World War Two began in September 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Germany following Germany’s invasion of Poland. Although the outbreak of war was triggered by Germany's invasion of Poland, the causes of the war are more complex.
Treaty of Versailles
In 1919, Lloyd George of England, Orlando of Italy, Clemenceau of France and Woodrow Wilson from the US met to discuss how Germany should pay for the damage world war one had caused.
Woodrow Wilson wanted a treaty based on his 14-point plan which he believed would bring peace to Europe.
Georges Clemenceau wanted revenge. He wanted to be sure that Germany could never start another war again.
Lloyd George personally agreed with Wilson but knew that the British public agreed with Clemenceau. He tried to find a compromise between Wilson and Clemenceau.
Germany had been expecting a treaty based on Wilson’s 14 points and were not happy with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. However, they had no choice but to sign the document.
The main terms of the Treaty of Versailles were:
War Guilt Clause - Germany should accept the blame for starting World War One
Reparations - Germany had to pay £6,600 million for the damage caused by the war
Disarmament - Germany was only allowed to have a small army and six naval ships. No tanks, no airforce and no submarines were allowed. The Rhineland area was to be de-militarised.
Territorial Clauses - Land was taken away from Germany and given to other countries. Anschluss (union with Austria) was forbidden.
The German people were very unhappy about the treaty and thought that it was too harsh. Germany could not afford to pay the money and during the 1920s the people in Germany were very poor. There were not many jobs and the price of food and basic goods was high. People were dissatisfied with the government and voted to power a man who promised to rip up the Treaty of Versailles. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Almost immediately he began secretly building up Germany’s army and weapons. In 1934 he increased the size of the army, began building warships and created a German airforce. Compulsory military service was also introduced
Although Britain and France were aware of Hitler’s actions, they were also concerned about the rise of Communism and believed that a stronger Germany might help to prevent the spread of Communism to the West.
In 1936 Hitler ordered German troops to enter the Rhineland. At this point the German army was not very strong and could have been easily defeated. Yet neither France nor Britain was prepared to start another war.
Hitler also made two important alliances during 1936. The first was called the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact and allied Hitler’s Germany with Mussolini’s Italy. The second was called the Anti-Comitern Pact and allied Germany with Japan.
Hitler’s next step was to begin taking back the land that had been taken away from Germany. In March 1938, German troops marched into Austria. The Austrian leader was forced to hold a vote asking the people whether they wanted to be part of Germany.
The results of the vote were fixed and showed that 99% of Austrian people wanted Anschluss (union with Germany). The Austrian leader asked Britain, France and Italy for aid. Hitler promised that Anschluss was the end of his expansionist aims and not wanting to risk war, the other countries did nothing.
Hitler did not keep his word and six months later demanded that the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia be handed over to Germany.
Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Britain, met with Hitler three times during September 1938 to try to reach an agreement that would prevent war.
The Munich Agreement stated that Hitler could have the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia provided that he promised not to invade the rest of Czechoslovakia. Hitler was not a man of his word and in March 1939 invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. Despite calls for help from the Czechoslovak government, neither Britain nor France was prepared to take military action against Hitler. However, some action was now necessary and believing that Poland would be Hitler’s next target, both Britain and France promised that they would take military action against Hitler if he invaded Poland. Chamberlain believed that, faced with the prospect of war against Britain and France, Hitler would stop his aggression. Chamberlain was wrong. German troops invaded Poland on 1st September 1939.
Failure of Appeasement
Appeasement means giving in to someone provided their demands are seen as reasonable. During the 1930s, many politicians in both Britain and France came to see that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had placed restrictions on Germany that were unfair. Hitler's actions were seen as understandable and justifiable.
When Germany began re-arming in 1934, many politicians felt that Germany had a right to re-arm in order to protect herself. It was also argued that a stronger Germany would prevent the spread of Communism to the west. In 1936, Hitler argued that because France had signed a new treaty with Russia, Germany was under threat from both countries and it was essential to German security that troops were stationed in the Rhineland. France was not strong enough to fight Germany without British help and Britain was not prepared to go to war at this point. Furthermore, many believed that since the Rhineland was a part of Germany it was reasonable that German troops should be stationed there.
In May 1937, Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister of Britain. He believed that the Treaty of Versailles had treated Germany badly and felt that giving in to Hitler's demands would prevent another war. This policy, adopted by Chamberlain's government became known as the policy of Appeasement.
The Munich Agreement, signed by the leaders of Germany, Britain, France and Italy, agreed that the Sudetenland would be returned to Germany and that no further territorial claims would be made by Germany. The Czech government was not invited to the conference and protested about the loss of the Sudetenland. They felt that they had been betrayed by both Britain and France with whom alliances had been made. However, the Munich Agreement was generally viewed as a triumph and an excellent example of securing peace through negotiation rather than war.
This famous picture shows Chamberlain returning from Munich with the paper signed by Hitler declaring 'Peace in our time.'
When Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, he broke the terms of the Munich Agreement. Although it was realised that the policy of appeasement had failed, Chamberlain was still not prepared to take the country to war over "..a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing…" Instead, he made a guarantee to come to Poland's aid if Hitler invaded Poland.
Where was the League of Nations and why did it fail? The League of Nations was an international organization set up in 1919 to help keep world peace. It was intended that all countries would be members of the League and that if there were disputes between countries they could be settled by negotiation rather than by force. If this failed then countries would stop trading with the aggressive country and if that failed then countries would use their armies to fight. In theory the League of Nations was a good idea and did have some early successes. But ultimately it was a failure.
Not all countries joined the League - Although the idea for the League of Nations had come from Woodrow Wilson, there was a change of government in the United States before the signing of the treaty and the new Republican government refused to join. As a punishment for having started World War One, Germany was not allowed to join and Russia was also excluded due to a growing fear of Communism. Other countries decided not to join and some joined but later left.
The League had no power - The main weapon of the League was to ask member countries to stop trading with an aggressive country. However, this did not work because countries could still trade with non-member countries. When the world was hit by depression in the late 1920s countries were reluctant to lose trading partners to other non-member countries.
The League had no army - Soldiers were to be supplied by member countries. However, countries were reluctant to get involved and risk provoking an aggressive country into taking direct action against them and failed to provide troops.
Unable to act quickly - The Council of the League of Nations only met four times a year and decisions had to be agreed by all nations. When countries called for the League to intervene, the League had to set up an emergency meeting, hold discussions and gain the agreement of all members. This process meant that the League could not act quickly to stop an act of aggression.
The Time Had Come
After having gained both Austria and Czechoslovakia, Hitler was confident that he could again move east, this time acquiring Poland without having to fight Britain or France. (To eliminate the possibility of the Soviet Union fighting if Poland were attacked, Hitler made a pact with the Soviet Union - the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.)
So that Germany did not officially seem the aggressor (which it was), Hitler needed an excuse for attacking Poland. It was Heinrich Himmler who came up with the idea; thus the plan was code-named Operation Himmler.
On the night of August 31, 1939, Nazis took an unknown prisoner from one of their concentration camps, dressed him in a Polish uniform, took him to the town of Gleiwitz (on the border of Poland and Germany), and then shot him. The staged scene with the dead prisoner dressed in a Polish uniform was supposed to appear as a Polish attack against a German radio station.
Hitler used this staged attack as the excuse to invade Poland.
At 4:45 on the morning of September 1, 1939 (the morning following the staged attack), German troops entered Poland. The sudden, immense attack by the Germans was called a Blitzkrieg ("lightening war").
The German air attack hit so quickly that most of Poland's air force was destroyed while still on the ground. To hinder Polish mobilization, the Germans bombed bridges and roads. Groups of marching soldiers were machine-gunned from the air.
But the Germans did not just aim for soldiers, they also shot at civilians. Groups of fleeing civilians often found themselves under attack. The more confusion and chaos the Germans could create, the slower Poland could mobilize its forces.
Using 62 divisions, six of which were armored and ten mechanized, the Germans invaded Poland by land. Poland was not defenseless, but they could not compete with Germany's motorized army. With only 40 divisions, none of which were armored, and with nearly their entire air force demolished, the Poles were at a severe disadvantage. The Polish cavalry were no match for German tanks.
Declarations of War
On September 1, 1939, the beginning of the German attack, Great Britain and France sent Adolf Hitler an ultimatum - either withdraw German forces from Poland or Great Britain and France would go to war against Germany.
Hitler's reaction was to ignore Britain's ultimatum and On September 3, with Germany's forces penetrating deeper into Poland, Great Britain and France both declared war on Germany.
At 11:15 AM The Prime Minister interrupted the regular radio broadcasts to announce that Britain and Germany were at war. At 11:27 AM London's air raid sirens began to wail. It was only a test, but unlike the many tests that had been conducted before, this one struck home - the country really was at war. Sandbags were hastily filled to protect important buildings, gas masks became required equipment for civilians, the nightly blackout became a way of life and children were herded aboard evacuation trains to escape the danger of the city.
Defeat of France
It took only six weeks for France to surrender to the German invaders. Thousands of civilians fled before it. Traveling south in cars, wagons, bicycles or simply on foot, the desperate refugees took with them what few possessions they could salvage. It wasn't long before the roads were impassable to the French troops who were headed north in an attempt to reach the battlefield.
Paris was abandoned and declared an Open City. The ultimate humiliation came at the signing of the armistice on June 22. Hitler dictates that the French surrender take place at Compiegne, a forest north of Paris. This is the same spot where twenty-two years earlier the Germans had signed the Armistice ending World War I. In the forest was a great granite block which stood some three feet above the ground. Hitler, followed by the others, walked slowly over to it, stepped up on it, and read the inscription engraved in great high letters on that block:
"HERE ON THE ELEVENTH OF NOVEMBER 1918 SUCCUMBED THE CRIMINAL PRIDE OF THE GERMAN EMPIRE... VANQUISHED BY THE FREE PEOPLES WHICH IT TRIED TO ENSLAVE."
A CBS radio reporter said the following:
He [Hitler] glanced slowly around the clearing… [as] his eyes meet ours, you [could] grasp the depth of his hatred. But there is triumph there too - revengeful, triumphant hate… He swiftly snapped his hands on his hips, arched his shoulders, planted his feet wide apart. It is a magnificent gesture of defiance, of burning contempt for this place now and all that it has stood for in the twenty-two years since it witnessed the humbling of the German Empire.
Under the terms, two thirds of France is to be occupied by the Germans. The French army is to be disbanded. The British now stood alone, awaiting Hitler's inevitable attempt to invade and conquer their island.
Germans began air attacks in early summer designed to seize mastery of the skies over England in preparation for invasion. Day after day the Germans sent armadas of bombers and fighters over England hoping to lure the RAF into battle and annihilate the defenders. Day after day the RAF scrambled their pilots into the sky to do battle often three, four or five times a day. Britain's air defences bent but did not break. By September, the Germans lost enthusiasm for the assault. Hitler postponed and then cancelled invasion plans, turning his attention to the defeat of Russia.