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Occupations, Agreements & Appeasement: Causes of the Second World War

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  • 0:05 Outbreak of WWII
  • 1:08 Provocations & Alliances
  • 3:58 Territorial Expansion
  • 8:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the events leading up to the Second World War. We will focus on the occupations, agreements, and appeasements that preceded Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939.

The Outbreak of World War II

It has often been said that Europe 'stumbled' into World War I in 1914. Historians of World War I often suggest the blame for the outbreak of war ought to be shared among a variety of countries. Most of these historians do not accept the idea that one single country was entirely to blame. Fast forward 25 years.

World War II was totally different. Europe did not accidentally 'stumble' into this war. Instead, it was brought about by the will of one man: Adolf Hitler. Hitler was to blame for World War II. Fueled by fanatical anti-Semitism and a desire to see the German Reich expand, Hitler started World War II when he sent troops to invade Poland in September 1939. Let's take a look at some of the events and circumstances that preceded the outbreak of war.

German Provocations and Alliances

After Adolf Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, he embarked upon a plan to restore German 'national honor' according to National Socialist aims. This involved defying the Treaty of Versailles by remilitarization and expanding German territorial claims.

In early 1936, the Rhineland was remilitarized, in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno treaties of 1925. For the most part, Germany's neighbors stood by idly, doing little to punish Hitler's Germany. A few months later, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Nazi Germany supported fascist, nationalist forces under the leadership of Francisco Franco. This was important because it allowed German weaponry to be tested in battle.

Throughout the 1930s, Germany secretly began rearming itself. For example, the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from having an air force. To get around this, Germany trained pilots in secret, and under the mantle of the German Air Sport Association. This organization was headed by Hermann Goering, who in a few years would be in charge of Germany's Luftwaffe, or air force. Similarly, Germany also began rebuilding its U-boat fleet in secret.

Toward the end of 1936, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, which was basically an anti-communist alliance in which the powers would consult with one another 'to safeguard common interests.' Italy joined the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1937, setting the foundation for the Rome-Berlin Axis. The Rome-Berlin Axis, or the alliance between Italy and Germany, was cemented under the Pact of Steel in May 1939. In September 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan agreed to the Tripartite Pact of 1940, formally establishing the Axis Powers.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1930s, Italy and Japan began invading their respective neighboring states. For example, Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, and Japan invaded China in 1937 and the Soviet Union in 1938. These events, and others like them, were 'red flags,' warning of an impending global war. The real tension, however, centered around Germany's plans for territorial expansion.

German Territorial Expansion

In March 1938, Germany annexed the Republic of Austria in what is called the Anschluss. This German word means 'union,' and usually refers to Austria being absorbed into Nazi Germany. This annexation did not come about overnight; for years Nazi Germany had supported the Austrian National Socialist Party in an attempt to win over the country.

Austria had a high percentage of ethnic Germans, and many people living in Austria saw themselves as basically German. Thus, when German troops crossed the border into Austria on the morning of March 12, 1938, they were greeted as heroes. Wehrmacht soldiers were greeted with flowers and celebrations. In the days to come, Hitler toured Austria, where he too was greeted enthusiastically. European powers did little to protest the Anschluss.

Realizing European neighbors were unwilling to confront him, Hitler proceeded to claim other regions in an attempt to expand the German Reich. Soon after the Anschluss of Austria, Hitler instigated the Sudeten Crisis. The Sudeten Crisis of 1938 stemmed from Hitler's desire to see the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia annexed to Germany. Hitler essentially employed the same scheme he did against Austria; he reasoned that because the Sudetenland contained high percentages of ethnic Germans, the region should belong to Germany.

The dispute between the Western European powers and Germany over the Sudetenland was finally resolved in the Munich Agreement. This settlement between France, Great Britain, Italy, and Germany, permitted Germany to annex the Sudetenland in exchange for Hitler's guarantee that Germany would make no more territorial demands in Europe. Sadly, representatives from Czechoslovakia were not even invited to the settlement meeting; the Western European democracies basically turned their back on Czechoslovakia.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain played a prominent role in negotiating the deal. After an agreement had been worked out, he famously claimed to have secured 'peace for our time,' as he excitedly waved the paper agreement in the air. Because of this, Chamberlin's reputation remains controversial. He is widely seen as embodying Europe's policy of appeasement. What is appeasement? In the context of World War II, appeasement refers to Europe's policy of appeasing Hitler; it refers to Europe's refusal to stand up to Hitler, instead giving in to his demands.

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