Europe The Second World War was the most destructive conflict in human history. Years of international tension and aggressive expansion by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany culminated in the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.
The decisions that led to war reflected the ambitions, rivalries, fears and anxieties that developed in the two decades that followed the end of the First World War. The European powers were willing to go to war to extend or protect what each nation saw – in dramatically different ways – as matters of vital interest, great power status, international prestige, and national survival.
THE LEGACY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR
The First World War and its subsequent peace settlements gave rise to new ambitions, rivalries and tensions. People had high expectations that the post-war peace settlement would create a new world order and ensure that the slaughter of the First World War was never repeated. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, created the League of Nations – an international body intended to promote peace and prevent war. However, the treaty was an uneasy compromise as each of the victorious Allies – Britain, America, France and Italy – looked to pursue their own interests. Germany was forced to surrender territory, disarm and pay for the war’s damage. These divisive conditions were criticised as overly vindictive by many in Britain and America. The treaty’s terms caused immediate outrage and lasting bitterness in Germany.
THE RETREAT FROM DEMOCRACY
The instability and insecurity of the 1920s and 1930s gave rise to political extremism in many European countries. People looked to authoritarian leadership as a political alternative. Fascist leader Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922 and almost all aspects of Italian life came under state control.
ITALY AND GERMANY ON THE MARCH
On 3 October 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia). Both countries were members of the League of Nations, and Italy’s aggression compelled the League to intervene. However, Britain and France struggled to coordinate an effective response. They imposed limited economic sanctions, which only pushed Italy away from Britain and France and into closer co-operation with Germany. Encouraged by the weak response to Italy’s attack on Abyssinia, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland on 7 March 1936.
This demilitarised zone had been established under the Treaty of Versailles as a buffer between Germany and France. Britain did not see the occupation as a threat to its interests or overall security and did not respond militarily. France, already politically and militarily insecure, was left feeling isolated internationally and did little to resist the occupation.
Hitler’s ambitions for German expansion became increasingly evident throughout 1938. German troops marched into Austria on 12 March and, with the enthusiastic support of most Austrians, the country was annexed to Germany the next day. There was little international resistance to this Anschluss, which many viewed as a natural union. However, Hitler’s demands for the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia created a crisis that brought Europe to the brink of war in September 1938.
The multi-ethnic state of Czechoslovakia had been created towards the end of the First World War. Many Germans living in Czechoslovakia wanted to re-join Germany. Most lived in an area along the German and Austrian borders, known as the Sudetenland. In the summer of 1938, Hitler threatened war if the Sudetenland was not ceded to Germany.
The Italian, British, French and German leaders met in Munich on 29 and 30 September. They agreed to accept German annexation of the Sudetenland and the British secured a peace pledge from Hitler. Czechoslovakia was not invited to take part in the discussions, but was forced to accept the Munich Agreement. Appeasement is the name given to Britain’s policy of accepting German expansion in Europe in the 1930s. It developed in response to Britain’s assessment of its political, economic and strategic situation and was heavily influenced by strong anti-war sentiment.