The Origins of World War II, 1929–39

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Editor: Alisha Bains
Date: 2017
From: World War II
Publisher: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Series: A Political and Diplomatic History of the Modern World
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 8,717 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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The Origins of World War II, 1929–39

The 1930s were a decade of unmitigated crisis culminating in the outbreak of a second total war. The treaties and settlements of the first postwar era collapsed with shocking suddenness under the impact of the Great Depression and the aggressive revisionism of Japan, Italy, and Germany. By 1933 hardly one stone stood on another of the economic structures raised in the 1920s. By 1935 Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime had torn up the Treaty of Versailles and by 1936 the Locarno treaties—which guaranteed peace in western Europe—as well. Armed conflict began in Manchuria in 1931 and spread to Abyssinia in 1935, Spain in 1936, China in 1937, Europe in 1939, and the United States and U.S.S.R. in 1941.

The context in which this collapse occurred was an “economic blizzard” that enervated the democracies and energized the dictatorial regimes. Western intellectuals and many common citizens lost faith in democracy and free-market economics, while widespread pacifism, isolationism, and the earnest desire to avoid the mistakes of 1914 left Western leaders without the will or the means to defend the 1919 order. This combination of demoralized publics, stricken institutions, and uninspired leadership led historian Pierre Renouvin to describe the 1930s simply as “la décadence.”

The militant authoritarian states on the other hand—Italy, Japan, and (after 1933) Germany—seemed only to wax stronger and more dynamic. The Depression did not cause the rise Page 21  |  Top of Articleof the Third Reich or the bellicose ideologies of the German, Italian, and Japanese governments (all of which pre-dated the 1930s), but it did create the conditions for the Nazi seizure of power and provide the opportunity and excuse for Fascist empire-building. Hitler and Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini aspired to total control of their domestic societies, in part for the purpose of girding their nations for wars of conquest, which they saw, in turn, as necessary for revolutionary transformation at home. This ideological meshing of foreign and domestic policy rendered the Fascist leaders wholly enigmatic to the democratic statesmen of Britain and France, whose attempts to accommodate rather than resist the Fascist states only made inevitable the war they longed to avoid.

Political Consequences of the Depression

The debate over the origins of the Great Depression and the reasons for its severity and length is highly political, given the implications for the validity of theories of free market, regulated, and planned economies and of monetary and fiscal policy. It is usually dated from the New York stock-market crash of October 1929, which choked the domestic and international flow of credit and severely damaged global trade and production. Wall Street prices fell from an index of 216 to 145 in a month, stabilized in early 1930, then continued downward to a bottom of 34 in 1932. Industrial production fell nearly 20 percent in 1930. Unlike previous swings in the business cycle, this financial panic did not eventuate in the expected period of readjustment but rather defied all governmental and private efforts to restore prosperity for years until it seemed to a great many that the system itself was breaking down.

Page 22  |  Top of ArticleMutual recriminations flew across the Atlantic. Americans blamed the Europeans for the reparations tangle, for pegging their currencies too high upon the return to gold, and for misuse of the American loans of the 1920s. Europeans blamed the United States for its insistence on repayment of war debts, high tariffs, and the unfettered speculation leading to the stockmarket crash. Certainly all of these factors contributed. More tangibly, however, a sudden contraction of international credit in June 1928 made an international emergency likely. Since the Dawes Plan of 1924, which was based on a report by American financier Charles G. Dawes on question of German reparations for presumed liability for World War I, Europe had depended for capital and liquidity on the availability of American loans, but increasingly American investors were flocking to the stock market with their savings, and new capital issues for foreign account in the United States dropped 78 percent, from $530,000,000 to $119,000,000. Loans to Germany collapsed from $200,000,000 in the first half of 1928 to $77,000,000 in the second half and to $29,500,000 for the entire year of 1929. A world crisis was also brewing in basic commodities, a market in which prices had been depressed throughout the decade. Mechanization of agriculture stimulated overproduction, and Soviet dumping of wheat on the world market to earn foreign exchange for the First Five-Year Plan compounded the problem.

The Smoot–Hawley Tariff, the highest in U.S. history, became law on June 17, 1930. Conceived and passed by the House of Representatives in 1929, it may well have contributed to the loss of confidence on Wall Street and signaled American unwillingness to play the role of leader in the world economy. Other countries retaliated with similarly protective tariffs, with the result that the total volume of world trade spiraled downward from a monthly average of $2,900,000,000 in 1929 to less than $1,000,000,000 by 1933. The credit squeeze, bank Page 23  |  Top of Articlefailures, deflation, and loss of exports forced production down and unemployment up in all industrial nations. In January 1930 the United States had 3,000,000 idle workers, and by 1932 there were more than 13,000,000. In Britain 22 percent of the adult male workforce lacked jobs, while in Germany unemployment peaked in 1932 at 6,000,000. All told, some 30,000,000 people were out of work in the industrial countries in 1932.

Unemployed workers wait in a long line at a soup kitchen in New York City during the Great Depression. Unemployed workers wait in a long line at a soup kitchen in New York City during the Great Depression.

The Depression naturally magnified European bitterness over the continuing international obligations, but the weakest link in the financial chain was Austria, whose central bank, the Creditanstalt, was on the verge of bankruptcy. In Page 24  |  Top of ArticleMarch 1931, German foreign minister Julius Curtius signed an agreement with Vienna for a German–Austrian customs union, but French objections to what they saw as a first step toward the dreaded Anschluss—the political union of Austria with Germany—provoked a run on the Creditanstalt and forced Berlin and Vienna to renounce the union on September 3.

The panic then spread to Germany, rendering the Reichsbank unable to meet its obligations under the Young Plan of 1929, the second renegotiation of Germany's World War I reparation payments. President Herbert Hoover responded on June 20, 1931, with a proposal for a one-year moratorium on all intergovernmental debts. Short of a general recovery or global agreement on the restoration of trade, however, the moratorium could only be a stopgap. Instead, every country fled toward policies of protection, self-sufficiency, and the creation of regional economic blocs in hopes of isolating itself from the world collapse. On Sept. 21, 1931, the Bank of England left the gold standard, and the pound sterling promptly lost 28 percent of its value, undermining the solvency of countries in eastern Europe and South America. In October a national coalition government formed to take emergency measures. The Ottawa Imperial Economic Conference of 1932 gave birth to the British Commonwealth of Nations and a system of imperial preferences, signaling the end of Britain's 86-year-old policy of free trade.

The Lausanne Conference of June–July 1932 took up the question of what should be done after the Hoover Moratorium. Even the French granted the impossibility of further German payments and agreed to make an end of reparations in return for a final German transfer of 3,000,000,000 marks (which was never made). The United States, however, still insisted that the Page 25  |  Top of Articlewar debts be honoured, whereupon the French parliament willfully defaulted, damaging Franco-American relations.

Failures of the League

Panicky retrenchment and disunity also rendered the Western powers incapable of responding to the first violation of the postwar territorial settlements. On Sept. 10, 1931, Viscount Cecil assured the League of Nations that “there has scarcely ever been a period in the world's history when war seemed less likely than it does at the present.” Just eight days later officers of Japan's Kwantung Army staged an explosion on the South Manchurian Railway to serve as pretext for military adventure. Since 1928, China had seemed to be achieving an elusive unity under Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (KMT), now based in Nanking. While the KMT's consolidation of power seemed likely to keep Soviet and Japanese ambitions in check, resurgent Chinese nationalism also posed a threat to British and other foreign interests on the mainland. By the end of 1928, Chiang was demanding the return of leased territories and an end to extraterritoriality in the foreign concessions. On the other hand, the KMT was still split by factions, banditry continued widespread, the Communists were increasingly well organized in remote Kiangsi, and in the spring of 1931 a rival government sprang up in Canton. To these problems were added economic depression and disastrous floods that took hundreds of thousands of lives.

Japan, meanwhile, suffered rudely from the Depression because of her dependence on trade, her ill-timed return to the gold standard in 1930, and a Chinese boycott of Japanese goods. But social turmoil only increased the appeal of those who saw in foreign expansion a solution to Japan's economic problems. This interweaving of foreign and domestic policy, Page 26  |  Top of Articlepropelled by a rabid nationalism, a powerful military-industrial complex, hatred of the prevailing distribution of world power, and the raising of a racialist banner (in this case, antiwhite) to justify expansion, all bear comparison to European Fascism. When the parliamentary government in Tokyo divided as to how to confront this complex of crises, the Kwantung Army acted on its own. Manchuria, rich in raw materials, was a prospective sponge for Japanese emigration (250,000 Japanese already resided there) and the gateway to China proper. The Japanese public greeted the conquest with wild enthusiasm.

China appealed at once to the League of Nations, the organization for international cooperation established by the victorious Allied powers at the end of World War I. The League called for Japanese withdrawal in a resolution of October 24. But neither the British nor U.S. Asiatic fleets (the latter comprising no battleships and just one cruiser) afforded their governments (obsessed with domestic economic problems) the option of intervention. The tide of Japanese nationalism would have prevented Tokyo from bowing to Western pressure in any case. In December the League Council appointed an investigatory commission under Lord Lytton, while the United States contented itself with propounding the Stimson Doctrine, by which Washington merely refused to recognize changes born of aggression. Unperturbed, the Japanese prompted local collaborationists to proclaim, on Feb. 18, 1932, an independent state of Manchukuo, in effect a Japanese protectorate. The Lytton Commission reported in October, scolding the Chinese for provocations but condemning Japan for using excessive force. Lytton recommended evacuation of Manchuria but privately believed that Japan had “bitten off more than she can chew” and would ultimately withdraw of its own accord. In March 1933, Japan announced its withdrawal instead from the League of Nations, which had been tested and found impotent, at least in East Asia.

Page 27  |  Top of ArticleThe League also failed to advance the cause of disarmament in the first years of the Depression. The London Naval Conference of 1930 proposed an extension of the 1922 Washington ratios for naval tonnage, but this time France and Italy refused to accept the inferior status assigned to them. In land armaments, the policies of the powers were by now fixed and predictable. Britain and the United States deplored “wasteful” military spending, especially by France, while reparations and war debts went unpaid. But even Herriot and Briand refused to disband the French army without additional security guarantees that the British were unwilling to tender. Fascist Italy, despite its financial distress, was unlikely to take disarmament seriously, while Germany, looking for foreign-policy triumphs to bolster the struggling Republic, demanded equality of treatment: Either France must disarm, or Germany must be allowed to expand its army. The League Council nonetheless summoned delegates from 60 nations to a grand Disarmament Conference at Geneva beginning in February 1932. When Germany failed to achieve satisfaction by the July adjournment it withdrew from the negotiations. France, Britain, and the United States devised various formulas to break the deadlock, including a No Force Declaration (Dec. 11, 1932), abjuring the use of force to resolve disputes, and a five-power (including Italy) promise to grant German equality “in a system providing security for all nations.” On the strength of these the Disarmament Conference resumed in February 1933. By then, however, Adolf Hitler was chancellor of the German Reich.

A common impression of Herbert Hoover is that he was passive in the face of the Depression and isolationist in foreign policy. The truth was almost the reverse, and in the 1932 campaign his Democratic opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, was the more traditional in economic policy and isolationist in foreign policy. Indeed, Hoover bequeathed to his successor two bold Page 28  |  Top of Articleinitiatives meant to restore international cooperation in matters of trade, currency, and security: the London Economic Conference and the Geneva Disarmament Conference. The former convened in June 1933 in hopes of restoring the gold standard but was undermined by President Roosevelt's suspension of the gold convertibility of the dollar and his acerbic message rejecting the conference's labours on July 3. At home, Roosevelt proposed the series of government actions known as the New Deal in an effort to restore U.S. productivity, in isolation, if need be, from the rest of the world. The Disarmament Conference came to a similar end. In March, Ramsay MacDonald proposed the gradual reduction of the French army from half a million to 200,000 men and the doubling of Germany's Versailles army to the same figure, accompanied by international verification. But a secret German decree of April 4 created a National Defense Council to coordinate rearmament on a massive scale. Clearly the German demand for equality was a ploy to wreck the conference and serve as pretext for unilateral rearmament.

Negotiations were delayed by a sudden initiative from Mussolini in March calling for a pact among Germany, Italy, France, and Britain to grant Germany equality, revise the peace treaties, and establish a four-power directorate to resolve international disputes. Mussolini appears to have wanted to downgrade the League in favour of a Concert of Europe, enhancing Italian prestige and perhaps gaining colonial concessions in return for reassuring the Western powers. The French watered down the plan until the Four-Power Pact signed in Rome on June 7 was a mass of anodyne generalities. Any prospect that the new Nazi regime might be drawn to collective security disappeared on Oct. 14, 1933, when Hitler denounced the unfair treatment accorded Germany at Geneva and announced its withdrawal from the League of Nations.

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The Rise of Hitler and Fall of Versailles

The origins of the Nazi Third Reich must be sought not only in the appeal of Hitler and his party but also in the weakness of the Weimar Republic. Under the republic, Germany boasted the most democratic constitution in the world, yet the fragmentation of German politics made government by majority a difficult proposition. Many Germans identified the republic with the despised Treaty of Versailles and, like the Japanese, concluded that the 1920s policy of peaceful cooperation with the West had failed. What was more, the republic seemed incapable of curing the Depression or dampening the appeal of the Communists. In the end, it self-destructed. The first Depression-era elections, in September 1930, reflected the electorate's flight from the moderate centrist parties: Communists won 77 seats in the Reichstag, while the Nazi delegation rose from 12 to 107. Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, unable to command a majority, governed by emergency decree of the aged president, Paul von Hindenburg.


The National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazis) exploited the resentment and fear stemming from Versailles and the Depression. Its platform was a clever, if contradictory, mixture of socialism, corporatism, and virulent assertion in foreign policy. The Nazis outdid the Communists in forming paramilitary street gangs to intimidate opponents and create an image of irresistible strength, but unlike the Communists, who implied that war veterans had been dupes of capitalist imperialism, the Nazis honoured the Great War as a time when the German Volk had been united as never before. The army had been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists, they Page 30  |  Top of Articleclaimed, and those who signed the Armistice and Versailles had been criminals; worse, international capitalists, Socialists, and Jews continued to conspire against the German people. Under Nazism alone, they insisted, could Germans again unify under ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer and get on with the task of combating Germany's real enemies. This amalgam of fervent nationalism and rhetorical socialism, not to mention the charismatic spell of Hitler's oratory and the hypnotic pomp of Nazi rallies, was psychologically more appealing than flaccid liberalism or divisive class struggle. In any case, the Communists (on orders from Moscow) turned to help the Nazis paralyze democratic procedure in Germany in the expectation of seizing power themselves.

Brüning resigned in May 1932, and the July elections returned 230 Nazi delegates. After two short-lived rightist cabinets foundered, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933. The president, parliamentary conservatives, and the army all apparently expected that the inexperienced, lower-class demagogue would submit to their guidance. Instead, Hitler secured dictatorial powers from the Reichstag and proceeded to establish, by marginally legal means, a totalitarian state. Within two years the regime had outlawed all other political parties and co-opted or intimidated all institutions that competed with it for popular loyalty, including the German states, labour unions, press and radio, universities, bureaucracies, courts, and churches. Only the army and foreign office remained in the hands of traditional elites. But this fact, and Hitler's own caution at the start, allowed Western observers fatally to misperceive Nazi foreign policy as simply a continuation of Weimar revisionism.

Adolf Hitler recounted in Mein Kampf, the autobiographical harangue written in prison after his abortive putsch of 1923, that he saw himself as that rare individual, the “programmatic thinker and the politician become one.” Hitler distilled his Weltanschauung (literally, a “view of the world”) from the social Darwinism, anti-Semitism, and racialist anthropology current in prewar Vienna. Where Marx had reduced all of history to struggles among social classes, in which revolution was the engine of progress and the dictatorship of the proletariat the culmination, Hitler reduced history to struggle among biologic races, in which war was the engine of progress and Aryan hegemony the culmination. The enemies of the Germans, indeed of history itself, were internationalists who warred against the purity and race-consciousness of peoples—they were the capitalists, the Socialists, the pacifists, the liberals, all of whom Hitler identified with the Jews. This condemnation of Jews as a racial group made Nazism more dangerous than earlier forms of religious or economic anti-Semitism that had long been prevalent throughout Europe. For if the Jews, as Hitler thought, were like bacteria poisoning the bloodstream of the Aryan race, the only solution was their extermination. Nazism, in short, was the twisted product of a secular, scientific age of history.

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Deputy party leader Rudolph Hess stands in the foreground as Adolf Hitler gives the Nazi salute from a car at a parade in Weimar in 1936. Deputy party leader Rudolph Hess stands in the foreground as Adolf Hitler gives the Nazi salute from a car at a parade in Weimar in 1936.

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Page 32  |  Top of Article MEIN KAMPF (“MY STRUGGLE”)

Mein Kampf (German “My Struggle”) is a political manifesto written by Adolf Hitler. It was his only complete book and became the bible of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany's Third Reich. It was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1927, and an abridged edition appeared in 1930. By 1939 it had sold 5,200,000 copies and had been translated into 11 languages.

The first volume, entitled Die Abrechnung (“The Settlement [of Accounts],” or “Revenge”), was written in 1924 in the Bavarian fortress of Landsberg am Lech, where Hitler was imprisoned after the abortive Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. It treats the world of Hitler's youth, the First World War, and the “betrayal” of Germany's collapse in 1918; it also expresses Hitler's racist ideology, identifying the Aryan as the “genius” race and the Jew as the “parasite,” and declares the need for Germans to seek living space (Lebensraum) in the East at the expense of the Slavs and the hated Marxists of Russia. It also calls for revenge against France.

According to Hitler, it was “the sacred mission of the German people…to assemble and preserve the most valuable racial elements…and raise them to the dominant position.” “All who are not of a good race are chaff,” wrote Hitler. It was necessary for Germans to “occupy themselves not merely with the breeding of dogs, horses, and cats but also with care for the purity of their own blood.” Hitler ascribed international significance to the elimination of Jews, which “must necessarily be a bloody process,” he wrote.

The second volume, entitled Die Nationalsozialistische Bewegung (“The National Socialist Movement”), written after Hitler's release from prison in December 1924, outlines the political program, including the terrorist methods, that National Socialism must pursue both in gaining power and in exercising it thereafter in the new Germany.

Page 33  |  Top of ArticleIn style, Mein Kampf has been appropriately deemed turgid, repetitious, wandering, illogical, and, in the first edition at least, filled with grammatical errors—all reflecting a half-educated man. It was skillfully demagogic, however, appealing to many dissatisfied elements in Germany—the ultranationalistic, the anti-Semitic, the antidemocratic, the anti-Marxist, and the military.

Postwar German law banned the sale and public display of books espousing Nazi philosophy. Moreover, the copyright for Mein Kampf had been awarded to the German state of Bavaria, which refused to grant publishing rights. However, foreign publishers continued to print the work, an act that brought condemnation both in Germany and in the countries where the book was published, not least because of its popularity with neo-Nazi groups, especially those that arose in Germany in the 1990s. There also was great concern in some circles over the availability of the book from Internet-based booksellers. On January 1, 2016, the copyright for Mein Kampf expired, and the book entered public domain. Shortly thereafter Munich's Institute for Contemporary History published a heavily annotated edition.

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Hitler's worldview dictated a unity of foreign and domestic policies based on total control and militarization at home, war and conquest abroad. In Mein Kampf he ridiculed the Weimar politicians and their “bourgeois” dreams of restoring the Germany of 1914. Rather, the German Volk could never achieve their destiny without Lebensraum (“living space”) to support a vastly increased German population and form the basis for world power. Lebensraum, wrote Hitler in Mein Kampf, was to be found in Ukraine and intermediate lands of eastern Europe. This “heartland” of the Eurasian continent (so named by the geopoliticians Sir Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer) was especially suited for conquest since it was occupied, in Hitler's mind, by Slavic Untermenschen (subhumans) and ruled from the centre of the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy in Moscow. By 1933 Hitler had apparently imagined a step-by-step plan for the realization of his goals. The first step was to rearm, thereby restoring complete freedom of maneuver to Germany. The next step was to achieve Lebensraum in alliance with Italy and with the sufferance of Britain. This greater Reich could then serve, in the distant third step, as a base for world dominion and the purification of a “master race.” In practice, Hitler proved willing to adapt to circumstances, seize opportunities, or follow the wanderings of intuition. Sooner or later politics must give way to war, but because Hitler did not articulate his ultimate fantasies to the German voters or establishment, his actions and rhetoric seemed to imply only restoration, if not of the Germany of 1914, then the Germany of 1918, after Brest-Litovsk. In fact, his program was potentially without limits.


European reaction to the rise of Nazism was cautious, but not at first overtly hostile. The Four-Power Pact and a concordat with Page 35  |  Top of Articlethe Vatican (July 20, 1933), negotiated by the Catholic Franz von Papen, conferred a certain legitimacy on the Nazi regime. (Hitler sought to end Vatican support for the Catholic Centre Party while he proceeded to subordinate the churches and to corrupt Christianity into a state-centred form of neo-paganism. Pope Pius XI, like every other European statesmen after him, thought that he could appease and moderate the Nazis.) On Jan. 26, 1934, Hitler shocked all parties by signing a nonaggression pact with Poland. This bit of duplicity neutralized France's primary ally in the east while helping to secure Germany over the dangerous years of rearmament. The new Polish foreign minister, Józef Beck, was in turn responding to the dilemma of Poland's central position between Germany and the U.S.S.R. He hoped to preserve a balance in his relations with the two giant neighbours (Poland signed a three-year pact with Moscow in July 1932) but feared the Soviets (from whom Poland had grabbed so much territory in 1921) more than the still-weak Germans. The pact with Germany was meant to run for 10 years.

France was the nation most concerned by the Nazi threat and most able to take vigorous action. But fear of another war, the defeatist mood dating from the failure of the Ruhr occupation, the passivity engendered by the Maginot Line (the elaborate defensive barrier in northeastern France, due for completion in just five years), and domestic strife exacerbated by the Depression and the Stavisky scandal of 1933 all served to hamstring French foreign policy. As in the Weimar Republic, Communists and monarchists or Fascist groups like the Croix de Feu and Action Française battled in the streets. In February 1934 a crowd of war veterans and rightists stormed the parliament, and the Édouard Daladier Cabinet was forced to resign to head off a coup d'état. The new foreign minister, Louis Barthou, had been a friend of former French prime Page 36  |  Top of Articleminister Raymond Poincaré and made a final effort to shore up France's security system in Europe: “All these League of Nations fancies—I'd soon put an end to them if I were in power.… It's alliances that count.” But alliances with whom? The French Left was adamantly opposed to cooperation with Fascist Italy, the Right despised cooperation with the Communist Soviet Union. Britain as always eschewed commitments, while Poland had come to terms with Germany. Nevertheless, the moment seemed opportune; both Italy and the U.S.S.R. now made clear their opposition to Hitler and desire to embrace collective security.

To be sure, Mussolini was gratified by the triumph of the man he liked to consider his younger protégé, Hitler, but he also understood that Italy fared best while playing off France and Germany, and he feared German expansion into the Danubian basin. In September 1933 he made Italian support for Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss conditional on the latter's establishment of an Italian-style Fascist regime. In June 1934 Mussolini and Hitler met for the first time, and in their confused conversation (there was no interpreter present) Mussolini understood the Führer to say that he had no desire for Anschluss. Yet, a month later, Austrian Nazis arranged a putsch in which Dollfuss was murdered. Mussolini responded with a threat of force (quite likely a bluff) on the Brenner Pass and thereby saved Austrian independence. Kurt von Schuschnigg, a pro-Italian Fascist, took over in Vienna. In Paris and London it seemed that Mussolini was one leader with the will and might to stand up to Hitler.

Joseph Stalin, secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, had repented of the equanimity with which he had witnessed the Nazi seizure of power. Before 1933, Germany and the U.S.S.R. had collaborated, and Soviet trade had been a rare boon to the German economy in the last years of the Weimar Republic. Still, the behaviour of German Communists contributed to the collapse of parliamentarism, and now Hitler had shown that he, too, knew how to crush dissent and master a nation.

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Adolf Hitler (right) stands with Benito Mussolini, who would be his ally during the war. Adolf Hitler (right) stands with Benito Mussolini, who would be his ally during the war.

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The Communist line shifted in 1934–35 from condemnation of social democracy, collective security, and Western militarism to collaboration with other anti-Fascist forces in “Popular Fronts,” alliance systems, and rearmament. The United States and the U.S.S.R. established diplomatic relations for the first time in November 1933, and in September 1934 the Soviets joined the League of Nations, where Maksim Litvinov became a loud proponent of collective security against Fascist revisionism.

Thus, Barthou's plan for reviving the wartime alliance and arranging an “Eastern Locarno” began to seem plausible—even after Oct. 9, 1934, when Barthou and King Alexander of Yugoslavia were shot dead in Marseille by an agent of Croatian terrorists. The new French foreign minister, the rightist Pierre Laval, was especially friendly to Rome. The Laval–Mussolini agreements of Jan. 7, 1935, declared France's disinterest in the fate of Abyssinia in implicit exchange for Italian support of Austria. Mussolini took this to mean that he had French support for his plan to conquer that independent African country. Just six days later the strength of German nationalism was resoundingly displayed in the Saar plebiscite. The small, coal-rich Saarland, detached from Germany for 15 years under the Treaty of Versailles, was populated by miners of Catholic or social democratic loyalty. They knew what fate awaited their churches and labour unions in the Third Reich, and yet 90 percent voted for union with Germany. Then, on March 16, Hitler used the extension of French military service to two years and the Franco-Soviet negotiations as pretexts for tearing up the disarmament clauses of Versailles, restoring the military draft, and beginning an open buildup of Germany's land, air, and sea forces.

Page 39  |  Top of ArticleIn the wake of this series of shocks Britain, France, and Italy joined on April 11, 1935, at a conference at Stresa to reaffirm their opposition to German expansion. Laval and Litvinov also initialed a five-year Franco-Soviet alliance on May 2, each pledging assistance in case of unprovoked aggression. Two weeks later a Czech-Soviet pact complemented it. Laval's system, however, was flawed; mutual suspicion between Paris and Moscow, the failure to add a military convention, and the lack of Polish adherence meant that genuine Franco-Soviet military action was unlikely. The U.S.S.R. was in a state of trauma brought on by the Five-Year Plans, the slaughter and starvation of millions of farmers, especially in Ukraine, in the name of collectivization, and the beginnings of Stalin's mass purges of the government, army, and Communist Party. It was clear that Russian industrialization was bound to overthrow the balance of power in Eurasia, hence Stalin was fearful of the possibility of a preemptive attack before his own militarization was complete. But he was even more obsessed with the prospect of wholesale rebellion against his regime in case of invasion. Stalin's primary goal, therefore, was to keep the capitalist powers divided and the U.S.S.R. at peace. Urging the liberal Western states to combine against the Fascists was one method; exploring bilateral relations with Germany, as in the 1936 conversations between Hjalmar Schacht and Soviet trade representative David Kandelaki, was another.

Italy and Britain looked askance at the Franco-Soviet combination, while Hitler in any case sugar-coated the pill of German rearmament by making a pacific speech on May 21, 1935, in which he offered bilateral pacts to all Germany's neighbours (except Lithuania) and assured the British that he, unlike the Kaiser, did not intend to challenge them on the seas. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 18, which countenanced a new German navy though limiting it to not Page 40  |  Top of Articlelarger than 35 percent the size of the British, angered the French and drove a wedge between them and the British.


The Stresa Front collapsed as soon as Paris and London learned the price Mussolini meant to exact for it. By 1935 Mussolini had ruled for 13 years but had made little progress toward his “new Roman Empire” that was to free Italy from the “prison of the Mediterranean.” What was more, Il Duce, as Mussolini was called, concluded that only the crucible of war could fully undermine the monarchy and the church and consummate the Fascist revolution at home. Having failed to pry the French out of their North African possessions, Mussolini fixed on the independent African empire of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Italy had failed in 1896 to conquer Abyssinia, thus to do so now would erase a national humiliation. This spacious land astride Italy's existing coastal colonies on the Horn of Africa boasted fertile uplands suitable for Italy's excess rural population, and Mussolini promised abundant raw materials as well. The conquest of Abyssinia would also appear to open the path to the Sudan and Suez. Finally, this landlocked, semifeudal kingdom seemed an easy target. In fact, Emperor Haile Selassie had begun a modernization program of sorts, but this only suggested that the sooner Italy struck, the better.

The Italian army was scarcely prepared for such an undertaking, and Mussolini made matters worse by ordering ill-trained blackshirt brigades to Africa and entrusting the campaign to a Fascist loyalist, Emilio De Bono, rather than to a senior army officer. The military buildup at Mitsiwa left little doubt as to Italian intentions, and Britain tried in June to forestall the invasion by arranging the cession of some Abyssinian territories. But Mussolini knew that the British Page 41  |  Top of ArticleMediterranean fleet was as unready as his own and expected no interference.

De Bono's absurdly large army invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea on Oct. 3, 1935. Adwa, the site of the 1896 debacle, fell in three days, after which the advance bogged down and Mussolini replaced De Bono with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The League Council promptly declared Italy the aggressor (October 7), whereupon France and Britain were caught on the horns of a dilemma. To wink at Italy's conquest would be to condone aggression and admit the bankruptcy of the League; to resist would be to smash the Stresa Front and lose Italian help against the greater threat, Germany. The League finally settled on economic sanctions but shied away from an embargo on oil, which would have grounded the Italian army and air force, or closure of the Suez Canal, which would have cut the Italian supply line. The remaining sanctions only vexed Italy without helping Abyssinia. Germany, no longer a League member, ignored the sanctions and so healed its rift with Rome.

In December, Laval and Sir Samuel Hoare, the British foreign secretary, contrived a secret plan to offer Mussolini most of Abyssinia in return for a truce. This Hoare–Laval Plan was a realistic effort to end the crisis and repair the Stresa Front, but it also made a mockery of the League. When it was leaked to the press, public indignation forced Hoare's resignation. The Italians finally took the fortress of Mekele on November 8, but their slow advance led Mussolini to order a major offensive in December. He instructed Badoglio to use whatever means necessary, including terror bombing and poison gas, to end the war.


Hitler observed the Abyssinian war with controlled glee, for dissolution of the Stresa Front—composed of the guarantors Page 42  |  Top of Articleof Locarno—gave him the chance to reoccupy the Rhineland with minimal risk. A caretaker government under Albert Sarraut was in charge of France during a divisive electoral campaign dominated by the leftist Popular Front, and Britain was convulsed by a constitutional crisis stemming from King Edward VIII's insistence on marrying an American divorcée. On March 7, 1936, Hitler ordered a token force of 22,000 soldiers back across the bridges of the Rhine. Characteristically, he chose a weekend for his sudden move and then softened the blow with offers of nonaggression pacts and a new demilitarized zone on both sides of the frontier. Even so, Hitler assured his generals that he would retreat if the French intervened.

German reoccupation and fortification of the Rhineland was the most significant turning point of the interwar years. After March 1936 the British and French could no longer take forceful action against Hitler except by provoking the total war they feared. Why did the French, especially, not act to prevent this calamity to their defensive posture? They were not taken by surprise—Hitler's preparations had been noted—and Sarraut himself told French radio listeners that “Strasbourg would not be left under German guns.” Moreover, the French army still outnumbered the German and could expect support from Czechoslovakia and possibly Poland. On the other hand, the French army commander, General Maurice Gamelin, vastly overestimated German strength and insisted that a move into the Rhineland be preceded by general mobilization. The French Cabinet also concluded that it should do nothing without the full agreement of the British. But London was not the place to look for backbone. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin shrugged, “They might succeed in smashing Germany with the aid of Russia, but it would probably only result in Germany going Bolshevik,” while the editor of The Times asked, “It's none Page 43  |  Top of Articleof our business, is it? It's their own back-garden they're walking into.” By failing to respond to the violation, however, Britain, France, and Italy had broken the Locarno treaties just as gravely as had Germany.

Mounted German troops ride down a street in Heidelberg after Germany retook the Rhineland. Mounted German troops ride down a street in Heidelberg after Germany retook the Rhineland.

The strategic situation in Europe now shifted in favour of the Fascist powers. In June, Mussolini appointed as foreign minister his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, who concluded an agreement with Germany on July 11 in which Italy acquiesced in Austria's behaving henceforth as “a German state.” The Rome–Berlin Axis followed on November 1, and the German–Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact, another vague agreement Page 44  |  Top of Articleostensibly directed at Moscow, on November 25. Finally, Belgium unilaterally renounced its alliance with France on October 14 and returned to its traditional neutrality in hopes of escaping the coming storm. As a direct result of the Abyssinian imbroglio, the militant revisionists had come together and the status quo powers had splintered.

Meanwhile, on May 5, 1936, Italian troops had entered Addis Ababa and completed the conquest of Abyssinia, although the country was never entirely pacified, despite costly and brutal repression. The Abyssinian war had been a disaster for the democracies, smashing both the Stresa Front and the credibility of the League. As the historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote, “One day [the League] was a powerful body imposing sanctions, seemingly more effective than ever before; the next day it was an empty sham, everyone scuttling from it as quickly as possible.” In December 1937, Italy, too, quit the League of Nations.

British Appeasement and American Isolationism

It is time to explore the roots of democratic lethargy in the face of Fascist expansionism in the 1930s. British policy, in particular, which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would proudly term “appeasement,” conjures up images of naive, even craven surrender to Nazi demands. In the minds of British statesmen, however, appeasement was a moral and realistic expression of all that was liberal and Christian in British culture.


First, 1914 cast a dark shadow on the opinion leaders of the 1930s, who determined this time to shun arms races and balance-of-power and commercial competition and so to spare Page 45  |  Top of Articlethe world another horrible war. Second, the overextended British Empire lacked the resources to confront threats from Japan in Asia, Italy in the Mediterranean, and Germany in Europe all at once. Wisdom dictated that Britain come to terms with the greatest and closest to home of its potential adversaries, Germany. Third, the British public was understandably provincial about central Europe and had no desire (in the popular French phrase) “to die for Danzig.” This sentiment was even more pronounced in the British dominions. Fourth, many Tory and Labour leaders, while put off by Hitler's ideology and brutality, shared his antipathy to Versailles and urged “fair play” in cases where German nationals were separated from the fatherland. Thus, national self-determination, as advocated by former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, perversely made the Nazis appear to be on the side of principle. Fifth, the appeasers also presumed that the Nazis would become less rambunctious once their grievances were removed. Sixth, some demoralized Englishmen believed the propagandistic claim that Fascism was the only bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism. Seventh, domestic opinion in Britain favoured a passive reliance on the League of Nations somehow to prevent another catastrophe—Baldwin's policy of sanctions without war in Abyssinia, as the chief case in point, earned his party a huge electoral victory in November 1935. Nor had pacifism flagged since 1933, when the Oxford Union “Resolved that this house refuses to fight for King and Country.”

Voices of dissent existed. Some Left-Labourites warned that Fascism must be stopped sooner or later, while a few Tory backbenchers led by Winston Churchill demanded rearmament. In the mid-1930s a source in the Air Ministry leaked data to Churchill suggesting that Germany's air force was rapidly overtaking Britain's. Fear of the Luftwaffe only provided another excuse for appeasement, however, for aviation had developed Page 46  |  Top of Articleto the point that theorists like the Italian Giulio Douhet could argue that air bombardment would win the next war in 48 hours by leveling enemy cities. In an air age, the English Channel no longer sheltered Britain from destruction.

Many of these same considerations afflicted French policy: fear of another total war and of destruction from the air, apathy toward eastern Europe, and ideological confusion. The election of May 3, 1936, brought victory for the Popular Front, which formed a cabinet under the Socialist Léon Blum, but his economic policies threw France into a turmoil of strikes, capital flight, and recrimination. “Better Hitler than Blum,” said some on the right.


The Spanish Civil War highlighted the contrast between democratic bankruptcy and totalitarian dynamism. In 1931 the Spanish monarchy gave way to a republic whose unstable government moved steadily to the left, outraging the army and church. After repeated provocations on both sides, army and air force officers proclaimed a Nationalist revolt on July 17, 1936, that survived its critical early weeks with logistical help from Portugal's archconservative premier, António Salazar. The Nationalists, rallying behind General Francisco Franco, quickly seized most of Old Castile in the north and a beachhead in the south extending from Córdoba to Cádiz opposite Spanish Morocco, where the insurrection had begun. But the Republicans, or loyalists, a Popular Front composed of liberals, Socialists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, and anarchists, took up arms to defend the Republic elsewhere and sought outside aid against what they styled as the latest Fascist threat. Spain became a battleground for the ideologies wrestling for mastery of Europe.

Page 47  |  Top of ArticleThe civil war posed a dilemma for France and Britain, pitting the principle of defending democracy against the principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states. The ineffectual Blum at first fraternally promised aid to the Popular Front in Madrid, but he reneged within a month for fear that such involvement might provoke a European war or a civil war in France. The British government counseled nonintervention and seemingly won Germany and Italy to that position, but Hitler, on well-rehearsed anti-Bolshevik grounds, hurriedly dispatched 20 transport planes that allowed Franco to move reinforcements from Morocco. Not to be outdone, Mussolini sent matériel, Fascist “volunteers,” and, ultimately, regular army formations. The Italians performed miserably (especially at Guadalajara in March 1937), but German aid, including the feared Condor Legion, was effective. Hitler expected to be paid for his support, however, with economic concessions, and he also saw Spain as a testing ground for Germany's newest weapons and tactics. These included terror bombing such as that over Guernica in April 1937, which caused far fewer deaths than legend has it but which became an icon of anti-Fascism through the painting of Pablo Picasso. International aid to the Republicans ran from the heroic to the sinister. Thousands of leftists and idealistic volunteers from throughout Europe and America flocked to International Brigades to defend the Republic. Matériel support, however, came only from Stalin, who demanded gold payment in return and ordered Comintern agents and commissars to accompany the Soviet supplies. These Stalinists systematically murdered Trotskyites and other “enemies on the left,” undermined the radical government of Barcelona, and exacerbated the intramural confusion in Republican ranks. The upshot of Soviet intervention was to discredit the Republic and thereby strengthen Western resolve to stay out.

Page 48  |  Top of ArticleThe war dragged on through 1937 and 1938 and claimed some 500,000 lives before the Nationalists finally captured Barcelona in January 1939 and Madrid in March. During the final push to victory, France and Britain recognized Franco's government. By then, however, the fulcrum of diplomacy had long since shifted to central Europe. The Nationalist victory did not, in the end, redound to the detriment of France, for Franco politely sent the Germans and Italians home and observed neutrality in the coming war, whereas a pro-Communist Spain might have posed a genuine threat to France during the era of the Nazi–Soviet pact.


The extreme isolationism that gripped the United States in the 1930s reinforced British appeasement and French paralysis. To Americans absorbed with their own distress, Hitler and Mussolini appeared as slightly ridiculous rabble-rousers on movie-house newsreels and certainly no concern of theirs. Moreover, the revisionist theory that the United States had been sucked into war in 1917 through the machinations of arms merchants or Wall Street bankers gained credence from the Senate's Nye Committee inquiries of 1934–36. U.S. isolationism, however, had many roots: liberal abhorrence of arms and war, the evident failure of Wilsonianism, the Great Depression, and the revisionism of American historians, who were among the leaders in arguing that Germany was not solely responsible for 1914. Nor were isolationists restricted only to the Great Plains states or to one political party. Some members of Congress favoured punctilious defense of U.S. interests in the world but rejected involvement in the quarrels of others. Some were full-fledged pacifists even if it meant surrendering certain U.S. rights abroad. Left-wing isolationists warned that Page 49  |  Top of Articleanother great war would push the United States in the direction of Fascism. Conservative isolationists warned that another great war would usher in socialism.

Sidebar: HideShow


The Good Neighbor Policy was the popular name for the Latin American policy pursued by the administration of the U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Suggested by the president's commitment “to the policy of the good neighbor” (first inaugural address, March 4, 1933), the approach marked a departure from traditional American interventionism. Through the diplomacy of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the United States repudiated privileges abhorrent to Latin Americans. The United States renounced its right to unilaterally intervene in the internal affairs of other nations at the Montevideo Conference (December 1933); the Platt Amendment, which sanctioned U.S. intervention in Cuba, was abrogated (1934); and the U.S. Marines were withdrawn from Haiti (August 1934).

The policy's success was measured in part by the rapidity with which most Latin American states rallied to the Allies during World War II. After the war, however, U.S. anticommunist policies in Europe and Asia led to renewed distrust in the Americas and the gradual lapse of the Good Neighbor Policy.

These factions disputed among themselves over the wording of legislation, but their collective strength was enough to carry a number of bills designed to prevent a recurrence of the events of 1914–17. The Johnson Act of 1934 forbade American citizens to lend money to foreign countries that had not paid their past war debts. The Neutrality acts of 1935 and 1936 prohibited sale of war matériel to belligerents and forbade any Page 50  |  Top of Articleexports to belligerents not paid for with cash and carried in their own ships. Thus, the United States was not to acquire a stake in the victory of any side or expose its merchant ships to submarines. The effect of these acts, however, was to preclude American aid to Abyssinia, Spain, and China and thus hurt the victims of aggression more than the aggressors.

The United States did take steps in the 1930s, however, to mobilize the Western Hemisphere for the purposes of fighting the Depression and resisting European, especially German, encroachments. Roosevelt gave this initiative a name in his first inaugural address: the Good Neighbor Policy. Building on steps taken by Hoover, Roosevelt pledged nonintervention in Latin domestic affairs at the Montevideo Pan-American Conference of 1933, signed a treaty with the new Cuban government (May 29, 1934) abrogating the Platt Amendment, mediated a truce in the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay in 1934 (with a peace treaty following in July 1938), and negotiated commercial treaties with Latin-American states. As war approached overseas, Washington also promoted pan-American unity on the basis of nonintervention, condemnation of aggression, no forcible collection of debts, equality of states, respect for treaties, and continental solidarity. The Declaration of Lima (1938) provided for pan-American consultation in case of a threat to the “peace, security, or territorial integrity” of any state.


The first major challenge to American isolationism, however, occurred in Asia. After pacifying Manchukuo, the Japanese turned their sights toward North China and Inner Mongolia. Over the intervening years, however, the KMT had made progress in unifying China. The Communists Page 51  |  Top of Articlewere still in the field, having survived their Long March (1934–35) to Yen-an in the north, but Chiang's government, with German and American help, had introduced modern roads and communications, stable paper currency, banking, and educational systems. How might Tokyo best round out its continental interests: by preemptive war or by cooperating with this resurgent China to expel Western influence from East Asia? The chief of the operations section of the Japanese general staff favoured collaboration and feared that an invasion of China proper would bring war with the Soviets or the Americans, whose economic potential he understood. Supreme headquarters, however, preferred to take military advantage of apparent friction between Chiang and a North China warlord. In September 1936, when Japan issued seven secret demands that would have made North China a virtual Japanese protectorate, Chiang rejected them. In December Chiang was even kidnapped by the commander of Nationalist forces from Manchuria, who tried to force him to suspend fighting the Communists and to declare war on Japan. This Sian Incident demonstrated the unlikelihood of Chinese collaboration with the Japanese program and strengthened the war party in Tokyo. As in 1931, hostilities began almost spontaneously and soon took on a life of their own.

An incident at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking (then known as Pei-p'ing) on July 7, 1937, escalated into an undeclared Sino-Japanese war. Contrary to the Japanese analysis, both Chiang and Mao Zedong vowed to come to the aid of North China, while Japanese moderates failed to negotiate a truce or localize the conflict and lost all influence. By the end of July the Japanese had occupied Peking and Tientsin. The following month they blockaded the South China coast and captured Shanghai after brutal fighting and the slaughter of Page 52  |  Top of Articlecountless civilians. Similar atrocities accompanied the fall of Nanking on December 13. The Japanese expected the Chinese to sue for peace, but Chiang moved his government to Han-k'ou and continued to resist the “dwarf bandits” with hit-and-run tactics that sucked the invaders in more deeply. The Japanese could occupy cities and fan out along roads and rails almost at will, but the countryside remained hostile.

Chinese guerrilla fighters equipped with dadao swords gather during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Chinese guerrilla fighters equipped with dadao swords gather during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

World opinion condemned Japan in the harshest terms. The U.S.S.R. concluded a nonaggression pact with China (Aug. 21, 1937), and Soviet-Mongolian forces skirmished with Japanese on the border. Britain vilified Japan in the League, while Roosevelt invoked the Stimson Doctrine in his “quarantine speech” of October 5. But Roosevelt was prevented by the Page 53  |  Top of ArticleNeutrality acts from aiding China even after the sinking of U.S. and British gunboats on the Yangtze.

On March 28, 1938, the Japanese established a Manchukuo-type puppet regime at Nanking, and spring and summer offensives brought them to the Wu-han cities (chiefly Han-k'ou) on the Yangtze. Chiang stubbornly moved his government again, this time to Chungking, which the Japanese bombed mercilessly in May 1939, as they did Canton for weeks before its occupation in October. Such incidents, combined with the Nazi and Fascist air attacks in Spain and Abyssinia, were omens of the total war to come. The United States finally took a first step in opposition to Japanese aggression on July 29, 1939, announcing that it would terminate its 1911 commercial treaty with Japan in six months and thereby cut off vital raw materials to the Japanese war machine. It was all Roosevelt could do under existing law, but it set in train the events that would lead to Pearl Harbor.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6493100007