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Even though World War II didn’t get started until 1939, its causes were already well underway in the 1920s. In some ways, World War II isn’t a separate war from World War I, but instead the Great War Part II.

Stalin: The Soviet Union Goes Totalitarian

Once the Soviets removed themselves from World War I, they concentrated on their own domestic problems. Lenin first instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the early 1920s, which had some capitalistic aspects, such as allowing farmers to sell portions of their grain for their own profit. The plan was successful in agriculture, but Lenin didn’t live long enough to chaperone its expansion into other parts of the Soviet economy. When Lenin died, the leadership of the Communist Party shifted to Joseph Stalin.

Stalin believed the NEP was ridiculously slow, so he discarded it. Instead, he imposed his Five Year Plans, which called for expedient agricultural production by ruthlessly taking over private farms and combining them into state-owned enterprises, a process known as collectivization.The plans also advocated for the construction of large, nationalized factories. This process was achieved in the name of communism, but it was really totalitarianism. The people didn’t share in the power or the profits, and had no choices regarding participation. Untold numbers died fighting to protect their farms. Even more died in famines that resulted when Stalin usurped crops to feed government workers at the expense of the farmers themselves.

Stalin’s plans successfully industrialized the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), the formal name for the Soviet Union, and improved economic conditions for the country as a whole, but Stalin relied on terror tactics, such as a secret police force, bogus trials, and assassinations. These murders peaked between 1936 and 1938. Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as the “Great Purge” because the government systematically killed so many of its enemies. Stalin also established labor camps to punish anyone who opposed him. It’s hard to know for sure how many Soviet citizens were imprisoned or killed during the 1930s, especially because so many died of famines during the collectivization process, but historians agree that millions of Soviets were slaughtered under Stalin’s direction.

The Great Depression: Capitalism Crashes, Germany Burns

World War I was shockingly expensive. Countries spent more than $180 billion on armaments, boats, and trench warfare. Europe spent an additional $150 billion rebuilding. The massive scale of the war meant massive spending, at a level that nations had never experienced previously, and in the years following World War I, capitalism financed most of the recovery. As a consequence, the financial headquarters of the world shifted from London to New York, which had become a major center of credit to Europe during and after the war. In other words, Americans lent Europeans money, and lots of it.

In particular, the economies of two countries relied on American credit: France and Germany. France had loaned huge sums of money to Russia, its prewar ally, but the Bolshevik government refused to honor the czar’s debts, leaving France almost out of luck, except that Germany owed it a bunch of cash as well. Germany experienced extreme financial hardship because of the wartime reparations they were required to make under the Treaty of Versailles. Germany’s answer was to use American credit to pay its reparations by issuing I.O.U.s to countries like France. France took these “payments,” backed up by American credit, and spent them on rebuilding its economy. From 1924 to 1929, this arrangement looked great on paper due to growth in both the United States and European economies. But in many ways, the growth was artificial, based on loans that were never going to be repaid.

When the U.S. stock market crashed in October 1929, a spiral of monetary and fiscal problems called the Great Depression quickly escalated into an international catastrophe, and shattered the illusion of financial health in Europe. American banks immediately stopped extending credit. The effect was that Europe ran out of money, which it never really had in the first place. Germany couldn’t pay its reparations without American credit, so France had no money either.

The depths of the depression were truly staggering. The United States and Germany were hit hardest. In both countries, almost one-third of the available workforce was unemployed. In the United States, out-of-work Americans rejected the dominant political party and in 1932 electedFranklin Roosevelt as president in a landslide election. But other countries had much more fragile political structures. In places where democracy had shallow roots, such as Germany and Italy, whose shaky elective assemblies had been created only a decade earlier after World War I, the crisis resulted in the triumph of a political ideology that was anathema (look it up!) to the very spirit of democracy—fascism.

Fascism Gains Momentum

Between the First and Second World Wars, fascist parties emerged across Europe. They did not possess identical sets of beliefs, but they held a few important ideas in common. The main idea of fascism was to destroy the will of the individual in favor of “the people.” Fascists wanted a unified society (as did the communists), but they weren’t concerned with eliminating private property or class distinctions (the principal aim of communists). Instead, fascists pushed for another identity, one rooted in extreme nationalism, which often relied on racial identity.

Contrast Them: Fascism and Totalitarianism

Fascism is a subset of totalitarianism. A totalitarian dictator rules absolutely, attempting to control every aspect of life. Fascist rulers are a particular kind of totalitarian ruler, often regarded as extremely right-wing because they rely on traditional institutions and social distinctions to enforce their rule, and are extremely nationalistic. Their particular brand of nationalism is often based on racism. Communist totalitarian leaders like Stalin are often referred to as extreme left-wing because they seek to destroy traditional institutions and class distinctions, even as they retain absolute power themselves. Therefore, they’re not referred to as fascist, but they’re just as militaristic and controlling. Put another way, in their extreme forms, right-wing (fascist) and left-wing (communist) governments use the same tactics: totalitarianism. In both cases, all power rests in the hands of a single militaristic leader.

Fascism in Italy: Another Step toward Another War

Italy was the first state to have a fascist government. The founder and leader was Benito Mussolini, who created the National Fascist Party in 1919. The Party paid squads, known as Blackshirts, to fight socialist and communist organizations, an action that won over the loyalty of both factory owners and landowners. By 1921, the party seated its first members in the Italian parliament.

Although the fascists held only a few seats in the legislature, Mussolini demanded that King Victor Emmanuel III name him and several other fascists to cabinet posts. To rally support, Mussolini organized his parliamentary thugs to march to Rome and possibly attempt to seize power. If the king had declared martial law and brought in the army, most believe that the fascists would have scattered. However, the king was a timid man—facing economically troubling times—who was not unsympathetic to the fascist program. So, he named Mussolini prime minister, and the fascist march on Rome turned into a celebration.

As the postwar economy failed to improve, Italy was demoralized. Mussolini faced very little opposition to his consolidation of political power. He dabbled as a parliamentary leader for several months before completely taking over Parliament in 1922. He then implemented a number of constitutional changes to ensure that democracy no longer limited his actions, and, by 1926, Italy was transformed into a totalitarian fascist regime. To rally the people in a nationalistic cause, Italy started to focus on expansion, specifically in North Africa.

The Rise of Hitler

Immediately following the end of World War I, a revolt occurred in Germany when the emperor abdicated. Germany might well have become socialist at this point. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils (not unlike Russian soviets) formed in cities like Berlin. Yet, because the middle class in Germany was quite conservative and a large number of Germans had been relatively prosperous before the war, a socialist or communist system was rejected in favor of a fairly conservative democratic republic, called the Weimar Republic.

At the same time, Germany was in economic crisis, and Mussolini’s success influenced Germany in many ways. The National Socialist Party (Nazis) rose to power in the 1920s, ushered in by the worldwide depression. As Germany’s economy collapsed under the harsh reparations dictated by the Treaty of Versailles and the faltering world economy, German people increasingly rejected the solutions of the Weimar Republic’s elected body, the Reichstag.

During this period Adolf Hitler rose to power as head of the Nazi Party. Like Mussolini’s fascism, Hitler’s Nazism inspired extreme nationalism and the dreams of renewed greatness for a depressed and divided country. But Hitler’s philosophies differed from Mussolini’s in their emphasis on the superiority of one race over others. Well versed in social Darwinism, Hitler was convinced that the Aryan race was the most highly evolved race, and that inferior races, such as Slavs and Jews, had “corrupted” the German race. He argued that Jews should be deported (later that changed to “eliminated”) and that Germans should take over Europe.

The Nazi Party gained political power in the 1920s with Hitler as its guide, or fuhrer. At first, the Nazis received votes democratically and participated in the Reichstag. In the early 1930s, as the Great Depression devastated the German economy, Hitler received increasing support. In the election of 1930, the Nazi Party increased its seats in Parliament tenfold. By 1932, the Nazis dominated German government and many who disagreed with Hitler still backed him, thinking he was the country’s only hope. In 1933, Hitler became chancellor, or leader of the Reichstag. He then seized control of the government, known under his fascist rule as the Third Reich, and set his eyes on conquering Europe.

Contrast Them: Nationalism in Europe and Nationalism in Its Colonies

Nationalism was a driving force throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it had a very different flavor in Europe and Japan than in most European and Japanese colonies. In Europe and Japan, nationalism fueled extreme racism, fascism, and domination. National pride became almost synonymous with national expansion and conquest of other peoples. In the colonies, nationalism meant self-determination, the ability to free the nation from rule by another and determine one’s own destiny. National pride meant national sovereignty, not colonial or territorial expansion.

Appeasement: “Peace for Our Time,” or Just Wishful Thinking?

In 1933, Hitler began to rebuild the German military. This was a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles—which was specifically intended to limit future German aggression—but the other nations of Europe, especially Britain and France, chose not to object, fearing another war. Later that year, Germany again snubbed world opinion by withdrawing from the League of Nations.

Meanwhile, Spain, which had established a parliamentary democracy in 1931, was falling apart following the fall of the Spanish monarchy. In the summer of 1936, a group of army officers under the leadership of General Francisco Franco took control of large parts of Spain. Democratic loyalists organized to defend the state, and a brutal and divisive civil war ensued. Germany and Italy supported Franco’s troops, called “nationalists.” Although Franco was not a fascist, the Germans and Italians believed that the defeat of democracy in Spain was a step in the right direction.

France and Great Britain, still scarred from the loss of life and money in the Great War, adopted a nonintervention policy and refused to aid the supporters of the Spanish democracy. By 1939, Franco’s troops captured Madrid and installed a dictatorship in Spain that managed to stay neutral throughout the war that soon erupted in Europe. The message was clear: Germany and Italy were more than willing to exercise their influence and support antidemocratic uprisings.

Meanwhile back in Germany in 1935, Hitler continued his policy of restoring Germany to its former world-power status by taking back the Rhineland, a region west of the Rhine River that had been taken away from Germany after World War I. Still, the rest of Europe stayed quiet. In 1937, he formed an alliance with the increasingly militant Japan. Then, in 1938, he annexed Austria and moved to reclaim the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. At the Munich Conference of 1938, which included Hitler, Mussolini, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of England, Hitler was given the Sudetenland, without the consent of Czechoslovakia, in return for the promise to cease his expansionist activities. This incredibly optimistic (some would say stupid) policy is known asappeasement. Chamberlain agreed to give Hitler what he wanted as a means of avoiding war, believing German claims that it would be satisfied with Austria and the northern half of Czechoslovakia and would not expand further. And Hitler, in fact, did stop his expansion—for one whole year. In 1939, Hitler invaded the remaining territories in Czechoslovakia.

The rest of Europe was shocked, but they didn’t do anything to kick the Nazis out of Czechoslovakia. Instead, in March 1939, while Italy was invading Albania, Britain and France signed a non-aggression pact with Greece, Turkey, Romania, and Poland that provided that if any one of them were attacked, they’d all go to war.

Meanwhile, the Germans signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August of 1939. Stalin and Hitler agreed that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union if the Soviets stayed out of Germany’s military affairs. Furthermore, the countries determined how Eastern Europe would be divided among them, giving Lithuania and eastern Poland to Germany and the remainder of Poland and Finland and the Baltic States to Russia. So Stalin got a measure of security, and Hitler got a clear path by which to take Poland. With a secure agreement with the Soviet Union, German forces marched into Poland. Two days later, Britain realized that all diplomacy had failed and declared war on Germany, and France reluctantly followed suit. World War II had begun.

Need to Read About Some More Aggression? How About Japan?

You should remember that after the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the country kicked out the Europeans and started industrializing quickly. You should also remember that by 1905, they had already defeated the Chinese and the Russians in wars for territory in and around Korea.

After World War I, in which Japan fought on the side of the Allies and was therefore one of the victors, Japan’s economy and military really started to thrive. In 1915, during World War I, Japan sent a list of twenty-one demands to China, requiring China to give it trading rights and outright control over aspects of the government and economy, an act that was even more aggressive than some of the spheres of influence that had been established (and were still in effect) by the Europeans. In the 1920s, the country backtracked a little bit and focused on internal developments, softening its position toward China. But by 1930, the Great Depression began to severely affect Japan and the Japanese militarists gained momentum, claiming that an empire would pull them out of the economic doldrums. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, renaming itManchukuo and establishing a colony there. After withdrawing from the League of Nations, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact (against communism, specifically in Russia) with Germany in 1936, thereby forming the beginnings of an alliance that would eventually lead to a more formal one during World War II. In 1937, Japanese troops invaded China, pillaging towns and cities as they made their way down the eastern shore. One of the worst offenses was the aptly named, “Rape of Nanjing,” where in the city of Nanjing nearly 250,000 Chinese were slaughtered in a matter of a few weeks by occupying Japanese forces. Japan’s war with China eventually merged into the global conflagration of World War II that later started to burn in Europe.

A Quick Review of World War II: Tens of Millions Dead

Hitler’s forces were devastating. Their war tactic, known as blitzkrieg (literally “lightning war”), destroyed everything in its path with historically unprecedented speed. Poland’s flat open plains were tragically well-suited for the German run. The swiftly moving German forces acquired so much territory in the west of Poland that Stalin was forced to mobilize quickly lest he lose the entire country to the German Reich. Within ten days, Germany and Russia had divided Poland between them. Hitler then focused on the western front. In early 1940, Germany assaulted Holland andBelgium. Two days later, German forces entered France. Within a year, the Axis power controlled most of continental Europe.

Hitler assumed that Great Britain would crumble quickly after the fall of its ally, France. But a new leader, Winston Churchill, replaced Britain’s more diplomatically minded Chamberlain. Churchill proved to be a resolute and fierce prime minister. He refused to cut a deal with Germany, so Hitler launched a massive air bombing campaign in 1940 known as the Battle of Britain, which pitted the superior numbers of the German air force against the smaller numbers of the Royal Air Force. The British succeeded in keeping the German army out, and with their newly devised handy tool known as radar, they managed a successful, though costly, defense of the island.

In the meantime, Italy attacked Greece but was unable to defeat the country until April 1941, when German armies rushed in to help out. The Nazi-Soviet Pact tacitly gave the Balkan state to Russia, so the takeover of Greece had serious consequences. Now that Germany had taken control of the Balkans, their previous agreement was moot, so they invaded the Soviet Union too for good measure, advancing quickly. The resulting movement of men and supplies into the Soviet Union relieved pressure on the desperate British, the only Allied nation still fighting (other than the Soviet Union, of course).

Meanwhile in the Pacific, Japan continued its expansion in China and invaded Indochina (Vietnam). For trade reasons, the United States viewed this action as hostile, but the United States still didn’t want to get involved in the war, so it froze Japanese assets in the United States and imposed sanctions instead. At the same time, Japan entered into the Tripartite Pact with Rome and Berlin, ensuring worldwide implications for a war that had, up until that time, been two regional wars. Japan also made war plans against the United States if the United States refused to lift sanctions against Japan. The United States didn’t, and on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed a U.S. naval station in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. The United States was stunned, and promptly declared war against Japan, and in response, Germany declared war against the United States.

It took a while for the United States and Great Britain to coordinate a land attack against Germany because they needed a foothold in Europe from which to begin their assault. In the meantime, the Allies fought the Japanese in the Pacific and Germans and Italians in Africa while the United States also secretly worked on its Manhattan Project—the development of an atomic bomb. By 1943, the United States and Britain were ready for their European offensive, and they started it by taking control of Italy. The next year, English, American, and Canadian forces launched their biggest offensive, landing on the French beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, which is now known as D-day. With the help of French resistance forces, Allied Forces battled their way across northern France in the summer of 1944 and liberated France.

On the opposite side of Europe, the Red Army won a stunning victory against the Germans at Stalingrad in 1942 and advanced steadily west for three years. By May 1945, the Allied forces closed in on Hitler’s troops from the eastern and the western fronts until they reached Berlin, ending the European theater of World War II. Hitler committed suicide.

The war in the Pacific continued to drag on for a few months. At great cost, the American forces defeated Japan from island to island in the South Pacific. But the Japanese refused to surrender, even though their fate was sealed. Believing that dropping an atomic bomb on Japan would end World War II quickly and result in fewer casualties than a prolonged war, President Truman of the United States ordered the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The event marked the first time such a bomb had been used in warfare. The result was horrendous. More than 100,000 people were killed or injured and the city was completely leveled for miles. When the Japanese vowed to fight on, President Truman authorized the dropping of a second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9 with similar consequences. Japan finally surrendered and World War II was brought to a close.

The Consequences: So Much Changed!

The close of World War II brought with it enormous global changes. Since they are so numerous, it’s best to think about them in broad categories.

The Holocaust Revealed

Outside of Germany, few knew just how horrible the Nazi regime was until after the war was over. In an ongoing slaughter known now as the Holocaust, but known in Nazi Germany as “The Final Solution,” millions of Jews who lived in Germany and German-occupied lands were rounded up, blamed for every conceivable problem in society, and methodically killed in gas chambers and firing lines, their bodies disposed of in ovens and mass graves. As many as 6 million Jews were killed, making the Holocaust one of the largest acts of genocide in history (in addition, as many as 6 million Poles, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, and political dissidents were killed in the Holocaust). When the news of the atrocity spread after the war, public sympathy for the creation of Israel as a homeland for Jews rose sharply. More on that later.

The Peace Settlement

The United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers. Germany was occupied by the Allies—more on that later too. War crimes tribunals were established to prosecute and sentence Nazi officials. Japan was forced to demilitarize and establish a democracy. It did. It also embraced capitalism and became an economic powerhouse within a decade, but this time was friendly to the West.

Europe Torn to Shreds

In addition to a staggering loss of life (the Soviet Union alone lost more than 20 million soldiers and civilians), the infrastructure and communities of Europe were devastated. To help in the rebuilding effort, the United States instituted the Marshall Plan (named for George C. Marshall, the secretary of state who conceived of it) in 1947. The plan, in which billions of dollars of American money was made available for reconstruction, was offered to all European countries but only accepted by Western European nations. The plan worked: The economies of Western Europe recovered in less than a decade.

The Decline of Colonialism

European imperialism was already on the wane before World War II, but the war affected attitudes about empire, and inspired native populations to rise up against their oppressors. Much more on the decline of colonialism later in this chapter.

Big Changes for Women

Just as in World War I, in many countries, women worked outside the home during the war, raising money to support themselves or their families, while also helping the war effort. In Britain alone, more than three-fourths of adult women under age 40 were employed during the war. After the war, many women kept their jobs, or sought higher education, or otherwise began to broaden their horizons.

The Creation of International Organizations

After World War II, the Allies believed that a network of international organizations could reduce the probability that such a great war would break out again. The first of these international organizations was the United Nations, established in 1945 to replace the failed League of Nations. Given more muscle than the League of Nations, the primary goal of the UN was simple: to mediate, and if necessary to intervene in, international disputes between nations. As time passed, the UN expanded beyond the realm of political conflicts and increasingly involved itself in the monitoring of human rights and other social problems. But in addition to the UN, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (now known as the World Trade Organization), were formed to create and manage a more integrated global economy. The Allies believed that countries that were more connected economically would be less likely to invade one another.

The Start of the Cold War

Although they were allies during the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had very different worldviews. One was democratic and capitalist, the other totalitarian and communist. Neither wanted the other to spread its influence beyond its borders, so even before the war ended, they were strategizing on how to contain each other. This strategizing lasted for nearly 50 years, and the following section in this chapter explains the consequences.

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