The lead up to War

The Depression of the 1930’s was a major factor in the lead up to war. The countries that behaved most aggressively towards the economic problems at the time were Japan, Italy and Germany. By 1931 millions of Japanese people faced starvation as a result of half the country’s factories closing down and lack of trade. The most obvious way of escaping the Depression was to invade a close country, which the Japanese Army did. Manchuria, a province of China, was taken over to enable Japan to obtain raw materials and consequently increase trade. The League of Nations saw no way of overthrowing the Japanese rulers in Manchuria by attack and nobody wanted to stop trading with her because world trade had suffered too much already, so the only option was to try and persuade the Japanese to give up Manchuria. This they tried, and failed at. Japan just resigned from the League of Nations and took over more of China.

Seeing how little the League of Nations had done or achieved regarding the situation in Asia, Benito Mussolini took this opportunity to start rebuilding the Roman Empire by invading Ethiopia. This happened in 1935 and the League of Nations members stopped all trade with Italy, with the aim of depriving Italian forces of oil, food and weapons. This did not work. As the USA was not a member of the League, they did not cease trading with Italy so in fact ruined the League’s plans and everyone else suffered as a consequence.

Adolf Hitler’s aims were to get back the land Germany lost in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, unite all German-speaking people and to make Germany bigger by combining other neighbouring countries. He originally wanted an alliance with Great Britain against the Soviet Union but as a result of his actions from 1933 onwards this never happened. Hitler’s first step was to invade the Rhineland. This was an area forbidden to the German Army by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Great Britain did not see this action as a threat, as the Rhineland was practically part of Germany anyway. French officials were more worried but knew they could not fight Germany without British aid and so nobody did anything. It was actually a bluff – the German army had only 22,000 soldiers and had orders to retreat if they met any resistance.

The next step was to try and unite Germany and Hitler’s native Austria. Austrian Nazis were ordered to start riots and behave violently in an effort to make Austria’s government look without control. Hitler then sent his German army in on 11 March 1938 to ‘restore order’. The Austrian Prime Minister, Kurt Schuschnigg, saw no way out and resigned. Austria was taken over by a Nazi, Josef B�rckel, who invited Hitler to send his army into Austria and unite the two countries.

Hitler performed the same operation in the Sudetenland, an area of former Czechoslovakia. The Czechs refused to give up the area like the Austrians had and they knew they had allies in the USSR, Britain and France. The leaders of Britain and France, however, did not want a war and met in Munich to appease Hitler. Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Daladier agreed the Sudetenland was the last piece of land Germany would take and the Czechs had to agree or fight Germany alone. On 1st October 1938 German forces took, by invitation from France and Britain, the Sudetenland. On returning from Munich Chamberlain remarked, “It is peace for our time.” Six months later, on 15th March 1939, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. This was the time that most British people realised the only thing that would stop Hitler would be a war. It was obvious Hitler’s next move would be to take the Polish Corridor, which had also been taken away from Germany at Versailles. It was the only piece of land he had not yet regained. Britain and France vowed to support Poland, Greece and Romania against Germany while Hitler and Mussolini agreed to help each other in any war. This Italian-Nazi “Pact of Steel” was signed on 22nd May 1939. These two sides that most of Europe had taken worried the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. He knew if Hitler took Poland then the USSR would be next and so offered to join an alliance with France and Britain, who did not trust him because he was communist. Stalin then signed an agreement with Hitler in August 1939 that they wouldn’t go to war with each other and would divide Poland between them after it was conquered. This part was kept secret. Hitler had only signed the pact to prevent the Soviet Union stopping him take Poland and Stalin had only signed it so Germany wouldn’t take over Russia. A week after the agreement was signed, Hitler invaded Poland on 1st September – “Operation Weiss”. Then Stalin did, and between them they took over all of Poland. It was this that triggered Neville Chamberlain to declare war on Germany on 3rd September 1939.

The first six months of the war were an anti-climax for the majority of the British people. In anticipation of devastating air raids, children were hastily evacuated from expected target areas, a strict blackout was imposed and nearly all forms of popular entertainment were abruptly halted. When no great onslaught from the air occurred, relief led to a slackening of precautions. Many children returned home to the cities. These quiet months from September 1939 until May 1940 were known as the “Phoney War.” About one and half million people, mostly children, were evacuated from the towns and cities to the countryside to avoid the expected air raids in the autumn of 1939. Many city children from poor parents found themselves in strange surroundings and their hosts were sometimes shocked by the differences between them. For instance, many children were unaccustomed to a proper bathroom in the house. The quiet of the early months of war meant that many mothers took their children home again. However, as the threatened air raids began later in 1940, a second wave of evacuees went to the country. Some parents, usually the more affluent, sent their children to friends and relatives overseas for the duration of the war. Canada and America were popular destinations.

Between 1929 and 1940 France had built the Maginot Line, a wall of defence across the border of France to protect itself against expected German invasions. It was named after war hero Andr� Maginot who had been France’s War Minister from 1928 – 1932. It could easily have been called the “Painlev� Line” after the Minister of War who introduced debate on the Line in Parliament, or the “P�tain Line,” after the man who thought of the concept, but it was Maginot’s persuasion in Parliament, of both the right and the left, to allocate money towards the project that the French people most respected. It stretched from Switzerland to the Ardennes in the North, and from the Alps to the Mediterranean in the South and was a series of tunnels where troops slept, trained, watched and waited for a war that never came.

In May 1940 the German Army surprised everyone by going through Holland and Belgium, who on 26th August of that year Hitler had guaranteed neutrality to, and invading France that way instead. The Germans were well equipped with guns, tanks and planes that collectively became known as the “Blitzkrieg” (Lightning War) style of warfare. The French had not been prepared for this at all and sent their army and the British stationed in France north towards Belgium. Once they were there, Hitler invaded France through the now undefended Maginot Line. The French and British troops were completely surrounded and retreated to Dunkirk, on the French coast, where many were rescued by civilian and military ships and taken to England.

Before the German invasion France had been politically divided with the left and right. The left wanted a communist state and the right were all for a Hitler takeover, such was their hatred for communism. In Paris, they were now equally divided as to whether to surrender to Hitler and protect their country or fight and risk major damage. The Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, resigned rather than surrender and his deputy Marshal Henri Philippe P�tain took over and surrendered. He was a popular hero from WWI and signed an armistice with Germany on 22nd June 1940.

The Germans then split France in two. The North was ruled directly by Nazis and the South became Vichy France, led by a Nazi sympathising government ruled by P�tain. Right wing French people supported this fully and those who didn’t just hoped that the Germans would be beaten. The fall of France was the final act that secured the sides most countries would take throughout the war – Hitler ruled or was in alliance with most of Europe and would go on to try and take the rest of it.