How Did WW2 Begin?

In just five and a half years, the Second World War cost the lives of 70–85 million people. It is indisputably the bloodiest chapter in human history, involving the mechanized slaughter of millions of civilians. 

No horrors from the pages of literature can rival those witnessed in Europe’s death camps or the post-nuclear wastelands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, when it comes to asking why WW2 took place, finding reasons or motivations that seem to make sense of the wanton destruction can be challenging. 

A large body of academic work (one growing every year) pores over the events leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939. It is no exaggeration to say that history enthusiasts could spend their lives researching it. 

Many divisions, rivalries, and hatreds in early-twentieth-century Europe had their roots in medieval and early modern history. And the rampant nationalism that would cast a spell over populations was primarily a 19th-century invention. In a word, WW2 never lends itself to easy answers. Antony Beevor has written that WW2 was “clearly an amalgamation of conflicts” – conflicts and divisions stretching from Western Europe to the Far East.

However difficult it may be to answer the why question, we can identify a series of core events and conditions that precipitated Germany’s invasion of Poland on the 1st of September 1939, the event that traditionally marks the war’s beginning. Join us today as we discuss some of these contributing factors.
And if you’re passionate about history like us, why not consider joining us on one of our Historical Tours of WW2 Poland or WW2 Day Tours in Poland?

The Wreck of the Great War

The whirlwind of the First World War left a trail of destruction in its wake. Everything was about to be reordered; the pre-war world was gone forever. Around 20 million people had lost their lives.

Britain and France were utterly spent – their governments and populations exhausted, their economies battered. America felt compelled to turn its back on a Europe that seemed irredeemably envenomed by centuries-old hatreds. 

The combination of  World War I, the 1918 crop failure, and associated economic crises led to the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a state that had encompassed much of central and eastern Europe in 1914). Russia was embarking on its own bloody civil war. And Italy was furious that Britain and France had not given them the Adriatic as promised in the Treaty of London in 1915 – their 531,000 fallen brothers seemed to have died in vain.

Meanwhile, Germany felt humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The German Empire was no more. In an instant, Germany lost a tenth of its land and the entirety of its overseas colonies. 1.7 million Germans had lost their lives, and the country’s industries were in a disastrous state. 

But worse than any of these direct effects of the conflict, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles pained Germany the most. The country was made to take full responsibility for a conflict they did not believe they had started, they were forced to severely limit their armed forces and were obligated to pay reparations to the war’s victors. 

As French General Ferdinand Foch declared prophetically in 1919, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” The stage was set for an even greater cataclysm. 

The Birth of Fascism

In July 1914, 41-year-old Benito Mussolini, then a socialist, declared, “Down with the war. Down with arms and up with humanity.” But as outlined above, the First World War was to bring about extraordinary changes. 

By October of the same year, Mussolini had turned his back on socialism and founded the pro-war newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia. His sudden switching from one political ideology to another directly resulted from the war, which he argued now necessitated a focus on national identity and loyalty rather than on economic class. 

Mussolini signed up to fight and ended up serving nine months on the front line, enduring severe injuries from shrapnel in the process. His military service was to bolster his reputation when it came time to resume his revolutionary activities as the editor of Il Popolo d’Italia.

Though his ideas had shifted, Mussolini insisted he was still a socialist, albeit now a national socialist (a term later used by the Nazis). He was still arguing for a revolutionary takeover of Italy, but now he said it would have to be led by a vanguard of society’s most impassioned, able, and heroic men instead of the Proletariat. 

Founded in 1921, the National Fascist Party would soon take control of the country. With his natural theatricality and well-delivered speeches, Mussolini sought to exploit every drop of resentment in Italy. His nationalism appealed to a population left indignant by Italy’s perceived mistreatment following WW1. And his aggression appealed to the many Italians who feared the growth of Communism. 

The youthful regime showed its true colours in 1924 when they assassinated  Giacomo Matteotti, Italy’s greatest member of the opposition and critic of Fascism. Mussolini revelled in his newfound position and set about making Italy a nation to be feared and, importantly, a nation with an empire. 

The question of what Mussolini would eventually want from the Second World War is more complex, but there is no doubt that his drive to be a new Caesar caused him to cosy up to Hitler, forming a relationship in which each man would be encouraged to follow a path of wanton violence by the other. 

Hitler Comes to Power

The Nazi’s rise to power was met with several false starts. Today it is easy to forget that rather than casting a spell over Weimar Germany and snatching power in a heartbeat, the Nazis stagnated in relative obscurity for some time. 

Founded in Munich in 1920, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party) was created through a coming together of various right-wing paramilitary groups. From the beginning, the party was extremist – a hyper-nationalistic, racist group that defined itself by what it stood against as much as what it stood for.

The Nazis were anti-bourgeois, anti-Marxist, anti-Slav, anti-capitalist, anti-homosexual, and, of course, anti-semitic. They poured scorn on anybody who could be said to represent the established order and just about anyone who fell outside it. Unlike Mussolini’s Fascisti, who spoke of Italian cultural superiority, the Nazis were fixated on questions of ethnic and genetic superiority.

Hitler rose to prominence in the movement almost straight away. He had a talent for whipping crowds into paranoid frenzies, a way of collectivising a crowd’s grievances and resentment into a unified force. 

But the Nazi’s eventual rise to power didn’t really begin until 1930 when it won 109 seats in the Reichstag. The 1929 Wall Street Crash had brought German society to its lowest ebb since the days following their defeat in WW1. All the hatred that so characterised Germany’s early 1920s came back with a vengeance. 

In 1933, with mass support from the German people, President Paul von Hindenberg made Adolf Hitler Germany’s chancellor. It would only take two more years before the Nazis had firm control of German politics and Hitler was running the show.

Appeasement of Hitler

From the moment the Nazis took full control of Germany and established the Third Reich in 1933, they began a process of Nazification. Swastikas began appearing everywhere, lining city boulevards and hanging from every official building. The Nazi Party anthem, the “Horst-Wessel-Lied” (“Horst Wessel Song”), was made a second national anthem. 

To consolidate his power, Hitler purged the SA in 1934, having its leader Ernst Röhm murdered, along with around 200 others. But the most significant change was the immediate turning of Germany into a military state running on a military economy. Rearmament began in haste as Hitler started drawing his plans for war. 

A series of escalating military moves followed: German soldiers marched into the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty (1936); Hitler sends supplies to the Nationalist forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936); Germany takes Austria (1938); Hitler’s takes the entire Czech half of Czechoslovakia (1939). 

Throughout this ghastly prelude to the Second World War, Hitler was appeased. With countries like the United Kingdom and France still recovering from the effects of their last global battle,  there was no hunger for a fight. However, with time, it became clear that Hitler was only becoming more determined to conquer as much of Europe as possible. 

In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union came together to sign the  Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (or Nazi-Soviet Pact). The agreement was not only a promise that the two dictatorships would not attack one another but secret stipulations effectively outlined how Nazi Germany and Communist Russia would attack parts of Central and Eastern Europe and divide up the territories. 

One such country was Poland, a thorn in the side of both states. Germany was desperate to take back control of the Free City of Danzig, which would create a direct link between Germany and German East Prussia. 

Russia, on the other hand, needed little excuse to invade Poland. The two countries had been bitter enemies for centuries. Russia was still reeling from the Battle of Warsaw (or Miracle on the Vistula) when Poland repulsed and defeated the invading Red Army.

Germany and Russia Invade Poland

On the 1st of September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The first assault took place at the Westerplatte, and as the news spread around the world, Britain and France declared war on Germany, the two Western powers having given Poland assurances that they would come to Poland’s aid in the event of an invasion. 

Hitler’s pursuit of Lebensraum (‘Living Space’) was now in motion. On the 17th of September, Stalin’s Russia followed the Nazis into Poland, taking control of the eastern half of the country. By the 6th of October, the campaign was essentially over, with Germany and Russia dividing Poland between them according to the terms of the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty (much like they had done with the Third Division of Poland in 1795).

A match had been tossed onto the powder keg of war.

See Poland with Poland at War Tours…

Succinctly describing the origins of WW2 is a difficult, even treacherous, task. Countless distinct threads make up this story. Interpretations are contested, and the debate can become heated around specific details. However, we must not allow ourselves to obscure the narrative for its own sake unnecessarily. 

Though the tragic events of the First World War provided fertile soil for fanatical Communist and Fascist regimes to seize power, individual men were morally responsible for the outbreak of war. 

Of course, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and their respective party goons were the lead actors in this gory tragedy. We must, though, remember that every cheering crowd that ran to a motorcade to catch sight of their favourite dictator bears its part of the blame.

Travelling to Gdansk, where WW2 began? Book a place on our Gdansk WW2 Day Tour and learn the history of this incredible city in the company of expert guides.

If you have any questions, please get in touch.

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