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Events preceding World War II in Europe

From Academic Kids

This article chronicles the events preceding those of the European Theatre of World War II.

In Europe, the origins of the war are closely tied to the rise of fascism, especially in Nazi Germany. A discussion of how the Nazis came to power is a requisite in this context.

The origins of the Second World War are generally viewed as being traced back to the First World War (1914-1918). In that war Imperial Germany under the nationalistic Kaiser Wilhelm II had been defeated along with its allies, chiefly by a combination of the United Kingdom, United States and France. The war was directly blamed by the victors on the militant nationalism of the Kaiser's Germany; it was Germany that effectively started the war with an attack on France through Belgium. France had in 1871 suffered a defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which directly was followed by the constitution of a German Empire under Prussian leadership. France now demanded revenge for its financial devastation during the First World War (and its humiliation in the earlier war), which ensured that the various peace treaties, specifically the Treaty of Versailles imposed tough financial war reparations and restrictions on Germany. (See: Aftermath of World War I for more details.) Other events that led Europe to war were: The rise of the Nazi party Militarism Imperialism Nationalism (to an extreme!)

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The Weimar Republic becomes the Third Reich

A new democratic German republic, known as the Weimar Republic, came into being and was soon hit by hyperinflation and other serious economic problems. Right wing nationalist elements under a variety of movements, including the Nazi Party led by the Austrian Adolf Hitler, blamed Germany's "humiliating" status on the harshness of the post-war settlement, on faults of democracy, on Social Democrats and Communists, and on the Jews, whom it claimed possessed a financial stranglehold on Germany.

In Germany, like in the radically diminished Austria, the citizens, or at least the educated classes, remembered the pre-war years under autocratic rule as prosperous – the post-war years under democratic rule, however, as chaotic and economically disastrous. The popular support for democracy was limited, and often perceived as "foreign" or "alien" to the German nation. Social tensions after the world wide economic depression following the Wall Street Crash aggravated the political situation. Anti-democratic parties in the Reichstag (parliament), both left-wing and right-wing, obstructed the parliamentary work, why different cabinets resorted to governing by the special emergency powers of the Weimar constitution, which enabled the President and the Cabinet, in concert, to effectively bypass the parliament.

Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler (Chancellor) on January 30, 1933. The arson of the parliament building on February 27 (which some have claimed the Nazis had instigated) was used as an excuse for the cancellation of civil and political liberties, enacted by the aged president Paul von Hindenburg and the rightist coalition cabinet led by Hitler. After new elections a center-right majority could easily abolish parliamentarism, the Weimar constitution, and practically the parliament itself through the Enabling Act on March 23, whereby the Nazis' planned Gleichschaltung (regimentation) of Germany was made formally legal.

After the president, the World War I hero General Hindenburg, had died on August 2, 1934, the authority of the presidency fell into the hands of Adolf Hitler; and without much resistance from the Wehrmacht's leadership, the Soldiers' Oath could be modified into a confirmation of unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler personally.

Italy

The Italian economy also fell into a deep slump following World War I. Anarchists were endemic, Communist and other Socialist agitators abounded among the trade unions, and many were gravely worried that a Bolshevik-style Communist revolution was imminent.

After a number of liberal governments failed to rein in these threats, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy invited right-wing politician Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party to form a government on October 30,1922, following their largely symbolic Marcia su Roma of October 28, 1922 (March on Rome). The Fascists maintained an armed paramilitary wing, which they employed to fight Anarchists, Communists, and Socialists.

Within a few years, Mussolini had consolidated dictatorial power, and Italy became a police state. On January 7, 1935, he and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval signed the Italo-French agreements.

German expansionism

Meanwhile in Germany, once political consolidation (Gleichschaltung) was in place, the Nazis turned their attention to foreign policy with several increasingly daring acts.

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On March 16, 1935, the Versailles Treaty was violated as Hitler ordered Germany to re-arm. Germany also reintroduced military conscription (the treaty stated that the German Army should not exceed 100,000 men).

These steps produced nothing more than official protests from the United Kingdom and France, for they were more serious about enforcing the economic provisions of the treaty than its military restrictions. Many Britons felt the restrictions placed on Germany in Versailles had been too harsh, and they believed that Hitler's aim was simply to undo the extremes of the treaty, not to go beyond that. This sentiment was underscored by the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which authorized Germany to build a fleet one third the size of the Royal Navy and put an end to British naval operations in the Baltic Sea, granting Germany supremacy there. Faced with no opposition, Hitler moved troops into the Rhineland on March 7, 1936. Under the Versailles treaty, the Rhineland should have been demilitarized, for France wanted it for a buffer between herself and Germany. But, as before, Hitler's defiance was met with inaction, despite Polish proposal to put in action the Polish-French alliance.

Austria

The first German conquest was Austria. After Italy had joined Germany in the Anti-Comintern Pact, thereby removing the main obstacle of an Anschluss of Austria, Germany announced the annexation on March 12, 1938, making it a German province: "Gau Ostmark."

Czechoslovakia

With Austria secured, Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. Unlike Austria, Czechoslovakia was not a German-speaking country, had a large and modern army backed with a huge armament industry, and had a military alliances with France and Soviet Union. Despite all this, Hitler, ecouraged by reluctance of major European powers to stop his violation of post WWI treaties, was intended to go to the edge of war, convicted that France would shrink back again, not fulfiling her treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. His first order of business was to seize the mountainous border regions called Sudetenland, in which lived a significant German-speaking minority under a strong influence of German Nazism. This regions formed about one third of Bohemia (western Czechoslovakia) in terms of territory, population and economy and were vital for the country's existence. With Austria in German hands, this western part of Czechoslovakia, equipped with a huge defense system (larger than Maginot line), was nearly surrounded by Germany.

Following lengthy negotiations, and blatant war threats from Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went out of his way with French leaders to appease Hitler. In the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, the four European powers, including the Czechoslovak ally France, allowed, "for the sake of peace", German troops to occupy the Sudetenland. Czechoslovakia, which at that time already mobilised over one million army and was prepared to fight for independence, was not allowed to participate in the conference. When the French and British negotiators informed the Czechoslovak representatives about the agreement, and that if Czechoslovakia would not accept it, France and Britain would consider Czechoslovakia to be responsible for war, president Edvard Beneš capitulated. German (and soon after also Polish and Hungarian) forces invaded, hundreds of thousands of Czechs from the occupied territories were forced to leave their homes.

A few months after that, on March 15, 1939, the now virtually defenceless remaining parts of the Czech lands were occupied by Germany as well, after one day before (on March 14) Slovakia had declared her independence, recognized by France, Britain and other important powers (see under Jozef Tiso).

While before Munich France, Czechoslovakia and Poland were together strong enough to stop German agression, the destruction of Czechoslovakia dramatically shifted balance of powers in Europe in favour of Nazi Germany which now turned its attention to Poland.

See also

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