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Thursday, 4 September 2014

History in Focus: The Start of World War Two

On September 1st 1939 Nazi Germany declared war on Poland and invaded where two days later Britain, France, New Zealand and Australia declared war on Germany and World War Two began. Canada and South Africa would soon enter the war on the side of the Allies but within five years the warring states increased dramatically in number. But why did Hitler invade Poland and why did Britain and France intervene?

The rise of Hitler- On January 30th 1933 Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Over the next few years he started to rebuild the German army and navy as well as building up a new airforce, the Luftwaffe. Hitler was a fanatical nationalist who believed that there should be a Greater German Reich, he even declared his regime the Third Reich almost immediately, and that Germany should expand its borders to cover all the German speaking lands, (not necessarily ethnic German lands), as well as land taken from them after the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans at the time liked this view as their national pride had been dealt a massive blow thanks to the Treaty of Versailles and the 132 billion marks, (US $33billion), imposed on Germany from reparations destroyed the German economy creating widespread unemployment. Naturally rebuilding the army to conquer foreign lands would create jobs from arms production and soldiers. Hitler also had an idea named lebensraum which translates roughly as 'living space' where he wanted to conquer the Ukraine and Western Russia so his 'Aryan race' could have enough land to live on and the native people to be ethnically cleansed.
German soldiers dismantling the barrier to Austria during the Anschluss

Appeasement- Hitler realised that if he was going to achieve his Greater German Reich he would have to go against the Treaty of Versailles which he despised. With Britain and France weak after the Depression, the US uninterested with European affairs, the USSR isolationist and a bond growing with Fascist Italy under Mussolini Hitler decided to do this. As apart of the Treaty of Versailles Germany was forbidden to have troops in the Rhineland so to show his strength one of Hitler's first breaches of the Treaty was placing troops in the Aechen, Trier and Saarbruecken areas of the Rhineland. He was wary to see how France would react as he knew that if France threatened him this early into remilitarisation would destroy his government. However the German army vastly outnumbered that of the French so France let Hitler to ignore the Treaty. This gave Hitler a huge prestige boost and started a process named 'Appeasement'. The next event of Appeasement of the Anschluss of Austria. In 1934 Hitler attempted to annex Austria after the Austrian Nazi party attempted a coup resulting with the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss being assassinated but Mussolini blocked it. By 1938 Hitler had built up relations with Mussolini, he wanted to annex Austria as it was his homeland but the Treaty of Versailles had forbade it. Hitler continued to put pressure on the Austrian government under Chancellor Schuschnigg to join with Germany; Hitler saying in a speech "The German Reich is no longer willing to tolerate the suppression of ten million Germans across its borders." On March 9th 1938 Schuschnigg desperate to keep Austria independent he organised a plebiscite to determine whether Austria should unite with Germany.
Notice how the 'yes' option is larger than the 'no'
Hitler however ordered the Wehrmacht to invade Austria before the results of the plebiscite could be counted and the Anschluss took place. Austria ceased to exist. After the success of the Anschluss Hitler started to eye the Sudetenland; a German speaking area of Czechoslovakia, (not ethnic German though). Starting the Munich Crisis and is seen as the main failure of appeasement. Although Hitler said that he was defending the German minority of the Sudetenland there was only 3 million speakers in the area, few of them ethnic Germans. With the vast amounts of resources in the area ,such as the mines in Skoda, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and Mussolini met with Hitler in Munich, hence named the Munich Crisis. Czechoslovakia's President Edvard Beneš was not invited. On the 23rd September 1938 an agreement was passed where the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany, Zaolzie to Poland and all of the Czechoslovakian border with Hungary to Hungary. The result was mixed with many happy that war over the area being avoided and Chamberlain declaring 'peace in our time' whereas others including future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, (who was out of any significant role until 1939 after the blunders he made in the 1920s and upsetting the new King), bitterly opposed it saying that Britain and France was weak. The following year on March 15th 1939 Hitler invaded the rest of the nation and annexed what is now the Czech Republic and set up a puppet Axis-aligned state, the Slovak Republic.

The Poland Question- The annexation of the rest of Czechoslovakia made Chamberlain worried. Now Hitler's Germany was becoming too powerful and was becoming increasingly volatile with the increasing anti-Semitism with the Kristallnacht, (Night of Broken Glass), and the horrid Nuremberg Laws as well as Goering's Four Year Plan causing an economic deficit that could only be lifted by war. Hitler then started eyeing Poland who had former German lands as well as the large track of farmland that Hitler wanted for lebensraum, but more importantly with an annexed Poland there would be an open door to invade the USSR. Then on the 23rd August 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. The main two diplomats from Nazi Germany, (Ribbentrop), and the USSR, (Molotov), declared a pact of friendship and were not to attack one another. This was a massive blow to Britain and France. They sensed that war with Hitler was imminent and had turned to Stalin for an alliance who feared Hitler for his virulent anti-communism however Stalin turned to the Nazis for two reasons. For one Britain and France had sent some minor diplomats to build up relations while Hitler had sent the Foreign Secretary himself and two the Pact allowed Hitler to safely annex most of Poland and allowed Stalin to annex the rest of Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and areas of Romania without Nazi invasion. In one final act to deter Hitler France and Britain pledged that they would declare war on Germany if Hitler invaded Poland.
Cartoon by David Low depicting the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland
War begins- Hitler believed that Britain and France were bluffing as he thought that they would be unwilling to go to war over Poland. On September 1st 1939 Germany invaded Poland and two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. On the 17th September Stalin then invaded Poland. Although fighting between Britain, France and Germany until 1940 the war would last until 1945. Many countries would then enter the war including the Commonwealth nations of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa due to their alliance with Britain, Italy, Japan and their puppets of Manchuko and Ethiopia in 1940 as well as many other nations including the USA, USSR, Norway, Denmark, Turkey and Yugoslavia just to name a few.

Thanks for reading and please leave comments. Next time I'll do a debate about how just Appeasement was as a foreign policy from 1936 to 1939.

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