Events preceding World War II in Europe
The origins of World War II are generally viewed as having its roots in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918). In that war Imperial Germany under the nationalistic Kaiser Wilhelm II had been defeated along with its allies, chiefly by a combination of the United Kingdom, United States and France. The war was directly blamed by the victors on the militant nationalism of the Kaiser's Germany; it was Germany that effectively started the war with an attack on France through Belgium. France had in 1871 suffered a defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which directly was followed by the constitution of a German Empire under Prussian leadership. France now demanded revenge for its financial devastation during the First World War (and its humiliation in the earlier war), which ensured that the various peace treaties, specifically the Treaty of Versailles imposed tough financial war reparations and restrictions on Germany. (See: Aftermath of World War I for more details.)
The Weimar Republic becomes the Third Reich
A new democratic German republic, known as the Weimar Republic, came into being and was soon hit by hyperinflation in 1923 and other serious economic problems. Nationalist elements under a variety of movements, including the Nazi Party led by the Austrian Adolf Hitler, blamed Germany's "humiliating" status on the harshness of the post-war settlement, on faults of democracy, on Social Democrats and Communists, and on the Jews, whom it claimed possessed a financial stranglehold on Germany.
In Germany, like in the radically diminished Austria, the citizens, or at least the educated classes, remembered the pre-war years under autocratic rule as prosperous – the post-war years under democratic rule (due to the failings of Proportional Representation under the Weimar Government), however, as chaotic and economically disastrous. Social tensions after the world wide economic depression following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 aggravated the political situation. Anti-democratic parties in the Reichstag (parliament), both left-wing and right-wing, obstructed the parliamentary work, while different cabinets resorted to governing by the special emergency powers of the Weimar constitution, which enabled the President and the Cabinet, in concert, to effectively bypass the parliament.
Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler (Chancellor) on January 30, 1933. The arson of the parliament building on February 27 (which is widely held, the Nazis had instigated) was used as an excuse for the cancellation of civil and political liberties, enacted by the aged president Paul von Hindenburg and the rightist coalition cabinet led by Hitler.
After new elections a Nazi-led majority could easily abolish parliamentarism, the Weimar constitution, and practically the parliament itself through the Enabling Act on March 23, whereby the Nazis' planned Gleichschaltung (regimentation) of Germany was made formally legal.
After the president, the World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, had died on August 2, 1934, the authority of the presidency fell into the hands of Adolf Hitler, upon which he declared himself fuehrer; and without much resistance from the Wehrmacht's leadership, the Soldiers' Oath could be modified into a confirmation of unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler personally.
The Italian economy also fell into a deep slump following World War I. 1914's Red Week had expanded into the post-war Biennio rosso, 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, and the Fascists had increased their public profile by highly visible punishment expeditions to supposedly crush the Socialist threat, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy invited Benito Mussolini to form a government on October 29, 1922. 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. During the Spanish Civil War, seen by many as a testing ground for the Second World War, he provided troops and aid to Francisco Franco's Nationalists.
Spanish Civil War
While many nations refused to become involved in the Spanish Civil War, notably Britain and France, troops were sent by both Hitler and Mussolini to aid the Spanish Nationalists, which included those with Fascist leanings. It would prove to be a precursor to many of the tactics and methods employed in the Second World War, such as the test bombing of Guernica, which aimed to see how effective the Blitz would be. Spain would be neutral during World War Two, but the division during the Civil War of Fascism (Germany and Italy) versus democracy (many volunteers joined the forces against the Nationalists from countries with an official stance of neutrality) and Communism (the USSR) was repeated during the Second World War.
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 the United Kingdom and France, for they were more serious about enforcing the economic provisions of the treaty than its military restrictions. Many Britons 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. This sentiment was underscored by the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which authorized Germany to build a fleet one third the size of the Royal Navy and put an end to British naval operations in the Baltic Sea, granting Germany supremacy there. 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, despite Polish proposal to put in action the Polish-French alliance.
The first German conquest was Austria. After Italy had joined Germany in the Anti-Comintern Pact, thereby removing the main obstacle of an 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. Unlike Austria, Czechoslovakia was not a German-speaking country, had a large and modern army backed with a huge armament industry, and had military alliances with France and England. Despite all this, Hitler, encouraged by reluctance of major European powers to stop his violation of post WWI treaties, was intended to go to the edge of war, convinced that France would shrink back again, not fulfilling her treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia. His first order of business was to seize the mountainous border regions called Sudetenland, in which lived a significant German-speaking majority, which called based on the right of self-determination on a unification with Germany. This region formed about one third of Bohemia (western Czechoslovakia) in terms of territory, population and economy and were vital for the country's existence. With Austria in German hands, this western part of Czechoslovakia, equipped with a huge defense system (larger than the Maginot line), was nearly surrounded by Germany.
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. In the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, the four European powers, including the Czechoslovak ally France, allowed, "for the sake of peace", German troops to occupy the Sudetenland. Czechoslovakia, which at that time already mobilized over one million army and was prepared to fight for independence, was not allowed to participate in the conference. When the French and British negotiators informed the Czechoslovak representatives about the agreement, and that if Czechoslovakia would not accept it, France and Britain would consider Czechoslovakia to be responsible for war, president Edvard Beneš capitulated. German (and soon after also Polish and Hungarian) forces invaded. A few months after that, on March 15, 1939, the now virtually defenseless remaining parts of the Czech lands were occupied by Germany as well and Hitler (in the Prague Castle) proclaimed Bohemia and Moravia a German protectorate. After one day before (on March 14) Slovakia had declared her independence, recognized by France, Britain and other important powers (see under Jozef Tiso).
While before Munich - France, Czechoslovakia and Poland were together strong enough to stop German aggression, the destruction of Czechoslovakia dramatically shifted balance of powers in Europe in favour of Nazi Germany which now turned its attention to Poland.
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