How World War II Began
At daybreak on the first day of September 1939, the people of Poland awakened to vital news. A force of tanks, guns, and countless soldiers from nearby Germany had torn across the countryside and were making a total invasion of the Pole’s homelands. Germany’s actions on that fateful morning ignited a conflict that would spread like a wildfire, engulfing the entire globe in a great world war. This scenario is many people’s idea of how World War II started. In reality, the whole story is far more detailed and complex. The origins of war can be traced as far back as the end of the first World War in 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles placed responsibility for that terrible war all on Germany. Years later, in the Far East, Japanese ambition for territory led the nation to invade Manchuria and other parts of nearby China, causing hostilities to flare in the Pacific Rim. Great Britain, the United States, and many other nations of the world would all be drawn into battle in the years to come, and each nation had it’s own reason for this huge rage of war.
Although Germany was the major player in World War II, the thoughts of war had already been started in the Far East years before conflict in Europe began. On September 18, 1931, the powerful Japanese military forces began an invasion of the region known as Manchuria, an area belonging to mainland China. This action broke non-aggression treaties that had been signed earlier. Japanese generals without the consent of the Japanese government also carried it out. After all of this, no one was ever punished for the actions. Soon after the assault on China, the Japanese government decided it had no choice but to take over Manchuria. By the next year the region had been completely cut off from China (Ienaga 60-64). Because of the Japanese offensive in China, the League of Nations held a vote in October to force Japan out of the captured territory. The vote was passed, 13 to 1, but Japan remained in control of Manchuria.
A second vote, taken in February 1933, a formal disapproval of the Japanese occupation, was passed 42 to 1. Instead of expelling Japan from the area of Manchuria, it caused the nation to formally withdraw its membership in the League of Nations the next month (Ienaga 66).
Now uncontrolled by the suggestions of the League of Nations, Japan continued it’s intrusion onto Chinese soil. By 1937 Japan had moved military forces into Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing, as well as other regions of China. By 1940, Japanese abduction of territory had spread to Southeast Asia and even parts of Australia (Sutel et al). Also in 1940, the Triparte Pact was signed, allying Japan, Germany, and Italy into a powerful force that stretched halfway around the planet. The association with Hitler and Germany unified the war in the Pacific and the war in Europe. Japan was now fully involved in what came to be known as World War II. As warfare was stirring rapidly in
the Pacific Rim, a chain of events was unfolding that would produce catastrophic results. The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 held Germany fully accountable for the tragedy of World War I. The nation was stripped of large areas of land, it’s weapons, as well as its dignity. The reparations that were to be paid to the allied nations virtually destroyed the economy of Germany. The resentment of the treaty burned in the hearts and minds of Germans for years after. In 1933, a man by the name of Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany after working his way up the ladder of government. By speaking against the Treaty of Versailles and making promises of a better life to the German people, Hitler gained the support of his fellow countrymen, and he easily won the election. Almost immediately after Hitler took office he began securing his position in power. Hitler took steps to eliminate all opposition, including political parties and anyone else who spoke out against him.
The death of President Hindenburg in 1934 secured his high standing, and he became dictator of Germany. Hitler held the titles of Head of State, Commander in Chief of German military forces, Chancellor, and Chief of the Nazi Party (Elliott 57). There was no question of his authority. With his empire established, Hitler took steps to rearm Germany, leading the nation down the road to war. In violation of the Treaty of Versailles and a naval treaty signed with Great Britain, Hitler rebuilt the nation’s army and naval forces. By 1935 the ranks of the army had expanded to over 500,000 and production of arms and ammunition had continued (73). Also, military units reoccupied the Rhineland, a region in western Germany next to France. This region had been demilitarized after World War I, and the Treaty of Versailles forbade occupation of the area. In spite of the violations of treaty after treaty, little was done by the world powers to control the renewed German militarism.
With his plans well organized, Hitler set his plans for conquest into motion. Beginning in 1938, Hitler used threats and political maneuvering to overthrow the government of nearby Austria. His next target was Czechoslovakia. In March of 1939, the nation was overtaken after Hitler threatened a bombing of Prague if his army met resistance on its invasion of the country (80). With the conquest of Europe well underway and his reich expanding rapidly, Hitler’s power and influence was growing greater each day. He now planned to add Poland to his list of accomplishments and extend the German empire. The threat of Russia backing the Poles to defend against an attack was neutralized when Germany and Russia signed a nonaggression pact saying that the two nations would not go to war.
Great Britain sternly warned Germany that an attack on Poland would be considered an act of war. Hitler fearlessly ignored the warnings, and his operation swung into action. In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, German forces mobilized and flew head on into Poland. The Polish were devastated in the assault, as they stood no chance against the mighty Panzer tanks that rolled through the country with frightening speed. Two days after the attack, Britain and France joined in a declaration of war against Germany. Their belated
reactions, could not save the army of Poland. In a battle that raged for nearly a month, the Polish army was eventually cornered in the capital city of Warsaw. After a brutal siege of the city, the men of Poland had no choice but to surrender to the overwhelming German force. The point of no return had been crossed, and Europe had fallen into the arms of war for the second time in the century.
Great Britain still remembered the horrors of World War I, and when Germany began to renew its sense of militarism, Britain was hesitant to start another war. Instead of using force, the British leaders, including Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, sought a diplomatic solution to conflicts. When Germany’s motives were to capture the area known as Sudentland, in Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain held several meetings with Hitler and other nations, desperately trying to prevent an armed conflict with Germany. Chamberlain believed that by granting Hitler’s demands, he could avoid a war with Germany (Elliot 73-74). He was greatly mistaken. Even after all the negotiation and bargaining, Hitler’s forces eventually overtook the entire nation of Czechoslovakia by force.
When it became clear that Hitler next planned an invasion of Poland, Great Britain had no choice but to issue a threat of war if Germany went through with the operation. The threat was disregarded, and the attack on Poland was carried out as planned. On September 3, 1939, two days after the Polish invasion began, Chamberlain gave a speech in which he stated that, “This country is at war with Germany…”(Wernick 8). The joint declaration of war on Germany with France became official the same day. In spite of efforts to avoid combat, the fears of the British people had come true on that day.
The United States of America, like Great Britain, had hoped to avoid bringing the horrors of war to its people. For many years after the development of tensions in Europe and the Far East, the leaders of the U.S. had done nearly everything possible to remain neutral. For them, too, the memories of World War I were still fresh in mind. Although the U.S. did participate in such affairs as the temporary peace treaty that prevented the capture of Shanghai by the Japanese, the U.S. was determined to prevent the need for it’s troops to be placed in the way of danger (Ienaga 66). And so it would have remained, if it were not for one incident that would change the lives of many in the United States.
The morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941 began as any other day in Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. At 7:49, the Japanese fleet of carriers that had been making its way toward the Hawaiian Islands leaped into action. Plane after plane of Japanese aircraft screamed into the harbor and pounced on the American fleet as it sat helpless (Ienaga 136). No one saw the attack coming, so defense to the brutal assault was minimal. In the aftermath of the massacre, the final tallies shocked the nation. Five U.S. battleships and ten warships had been destroyed, and three more battleships were severely damaged. The human death toll was also high. Over 2,400 American soldiers were slaughtered in the attack.
Franklin D. Roosevelt wasted no time in reacting to the attack on Pearl Harbor. By the afternoon of December 7th, Roosevelt had ordered protection for Washington D.C., major cities along the western coast, major bridges, and dozens of other security precautions in the event of another wave of enemy aggression (Bailey 20). The next day, Roosevelt delivered a speech to congress asking for a declaration of war. The beginning of the speech would become famous in American history.
Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan… (23) Less than an hour after Roosevelt gave his powerful speech, congress voted to declare war on Japan. Roosevelt himself signed the declaration at 4:10 that afternoon (23). In the space of only two days, the United States had gone from a neutral spectator to a major participant in World War II.
The United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan were four of the largest countries that became heavily involved in the second world war. But, many more nations played smaller roles in the event. For instance, Italy was an ally of Germany and Japan, having signed the Triparte Pact in 1940. But, the Italians were less than essential to Hitler’s domination of Europe, and Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy, suffered many humiliating defeats at the hands of the allies (Keegan et al).
Another country that played a role in the war in Europe was the U.S.S.R. Once considered neutral in the war because of a nonaggression treaty with Germany, the Soviet Union was drawn into the fighting on June 22, 1941, when the German offensive code-named Operation Barbarossa began. The German forces planned to attack the Soviets at three points – Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad, and were expected to be completed in 6 weeks. The Russians proved firm, however, and defended their capital and country with great effort, eventually stopping the Germans from advancing.
France was a third major European state that was caught up in the chaotic beginnings of World War II. Allied with Great Britain, France joined in the battle of Europe after the invasion of Poland in 1939. Unfortunately, Hitler’s forces eventually invaded France, ending their ability to fend off the attacks of the Axis powers.
Germany’s invasion of Poland in late 1939 is considered the major event that set World War II in motion. But, like many other events in history, there is more to the story. Dozens of smaller occurrences pushed the world closer and closer to the brink of war over a period of many years. The results of each of these incidents ended in total warfare that turned half of the world into a battleground. Several major countries were plunged into chaos and disorder, and the scars and horrible memories of the nightmare that was World War II are something that can never be erased or forgotten.
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Ross, Stewart. Causes and Consequences of World War II. Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1996.
Snyder, Louis L. The War – A Consice History. New York: Julian Messner Incorporated, 1960.
“Some Japaneese Still Don’t Get It.” Wisconsin State Journal. [Madison] 14 September 1995.
Sutel, Seth. “Japanese Official Puts New Spin on World War II.” The Capital Times. [Madison] 5 June 1994.
Wernick, Robert. Blitzkrieg. Morristown: Silver Burdett, 1977.