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Was Hitler the Cause of the Second World War?
The Second World War was a massive conflict unlike any other previously seen on Earth. The massive destruction and loss of life that resulted from the clash between the Allied and the Axis powers were unprecedented, and historians have dedicated countless hours researching and theorizing about the events that could culminate in such a horrific war, especially after the destruction of the First World War just two decades earlier. Richard Overy, author of Origins of the Second World War, claims that the Second World War was not caused solely by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, but by a multitude of different factors that arose during the inter-war period. This assertion is valid, as there were other significant causes of conflict that helped escalate inter-war tensions into a full blown world war, namely the failure of the League of Nations, the ideological clash between the Allied Powers and the rest of the world, and the failure of the United States to possess an active role in promoting collective security. Thus Overy’s claim that the Second World War was caused by factors other than Hitler is true as there were a number of significant causes that are to blame as well.
Causes of the Second World War
Overy's analysis of the Second World War is both thorough and fair.
The first major cause of the Second World War was the failure of the League of Nations. Though an obvious cause of the war, it is still nonetheless of paramount importance as it allowed for the autarky plans of the axis powers to come to fruition and destroyed the illusion of collective security. The League of Nations was extremely weak to begin with, as the United States were not a member, which severely limited the economic impact of any sanctions that the League put into place as the United States were extremely economically powerful. Additionally, the League lacked its own military force and had to rely on member nations to enforce any rulings that it made. This meant that a member nation could withhold support for a ruling that it did not agree with, and allowed for the Allied Powers to hold a large amount of sway on the decisions made by the League, causing the League to turn into a method for Britain and France to spread their influence and further their own self interests in Europe and the world. This was seen through League mandates, which were agreements that allowed the League of Nations to set up a government in a nation or colony that had belonged to the Central Powers during the First World War. These mandates allowed Britain and France to gain control of territory lost by the Central Powers after the First World War, and maintain their large empires – to basically continue their pursuit of self-interest. This lack of ability to maintain collective security would ultimately lead to the undoing of the league, but was highlighted by the Manchurian crisis of 1931 and Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The Manchurian crisis occurred when Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria. Chinese officials understandably appealed to the League to force Japan to release Manchuria and withdraw their troops from China. Though the League agreed that Japan was the aggressor and that they should remove its presence from China, Japan withdrew from the League instead. The League failed to implement economic sanctions on Japan, sanctions that would have been largely ineffective as the United States would have continued trade with Japan regardless. Britain and France were more concerned with maintaining their empires, which had been thrown into disarray after the First World War, and as such did not see the value in volunteering troops or supplies for military action against Japan; such actions would ruin their own trade in the East. This only serves to highlight how the pursuance of self-interests by the Allied Powers severely limited the effectiveness of the League. Japan’s succession from the league and that lack of action that followed served as an example to Mussolini’s Italy, who invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Though the League again condemned the attack, and actually implemented sanctions this time, it was too little too late and only served to drive Italy closer to Germany and Japan, highlighted by the withdrawal of Italy from the League in 1937. It had become evident through the Manchurian and Ethiopian crises that the Allied Powers of Britain and France were unwilling to work toward collective security, and instead only acted in self-interest. Overy claims that the destruction of the League of Nations lead to “The first murmurings of general war” (Overy 2008, 17) as the idea of collective security was shattered by the realities of the Japanese and Italian offensives, both of which proceeded despite protests by the League. Much of this blame can be placed on the major Allied Powers, Britain and France, as they acted through self-interest instead of the interests of the world to prevent future bloodshed. Thus, Hitler is not solely to blame for the Second World War, as Britain and France’s actions in the pursuit of self-interest are also a major cause of the war separate from Hitler’s actions.
The second major cause of the Second World War that I feel is worth mentioning is the ideological difference between Britain and France, or the Allied Powers, and many emerging powers in Europe and Asia. Overy makes mention of the Spanish civil war at several points in Origins of the Second World War, the overall effect of the war and the rise of fascism in Spain cannot be overstated. Geographically, France was already facing conflict between two ideologically different and aggressively expansionist nations on its Eastern front by 1936, and was now facing a rising domestic conflict to its West between Fascist and Socialist forces in Spain. When fascist forces took control of Spain 1939, France was essentially surrounded by fascist governments. Additionally, both Britain and France were threatened by the Soviet government in Russia, as they felt that communism posed more of a threat than fascism, as the Bolsheviks had successfully overthrown the ruling class of Russia in 1917. As a result, France was driven much closer to Britain, its sole remaining ideological similar major power in Europe. However, France itself was politically splintered, and according to Overy, in 1938 “some right-wing groups favoured closer collaboration with Hitler as the only way of preventing the eventual bolshevization of Western Europe.” (Overy 2008, 23)This quote serves to highlight how fascism wasn’t observed as the greatest threat to the Allied Powers, as communism was viewed as a more dangerous ideology due to the October Revolution in 1917. While preparations were made for general war and the Allied Powers were aware of the threats that the fascist governments in Eastern and Central Europe posed, the shadow of communism and fascist sympathisation prevented the required importance from being directed toward the rise of fascist dictators in Europe and resulted in policies by both France and Great Britain that allowed fascism to grow in areas such as Spain. As such, conflict between the Axis and Allied Powers came to existence not solely because of fascist dictator’s desire to expand their empires, but also because of the Allied Power’s policies that allowed for such a desire to cultivate. Therefore, the blame for the Second World War cannot be only placed on Hitler and his rise to power, but also because of the ideological suspicion of communism by the Allied Powers that allowed for fascism to rise in Europe as it was seen as a lesser threat.
The final cause of the First World War that Overy talks about that I feel is worth mentioning is the failure of the United States and U.S.S.R. to intervene to prevent the rise of fascism in Europe during the Inter-War period. The United States was portrayed as a nation that supported the idea of collective security, as shown in Document 4 of Origins of the Second World War which states “This country constantly and consistently advocates maintenance of peace. We advocate national and international self-restraint…We advocate adjustment of problems in international relations by processes of peaceful negotiation and agreement.” (Cordell 1937) However, in practice, America was not willing to use force in order to enforce collective security, and was not willing to work towards collective security if it was against their self-interest to do so. This is highlighted by their actions during the Paris Peace Conference – France and Britain wanted to see allied war debts erased in order to ease their own financial load and to help repair and rebuild after the First World War. However, America did not cancel these debts, causing the Allied Powers to seek reparations from Germany more aggressively and in greater quantities. This contributed to the hyper-inflation that Germany suffered during the inter-war period and influenced the movement to radical political groups by discontent German citizens. During the inter-war period, America’s major goal according to Overy was to avoid another European conflict, leading to the adoption of a policy of isolationism. As such a number of acts were passed through Congress that prevented the sale of arms to countries in a civil or conventional war, effectively removing American involvement from conflicts around the globe. Americans were suspicious of Britain and France’s motives due to the actions of both nations after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, in which both nations scrambled to secure territorial holdings taken from Germany, and as such neither France nor Britain expected support from America. As such, Japanese influence was able to grow in the pacific as America offered little resistance, even after a Japanese attack on American warships in the pacific. Additionally, the fascist regimes in Europe were able to grow without resistance from one of the strongest economies in the world, and the Allied powers and the League of Nations were both unable to effectively impose sanctions against the Japanese, and to a lesser extent the Italians, during their periods of expansion into non-belligerent nations. As such, it is easy to see that the lack of American involvement in creating and upholding collective security led to the failure of the League of Nations, and also allowed for rearmament to take place in Europe during the inter-war period, as the laws passed by Congress did not prevent nations not currently at war from building up their armies. If America was a part of the League of Nations, the expansionist policies undertaken by Japan and Italy would have been made impossible due to the effectiveness of embargoes that included the United States. If this were to come to pass, then German expansion would have been much more conservative, as they faced a much more powerful opposing force consisting of America, Britain, and France instead of solely Britain and France. Therefore, the onset of the Second World War was not solely Hitler’s fault, as American commitment to collective security could have prevented the expansion of the Axis powers and delayed or reduced the intensity of the Second World War, potentially limiting its scope as few countries would wish to engage in conflict with America.
The Second World War was not a conflict that was caused by a single man’s actions. Hitler, while a contributing factor to the outbreak of war in 1939, was not the sole factor for the war. World War 2 was caused by a multitude of factors, including the failure of the League of Nations, the ideology differences between democratic, fascist, and communist countries, and the failure of American commitment to collective security. Thus, Overy’s claim in Origins of the Second World War that the Second World War was not caused solely by Hitler is an accurate and valid viewpoint on the causes of World War Two.