Tuesday, August 26, 2014

(1931-1941) The Outbreak of the Second World War - World History

In the 1930s the world order was violently challenged by states committed to establishing a “New Order” based on military conquest and brutal imperial rule. As the post-war system dissolve, bitter political conflicts between democrats, communists and fascists torn Europe apart and sent the world spiralling once again to war.

IN THE 1930s the international order constructed after the First World War, based upon the League of Nations and “collective security”, collapsed under the violent impact of major revisionist powers bent on building a “New Order” in their favour.

The crisis of the international system owed much to the effects of the worldwide slump, which encouraged strident nationalism and militarism in the weaker economies. In Japan the economic crisis provoked the military into seizing economic resources and markets by force to compensate for their declining trade. In 1931 the Chinese province of Manchuria was conquered and soon turned into a Japanese satellite state, Manchukuo, ruled by the last Manchu emperor, Pu Yi. Japan left the League and declared a “New Order” in East Asia. With the League of Nations powerless in the face of this aggression, Japan continued to encroach on Chinese sovereignty until full-scale war broke out in 1937, bringing much of northern China under direct Japanese rule. In Europe Mussolini’s Italy also locked for a new economic empire. In 1935, expecting little reaction from the other major powers, Italy invaded Ethiopia. Though sanctions were half-heartedly applied by the League, by 1936 the conquest was complete. Italy, too, pulled out of the League.

German expansion 

In 1935 Hitler began the process of overturning the Versailles settlement, declaring German rearmament in defiance of the Treaty. In March the following year, he ordered German troops back into the Rhineland. When the expected protest from Britain and France failed to materialize, his ambitions widened. In March 1938 Austria was occupied and united into a Greater Germany. In May Hitler’s plans for the conquest of Czechoslovakia were frustrated only by belated protests from Britain and France. At the Munich con-ference in September that year, called to discuss the crisis, Britain and France nonetheless agreed to the incorporation of the Sudetenland, the German speaking areas of Czechoslovakia, into Germany.

Far from marking an end to “legitimate” German territorial aspirations, the Munich Pact encouraged Hitler further. In March 1939, in clear defiance of the Pact, Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia, all that remained of Czechoslovakia, became a German puppet state. At the same time, Hitler forced Lithuania to agree the return of Memel on the Baltic coast to Germany. Hitler then formally demanded the return of Danzig, which had been made a Free City under League jurisdiction after the war.

The failure of Britain and France to respond to Hitler’s aggression was largely the result of their horror of a further European conflict, a dilemma heightened by the events of the Spanish Civil War and the crisis in eastern Europe. Nonetheless, despite political resistance at home they both in 1936 began a programme of large-scale rearmament, which they hoped would deter Hitler from further aggression. By the time Hitler threatened Poland in 1939 both Western powers had reached the point where they could no longer postpone confronting the threat to the European balance of power. Hitler reached to growing western firmness by concluding a non-aggression pact with the ideological enemy, the Soviet Union, in August 1939. Hitler was convinced that western resistance would crumble, but instead Britain signed a military alliance with Poland on 26 August, and when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, Britain and France declared war two days later. 

War in Europe 

Poland was defeated within two weeks and was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, in a second agreement signed in Moscow in September 1939. The western Allies sat behind the Maginot line in eastern France waiting for a German attack. In April, Germany occupied Norway to secure the northern flank, and on 10 May 1940 invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. In six weeks all were defeated and British forces humiliatingly expelled from continental Europe. Emboldened by Hitler’s success, Italy invaded France in June and Egypt in September by 1940, and then attacked Greece in October.

Hitler wanted Britain to sue for peace. When Churchill, Britain’s new prime minister, refused, German air forces tried to force a surrender. The ensuing Battle of Britain in the air was Hitler’s first defeat in November 1940, he confirmed a decision made in July to attack the Soviet Union. Delayed by a campaign in the Balkans in April 1941 against Yugoslavia and Greece, the invasion began on 22 June 1941. After a series of spectacular Victories German forces approached Leningrad and Moscow. The Axis seemed poised to remake the world order. 

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