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WWII: Context and Causes
We have studied many trends in the years from 1919 to the 1930s that set the stage for World War Two. Some of the key trends are worth repeating here.
First, WWI left behind a host of unresolved problems and lingering tensions between peoples, tensions that quickly became part of the social fabric of different societies. These tensions caused friction between states and within states. Italy, for example, disagreed with the Versailles agreements and left the peace conference over broken promises of land on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. This would be a key rallying point in the populist platform of the fascists. In Yugoslavia, Croats and Serbs jockeyed for power in the newly unified state. In Czechoslovakia, Slovaks felt marginalized by Czechs. In Hungary, bitter feelings remained at the loss of historically and culturally significant territories. And in Germany, the notion of the “November Criminals” became a central concept on the far right of the German political spectrum and specifically for the Nazi Party. Around the world, WWI left deep scars. The failure of the big three powers in Paris to include a statement of racial equality frustrated and angered the Japanese delegation. The refusal to return German concession territory to China angered the Chinese. The lack of support for colonial independence caused tensions and opposition from Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Coined the “war to end all wars,” World War One instead helped set the stage for two decades of political instability.
Second, the 19th century liberal vision of politics and economics was in shambles by the middle of the 1930s. The liberal vision of politics called for an end of traditional elite power, the development of representative government, the expansion of suffrage, and in general the expansion of the power of the citizenry to rule the state. In a practical sense, liberal politics meant democracy and parliamentary government, or government through the coalition of political parties (or in the name of a majority party as in the United States). Economically, liberalism meant the expansion of global capitalism and the removal of all possible barriers to trade. Liberal politics could not withstand challenges from the political fringes, mostly from the nationalist and authoritarian right-wing, which fused the interests of conservative elites (often military) with a dynamic, young populism of the middle, lower middle and working classes. Democracy and representational government came to be seen the world over as weak, ineffective, and maladroit. Crisis required the opposite: strength, decisiveness, and social coordination. Moreover, the powerful ideological tools of the time like nationalism, race, and ethnicity became central aspects of rightwing authoritarian politics and were used to pummel the liberal opposition. Economic liberalism fared no better. The global economic depression that began in 1929 and lasted through the first half of the 1930s called the entire global economic model into question. Even states like England and the United States that backed economic liberalism walked back from it to varying degrees. The U.S., as we learned in a previous chapter, instituted a regime of protective tariffs and saw the government became much more involved in regulating and planning the national economy. For countries like Germany or Japan, the economic conditions fueled nationalist fervor and imperial ambitions. If global capitalism had subjugated the Japanese and German people, leaders argued, the response should be to break free of capitalism’s strictures and to seize control of enough territory and resources to be economically and materially self-sufficient. Soviet Russia was a trendsetter in this sense, having moved painfully toward autarky already in the late 1920s. By the middle of the 1930s, the liberal dream had vanished in many parts of the world. The future seemed to be with authoritarianism and state economic planning. Emerging leaders around the world looked to Hitler and Mussolini, to the Nazis and the fascists, as exemplary of a new modern politics.
Third, the global economic depression highlighted and deepened problems associated with a longer-term process of worldwide social transformation. As we discussed in various chapters, agriculture was becoming more concentrated and more specialized, causing peoples and nations to rely on a small number of cash-crops, the profits from which most often went to the landowning or financial elite or to large international corporations. Manufacturing concentrated people in urban areas and was subject to dramatic fluctuations based on the unpredictability of supply and demand. Investment and savings were not protected in any way by the state, meaning that people’s wealth was subject to rapid decline in the midst of economic downturn. While global, industrial capitalism enabled the rise of a broader middle class, it also saw the creation of armies of wage laborers living on the precarious border of subsistence and now without the traditional means of support in the form of family or community production. And the middle class itself was vulnerable and nervous—ready to align with whatever powerful interest seemed to vouchsafe its tenuous social position vis-à-vis the working class.
Fourth, after World War One the allied powers were war weary, economically strained (Britain and France), or isolationist (the United States). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Anglo-American powers sought peaceful solutions to global problems and a way to reduce military confrontation through negotiated settlements, even if this meant limiting their own capacity to fight. On a higher level, the League of Nations was toothless and didn’t contain some of the principle states in the world: Soviet Russia, the United States, and Germany. Absent an assertive hegemonic power (a world’s policeman) and a robust international body, bad actors had tremendous room to maneuver. Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese Control Faction took full advantage of this international vacuum.
Fifth, much of the Western world remained preoccupied after 1917 with the fate and actions of the Russian communists. If capitalism was seen to be inherently destabilizing and uncontrollable, communism or Bolshevism seemed to be one potential answer, as it emphasized utter state control over all land and production. The very existence of Bolshevism as a possible answer to the conundrums of the modern world convinced or motivated people to seek refuge in authoritarian alternatives that seemed strong enough to hold back the Bolshevik wave. It is no coincidence that this argument was central to Nazi propaganda—its appeal to Germans was visceral and real.
Sixth, around the world notions of race and ethnicity were at their most virulent. The breakdown of the multinational empires led in the aftermath of WWI to an incredible surge in ethnic and national violence, including cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. European relations with the colonial world reinforced and deepened these ideas. Racial categories, overlapping with nationalism, became the basis for a new style of oppressive politics in Africa, Europe, Japan and even in the U.S. south with the rise of the newly reconstituted Ku Klux Klan, which saw its membership peak in the millions by the mid-1920s. By the 1930s, racially or ethnically motivated violence had rich precedent. It is in this context that Adolf Hitler, as he urged his officers before the invasion of Poland to show no mercy, asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Ethnic cleansing, social engineering, and genocide had become tools of the state.
Even if these six preconditions existed, what does it say about the clauses of the war? Unlike WWI, the origins of which are a historian’s black hole, the causes of WWII are relatively simple. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan prepared for war, planned for war, and launched massive attacks on their neighbors in the name of national glory, national redemption, racial superiority and economic autarky. There is no doubt who brought the world to war in the 1930s. While in 1914, all nations wanted to be seen as acting defensively, in the late 1930s the axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) prized attack, action, and aggression.