Chapter 27 - World War II, 1939-1945


ON FEBRUARY 3, 1933, only four days after he had been appointed chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler met secretly with Germany’s leading generals. He revealed to them his desire to remove the “cancer of democracy,” create a new authoritarian leadership, and forge a new domestic unity. All Germans would need to realize that “only a struggle can save us and that everything else must be subordinated to this idea.” Youth especially must be trained and their wills strengthened “to fight with all means.” Since Germany’s living space was too small for its people, Hitler said, Germany must rearm and prepare for “the conquest of new living space in the east and its ruthless Germanization.” Even before he had consolidated his power, Hitler had a clear vision of his goals, and their implementation meant another European war. World War II was clearly Hitler’s war. Although other countries may have helped make the war possible by not resisting Hitler’s Germany earlier, it was Nazi Germany’s actions that made World War II inevitable.

World War II was more than just Hitler’s war, however. This chapter will focus on the European theater of war, but both European and American armies were also involved in fighting around the world. World War II consisted of two conflicts: one provoked by the ambitions of Germany in Europe, the other by the ambitions of Japan in Asia. By 1941, with the involvement of the United States in both wars, the two had merged into one global conflict.

Although World War I has been described as a total war, World War II was even more so and was fought on a scale unknown in history. Almost everyone in the warring countries was involved in one way or another: as soldiers; as workers in wartime industries; as ordinary citizens subject to invading armies, military occupation, or bombing raids; as refugees; or as victims of mass extermination. The world had never witnessed such widespread willful death and destruction.

Prelude to War (1933-1939)

FOCUS QUESTIONS: What were Hitler’s foreign policy goals, and what steps did he take to achieve them between 1933 and 1939? How did Japan’s policies lead to war in Asia?

Only twenty years after the “war to end all war,” Europe plunged back into the nightmare of total war. The efforts at collective security in the 1920s – the League of Nations, the attempts at disarmament, the pacts and treaties – all proved meaningless in light of the growth of Nazi Germany and its deliberate scrapping of the postwar settlement in the 1930s. Still weary from the last war, France and Britain refused to accept the possibility of another war. The Soviet Union, treated as an outcast by the Western powers, had turned in on itself, and the United States had withdrawn into its traditional isolationism. The small successor states to Austria-Hungary were too weak to oppose Germany. Thus, the power vacuum in the heart of Europe encouraged a revived and militarized Germany to acquire the living space that Hitler claimed Germany needed for its rightful place in the world.

The Role of Hitler

World War II in Europe began in the mind of Adolf Hitler, who believed that only the Aryans were capable of building a great civilization. But to Hitler, the Germans, in his view the leading group of Aryans, were threatened from the east by a large mass of inferior peoples, the Slavs, who had learned to use German weapons and technology. Germany needed more land to support a larger population and be a great power. Hitler was a firm believer in the doctrine of Lebensraum (living space), espoused by Karl Haushofer (HOWSS-hoh-fuh), a professor of geography at the University of Munich. The doctrine of Lebensraum maintained that a nation’s power depended on the amount and kind of land it occupied. Already in the 1920s, in the second volume of Mein Kampf, Hitler had indicated where a National Socialist regime would find this land: “And so we National Socialists ... take up where we broke off six hundred years ago. We stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze toward the land in the east. . . . If we speak of soil in Europe today, we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.”1

In Hitler’s view, the Russian Revolution had created the conditions for Germany’s acquisition of land to its east. Imperial Russia had been strong only because of its German leadership. The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks (who, in Hitler’s mind, were Jewish) had left Russia weak and vulnerable. Once it had been conquered, the land of Russia could be resettled by German peasants, and the Slavic population could be used as slave labor to build the Aryan racial state that would dominate Europe for the next thousand years. Hitler’s conclusion was clear: Germany must prepare for its inevitable war with the Soviet Union. Hitler’s ideas were by no means secret. He had spelled them out in Mein Kampf, a book readily available to anyone who wished to read it (see the box on p. 834).

Hitler and the Nazis were neither the first Europeans nor the first Germans to undertake European conquest and world power. A number of elite circles in Germany before World War I had argued that Germany needed to annex lands to its south, east, and west if it wished to compete with the large states and remain a great power. The defeat in World War I destroyed this dream of world power, but the traditional conservative elites in the German military and the Foreign Office supported Hitler’s foreign policy until 1937, largely because it accorded with their own desires for German expansion. But, as they realized too late, Nazi policy went far beyond previous German goals. Hitler’s desire to create an Aryan racial empire led to slave labor and even mass extermination on a scale that would have been incomprehensible to previous generations of Germans.

Although Hitler had defined his goals, he had no prearranged timetable for achieving them. During his rise to power, he had demonstrated the ability to be both ideologue and opportunist. After 1933, a combination of military and diplomatic situations, organizational chaos in the administration of Germany, and economic pressures, especially after 1936, caused Hitler periodically to take steps that seemed to contradict the foreign policy goals of Mein Kampf But he always returned to his basic ideological plans for racial supremacy and empire. He was certain of one thing: only he had the ability to accomplish these goals, and his fears for his health pushed him to fulfill his mission as quickly as possible. His impatience would become a major cause of his own undoing.

The “Diplomatic Revolution” (1933-1936)

Between 1933 and 1936, Hitler and Nazi Germany achieved a “diplomatic revolution” in Europe. When Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Germany’s position in Europe seemed weak. The Versailles treaty had created a demilitarized zone on Germany’s western border that would allow the French to move into the heavily industrialized parts of Germany in the event of war. To Germany’s east, the smaller states, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, had defensive treaties with France. The Versailles treaty had also limited Germany’s army to 100,000 troops with no air and limited naval forces.

The Germans were not without advantages, however. Germany was the most populous European state after the Soviet Union and still possessed a great industrial capacity. Hitler was also well aware that Great Britain and France, dismayed by the costs and losses of World War I, wanted to avoid another war. Hitler knew that France posed a threat to an unarmed Germany, but he believed that if he could keep the French from acting against Germany in his first years, he could remove the restrictions imposed on Germany by Versailles and restore its strength.

Hitler’s ability to rearm Germany and fulfill his expansionist policies depended initially on whether he could convince others that his intentions were peaceful. Posing as a man of peace in his public speeches, Hitler emphasized that Germany wished only to revise the unfair provisions of Versailles by peaceful means and achieve Germany’s rightful place among the European states. During his first two years in office, Hitler pursued a prudent foreign policy without unnecessary risks. His dramatic action in October 1933, when he withdrew Germany from the Geneva Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations, was done primarily for domestic political reasons, to give the Germans the feeling that their country was no longer dominated by other European states.

GERMAN REARMAMENT By the beginning of 1935, Hitler had become convinced that Germany could break some of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles without serious British and French opposition. Hitler had come to believe, based on their responses to his early actions, that both states wanted to maintain the international status quo, but without using force . Consequently, he decided to announce publicly what had been going on secretly for sometime – Germany’s military rearmament. On March 9, 1935, Hitler announced the creation of a new air force and, one week later, the introduction of a military draft that would expand Germany’s army from 100,000 to 550,000 troops.

Hitler’s unilateral repudiation of the disarmament clauses of the Versailles treaty brought a swift reaction as France, Great Britain, and Italy condemned Germany’s action and warned against future aggressive steps. But nothing concrete was done. Even worse, Britain subsequently moved toward open acceptance of Germany’s right to rearm when it agreed to the Anglo-German Naval Pact on June 18, 1935. This treaty allowed Germany to build a navy that would be 35 percent of the size of the British navy, with equality in submarines. The British were starting a policy of appeasement, based on the belief that if European states satisfied the reasonable demands of dissatisfied powers, the latter would be content, and stability and peace would be achieved in Europe. British appeasement was grounded in large part on Britain’s desire to avoid another war, but British statesmen who believed that Nazi Germany offered a powerful bulwark against Soviet communism also fostered it.

OCCUPATION OF THE RHINELAND On March 7, 1936, buoyed by his conviction that the Western democracies had no intention of using force to maintain all aspects of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler sent German troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. According to the Versailles treaty, the French had the right to use force against any violation of the demilitarized Rhineland. But France would not act without British support, and the British viewed the occupation of German territory by German troops as another reasonable action by a dissatisfied power. The London Times noted that the Germans were only “going into their own back garden.” The French and British response only reinforced Hitler’s growing conviction that they were weak nations unwilling to use force to defend the old order. At the same time, since the German generals had opposed his plan, Hitler became even more convinced of his own superior abilities. Many Germans expressed fresh enthusiasm for a leader who was restoring German honor.

NEW ALLIANCES Meanwhile, Hitler gained new allies. In October 1935, Benito Mussolini had committed Fascist Italy to imperial expansion by invading Ethiopia. Angered by French and British opposition to his invasion, Mussolini welcomed Hitler’s support and began to draw closer to the German dictator he had once called a buffoon. The joint intervention of Germany and Italy on behalf of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 also drew the two nations closer together. In October 1936, Mussolini and Hitler concluded an agreement that recognized their common political and economic interests, and one month later, Mussolini referred publicly to the new Rome-Berlin Axis. Also in November 1936, Germany and Japan (the rising military power in the East) concluded the Anti-Comintern Pact and agreed to maintain a common front against communism.

By the end of 1936, Hitler and Nazi Germany had achieved a “diplomatic revolution” in Europe. The Treaty of Versailles had been virtually scrapped, and Germany was once more a “world power,” as Hitler proclaimed. Hitler had demonstrated a great deal of diplomatic skill in taking advantage of Europeans’ burning desire for peace. He had used the tactic of peaceful revision as skillfully as he had used the tactic of legality in his pursuit of power in Germany. By the end of 1936, Nazi power had increased enough that Hitler could initiate an even more daring foreign policy. As Hitler perceived, if the Western states were so afraid of war that they resisted its use when they were strong and Germany was weak, then they would be even more reluctant to do so now that Germany was strong. Although many Europeans still wanted to believe that Hitler desired peace, his moves had actually made war more possible.

The Path to War in Europe (1937-1939)

On November 5, 1937, at a secret conference with his military leaders in Berlin, Adolf Hitler revealed his future aims. Germany’s ultimate goal, he assured his audience, must be the conquest of living space in the east. Although this might mean war with France and Great Britain, Germany had no alternative if the basic needs of the German people were to be met. First, however, Germany must deal with Austria and Czechoslovakia and secure its eastern and southern flanks.

ONGOING REARMAMENT In the meantime, Hitler had continued Germany’s rearmament at an ever-quickening pace. Expenditures on rearmament rose dramatically: in 1933, 1 billion Reichsmarks; in 1935, 5 billion; in 1937, 9.5 billion; and in 1939, 30 billion. Important to rearmament was the planning for a new type of warfare known as blitzkrieg (BLlTZ-kreeg), or “lightning war.” Hitler and some of his military commanders wanted to avoid the trench warfare of World War I and conceived a lightning warfare that depended on mechanized columns and massive air power to cut quickly across battle lines and encircle and annihilate entire armies. blitzkrieg meant the quick defeat of an enemy and also determined much of Hitler’s rearmament program: the construction of a large air force – the Luftwaffe (LOOFT-vahf-uh) – and immense numbers of tanks and armored trucks to carry infantry. The tanks, mechanized infantry, and mobile artillery formed the new strike forces called panzer divisions that, with air force support, would lead the blitzkrieg attack (each panzer division consisted of about three hundred tanks with accompanying forces and supplies). At the same time, the number of men in the German armed services rose from 550,000 in 1935 to 4.5 million in 1939. Naval rearmament also proceeded after the Anglo-German Naval Pact of 1935.

UNION WITH AUSTRIA By the end of 1937, Hitler was convinced that neither the French nor the British would provide much opposition to his plans. Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), who had become prime minister of Britain in May 1937, was a strong advocate of appeasement and believed that the survival of the British Empire depended on an accommodation with Germany. Chamberlain had made it known to Hitler in November 1937 that he would not oppose changes in central Europe, provided that they were executed peacefully.

Hitler decided to move first on Austria. By threatening Austria with invasion, Hitler coerced the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg (SHOOSH-nik) (1897-1977), into putting an Austrian Nazi in charge of the government. When German troops marched unopposed into Austria on March 12, 1938, they did so on the “legal basis” of the new Austrian chancellor’s request for German troops to assist in establishing law and order. One day later, on March 13, after his triumphal return to his native land, Hitler formally annexed Austria to Germany. Great Britain’s ready acknowledgment of Hitler’s action and France’s inability to respond due to a political crisis only increased the German dictator’s contempt for Western weakness.

The annexation of Austria improved Germany’s strategic position in central Europe and put Germany in position for Hitler’s next objective, the destruction of Czechoslovakia (see Map 27.1). On May 30, 1938, Hider had already told his generals that it was his “unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future.”2 This goal might have seemed unrealistic since democratic Czechoslovakia was quite prepared to defend itself and was well supported by pacts with France and Soviet Russia. Nevertheless, Hider believed that France and Britain would not use force to defend Czechoslovakia.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA In the meantime, Hitler had stepped up his demands on the Czechs. Initially, the Germans had asked for autonomy for the Sudetenland (soo-DAY-tun-land), the mountainous northwestern border area of Czechoslovakia that was home to 3 million ethnic Germans. As Hitler knew, the Sudetenland also contained Czechoslovakia’s most important frontier defenses and considerable industrial resources as well. But on September 15, 1938, Hitler demanded the cession of the Sudetenland to Germany and expressed his willingness to risk “world war” to achieve his objective. By that time, Hitler was convinced that France and Britain would not use force to defend Czechoslovakia. On paper, the Czech republic seemed well protected by a pact with France. Yet the French made it clear that they would act only if the British supported them. The British refused to do so, and on September 29, at the hastily arranged Munich Conference, the British, French, Germans, and Italians (neither the Czechs nor the Russians were invited) reached an agreement that essentially met all of Hitler’s demands. German troops were allowed to occupy the Sudetenland as the Czechs, abandoned by their Western allies, stood by helplessly. The Munich Conference was the high point of Western appeasement of Hitler. When Chamberlain returned to England from Munich, he boasted that the Munich agreement meant “peace for our time.” Hitler had promised Chamberlain that he had made his last demand; all other European problems could be settled by negotiation. Like many German politicians, Chamberlain had believed Hitler’s assurances (see the box on p. 838).

In fact, Munich confirmed Hitler’s perception that the Western democracies were weak and would not fight. Increasingly, Hitler was convinced of his own infallibility, and he had by no means been satisfied at Munich. Already at the end of October 1938, Hitler told his generals to prepare for the final liquidation of the Czechoslovakian state. Using the internal disorder that he had deliberately fostered as a pretext, Hitler occupied the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) while the Slovaks, with Hitler’s encouragement, declared their independence from the Czechs and became a puppet state (Slovakia) of Nazi Germany. On the evening of March 15, 1939, Hitler triumphantly declared in Prague that he would be known as the greatest German of them all.

POLAND At last, the Western states reacted vigorously to time, both France and Britain, realizing that only the Soviet Hitler’s threat. After all, the Czechs were not Germans crying Union was powerful enough to help contain Nazi aggression, for reunion with Germany. Hitler’s naked aggression made began political and military negotiations with Joseph Stalin clear that his promises were utterly worthless. When Hitler and the Soviets. The West’s distrust of Soviet communism, began to demand the return to Germany of Danzig, which however, made an alliance unlikely. had been made a free city by the Treaty of Versailles to serve Meanwhile, Hitler pressed on in the belief that the West as a seaport for Poland, Britain recognized the danger and would not really fight over Poland. He ordered his generals offered to protect Poland in the event of war. At the same to prepare for the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. To preclude an alliance between the West and the Soviet Union, which would create the danger of a two-front war, Hitler, ever the opportunist, negotiated his own nonaggression pact with Stalin and shocked the world with its announcement on August 23 , 1939. A secret protocol to the treaty created German and Soviet spheres of influence in eastern Europe: Finland, the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, and eastern Poland would go to the Soviet Union, while Germany would acquire western Poland. The treaty with the Soviet Union gave Hitler the freedom to attack Poland. He told his generals: “Now Poland is in the position in which I wanted her.... I am only afraid that at the last moment some swine or other will yet submit to me a plan for mediation.”3 He need not have worried. On September 1, German forces invaded Poland; two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Two weeks later, on September 17, Germany’s newfound ally, the Soviet Union, sent its troops into eastern Poland. Europe was again at war.

The Path to War in Asia

The war in Asia arose from the ambitions of Japan, whose rise to the status of world power had been swift. Japan had defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 and had taken over many of Germany’s eastern and Pacific colonies in World War 1. By 1933, the Japanese Empire included Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), Manchuria, and the Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana Islands in the Pacific.

By the early 1930s, Japan was experiencing severe internal tensions. Its population had exploded from 30 million in 1870 to 80 million by 1937. Much of Japan’s ability to feed its population and to pay for industrial raw materials depended on the manufacture of heavy industrial goods (especially ships) and textiles. But in the 1930s, Western nations established tariff barriers to protect their own economies from the effects of the depression. Japan was devastated, both economically and politically.

Although political power had been concentrated in the hands of the emperor and his cabinet, Japan had also experienced a slow growth of political democracy with universal male suffrage in 1924 and the emergence of mass political parties. The economic crises of the 1930s stifled this democratic growth. Right-wing patriotic societies allied themselves with the army and navy to push a program of expansion at the expense of China and the Soviet Union, while the navy hoped to make Japan self-sufficient in raw materials by conquering British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. In 1935, Japan began to construct a modern naval fleet, and after 1936, the armed forces exercised much influence over the government.

JAPANESE GOALS IN EAST ASIA In September 1931, Japanese soldiers had seized Manchuria, an area of northeastern China that had natural resources Japan needed. Eventually, after worldwide protests against the seizure, the League of Nations condemned Japan’s action, which caused Japan to withdraw from the League. During the next several years, Japan consolidated its hold on Manchuria, which it renamed Manchukuo (man-CHOO-kwoh), and then began to expand its control in North China. By the mid-1930s, militant elements connected with the government and the armed forces were effectively in control of Japanese politics.

For the moment, the prime victim of Tokyo’s militant strategy was China. When clashes between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out, the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek (CHANG ky-SHEK) (18871975), sought to appease Tokyo by granting Japan the authority to administer areas in North China. But as Japan moved steadily southward, popular protests in Chinese cities against Japanese aggression intensified. When Chinese and Japanese forces clashed at the Marco Polo Bridge, south of Beijing, in July 1937, China refused to apologize, and hostilities spread.

Japan had not planned to declare war on China, but neither side would compromise, and the 1937 incident eventually turned into a major conflict. The Japanese advanced up the Yangtze valley and seized the Chinese capital of Nanjing (nan-JING), raping and killing thousands of innocent civilians in the process. But Chiang Kai-shek refused to capitulate and moved his government upriver to Hankou (HAHN-kow).

Japanese strategists had hoped to force Chiang to join a Japanese-dominated new order in East Asia, comprising Japan, Manchuria, and China. This aim was part of a larger plan to seize Soviet Siberia with its rich resources and create a new “Monroe Doctrine for Asia,” in which Japan would guide its Asian neighbors on the path to development and prosperity.

During the late 1930s, Japan began to cooperate with Nazi Germany on the assumption that the two countries would ultimately launch a joint attack on the Soviet Union and divide up its resources between them. But when Germany surprised the world by signing a nonaggression pact with the Soviets in August 1939, Japanese strategists were compelled to reevaluate their long-term objectives. Japan was not strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union alone, so the Japanese began to shift their gaze southward to the vast resources of Southeast Asia-the oil of the Dutch East Indies, the rubber and tin of Malaya, and the rice of Burma and Indochina.

A move southward, of course, would risk war with the European colonial powers, especially Britain and France, as well as with the other rising power in the Pacific, the United States. When the Japanese took military control of southern Vietnam in July 1941, the Americans responded by cutting off sales of vital scrap iron and oil to Japan. Japan’s military leaders decided to preempt any further American response by attacking the American naval fleet in the Pacific.

Next Reading: 27-2 The Course of World War II