hitler demanded to be made chancellor as the Nazi Party was the largest political party with 32% of the votes

Many countries became nationalist and began to expand their military and empire. They began invading other countries to secure natural resources which they believed would help them to recover from the depression. This pushed Germany into following the same courses of action.

The Great Depression was a factor which contributed to the failure of the World Disarmament Conference. This is because...

The Great Depression was a factor which contributed to appeasement during the Rhineland remilitarisation. British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin argued that Britain itself was suffering from the Great Depression and lacked resources to enforce the Treaty.

Also, in the Abyssinian crisis, it was argued that many countries were unwilling to engage in conflict and use economic sanctions as their economies were still recovering from the Great Depression. 

All in all, the Great Depression caused the League to fail as countries were unwilling to impose economic sanctions, fearing it may damage their economies. 

Hitler Becoming Chancellor

Hitler came into power with his far-right nationalist ideologies.

In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis won 230 seats and Hitler demanded to be made chancellor as the Nazi Party was the largest political party with 32% of the votes. On the 30th January 1933, Hitler was appointed as Chancellor with Von Papen as Vice-Chancellor.

On August 19th, 1934, after serving as President of the Weimar Republic for over nine years, President Hindenburg passed away due to old age The German People were asked to vote on whether they supported the merging of President and Chancellor. After over 95% of the population voted, 89% of voters voted in Hitler's favour. The next day, Hitler combined the offices of President and Chancellor and assumed the position as the Fürher of Germany. He was now a dictator. Germany became the Nazi Germany dictatorship. 

Before he became chancellor, Hitler outlined his Foreign Policy aims in his autobiography Mein Kampf, which he wrote during his imprisonment.

To completely fulfil all of his policy aims, Hitler would need War.

The Failure of the League of Nations

Although the League was successful in solving a number of disputes between countries in the 1920s and had successfully achieved some of their humanitarian work aims, their role was largely a failure in the 1930s.

Since it was formed at the Paris Peace Conference, one of the League's most important aims was disarmament. By joining the League of Nations, members committed to the aim of reducing their armaments, however, by 1930, Germany was to only country who had kept to their commitment (although this is because it was a term of the Treaty of Versailles).

The League arranged a number of World Disarmament Conferences, although these were all failures—in 1923 because Britain objected and in 1931 because Germany walked out.

After Hitler’s withdrawal from the World Disarmament Conference, it was clear that he aimed to rearm Germany, against the Treaty of Versailles’ terms. Germany began to openly rearm in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

Two major world powers, Germany and Japan, had both committed to rearmament and left the League of Nations.  Many countries felt that this threatened their own security and national interest. Therefore, many countries, especially Europe and the USA, began to increase their arms.

In the end, The League was unable to get members to agree to limit the sizes of their armed forces. 

There are a number of factors of other which contributed to the failure of the League.

One of these was Weak Powers. Many countries were unwilling to send their armies abroad to fight and enforce the League's decisions so the League could take little action as they did not have their own army. Though they were able to call on countries to sanction countries economically, the depression meant that countries were unwilling to impose economic sanctions, fearing it may damage their economies. 

Powerful members like Japan, Italy and Germany became more aggressive in the 30s as they began rearmament and invading weaker countries. However, it seems The League could not stop powerful nations (for example when Italy invaded Abyssinia and when Japan occupied Manchuria).

Another factor was Absent Members. The world's leading economic power, the USA, had become isolationist and not joined the League. Non-members were able to continue trading despite sanctions or bans on aggressive countries.

A third factor was slow decision-making. One example is that it took one year for the report on the Manchurian crisis to be written. Another example is while the League discussed the Abyssinian crisis over a period of 10 months, Mussolini planned and executed a full-scale invasion.

However, the Abyssinian Crisis largely failed because Britain began to look to a policy of appeasement. A book about the League of Nations published in 1996 stated: "The British government was desperate to avoid a crisis either by offering Mussolini territorial compensation elsewhere or by helping to negotiate an arrangement which would give Italy effective control of Abyssinia.”

Furthermore, Britain could have reduced the effects of the War and Italy’s power if they had closed the Suez Canal which provided the Italian Military with access and a route to Abyssinia. However, they feared an attack on their navy and the canal, which at this moment in time, they still controlled. This is an example of members acting in their own interests, which contributed to the League’s failure. 

The League was also involved in arranging and publishing The Kellogg-Briand Pact which had the main aim of outlawing war. 

The Pact ended up being completely ineffective due the numerous loop-holes it had by allowing nations to use arms as a means of self-defence.

The League of Nations also failed to establish a means of enforcement for the treaty which rendered it pointless as nations just ignored it.

Tensions remained extremely high in Europe as many nations refused to follow through with the treaty.

The League, with no army and proper power, were left powerless as Britain appeased Hitler, giving in to his demands with the hope of avoiding large-scale war. 

The Rhineland (reoccupied)

Hitler had blamed France for the failure of disarmament, claiming that he could not leave his border (Rhineland) defenceless when France refused to compromise and react by reducing their armaments.

During the Paris Peace Conference, France insisted that the Rhineland should be a demilitarised zone as France and Belgium had experienced invasion by Germany through this area in 1914 and upon signing the Locarno Treaties of 1925, Germany agreed to maintain its status as a demilitarised area. As part of these agreements, Germany wasn’t allowed to keep military forces in a 50 km stretch of the Rhineland. Hitler despised this term, claiming that it made Germany vulnerable to invasion when France refused to compromise and react by reducing their armaments.

In March 1936, Hitler took a massive risk by moving German troops into the demilitarised Rhineland area of Germany. He justified the remilitarisation by saying that the Franco-Soviet Treaty of 1935 (a Treaty of friendship and mutual support) posed a serious border threat to Germany and by arguing that he was correcting the harsh terms of the unfair Treaty of Versailles.

Despite the blatant violation of the Treaty of Versailles and Locarno agreement, Britain and France took no action against Germany in regards to their remilitarisation of the Rhineland.

The remilitarisation of the Rhineland was able to test Britain’s response in the event of a violation to the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaty. 

The Great Depression was a factor which contributed to appeasement during the Rhineland remilitarisation with British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, arguing that Britain itself was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and lacked the resources and ability to enforce the Treaty and punish Germany.

As a result of this lack of effective action in response to Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland, major weaknesses in the relationship between Britain and France and the growing distrust between them were exposed. Hitler was now confident that both Britain and France would do nothing to prevent his further attempts to undermine the Treaty of Versailles, such as reuniting with Austria and reclaiming the Sudetenland.

By 1936, war with Germany was increasingly likely, so the Royal Navy was supplied with new battleships and aircraft carriers. Despite this, Britain continued their policy of appeasement after Germany remilitarised the Rhineland in 1936 and even after the Anschluss with Austria in 1938.

Anschluss with Austria

Under the Treaty of Versailles which Germany signed on 28 June 1919, Anschluss between Austria and Germany was forbidden. The settlement caused great resentment in Germany, and Austria shared similar sentiments. Under the Treaty of Versailles, they were forbidden from Anschluss with Germany, which they thought would be the solution to their economic problems. Foreign loans were provided to Austria, but only in response to Austria committing to not uniting with Germany.

Before Hitler came into power, he had included his wish of Anschluss with Austria in his foreign policy. This wish of Hitler’s is understandable as Austria was his country of birth. 

In Mein Kampf, he wrote “German-Austria must return to the great German motherland, and not because of economic considerations of any sort. Common blood belongs in a common Reich.” This is shared with his aim of uniting all German speakers, which included those in areas taken away by the Treaty of Versailles, such as much of Poland and the Sudetenland. 

In early 1938, Hitler had encouraged Austrian Nazis to stir up trouble and stage demonstrations and riots across the country. They called for unification with Germany. A vote was held and 99.75% of Austrians voted for the unification with Germany. 

This meant that Austria's army, weapons, rich deposits of valuable ores and resources were added to Germany's growing Army and industry. This made Germany more confident in their abilities in the even of war, while it is true they were becoming increasingly powerful.

Britain strongly condemned Germany for the Anschluss, however, it was in no position to take major action and start a war. One of the reasons for this is that many in the British public supported the policy of appeasement, so the British government were in no position to fight against German-Austrian unification. Additionally, because many Austrians also supported Anschluss, the British believed it was reasonable.

Another reason was the Anti-Comintern Pact. As a result of it, Britain was unwilling to risk war with Germany as it could lead to Japan and Italy taking action against Britain.

Meanwhile, France was in a state of political turmoil, its entire government had resigned after failing to secure support for its plans for dealing with the country’s economic problems. So besides condemning Germany's actions, they were not able to take any effective action, especially without the support of Britain.

By 1936, war with Germany was extremely likely, so the Royal Navy was supplied new battleships and aircraft carriers. Despite this, Britain continued to appeasement Hitler after the Anschluss with Austria.

For Hitler, it was increasingly evident that Britain and France were unlikely to react to further breaches of the Treaty of Versailles.

The Munich Agreement

Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with Poland in 1934 to show it was peaceful that was meant to last for 10 years. 

It became obvious he was not peaceful when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 after he had successfully claimed and taken possession of the Sudetenland. This was not a surprise as Hitler had stated in his Foreign Policy in Mein Kampf that he wished to Germany wished to expand to Czechoslovakia and Austria.

In September 1938, Hitler was demanding that the Sudetenland was handed over to Germany, who of the population of around 6 million people, 50% were Germans who claimed they were being oppressed and mistreated by the Czechs.

After Hitler made an anti-Czech speech in mid-September, British PM Neville Chamberlain feared war—a war that could be worse than the devastating First World War. He believed the British military was not ready to fight Germany and the British public wished to avoid war whatever possible.

The Czech leader, Edvard Benes, became concerned that Hitler would invade his country, so he asked Britain and France to support him if it came to war. However, they were reluctant to do so and Britain sent a politician to Czechoslovakia to recommend that certain parts be given to Germany.

Mussolini helped to arrange a meeting, which became known as the Munich Agreement, between Britain (PM Chamberlain), France (PM Daladier) and Germany (FHR Hitler) in September 1938. It was agreed that Hitler is given the entire Sudetenland.

The participating countries had attempted to avoid bloodshed by giving Sudetenland to Hitler without consulting Czechoslovakia. 

Despite the USSR being in alliances with France and Czechoslovakia, they were not invited to the Munich Conference and were very disappointed at it's outcome.

Stalin felt that the USSR's defence against Germany had been compromised by the conference, believing that Hitler had been given the confidence and resources needed to put Eastwards, first into Poland and then into Soviet Russia. 

The Sudetenland was rich in natural resources and was defended by a group of well-trained soldiers. The loss of resources and military to Hitler’s growing empire was an important loss to the Allies, who would have benefitted from an alliance with Czechoslovakia, especially as it is likely that the Munich Agreement and continued appeasement resulted in the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

This is because The Munich Agreement convinced European powers that Britain and France were unreliable and feared a lack of action against Germany. This was especially the case for Stalin and the Soviet Union, who shocked the world as he decided to enter negotiations with Hitler.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact

The Nazi-Soviet Pact was made between Stalin and Hitler, despite their opposite political ideologies. 

The main reason Hitler wanted to sign the pact was to gain more time to develop his military to a level where he could afford to invade and fight the Soviets. He also saw advantages to the pact, such as the ability to take over Poland with the assistance of the Soviet military and maintain a temporary peace with them.

In regards to Stalin, the main reason he signed the pact was that he had lost trust in the countries of the West, namely Great Britain and France due to their continued appeasement to Hitler.

Quite clearly Stalin would rather have allied with Britain, which up until he signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact was his main aim, but they had continued to let him down with slow negotiation and quite simply he was insulted by them.

Stalin knew that he would eventually need to fight Germany, but his Army was not yet ready. He wanted to use the pact to gain time through a temporary peace and build up his armed forces.

The Pact would also enable him to take over much of Poland and have a sphere of influence over Eastern Europe. This was a clause that Britain was unprepared to give them if they had formed an alliance. 

The pact allowed Hitler to invade Poland as he knew that Britain couldn't do anything to defend Poland. Also, it temporarily protected him from an attack by the Soviets. Hitler now had the resources and army of Poland to add to his terrifyingly powerful empire.

The pact ended the hopes of the British people who believed an alliance with Russia would stop Hitler. They now came to the realisation that nothing but war could stop Hitler now.

As British people became more supportive of the war, it was evident that Hitler could never be trusted as he invaded Poland on the 1st of September, resulting in Britain and France declaring war on Germany on September 3rd.