WORLD WAR II BEGAN in Europe at dawn on September 1, 1939, as units of the German Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border. Britain and France, honoring their pledge to Poland made earlier in the year, declared war on Germany on September 3. The war lasted nearly six years, and by the time it was over, much of the civilized world lay in ruins, something more than thirty million people had been killed, great empires had been destroyed, and weapons of new and hitherto unimagined potential had been unleashed upon the world.
Such a result could not have stemmed from a border dispute between Germany and Poland. The powder train that led to the outbreak of war went back far beyond the immediate causes of it. Without stretching historical continuity too far, the causes of World War II can be taken back at least into the nineteenth century. For practical purposes, however, World Wars I and II can be considered part of one large struggle—the struggle of united Germany to claim its place as the dominant power on the European continent—and the causes of World War II can be traced from the immediate aftermath of World War I.
In 1919, a series of treaties was made between the victorious Allies and the various defeated powers. All of these were punitive in nature. They consisted of the Peace of Versailles with Germany, the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye with Austria, the Peace of Neuilly with Bulgaria, the Peace of the Trianon with Hungary, and the Peace of Sèvres with Turkey, later modified by the Peace of Lausanne. The fact that all of the original treaties were signed in the suburbs of Paris and bore their names was indicative of the place still occupied by the French in the world of diplomacy and power. Though she had virtually ruined herself, in the present and for the future, France had proved that she was still the major power of Europe. All of the peace treaties, though they did put the burden of the war on the defeated Central Powers, also contained the provision that the vanquished might subsequently be admitted to the League of Nations, that much maligned brainchild of President Woodrow Wilson. The League, its supporters hoped, with its provisions for collective security, would provide alternatives to war in the future.
The five years after the establishment of the “Versailles system” have been called “the period of settlement.” Assorted border disputes left over from the war and the collapse of the eastern European empires—Russia, the Hapsburgs, and Turkey—were settled, and diplomatic groupings were made and unmade. The Greeks fought the Turks; the Poles fought the Russians; Italians and Yugoslavs quarreled over the head of the Adriatic. France, Britain, and the United States negotiated a defensive alliance that promised to protect France from Germany. On the basis of that, the French modified their demands against Germany. The United States Senate then refused to ratify the alliance treaty, as it did also the Versailles treaty. The French were then disposed to meddle ineffectually in German politics, trying to foster a breakaway Rhenish republic, occupying the industrial Ruhr district, and engaging in activities that made the Americans, at least, believe that the French could not have been trusted anyway.
Nonetheless, by 1924, it looked as if some degree of stability were returning to Europe, and the late twenties were the nearest to a period of peace and prosperity that post-World War I Europe got. In 1924, assorted member-states of the League of Nations attempted to overcome some of the security deficiencies of the League by drafting treaties of compulsory arbitration. None of these developed, largely because the United States, Germany, and Russia were not members, and because the British dominions were unwilling to commit themselves to minding distant neighbors’ houses.
The unsuccessful discussions did lead, though, to a conference held at Locarno in Switzerland in 1925. This produced another series of agreements, known as the “Locarno system,” which effectively updated the Versailles system. In the first of these, France, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, and Italy guaranteed the Franco-German and the Belgo-German borders. Next, Germany signed an arbitration treaty with Poland, and one with Czechoslovakia. Then Germany signed a similar treaty with France and one with Belgium. Theoretically, these treaties removed any likelihood of German aggression in the future. In spite of that, France then proceeded to develop further her mutual defense treaty with Poland, in which one agreed to come to the rescue if the other were attacked by Germany. France then went on and signed the same kind of treaty with Czechoslovakia.
Locarno was hailed as a milestone in European diplomacy, and for a while the “spirit of Locarno” and the “Locarno honeymoon” were phrases widely used by the newspapers. A later outgrowth of it was the famous Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed between the United States Secretary of State and the French Foreign Minister; this pact was rather like the Holy Alliance of Tsar Alexander in 1815, which Metternich called a “high-sounding nothing.” All the states that eventually adhered to it renounced the use of aggressive warfare as an instrument of policy. There was, however, an opting-out clause, and there was no provision for any enforcing of the pact. Like Locarno, it looked good on paper.
It was Germany’s neighbors who had most to fear, or thought they had, and it was they, particularly France, who soon discovered the cracks beneath all this paper. France had after all been twice invaded by Germany in recent memory, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and again in 1914-18, and she was not disposed to put her faith in someone else’s expression of good intent. Even in the early twenties then, the French began creating their own private alliance-system against Germany.
France and Poland had signed a defensive alliance in 1921. At that time the newly resurrected Poland was busy fighting with Russia; just as in the eighteenth century, she proved no match for the Russians—though at one point the Poles did threaten Moscow—and now as then she turned to France for help. A French military mission helped the Poles keep the Russians away from Warsaw, and the two states signed an alliance in which both looked fearfully east: the Poles to Moscow, and the French to Berlin.
There were also assorted mini-systems in central and eastern Europe. In 1920, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia signed an alliance that became known as the “Little Entente.” Poland allied with Rumania in 1921, and Rumania then joined in with the Little Entente. After Locarno, France realized that her various alliances did not prevent German aggression directed toward the east and the south. She therefore reaffirmed her alliance with Poland, and she also joined the Little Entente, extending her ties to the southeast. Theoretically, she had created a diplomatic barrier against potential German aggression in any direction. Actually, she had now made it extremely likely that, if Germany developed any expansionist tendencies at all, the French would be dragged into another war—exactly what the alliances were all supposed to avoid. None of the treaties could disguise the basic fact of European life—a united Germany was potentially the strongest power on the Continent. France began to rearm.
Less than a decade after the end of the war to end all wars, and after all the talk of peace settlements, guarantees, mutual-defense systems, alliances, and treaties, the countries of Europe were faced once again with the old problem of military force. A concomitant to the bankruptcy of diplomacy was the even worse failure of the movement for disarmament.
At the signing of the military armistice in November of 1918, and more definitively in the Peace of Versailles, Germany had been effectively disarmed. She had been limited to an army of 100,000 men, which made the French happy. Her navy had been held to no more than thirty-six combat vessels, including no submarines and no modern battleships, and that made the British happy. She was not allowed to have an air force, and she was not permitted any military installations within fifty kilometers of the east bank of the Rhine River—the famous “demilitarization of the Rhine.”
All of these provisions were systematically circumvented by the German government, often unwittingly aided by the Allied Control Commissions set up to oversee them. The army, for example, had been envisaged by the peacemakers as an internal police force. But the German General Staff, officially broken up at the end of the war, actually reformed and disguised as a troop-organization office, built up an army in which every man was to be a potential officer or noncommissioned officer. The 100,000-man Reichswehrthus became the skeleton of a larger army, to be fleshed out when the occasion arose. The Allied control officers, all serving professional soldiers rather than internal-security specialists, allowed and in some cases encouraged the Germans to set up organizations capable of dealing with armored cars which would one day become tanks, and heavy infantry weapons and artillery pieces.
Denied an air force, the Germans developed a great interest in sport gliding. That was in the thirties, after Hitler came to power, and he would soon spring a full-grown air force on the world. Before Hitler, there was liaison between the Germans and the other European outcasts of the twenties, Bolshevik Russia; substantial numbers of Germans trained troops of the Soviet army and air force, and were in turn trained by them. The navy perhaps lagged behind, as 1940 would show, but it too kept up on technical developments, and when it did start rebuilding, it was in the forefront of naval design.
The disarmament of Germany was predicated on the idea that there would be a general disarmament after World War I. The prewar arms race was widely regarded as one of the major contributing causes to the Great War, and there was a strong movement to get rid of arms and armaments manufacturers—the “merchants of death”—after the war ended. This movement resulted in the usual series of conferences.
The most famous of these was probably the Washington Conference of 1922. Most of the disarmament movement came to be concentrated on naval strengths. This was ironic, because the mythology of militarism tends to regard navies as defensive and democratic, and armies as offensive and autocratic. Perhaps because ships are more visible than tanks, perhaps because they are more readily countable, more likely because the leaders of the movement were the British and the Americans, both naval powers, the conferences generally dealt with naval strengths first.
The Washington Conference was held essentially because the British could not afford a naval race with the United States. The American government, before it got involved in World War I, had launched a massive naval-building program. During the war this had been shelved, and the United States built escort vessels rather than battleships to beat the submarine menace. After the war, the big-ship building program was dusted off, and work on the battleships was begun again. The British protested vehemently; they had not defeated Germany only to end up playing second fiddle to the United States. Finally, a conference was convened at Washington, to which all the major naval powers were invited.
Some small progress was made. The conference agreed to the famous 5:5:3 ratio for capital-ship tonnage—the United States and Britain being 5, the Japanese 3. France and Italy both came out as 1.75; neither liked the idea. There was also an agreement that the United States would not fortify its holdings in the Pacific west of Hawaii, nor the British east of Singapore, a concession to Japanese pride and the British and American taxpayer that would be paid for in 1942.
In 1927, the Allied Control Commission stopped overseeing Germany. Another naval conference was held at London in 1930. The idea at this one was to extend the 5:5:3 ratio to other classes of vessels, but not much was accomplished. The British, Americans, and Japanese all had different imperial requirements, and wanted different classes and types of ships to meet them. Some watered-down provisions were accepted. The Russian delegation, led by Maxim Litvinov, proposed complete and immediate disarmament for everybody; this was rejected out of hand as a Bolshevik trick.
In 1932, a commission of the League of Nations produced a preparatory draft for a general scheme of disarmament. The proposal, however, left untouched all previous treaties that dealt with arms limitations. Among these, the French insisted on including the Versailles treaty, with its provisions about German strengths. This meant there could be no German rearmament; that meant there could be no equality of arms, and that in turn, by the convoluted logic of politics, meant there could be no disarmament.
There was another try in 1935, but by then Hitler was in power in Germany, and the talk was more of the need for rearmament, rather than disarmament. For practical purposes the movement was dead. Strengths and weapons-systems would now increase instead of decrease. How far this would go, and what direction it might take in any given state depended upon a variety of factors: geographical, economic, and political. For in pre-World War II Europe, each state had its own particular problems and its own particular ideas of how they should be dealt with.