Events preceding World War II in Europe

Events preceding World War II in Europe

The events preceding World War II in Europe are closely tied to the rise of fascism, especially in Nazi Germany.

Aftermath of World War I

The origins of World War II are generally viewed as having its roots in the aftermath of the First World War. In that war, the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II had been defeated along with its allies, chiefly by a combination of the United Kingdom, United States, and France.

The war was directly blamed by the victors on Kaiser's Germany; it was Germany that effectively started the war with an attack on France through Belgium. France had in 1871 suffered a defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and demanded revenge for its financial devastation during the First World War (and its humiliation in the earlier war), which ensured that the various peace treaties, specifically the Treaty of Versailles imposed tough financial war reparations and restrictions on Germany in the Aftermath of World War I. The British naval blockade of Germany was not lifted until the treaty was signed at the end of June 1919.

Weimar Republic becomes the Third Reich

The Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, blamed Germany's ruined economy on the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, on faults of democracy, and on the legend of the "stab in the back." In Germany, as in post-Austro-Hungarian Austria, citizens recalled the pre-war years under autocratic rule as prosperous but the post-war years under weak democratic rule as chaotic and economically disastrous. The situation was further aggravated by the world-wide economic depression that followed the Wall Street crash in 1929. Left-wing and right-wing anti-democratic parties in the Reichstag (the German parliament) obstructed parliamentary work, while different cabinets resorted to government by the special emergency powers of the Weimar constitution. This enabled the president and Cabinet to bypass the Parliament.

Hitler was appointed "Reichskanzler" (Chancellor) on January 30, 1933. The arson of the Reichstag building on February 27 — allegedly by a Dutch communist — was used as an excuse for the cancellation of civil and political liberties, enacted by the aged President Paul von Hindenburg and the right-wing coalition cabinet led by Hitler.

After new elections, a Nazi-led majority passed the Enabling Act on March 23. This transferred legislative powers to Hitler's cabinet. Hitler's remaining political opposition, the KPD and SPD, were banned, before Hitler turned on internal threats to his power during the Night of the Long Knives. Chief among those was Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Nazi Brown Shirts.

After President Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934, Hitler replaced the offices of chancellor and president with a single dictatorial position by declaring himself Führer ("Leader") of a new German Reich – the Third Reich. With little resistance from its leadership, the oath taken by members of Germany's armed forces was modified to become a statement of absolute obedience to Hitler.


The Italian economy also fell into a deep slump following World War I. 1914's Red Week had expanded into the post-war Biennio rosso, and many were gravely worried that a Bolshevik-style communist revolution was imminent.

After several liberal governments failed to rein in these threats, and the fascists had increased their public profile by highly visible punishment expeditions to supposedly crush the socialist threat, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy invited Benito Mussolini to form a government on October 29,1922. The fascists maintained an armed paramilitary wing, which they employed to fight anarchists, communists, and socialists.

Within a few years, Mussolini had consolidated dictatorial power, and Italy became a police state. On January 7, 1935, he and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval signed the Franco–Italian Agreement giving him a free hand in the Abyssinia Crisis with Ethiopia, in return for an alliance against Hitler. There was little international protest. He then sent large numbers of troops to Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, the two colonies of Italy that bordered Ethiopia.

Britain attempted to broker peace but failed; Mussolini was bent on conquest. Britain then declared an arms embargo on both Italy and Ethiopia. Britain also cleared its warships from the Mediterranean, further allowing Italy unhindered access. Shortly after the League of Nations exonerated both parties in the Walwal incident, Italy attacked Ethiopia, resulting in the Second Italo–Abyssinian War.

Shortly after Italy conquered Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War began. During the Spanish Civil War, seen by many as a testing ground for the Second World War, he provided troops, weapons and other aid to Francisco Franco's nationalists.

On April 7 1939, Italy invaded Albania, after short campaign Albania was occupied and joined Italy in personal union.

panish Civil War

While many nations refused to become involved in the Spanish Civil War, notably Britain and France, troops were sent by both Hitler and Mussolini to aid the Spanish nationalists, which included those with fascist leanings. It would prove to be a precursor to many of the tactics and methods employed in the Second World War, such as the test bombing of Guernica, which aimed to see how effective the Blitz would be. Spain was neutral during World War II, but the division during the civil war of fascism (Germany and Italy) versus democracy (many volunteers joined the forces against the nationalists from countries with an official stance of neutrality) and communism (the USSR) was repeated during the Second World War.

German expansionism

Meanwhile in Germany, once political consolidation "(Gleichschaltung)" was in place, the Nazis turned their attention to foreign policy with several increasingly daring acts.

On March 16, 1935, Hitler ignored the Versailles Treaty and ordered Germany to re-arm, reintroducing military conscription. The treaty had limited the German Reichswehr to 100,000 men with few arms.

These steps produced nothing more than official protests from the United Kingdom and France; they were more serious about enforcing the economic provisions of the treaty than its military restrictions. Many Britons felt the restrictions placed on Germany in Versailles "had" been too harsh, and they believed that Hitler's aim was simply to undo the extremes of the treaty, not to go beyond that. This sentiment was underscored by the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which authorized Germany to build a fleet one third the size of the Royal Navy and put an end to British naval operations in the Baltic Sea, granting Germany supremacy there.

Hitler moved troops into the demilitarized Rhineland on March 7, 1936. But, as before, Hitler's defiance was met with inaction, despite Poland's proposal to put the Franco-Polish Military Alliance in action.


The first non-violent German conquest was Austria. After Italy had joined Germany in the Anti-Comintern Pact, quickly removing the main obstacle of an "Anschluss" of Austria, Germany announced the annexation on March 12, 1938, making it the province "Gau Ostmark" of what was now Greater Germany.


With Austria secured, Hitler turned his attention to the German-speaking population living in the "Sudetenland" border regions of Czechoslovakia. In the breakup of the Austrian Empire, these areas neither remained with Austria nor were allowed to be attached to Germany, but were given to Czechoslovakia. This country soon had a large and modern army backed with a huge armament industry, and had military alliances with France. Czechoslovakia also had an informal alliance with The USSR, due to President Beneš' firm backing of Stalin in the run-up to WWII. Czechoslovakia also had informal links with England, this was largely due to the fact England were militarily allied with France who had defence agreements with Czechoslovakia. Despite all this, Hitler, encouraged by reluctance of major European powers to stop his violation of post WWI treaties, was determined to go to the edge of war. Hitler was convinced that France would shrink back again, not fulfilling her treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. His first order of business was to seize the mountainous border regions called "Sudetenland", populated by a significant German-speaking majority, and was based on the right of self-determination for a unification with Germany. This region formed about 1/3 of Bohemia (western Czechoslovakia) in terms of territory, population and economy, and was claimed to be vital for Czechoslovakia's existence. With Austria in German hands, this western part of Czechoslovakia, equipped with a huge defense system that was larger than the Maginot line (see Czechoslovak border fortifications), was nearly surrounded by Germany.

Following lengthy negotiations and blatant war threats from Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with French leaders tried to appease Hitler. In the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, the major European powers allowed, for the sake of "peace in our time", German troops to occupy the "Sudetenland". Czechoslovakia, which at that time already had mobilized over one million men and was prepared to fight for independence, was not allowed to participate in the conference. When the French and British negotiators informed the Czechoslovak representatives about the agreement, and that if Czechoslovakia would not accept it, France and Britain would consider Czechoslovakia to be responsible for war, President Edvard Beneš capitulated. German forces entered the Sudetenland unopposed, celebrated by the local population. Soon after, Polish and Hungarian forces also invaded parts of Czechoslovakia. Poland annexed the Zaolzie area.

Hitler continued to put pressure on Czech government. On March 14 Slovakia declared her independence under Jozef Tiso, which was recognized by France, Britain and other important powers. Emil Hácha then accepted a German occupation of the remaining parts of the Czech lands on the next day. From the Prague Castle, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was proclaimed by Hitler.


Soon after, the Memel territory which had been separated from Germany in 1920 and annexed by Lithuania was returned to Germany ("heim ins Reich").


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