The Road to WWII
How the World's Most Infamous War Began...
What were the different steps to World War II and which was the most significant?
From 1939 to 1945, many of the most powerful countries and powers at the time engaged in a conflict which we now know as World War II. World War II is considered the largest war in history, and there were many causes which led to it. At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was agreed upon by Germany and the allied countries (Britain, France, the USSR, Italy and the United States). The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to surrender several of its territories to the possession of the League of Nations as well as limited Germany militarily. This treaty was one of the key reasons why World War II began. Hitler gradually began to openly defy the terms of the Treaty of Versailles through several reclamations of land and rearmaments of various areas. Many incidences led to World War II, including the reclamation of the Saar and the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the conscription and rearmament of Germany, the union of Austria and Germany (Anschluss), the return of the Sudetenland to Germany and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the most significant being the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Hitler’s first step in defying the Treaty of Versailles was to reclaim lands which he thought rightfully belonged to Germany. The first of these was the Saar territory. One clause of the Treaty of Versailles put the Saar, an area in Western Germany, under control of the League of Nations for 15 years. Hitler wanted the Saar to rejoin Germany, so in 1935 a plebiscite (a vote) was held to determine what the people believed should happen. 90.3 percent of Saar residents voted YES to the rejoining of Germany. This was a significant cause of the beginning of WWII because it validated the power of Hitler and the Nazis. A plebiscite gave the people the freedom to express how they truly felt, and even without the pressure of the Nazis, 90.3 percent of people wanted to rejoin Germany. The vast majority turned themselves over to Hitler by their own free will! This gave Hitler the confidence to defy the Treaty of Versailles in other ways and continue his mission to expand and empower Germany. One of these other ways was the remilitarization of the Rhineland. The Rhineland was another area in Western Germany, which had become a demilitarized zone after World War I. No German troops were allowed into this area, and Germans found this rule to be unfair and humiliating. In defiance, Hitler ordered 32,000 troops (and armed police) to march into the Rhineland, and France and Britain did absolutely nothing to hinder him. Britain thought that the Treaty of Versailles tried to impose military rules which were a bit too harsh on Germany, and they thought that letting him have his way would result in peace. The Rhinelanders celebrated this as a German victory, which boosted Hitler’s ego and confidence even more. With every success, he gained more confidence to pursue all of his aspirations for Germany.
Another term of the Treaty of Versailles severely limited the amount of arms that Germany was allowed to have, as well as banned conscription. Germany was originally a member of the Disarmament Conference, but Hitler withdrew from it because he said that no other countries were prepared to disarm, so he wouldn’t either. Britain let him leave because it agreed that the terms of disarmament were too harsh. From this point, Hitler began to gradually re-arm Germany and increase forces, which made him very popular in Germany. It also drove wedges in between his enemies, the British and the French, which was a big success for Hitler. During this time, Hitler also introduced conscription to the German military. This meant that German men were drafted into the army and had to fight whether they wanted to or not. Conscription reduced unemployment rates in Germany, so it made the general population very pleased with him. A major reason why Hitler’s rearmament was so successful was because no countries or powers were doing anything to stop him! Britain signed a naval agreement with Germany permitting them to re-arm as long as fleets didn’t exceed a certain amount. Many British people fully accepted Germany’s rearmament because they agreed that the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh, and they also wanted Germany to be able to protect them from the power of the USSR.
Perhaps the biggest task which Hitler wished to accomplish was to unite all of the German speakers into one large country through Anschluss, the union of Austria with Germany. The Treaty of Versailles forbade Austria and Germany to merge, but that didn’t stop Hitler. As the first step, Nazis in Austria murdered the Austrian chancellor and tried to overthrow the government, but they were stopped by Kurt von Schuschnigg, the new chancellor. When Schuschnigg came to Germany to ask Hitler for assistance against the Austrian Nazis, Hitler told him that he could either resign or Hitler would simply invade and destroy Austria. Schuschnigg tried to organize a plebiscite to determine whether or not Austria should merge with Germany, but Hitler forced him to cancel the vote for fear that the answer would be NO. As a result of Hitler’s threat, Schuschnigg resigned along with all of his governments leader except for Seyss-Inquart. Seyss-Inquart was the Austrian Nazi leader, and he invited the German Nazis into Austria. Almost immediately, over 80,000 opponents of Hitler were imprisoned and the Austrian Jews were stripped of their rights. THEN, once the two German-speaking countries had already merged, the plebiscite was held, and 99.75 percent of Austrians voted YES to merging with Germany. No other countries interfered to avoid going to war with Hitler, so Hitler got his way once again. While some felt pressured to vote YES by the Nazis, many Austrians were genuinely happy to unite with Germany because they wanted to be a part of Hitler’s reign. From their perspective, Germany was the most victorious power at the time and they wanted to benefit from all of Hitler’s “success.” This was Hitler’s biggest victory to date, and gave him even more confidence to keep pursuing his dreams for Germany.
Czechoslovakia, during this time period, kept a large army and other strong military forces in the Sudetenland, an area in the west of the country, which bordered Germany. There were a lot of German speakers who lived there, and Hitler knew this. Hitler encouraged the Nazi leader in Czechoslovakia (Konrad Henlein) to demand better rights for all of the Germans living in the Sudetenland, but what he was secretly trying to do was make the Sudetenland part of Germany. Sudeten Nazis rioted and fought for the cause, but the Czechoslovakian government prevented Hitler from taking any action. Chamberlain, of Britain, then saw a need to make peace and he went to Germany to converse with Hitler. After meeting Hitler, Chamberlain persuaded the Czechoslovakian government to give the most German-populated areas of the Sudetenland to Germany. Hitler, however, wanted ALL of the Sudetenland, which Chamberlain did not agree to. On September 29, Mussolini convinced Hitler to go a conference in Munich with Italy, Britain, and France, excluding Czechoslovakia. It was decided at the conference that the Sudetenland would be given over to Germany, and the Czechoslovakians were forced to comply with no say in the matter. Through the Munich agreement, peace was restored and Hitler got what he wanted. On the side, Britain signed a special agreement with Germany, saying that the two countries would work together to fight any problems that occurred and stay out of war with each other. Chamberlain returned to Britain as a hero; he had managed to keep the peace in Europe. In Czechoslovakia, the Munich Agreement had several very negative effects, such as the loss of a strong defensive system, the loss of key industrial areas, and the loss of territories to Poland and Hungary. Additionally, the Sudeten Germans’ return to Germany inspired other nationalities to demand to be returned to their lands of origin. The people demanded more rights, and the Czechoslovakian president, Hacha, didn’t know how to respond, so he asked Hitler for help. In the end, Hitler was invited into Czechoslovakia, the Nazis marched into Prague and took over. Britain and France didn’t oppose this, as Hitler had been invited in, however, this incident changed Chamberlain’s opinion of Hitler. Up until then, Hitler had always had an excuse for his actions, for example, the severity of the Treaty of Versailles, so Chamberlain had supported him. Now, it was clear that all he cared about was getting more land and advantage for Germany.
The final step to World War II, which was the most significant, was the creation of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Through the Treaty of Versailles, a little slice of Germany, known as the Polish Corridor, was given to Poland. The Port of Danzig, an area within the Polish Corridor, was filled with German-speaking people, so the British expected that Hitler would want to attack Poland and regain his lost territory. Britain and France promised to help Poland if they suffered an attack from Germany, but the only power who could effectively help Poland was the Soviet Union. Britain and the USSR discussed a possible alliance, but Britain was very hesitant due to the British people’s strong dislike of communism. The Poles were as afraid of the USSR and a possible invasion as they were of the Germans, so they didn’t accept the alliance. All of a sudden, the USSR signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany, agreeing to stay at peace with each other, attack Poland and divide the land between the two countries. The world was shocked by this; no one would have been able to predict such an alliance. Hitler was a known hater of communism, and it was thought that he wanted to conquer parts of the Soviet Union as well. The USSR, however, was running out of options. Stalin was getting impatient with the British, who were less than willing to sign a pact with him, and he suspected that the British and the French were trying to turn Hitler’s attention away from them and towards the USSR. By signing the treaty with Hitler, Stalin gained not only half of Poland, but it gave him some time to prepare for a possible German attack on the USSR. It was confirmed that Poland was being invaded, but it was very likely that Britain and France would not be able to protect the country under attack. Germany invaded on September 1st of 1939. On September 3rd of 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, followed by France.
The reclamation of the Saar and the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the conscription and rearmament of Germany, the union of Austria and Germany (Anschluss), the return of the Sudetenland to Germany and the Nazi-Soviet Pact all led to World War II, with the Nazi-Soviet Pact being the most war-inducing. The pact is what “sealed the deal,” or confirmed that an invasion was actually going to happen. Up until that point, Hitler had been taking small steps to grow and build up his country’s territory and military, but few invasions had actually taken place. The Nazi-Soviet Pact shocked the world, and for good reason; they knew then that everything would change, and war could no longer be avoided. In retrospect, it’s easy to look back and see where different countries went wrong and what could have been done to prevent the tragedy that was World War II, but at the time, there was no way to have seen the Nazi-Soviet Pact coming or predict what would follow. Even though this pact was the most important cause, every individual cause was influential to the history-changing war that took place 74 years ago. If each and every one of these incidences along the way hadn’t happened, who knows if the war would have happened at all.