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Preceding events

In Europe, the origins of the war are closely tied to the rise of fascism, especially in Nazi Germany. A discussion of how the Nazis came to power is a requisite in this context.

The origins of the Second World War are generally viewed as being traced back to the First World War (1914-1918). In that war Germany under the ultra-nationalistic Kaiser Wilhelm II along with its allies, had been defeated by a combination of the United Kingdom, United States, France, Russia and others. The war was directly blamed by the victors on the miltant nationalism of the Kaiser's Germany; it was Germany that effectively started the war with an attack on France through Belgium. France, which had suffered a previous defeat at the hands of Prussia (a state that merged one year later with others to form Germany) in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, demanded revenge for its financial devastation during the First World War (and its humiliation in the earlier war) ensured that the various peace treaties, specifically the Treaty of Versailles imposed tough financial reparations and restrictions on Germany.

A new democratic German republic, known as the Weimar Republic, came into being. After some success it was hit by hyperinflation and other serious economic problems. Right wing nationalist elements under a variety of movements, but most notably the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler, sought to blame Germany's "humiliating" status on the harshness of the post-war settlement, on the weakness of democratic government, and on the Jews, whom it claimed possessed a financial stranglehold on Germany. Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler (Chancellor) on January 30, 1933, by the aged President von Hindenburg. Hitler's government exercised much of its power through the special emergency powers possessed by the President under the constitution.

These powers enabled a government with the President's powers to effectively bypass the Reichstag (federal parliament). Under a further disastrous clause in the Weimar constitution when the President died, his office was temporarily assumed by the Chancellor. As a result, when Hindenburg died, the immense powers of the presidency fell into the hands of Adolf Hitler. Through the possession of those powers and an Enabling Act that allowed the nazi government to bypass and ignore the constitution, Hitler ensured his possession of the presidential powers became permanent and so gained dictatorial control over Germany.

The Italian economy also fell into a deep slump following World War I. Anarchists were endemic, Communist and other Socialist agitators abounded among the trade unions, and many were gravely worried that a Bolshevik-style Communist revolution was imminent.

After a number of liberal governments failed to rein in these threats, Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III invited right-wing politician Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party to form a government in 1922, following their largely symbolic Marca su Roma (March on Rome). 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 Italo-French agreements.

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, the Versailles Treaty was violated as Hitler ordered Germany to re-arm. Germany also reintroduced military conscription (the treaty stated that the German Army should not exceed 100,000 men).

These steps produced nothing more than official protests from Britain and France, for they were more serious about enforcing the economic provisions of the treaty than its military restrictions. Many Brits 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. Faced with no opposition, Hitler moved troops into the Rhineland on March 7, 1936. Under the Versailles treaty, the Rhineland should have been demilitarized, for France wanted it for a buffer between herself and Germany. But, as before, Hitler's defiance was met with inaction.

The first German conquest was Austria. After Italy had joined the Anti-Comintern Pact, thereby removing the main obstacle of a Anschluss of Austria, Germany announced the annexation on March 12, 1938, making it a German province: "Gau Ostmark."

With Austria secured, Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. His first order of business was to seize the Sudetenland, a mountainous area in northeast part of the country. With Austria in German hands, the tiny state was nearly surrounded. Following lengthy negotiations, and blatant war threats from Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went out of his way with French leaders to appease Hitler, even though the United Kingdom had earlier guaranteed the security of Czechoslovakia. However, the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, then allowed German troops to occupy the Sudetenland.

Czech representatives were not allowed at the conference; their government strongly opposed giving up the Sudetenland but they were powerless in the face of German military might and British and French unwillingness to support them. A few months after that, in March 1939, the remaining Czech lands passed into German hands as well. March 14 Slovakia declared her independence, recognized by France, Britain and other important powers. The Slovak state tried to avoid nazification, but was finally occupied by Nazi-Germany in September 1944.

Italy, facing opposition to its wars in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from the League of Nations, forged an alliance with Nazi Germany, which had withdrawn from the League in 1933. In May of 1939, Italy and Germany thus formed the Pact of Steel, which deepened their alliance and established a Rome-Berlin "Axis."



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