World War II

Causes of World War II


  • Explain how another major conflict happened right on the heels of World War I
  • Explain why extremists gained control of the Axis countries?
  • Describe how these extremists beliefs helped cause World War II?

As a result of the death and destruction of World War I, European countries adopted the foreign policy of isolationism—avoiding interaction with other countries in the period after the war. They tried to deal with political, economic and social problems caused by the last war.

The Treaty of Versailles and its League of Nations struggled to keep peace. There had been no international organization like it before and it lacked any real authority to impose the decisions it made, relying on countries to comply out of obligation or because of peer pressure. The lack of involvement of the United States, who emerged as the new world power from the war, also undermined the Leagues authority. When international issues—such as the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1933—threatened conflict, the League was not able to find peaceful settlements. Instead, nations quit the League when it didn’t side with them.

The other issue was that the Treaty of Versailles left the three countries that would eventually band together as the Axis powers angry. Germany, for one, was left humiliated and crippled by the Treaty. Italy, who started World War I on the side of the Central Powers, had switch to the Allied side, but was treated as an outsider at the end of the war. Japan, who joined the Allied side, also felt as if they had been disrespected at the end of the war, still not being accepted as equals by the Americans and Europeans. For all three of these nations, their treatment at the end of World War I helped put them on a path that would lead to a second, larger world conflict.

Short-term causes of World War II

World War II happened because of the rise of a three totalitarian dictatorships in those three countries. Totalitarianism—distinguishable from other forms of dictatorship—was a new twist on an authoritarian government. It describes a government that seeks complete control of not only what people do, but also over what they think. Powerful governments have always tried to control what people do.

But totalitarian governments sought to go deeper, controlling their people using fear tactics, brainwashing and the use of the media to distribute propaganda. The Axis nations are not the only examples of totalitarian dictatorships through history. Communist states have used the same methods, as have other dictators (such as Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party in Iraq). But there are special characteristics that separate the Axis nations from other totalitarian regimes.

The totalitarian dictatorships that developed in Germany, Italy and Japan were created by the problems caused by World War I’s aftermath. As each of these countries attempted to deal with this, an unprecedented crisis hit. In 1929, a stock market crash in the United States started a panic that caused a worldwide economic depression. The crisis was unlike any other before it. Inflation ravaged the already damaged economies of all of the European nations. Desperate for solutions, people were looking for answers in leaders that normally would have struggled to get popular support. In this way, the economic crisis caused by the Great Depression allowed the rise of extremist, totalitarian dictatorships.


Italy: Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party

Italy became a constitutional monarchy just before World War I. In the wake of the war, extremists for all sides began gaining support as the people struggled and look for someone to solve their problems. By the 1920’s, fear of a Soviet inspired communist revolution caused the government to support the political party from the other extreme. That party was the National Fascist Party.

The leader of the Fascists was Benito Mussolini. Named after an ancient Roman weapon, Mussolini started his party as a socialist party, demanding a government that was committing to solving the people’s problems. When he couldn’t create change through the democratic process, Mussolini decided he needed to seize power to force it. He staged a coup d’état, which failed, but managed to get Mussolini appointed Prime Minister by the King.

Once in power, Mussolini began to taken stricter control of the country, eventually becoming a dictator. Mussolini used people’s fear of a communist revolt to limit personal liberties to “save the country.” He was known as “Il Duce,” which means “the leader.” Like other totalitarian states, once he consolidated his hold on the government, he eliminated political opposition by intimidating, imprisoning and killing opponents. Mussolini’s take over was inspiring to other leaders in Europe, most notably Adolf Hitler in Germany.


Germany: Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (National Socialist)

Germany became a democracy at the end of World War I. It was called the Weimar Republic. This new government was weak and, with all the problems it had to face after the war, quickly became unpopular. With the severity of problems faced by the country (most imposed by the war), many groups in Germany gained influence, each with different plans on how to address the problems. With all of these opposing viewpoints, Germany had too many political parties in the Reichstag (their parliament) and no one party held a majority. This meant that a minority party could have too much influence in Germany (a lesson that would soon be learned). Most historians argue that the Germans were not ready for democracy and hadn’t “bought into” it.

As the problems mounted, such as out of control inflation and unemployment, extremist parties began to become popular. Dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic was widespread and people openly criticized it. In this atmosphere, Adolf Hitler, leader of a small, extremist political party called the National Socialists (NAZI for short) attempted to overthrow this weak government in 1923 in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler’s Putsch was unsuccessful and quickly put down by the police. Hitler was arrested and tried for treason—committing a crime against your country. Due to people feelings about the government, however, Hitler became a national hero of sorts during his trial. In his defense he said many things that resonated with the German people, like how the new government betrayed them by signing the Treaty of Versailles that unfairly punished and humiliated the country. Ultimately, Hitler was convicted and sent to prison. But he also became a national figure that many people identified with.

Hitler’s imprisonment caused a change in strategy. Upon release, Hitler continued to grow his party by delivering fiery speeches denouncing the Treaty of Versailles for its unfair treatment of the Germans and blaming Jews and communists for ruining the country (one of the few things all the factions in Germany agreed on was their fear of a Soviet led communist revolution). Since his attempt to overthrow the government didn’t work, Hitler and the Nazis sought to create change from within the government.

The Nazis started running for political offices within the government. And they started succeeding. When the Great Depression hit around 1930, they achieved even more success as people responded to promises to fix the economic problems plaguing them. By 1933, the Nazis won the majority of seats in the Reichstag. As a result, Hitler becomes Chancellor of the Weimar Republic.

The Weimar Republic had a feature of its constitution called the Emergency Powers Decree. This gave the Chancellor the dictatorial powers when there was an emergency. When the emergency was over, thing were to go back to normal. In 1933, a Dutch communist set fire to the Reichstag. Hitler used this as an excuse to evoke the Emergency Powers Decree, making him a dictator. Once he took power, he never gave it back. Instead, the Nazis created a totalitarian state. People’s dissatisfaction with the previous government was so serious that they didn’t mind him taking total control as long as he fixed the problems.

Once they took over, the Nazis started to consolidate their power. They eliminated rival political parties and used intimidation, imprisonment and murder to silence opposition. The Nazis created a culture of fear with their secret police, called the Gestapo or “SS.” Starting right after seizing power, the Nazis imprisoned political opponents in concentration camps, which were large prison camps not to be confused with the death camps used in the Holocaust.

In addition, they started to teach the Germans their ideology through every medium available, including the media and schools. As a totalitarian state, they sought to control the minds of their people, feeding the public things they wanted them to believe. The Nazis were openly racist, targeting Jews, Slavs, Poles, blacks, homosexuals and other groups as detrimental to their world order. They preached of the racial superiority of the Germans (those of “Aryan blood”). And, above all, Hitler and the Nazis hated communists. Hitler openly talked about German expansion to the east. Everyone knew that he planned to fight the Soviets (which was something most western countries were okay with).


Imperial Japan

Around 1900, Japanese society war transformed during the Meiji Restoration. As European imperialism aggressively took over Japan’s Asian neighbors, the island nation tried to remain isolationist. But the United States forced them to open trade to the west. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Japanese decided that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” They copied European society, reforming their economy by industrializing, modernized their military and transforming their society. Their government, too, copied European models to become a constitutional monarchy ruled by a legislature and headed by an emperor.

By the 1930’s, Japan was ruled by an aggressive, military dictatorship. The emperor had no real power. The Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, led the military dominated government. This government also used its control to influence the way people thought. They censored the media and used the school system to teach the youth about their sacred duty to serve the Emperor. They distorted the ancient code of bushido to encourage blind obedience to authority.

Now an industrial power, the Japanese government was forced with a problem. Japan is a country that has little in the way of natural resources. To gain the resources vital to keeping its industry running, the government began to aggressively practice imperialism. When it began taking over Asian countries, western nations—especially the United States—became upset, setting the stage for a major conflict.


Main Causes of World War II


The totalitarian dictatorships were aggressively militaristic. Each built up their armed forces. Germany was prohibited from building a large army, but ignored the Treaty of Versailles and did so anyway, daring the Allies to stop them. Despite being alarmed by German rearmament, no one was willing to go to war to stop them.


The two main Fascist states—Germany and Italy—made an alliance with Japan called the Axis. In response to the Axis alliance, Britain, France and Poland formed an alliance. The Soviet Union, still being ignored by most western nations, was not in an alliance with anyone. The United States vowed to stay out of European affairs after World War I.


Axis nations all adopted policies of expansion and took over other countries. Japan, seeking raw materials, began taking over Asia. In 1933, Japan invaded Manchuria (northern China). The League of Nations condemned this action, but Japan quit the League. In 1937, Japan invaded China. The Japanese were excessively cruel to the Chinese civilians, an event known as the Rape of Nanjing.

Italy also expanded. In 1935, Italy attacked Ethiopia. After a long fight, they conquered it. The League of Nations was asked to stop this act of aggression, but did not act. In 1939, Italy invaded the small European nation of Albania.

Hitler led Germany on a campaign of expansion too. As a nationalist who wanted all German people in one country, Hitler began taking over neighboring countries that had Germanic people living in them. In 1936, Germany remilitarized the Rhineland, a region on the border with France, despite being prohibited from doing this by the Treaty of Versailles. Not one was willing to stand up to him for breaking the treaty. In 1938, Germany annexed Austria, Hitler’s homeland.

Hitler set his sights on the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia inhabited by Germanic people. Britain and France—wanting to put an end to German expansion but also desperate to avoid war—intervened. They held a meeting with Hitler. At the Munich Conference in 1936, they attempted to appease Hitler by giving him the Sudetenland if he promised to stop expanding. This policy of appeasement –giving an aggressor what they want to avoid war—is often criticized. At the time, Britain and France thought they had settled a conflict without going to war. Unfortunately, appeasement did not work. Later in 1936, Hitler broke the Munich Pact and took over the rest of Czechoslovakia.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Actually, in a secret agreement, the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—two bitter enemies—simultaneously attacked Poland from both sides (each side promised not to go to war with each other for ten years, at which time everyone knew they’d fight). To Britain and France, this was the last straw. They declared war on Germany and World War II—in Europe—officially began.


The Fascist, totalitarian dictatorships of the Axis nations were fanatically nationalistic. All three believed their countries deserved to be more powerful than other countries and that they were racially superior. For example, Japan’s belief of ethnocentrism—the belief that your ethnic groups is better than others—shows that they believed in their racial superiority.

Mussolini said that he was building a new Roman Empire for the Italian people. He preached that the Italians had been mistreated by the Allies, whose side they switched to in the middle of World War I, and deserved to be respected.

Hitler also believed an extreme form of nationalism, believing the Germans were racially superior and deserved to dominate the world—economically, socially and politically. Hitler also excluded groups he said were undesirable and ruining Germany (such as Jews, Communists, Poles and other Slavic people, Gypsies, Africans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, etc.). These groups would first be excluded from German society and later ‘eliminated’ altogether.

Key Events of World War II



  • Identify the foreign policy crises that led to war
  • Describe why the Axis lost after having early success
  • Explain how the war ended in Europe and Asia

World War II in Europe

The conquest of Poland took only one month. Britain and France declared war on Germany, but did not send any troops to stop the attack on Poland. A new form of warfare, called blitzkrieg (German for “lightning war”), was introduced. It involved using the new technology developed during World War I for quick moving attacks (specifically tanks and airplanes to support the quick advancement of troops). The period following the attack on Poland, where war was declared, but no fighting occurred, is called the “Sitzkrieg.”

With nothing happening, Germany continued to expand. They conquered Denmark and Norway. Then Germany turned its sights on France. Using blitzkrieg, Germany took over France quickly (before they really even knew they were fighting) and Hitler now controlled a huge chunk of Europe.

Once France was taken over, Hitler went after Britain. Knowing an invasion would be too difficult and costly, Hitler tried to bomb Britain into submission instead (he just wanted them to let him do what he wanted—he didn’t want to take them over). The bombing campaign was called the Battle of Britain. Despite major damage to English cities, after three months of bombing, England surprisingly remained strong and didn’t surrender. In fact, it actually strengthened their will to fight.

At the outbreak of hostilities, the United States held to its usual policy of remaining neutral, just as they did at the start of World War I. But the Americans slowly moved from neutrality to involvement. Changing public opinion about the war brought America from strict isolationism to helping the Allies by supplying the British with war materials. The United States also started to build its military, just in case. As part of this, the U.S. placed an embargo on “strategic materials”—iron, steel, gasoline, etc. This embargo would eventually lead to the event that officially brought the United States into the war, though its cause wasn’t rooted in European politics.

In 1941, the Axis nations, who were successful since the beginning of the war, made two key mistakes that led to their downfall. In the first, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, despite the Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. That agreement was made between the NAZIs and the Soviets, with both agreeing not to fight each other for ten years (they also agreed to divide up Poland in this treaty). Both knew that war with the other was inevitable. But both needed time to prepare. Hitler decided to strike the Soviet Union just a little over a year and a half into the ten year truce. He expected another quick victory.

However, just like it did to Napoleon, Russia proved more difficult to conquer. The battle in Russia was the turning point of the war in Europe. Before that time the Nazis were expanding, from this point on the Nazis were on the run as the Allies started closing in on Germany.

Germany’s Axis ally, Japan, brought a powerful opponent into the war during 1941. Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Japanese made a pre-emptive strike when it attempted to cripple the American Navy with this attack. But the Japanese did not accomplish their goal. While the attack did some damage to the American fleet, it did not do the amount of damage Japan was betting on. America declared war on Japan and entered the war in Europe as well.

The addition of the United States helped bolster the Allied war effort in Europe. Before this time, there weren’t many Allied successes in Europe. But the Allies began a campaign against the Germans in North Africa. The British and Americans pushed the NAZIs out of North Africa and then turned their sights on invading Germany’s ally, Italy. To do so, the American and British coordinated the invasion of Sicily and from there, landed on Italy. This caused a popular uprising and Mussolini was taken out of power in Italy, and was eventually killed by the people. The Italians formed a new, non-Fascist government and joined the Allied war effort.

With one of the Axis powers eliminated, the Allies were now pushing towards Germany from the south. The Soviets, who had been pushed far back into their country by the NAZI invasion, began pushing the Germans back out of their country. The Soviet counteroffensive began with the NAZI’s defeat at the battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet army began to push the German army back to Germany from the East.

Then the Allies finally put their plan to open a Western Front. This began with a carefully planned invasion of France, codenamed Operation Overlord. The invasion began with D-Day, on June 6, 1944. The United States, Britain, France, and Canada conducted this amphibious assault across the English Channel at Normandy. Allied troops attacked heavily fortified German defenses on the French coast there, but were able to overwhelm them and gain a foothold. Now the Allies were pushing toward Germany from the West, squeezing it in a vice from all three sides. Despite difficulties, the Allies were able to maintain their momentum and pushed the depleted German army back into German. In April, 1945—after Hitler’s suicide—the Germans gave their unconditional surrender. Since one of the issues at the end of World War I was that Germany hadn’t been defeated—yet was treated like they had been—the Allied leaders of Winston Churchill (Britain), Joseph Staling (Soviet Union) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (United States) decided that the Axis nations would have to surrender without conditions to end the war.


War in the Pacific (Asia

Japan’s aggressive imperialism was the cause of the Asian part of World War II. Japan, hungry for natural resources to fuel its industry turned to imperialism to get them. This put them in conflict with European powers and the United States, who didn’t want the competition with the Japanese.

For instance, Japan controlled Korea since 1910. To get control of Korea, the Japanese had to fight the Russian Empire for it. The Japanese decimated the Russian navy, much to the Czar’s embarrassment. And the way the Japanese treated the Koreans and other Asian peoples once they took over was harsh. The Japanese, believing in their own racial superiority, were incredibly cruel to those they conquered.

In 1931, Japanese expansion continued as they invaded Manchuria, a region north of and usually associated with China. The United States and the rest of the world took note and expressed outrage at the invasion, but the Japanese did it anyway.

Things escalated when the Japanese attacked China in 1937. The United States sought to put pressure on Japan to make them stop expanding. The United States put economic sanctions—when countries refuse to trade with a country as punishment—on certain, important goods Japan needed. The Japanese viewed the American trade restrictions as a major threat to their imperial plans. To them, it was worthy of starting a war.

And that is why the Japanese made the decision to attack the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States had moved its main naval base from San Diego, California to Hawaii (which was not yet a state, but was a United States “protectorate”) so that it had its ships closer to American interests in Asia. The United States also had a major Army base in the Philippines for the same reason. The Japanese had a sneak attacked planned for Pearl Harbor for some time and decided to execute it on a Sunday morning, when the Americans would be caught off guard.

The Japanese plan was to inflict enough damage to the Pacific Fleet that the Americans would be unable to stop their expansion. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan was able to take over more of Asia, unchallenged by the United States. They took over the American Army base at the Philippines shortly after Pearl Harbor, pushing the American forces back to Australia to regroup. While the Americans licked their wounds, the Japanese took over more of China, French Indo-China (Vietnam), Burma and started threatening India and even Australia.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor didn’t do the amount of damage the Japanese hoped. The Americans were ready to start fighting well before the Japanese military anticipated. From Australia, American forces, aided by the British, started planning on how to fight the Japanese. The strategy the United States adopted was to island-hop by taking over islands one at a time, pushing the enemy back to Japan.

The United States policy worked. The fighting between the Japanese and the Americans was bitter and the Japanese had been trained to fight to the death. Despite the costs, the Americans began pushing the Japanese back to Japan. With each step closer, the fighting got fiercer. Because of the fanaticism of Japanese soldiers fighting to the death, once the Americans had pushed the Japanese forces all the way back to the Japanese islands, it was decided that an invasion of Japan would be too costly. They decided that Japan could be forced to surrender another way.

The United States had been working on a top-secret weapon since 1942 and it was ready to be used in 1945. The weapon was the atomic bomb. The weapon unleashed overpowering energy through a nuclear reaction. Even these earliest nuclear weapons were able to destroy a small city with one bomb. It was decided to use this devastating weapon to hasten the end of the war with Japan. And the United States had two of them. Unfortunately, it took both of them to get the Japanese to surrender.

The first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. It destroyed almost 70% of the building and instantly killed around 80,000 people, with another 60,000 dying from effects of it in the next few months. But the Japanese didn’t surrender. At first, they couldn’t figure out what could have caused the destruction of a whole city.

American President Harry Truman revealed the United States new weapon and warned the Japanese to surrender. But the Japanese high command was unwilling to submit to the Allies demand for unconditional surrender. The Americans followed by dropping a second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. As a result of the use of “the bomb,” the U.S. received an unconditional surrender from the Japanese on September 2, 1945, ending the war in the Pacific.


Results of World War II


  • Describe the major political, economic and social effects of World War II
  • Explain how was the end of the war handled differently than the end of World War I
  • Evaluate why World War II’s aftermath dominated world politics for so long

Politically, World War II had many effects. One was the defeat and removal from power of totalitarian governments in all three of the Axis nations. The dictators in Italy and Germany were both dead, as were many of the other leaders in their regimes. Those remaining were arrested to await facing war crimes charges in the Nuremberg Trials, presided over by the three Allied powers. In Japan, Emperor Hirohito and leaders like Hideki Tojo were in American custody to be held accountable for atrocities committed by the Japanese military.

The Allied leaders—Stalin, Churchill and Truman—had met to decide how to rebuild the Axis nations once their governments were toppled. For Germany, they decided on a joint-occupation by the four Allied powers. The British, French, Americans and Soviets would each be responsible for occupying a section of Germany. Each country was supposed to help rebuild the country and help it form a new, democratic government. They would put the four Zones of Occupation back together after a period of denazification.

The Americans (with some help from the British) occupied Japan after the war. The Emperor was forced to go on the radio and admit to the Japanese people that he was not a god, but was allowed to remain as a figurehead. American General Douglas MacArthur wrote a democratic constitution for a new Japanese government. Despite violent resistance, the American occupation is viewed as a major success, as Japan emerged as an economic power.

Perhaps the biggest result of the war was the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the world’s two superpowers. The competition between the two dominated the period after the war, an area called the Cold War. This conflict was started at the war’s end when the U.S.S.R. sets up satellite nations in Eastern Europe. But it didn’t stop there. The spread of communism from the Soviet Union also went to Asian nations, such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as other parts of the world, such as Cuba. The two nations’ dominance was cemented by their acquisition of nuclear weapons before everyone else.

World War II also caused another major change in world politics, an area known as Decolonization. The colonies in Asia and Africa established by European nations in the late 1800’s—like India, Kenya, Nigeria and Palestine—gained independence in the post-war period. In many cases, the independence of these former colonies and issues caused from the time Europe ruled them continued to cause issues well after the Europeans left.

The war also caused the establishment of another international-peace keeping organization to replace the failed League of Nations. It is called the United Nations and it still operates today.

The economic impact of the war were far reaching too. The war cost $1,100 billion in military expenditures and caused $230 billion in collateral damage. Post-war economic recovery of European and Asian nations was a major concern. The United States and the Soviet Union both offered assistance to countries in the post-war period. The American program, called the Marshall Plan, helped Western European nations rebuild their economies quickly. American assistance also helped Japan rebound from the war as an economic powerhouse.

The social costs of the war were staggering. World War II stands as the largest conflict in human history. It left 22 million dead and 34 million wounded. It also created millions of refugees, people who lost their homes from the war and struggled to find new places to settle. One groups that especially suffered were the European Jews who survived the Holocaust. The NAZI attempt to murder all European Jews has caused major issues still effecting the world today.

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