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The Road to the Second World War

For France and Great Britain, World War I ended in victory. Germany had been defeated and her military power dismantled by the provisions set forth in the Treaty of Versailles. Although France and Great Britain were devastated by the loss of human lives and property, their economy had been "re-energised and expanded" (Keegan pg. 25) along with the their overseas holdings. The War also had a huge effect on man kinds perception of war. War had become regarded as an evil and the aggressors were be punished to pay for the destruction they caused. European nations united to admonish Germany for her part in the war through the Treaty of Versailles. The war to end all wars turned out to be one of the major factors that led to the outbreak of World War II.

At the end of World War I Europe lay in ruins. Over 20 Million soldiers and civilians were either killed or permanently disabled by the fighting. The war had cost $28 billion to include both material costs and property damage. The horrible situation in post war Europe did not alone cause Europe to fall into war in 1939, Adolph Hitler was in most part the cause. The outcome of World War I had greatly disappointed him, he was in the hospital recovering from a mustard gas attack when the war ended. Shortly after recovering he was recruited by the army to keep an eye on the various extremist groups, mostly comprised of former soldiers who had been forced out of the army after the war, that had formed in and around Munich. While sitting in on one of the German Workers Party's meetings, Hitler became intrigued by the cause and was soon offered a position on the executive council. Using his gift of public speaking, he quickly rose in the ranks and became leader of the party. The failed Beer Hall putsch in 1923 landed him in the Landsburg prison for his part. During the year he spent in prison he wrote the infamous Mein Kampf, My Struggle, which mapped out his political views and became the catalyst for the Nazi movement.

Hitler was a man of great pride and ambition which conflicted with this extreme loneliness and isolation. He was unsatisfied with the whole world and did not trust he fellow man. Deep down Hitler lacked compassion and harbored a hatred towards Jews. But what enabled him to expand his movement was his ability to get the trust and attention of Germans. To accomplish this he told them what they wanted to hear, exploiting their fears forcing them to be drawn closer to his beliefs.

When France and the Soviet Union signed the Franco-Soviet Pact, Hitler regarded that as a breech of the Treaty of Locarno and ordered German soldiers to re-occupy the Rhineland. His four-year plan of 1936 was the beginning of Germany's massive rearming of herself. Hitler believed that war with the Soviets was inevitable and rearmament would ensure that his armies could meet and overcome the threat. The occupation and fortification of the Rhineland was to prevent France from coming to the aid of Eastern Europe. Surprisingly France did nothing to counter this move and a fearful Austria entered into an agreement with Germany. In this agreement Germany agreed to recognize Austria's sovereignty in return for Austria's announcement that she was a Germany state.

Britain was very cautious of the events taking place in Europe. Neville Chamberlain followed a policy of appeasement, believing that Britain must be spared the cost of armaments in order to spend more on social welfare programs. His military leaders informed him that Britain was not prepared to fight another great war and he was frightened when Italy entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact, joining Germany and Japan.

Hitler told Germans that "his Germanic Reich was a bulwark against bolshevism and Jewry...that he intended to create a nation in arms to secure Lebensraum in the east." (Kitchen, Martin, Europe Between the Wars, A Political History, Longman 1988 New York) Hitler believed this struggle for living space was the key to a new foreign policy in the ever changing world. His plan was to conquer former Germanic lands in the east and then move eastward displacing the inferior races of people and replacing them with German farmers. Hitler believed that only the higher races could form capable governments and others must be kept from doing so, to keep them from infecting the world. Hitler tried to justify his hatred of Jews by insinuating that "the Jews' ultimate ambition was to deflect the higher races from their God-given mission of expansion." (Carr p. 13) To him Jews lived the life of a parasite, exploiting the good fortunes of the higher classes of people to their own gain.

Hitler knew that his policy of Lebensraum would eventually lead to war with the Soviets. But this did not deter him and his staff from planning an invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia. He knew if he delayed expansion the Nazi movement and the German economy would die out in the coming year, thereby, missing his chance. Operation Green was then set into place and German War Minster, Blomberg, issued an order to the armed forces stating that "When Germany has achieved complete preparedness for war in all spheres, then the military conditions will have been created for carrying out an offensive war against Czechoslovakia, so that the solution of the German problem of living space can be carried to a victorious conclusion even if one or another of the Great Powers intervene against us." (Kitchen p. 292) Germany had been hoping that Italy would go to war with France because then they could execute Operation Green without being fully prepared. When Hitler fired Blomberg in January 1937 he took over as Minister of War and put Austria high on his agenda. On March 11, Hitler ordered the invasion of Austria. The Nazis succeeded in a bloodless takeover and were welcomed by Austrians. The Nazis quickly silenced the little resistance there was and made Austria a German province, naming it Ostmark.

The successful invasion of Austria made Czechoslovakia more vulnerable to a German attack from the southern flank. Inside Czechoslovakia, Sudenten Germans met with the Government to formulate a solution to the impending crisis. British Prime Minister Chamberlain, in a speech to the House of Commons, stated that Britain's vital interests were not at stake in Czechoslovakia and encouraged them to give in to German demands. Both the Treaty of Locarno and the 1935 Treaty between the Soviets and Czechs had no provisions in it regarding an German invasion and Hitler saw this as an opportunity to place more pressure on them. On May 19, German troops provoked the Czechs on the boarder and causing them to mobilize their armies the following day. This incited France to warn the Germans "that France would provide Czechoslovakia with the utmost help if they attacked." (Kitchen p. 296) The British also said that they would not remain neutral. As tensions mounted throughout the summer months, Britain sent in Runciman to mediate a settlement.

Meanwhile the Germans were revising the Green Plan for military action in the near future. Both France and Britain backed down from their position on Czechoslovakia, encouraging them to give Germany the Sudetenland and Benes agreed to Germany's request. France still believed that Germany's goal was the total destruction of Czechoslovakia and persuaded Britain to stand by the remainder of the country. When Benes was to turn over the Sudetenland he changed his mind because the Soviets agreed to stand behind him. On September 21, Hitler met with Chamberlain at Bad Godesburg and informed him that the solution was unacceptable and he would immediately occupy the Sudetenland. Chamberlain protested this threat of force and Britain began build up its defenses. On September 26, Sir Horace Wilson met with Hitler in Berlin and was told that he would destroy Czechoslovakia and any further negotiations were useless. Chamberlain asked Mussolini to urge Hitler to meet at a four-powers conference in Munich where it was agreed that Germany would occupy the Sudetenland and the four powers would supervise the take over of the rest of Czechoslovakia. Upon returning home, Chamberlain and Daladier were greeted as heroes for adverting war. They did not know of Hitler's real intentions. Most of Czechoslovakia was soon dismantled with some of its land being given to Poland and Hungary. This small victory was soon shattered by the Nazi's actions on Kristallnacht.

While Germany was making final plans for the occupation of Czechoslovakia, she tried to persuade Poland to join the Anti-Soviet Alliance. Poland did not accept this offer that could have saved her from Nazi aggression and "it became obvious to all but the most purblind of appeasers that Poland was next on Hitler's list." (Kitchen p. 302) Germany continued to exert pressure on the remaining portion of Czechoslovakia. Hitler then asked Czechoslovakia for the immediate withdrawal from the League of Nations and to give Germany more control over her economy and foreign policy. Britain and France were not concerned with these turn of events, believing that Germany would first attack the West before turning to the east.

Slovaks inside Czechoslovakia were demanding autonomy from the rest to the country and were supporting Hitler. The Slovakian leaders were quickly arrested and put in prison. Germany now demanded independence for Slovakia. When released from jail, Hitler summoned them to Berlin where they were pressured to plead for German protection. Czechoslovakian President, Hacha, immediately traveled to Berlin were he was told at 1:15am that his country would be invaded at 6:00am. Czechoslovakia fell in the same manner that Austria had, in a bloodless operation. On March 15, Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia became protectorates of the Reich. Both the Soviet Union and United States protested this act of German aggression.

The next year was full of tension and on May 23 Hitler informed his military leaders that he was prepared to destroy Poland. Hitler had his eyes set primarily on the northern corridor of Poland, an area that had been under German control before 1918. Britain and France added Poland to their list of countries they would defend against German aggression. They then tried to persuade Poland to allow the Soviets entrance into the agreement but Poland objected. Hitler had been meeting with Soviet officials attempting to gain their support on his policy towards Poland. He offered Stalin a small portion of Eastern Poland in return for a promise to look the other way when he invaded Poland. They signed a Non-Aggression Pact sealing Poland's fate, leading to the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II.