Causes of the Second World War in Europe (1939 - 45)

Past Exam Questions:

Paper 2 -
  • Analyse (a) the long-term causes and (b) the short-term causes, of the Second World War. (May 2009)
  • Select two causes of the Second World War and show (a) how, and (b) why, they led to the outbreak of war in 1939. (Specimen)
  • Compare and contrast the causes of the First World War and the Second World War (May 2008)
  • Compare and contrast the reasons for Germany’s involvement in the First and Second World Wars (Nov 2007)
  • In what ways did the causes of the Second World War differ from the causes of the First World War? (May 2004)

Paper 3 -
  • For what reasons, and with what results, were appeasement policies followed in the 1930s? (Nov 2010)
  • For what reasons, and to what extent, did attempts to achieve collective security between 1919 and 1939 fail? (May 2010)
  • To what extent was the Second World War caused by Hitler's policies? (Nov 2008)
  • Why did the Second World War break out in 1939? (May 2008)
  • Why did international diplomacy fail to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939? (Nov 2007)

**Markscheme notes for these questions**


Long-term causes of the Second World War in Europe: how do these contribute to instability in the international system?

Unresolved issues after WW1 and the shortcomings of Versailles

A.J.P. Taylor; "The Second World War was, in large part, a repeat performance of the first"- conveys to the extent that the problems of 1919 were left unresolved.

  1. German resentment-
  • The German population resented the terms that were imposed on them by the TOV and saw the treaty as a "dictated peace" (they had expected a treaty based upon Wilson's 14 points of self-determination.
  • The treaty stripped the German reich of 25,000 square miles, 7 million habitants- in many cases the Germans found themselves being treated differently from those that goverened the settlements with other states.
  • However, even though Germany was disarmed and Anschluss was strictly forbidden, she still retained the means to become a great power in the future (in 1945 she would be partitioned) but now Germany still retained nearly 90% of economic resources.
  • It was these circumstances that enabled Hitler to rise to power in Germany and it was also the terms of the treaty that as soon as they became public, poiliticians saw the treaty as too harsh and led to the new diplomatic strategy of the western powers- appeasement.
2. The disintergration of wartime allied alliances-
  • By 1920, the alliances that had fought the war had disintigrated, especially Russia who was completely excluded in the deliberations of 1919.
  • The Western powers saw Germany as a bulwark to Communism Russia and with Germany defeated, there would no one to prevent the Communist spread in Europe. This was one of the main reasons why the western power did not do mucg to object the remilitarization of Germany in 1934 and onwards.
  • After the USA drew back to diplomatic isolation, the implementation of the peace treaty of 1919 had to be undertaken by the European powers who were in the midst of their own problems (economic depression and social restraint).
3. Keynes and the controversy over reparations-
  • Economist J.M. Keynes denounced the treaty's reparation clauses by saying that such pressure upon the German economy threatened the stability of the whole European economy.
  • These kinds of arguments was greatly influential in Britain and the USA and even further contributes to the policy of appeasement.
  • However, E.Mantoux argues that the productivity of German industry during the 1930s, especially armament manufacture, showed that the levels of reparations set in 1921 were after all within Germany's capacity.
  • There have been many controversial idea as to if the treaty was a long term cause to the second world war, and whilst some as Baumont argues that "the treaty righted age-old wrongs", others claim that the main fault was not in the treaty itself but with the hopes that came with it and the failure to implement its terms.

Orthodox view of settlement -
  • James Joll, "Europe was divided by the peace conference into those who wanted the peace revised (Germany, Italy, Japan and Hungary) and those who wanted it upheld (France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia), and those who were not that interested (the USA and Britain)".
  • E.H. Carr, self-determination and collective security as unworkable idealistic principles, and the settlement failed to settle the 'German problem'.
  • A.J.P. Taylor, Versailles as crushing, harsh and lacking in moral validity, as no Germans accepted it and all wanted to overturn it. From this perspective, the Second World War was "a war over the settlement of Versailles; a war which had been implicit when the First World War ended because the peace-makers had not solved the German problem."
Revisionist view of Versailles -
  • Sees the settlement as a brave attempt to deal with huge, long-term problems, and argues the problem was not with the Treaty but with the failure to enforce its terms!
  • Ruth Henig, treaty as a "creditable achievement", but one that failed because of economic and social problems, divisions between the Allies, and reluctance of leaders to enforce the treaty. The failure to do this meant a stronger Germany, and further indecision in the form of appeasement meant war.
  • Paul Birdsall, US refusal to commit to upholding the settlement undermined both the League of Nations and the idea of a united democratic front supplying 'collective security', and thus was crucial in explaining the failure of the treaty in the longer-term
  • Paul Kennedy, 1920s - the settlement worked, like the League of Nations; but 1930s - it was crushed by militarism of Italy, Japan and Germany, a collapse caused by the Great Depression and its effects.

Weakness of the League of Nations as the enforcer of a new world order based on 'collective security'

  • Set up by US President Woodrow Wilson as a part of the TOV and first met in Geneva in December 1920.
  • Since the League was never granted an army even though France saw it only realistic that such a body could only be influential if equipped with sufficient armed forces to enforce its decision, Britain felt uneasy by the though of having an international armed force possibly under France's control and Wilson completely rejected the idea. Its main weapon was economic sanctions that would be imposed on nations who failed to respon to the League's terms.
  • The major confrontations during the inter-war period the League failed to prevent or stop as it was completely ignored by the aggressor.
  • The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and Italy's attacks on Abyssinia (1935) completely bypassed the League.
  • Two of the main reasons for the failure was the selfish acts of the greatest members Britain and France as, especially during the Great Depression, they were more concerned with internal than external problems. Also, it lacked the USA's presence which was a great failure for the League as its economic sanctions did not have much impact when it lacked the presence of the strongest economic power.
  • The failure of the League encouraged Hitler in his expansionist moves during the 1930s and by 1939, the League had failed to prevent another war.

Wall Street Crash, 1929, and the Great Depression

  • Richard Overy, "No single factor was more important in explaining the breakdown of the diplomatic system in the 1930s than the world economic crisis."

Shorter-term causes of the Second World War in Europe: how do these intensify instabilities and encourage tension between nations?

The political impact of economic depression

Any spirit of international co-operation that may have been emerging gave way to a desperate sense of every man for himself, given the large-scale withdrawal of American capital of European investment had serious implications for international relations.
One example of the political impact of economic depression was that nation after nation abandoned the Gold Standard, the convention whereby the value of a state’s national currency is based upon the amount of gold held by that state. By 1931, only France, Italy and Poland of the major European states continued to base their currencies upon gold.
The economic crisis played a direct role in the rise of the Nazi Party to power in Germany between 1930 and 1933. Quite apart from aiding the spread of Fascism and self-interested nationalism, the Depression also prepared the ground for international appeasement of those forces.
The Hoover Moratorium (Suspension) and the end of reparations

A direct casualty of the economic catastrophe was the Young Plan for reparation payments. In October 1930, German representatives righteously approached the US President Herbert Hoover to request a suspension of reparation payments in the light of increasing economic difficulties. However, by December 1931 it was clear that Europe was not experiencing the ‘relatively short depression’ for which a suspension was signed.
The major powers met the same month in Basel, Switzerland to consider the reparations question, where they concluded that ‘an adjustment of all inter-governmental debts is the only lasting measure which is capable of restoring economic stability and true peace.’
In addition to the grand meeting in Basel, the Lausanne Conference in June the following year agreed that reparations should be ended by a lump-sum payment of 3,000 million marks, relieving Germany of 90% of its outstanding debt.
Ultimately, the financial clauses of the Treaty of Versailles ceased to exist. If France had gained on an economic level, its diplomatic account was left badly in debit by renewed isolation from the USA. The final lump-sum payment by Germany, incidentally, was never made.
The failure of disarmament
The principle of international disarmament was the second major casualty of the early 1930s. Not until 1926 did a ‘Preparatory Commission’ meet in Geneva and not until February 1932 did the conference finally gather there to begin deliberation. On the surface, the prospects seemed bright for the renunciation of expensive armaments made good sense at a time of economic recession. France, consistently one of the most positive members of the conference, explored three different routes to the goal.
1. Each nation should submit its major offensive weapons, planes, capital ships and heavy artillery to the control of the League of Nations, in order to provide a force to oppose aggression. Germany played its ‘triumph’ card, demanded equal treatment with the allies on the question of armaments, and withdrew from the conference.

2. An agreement without Germany was so pointless that France effectively conceded the radical idea of German equality in its new ‘Constructive Plan’ of November 1932. This implied that Germany’s national defense militia would be as large as that of any other state. The principle of German equality was acknowledged within ‘a system which would comprise security for all nations.’ Consequently to the Constructive Plan, Germany returned to the conference.

3. The final idea was an eight-year period, during latter half of which the continental armies would conform to the figures suggested by the British (200,000 men). With Britain, France, Italy and the USA in agreement, and Germany in danger of becoming trapped, Hitler withdrew finally from the conference in October 1933. 5 days later he quit the League of Nations.

Rise of fascist leaders with expansionist foreign policies following the Depression

Foreign policy aims of Adolph Hitler
Abolish Treaty of Versailles àSeen as grave injustice humiliation
Expand German territory àLebensraum (unite with Austria)
Defeat Communism à Believed Bolsheviks helped cause German defeat in WW1/ Feared Bolshevik takeover

· Conscription & Rearmament –Introduced conscription, increased spending on arms and huge remilitarisation. Also, naval agreement with Britain allowed German navy of 35% of British navy. Increased air force to 8,250 by 1939.
· Rhineland – 7 March 1936: moved troops in, breaking Treaty of Versailles and Locarno Treaty. Justified it by claiming that USSR + France agreement threatened Germany. German army (only 22000 soldiers) had orders to withdraw if opposed. France and Britain did not stop him. League of Nations powerless, didn’t want to risk war.
· Anschluss – 1934: Failed attempt. Feb 1938: Hitler encouraged Austrian Nazis to stir up trouble; Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg sought British and French help, but was refused. 9 March 1938: Schuschnigg called for a plebiscite on union. 11 March 1938: Hitler sent in troops, and then held a plebiscite. 10 April 1938: 99.7% voted for union.
· Munich – April 1938: Many Germans Nazis lived in the Sudetenland – stirred up trouble
15 Sept 1938 Berchtesgaden: Hitler agreed to the parts of the Sudetenland which voted that they wanted to unite with Germany. He promised that the rest of Czech was safe.
27 Sept 1938: Hitler demands immediate control of all Sudetenland.
29 Sept 1938 Munich Agreement: Britain, France & Italy gave the Sudetenland to Hitler.
30 September: Chamberlain calls Munich: “Peace for our time”.
· Czechoslovakia – 15 March 1939: German troops took over the rest of the country. No Czech resistance. Britain and France abandoned appeasement.
· 23 August 1939 - Nazi-Soviet Pact shocked the world; frees Hitler to attack Poland.
· 1 Sept 1939 - Hitler invaded Poland – Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Appeasement – Britain and France
1. Accepted re-arming of Germany (British naval agreement, 1935)
2. No action over re-occupation of Rhineland (1936)
3. Allowed Hitler to use German bombers in Spanish Civil War (1937–39)
4. No action over Anschluss (1938)
5. Gave in over Sudetenland at Munich (1938)

Why appeasement?

1. Chamberlain feared another war. People wanted peace so not enough public support to go to war.
2. Belief in the League of Nations to solve problems so they did not threaten Hitler with war.
3. Britain too weak for war in 1938, needed time to re-arm so appeasement bought Britain a year to re-arm.
4. Treaty of Versailles was considered unfair so many British people sympathised with Hitler's demands.
5. Chamberlain misjudged Hitler so he trusted Hitler's promises that Sudetenland was the last thing he wanted.
6. Fear of Communism so people let Hitler grow strong because they thought a strong Germany could stop Russia.


1. Feb: Franco (a Fascist) won the Spanish Civil War so it seemed Fascism was on the increase everywhere.
2. 15 March: Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia so people realised that only a war would stop him.
3. March: Chamberlain promised to defend Poland which made war inevitable when Hitler invaded Poland.
4. April: Mussolini conquers Albania which made it seem that Fascism wanted to take over the world.
5. May: Pact of Steel [Hitler and Mussolini] which showed Hitler was building up his forces for war.
6. Aug: British alliance with USSR failed, but 23 August Nazi-Soviet Pact so Hitler was free to invade Poland.
7. Aug: Hitler stirred up trouble in Danzig and demanded the Polish corridor, then
8. Sept: Hitler invaded Poland.


Suspicion – Chamberlain didn’t trust Stalin – Communist & dictator. Stalin didn’t trust the British [thought they wanted to trick him into war with Germany]. Poland didn’t trust USSR.
Choice – If Stalin allied with Britain, he would end up fighting in Poland on Britain’s behalf
Hitler was promising half of Poland for doing nothing.
Appeasement – Stalin didn’t think Britain would honour its promise to Poland. He thought he would be left fighting Hitler alone.
Britain delayed, Aug 1939 – Britain sent an official (Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax) to USSR by boat - too slow. An admiral, he was not important enough to make decisions.


In August 1939 the USSR signed an agreement with Germany.
Time to prepare for war – It gave Russia 18 months to make military preparations.
Hope to gain – Stalin hoped Germany, Britain and France would wear themselves out in a long war.
Unhappy with Britain – Stalin turned to Germany when Britain was too slow.
Germany's Motives – Hitler thought it would make Britain back down over Poland.

**Hitler's foreign policy WEBSITE**

In Mein Kampf Hitler laid out 4 key foreign-policy aims, which were later carried out when he came to power:
1) overthrowing Versailles treaty in terms of re-arming and recovering lost territory,
2) gaining lebensraum for Germany in Eastern Europe, which would involve a future war with Communist Russia,
3) uniting all German-speaking people in his ‘new Germany’, including those in Austria, Sudeten and Danzig, and
4) creating a racially ‘pure’ German state that would the dominant power in Europe.
Key steps taken by Hitler in trying to achieve his FP aims:

Use of force
Political/diplomatic agreements
Remilitarised Rhineland in 1936
TOV hinders Germany from establishing a greater German Reich + union of all German speakers. Remilitarised Rhineland would be a step towards overturning the treaty.
Remilitarisation of Rhineland in 1936 marked the beginning of the overturning of the treaty. The west did not intervene because UK public opinion about military operations was hostile + France was too weak to stop Hitler. UK + F also argued over Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.

Annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938
Unite with 3 million German speakers in Sudetenland (area in Czechoslovakia)
Get Skoda factories + natural resources to prepare for war
In 1938, Hitler plans to annex Czechoslovakia and the country prepares for the invasion. However, he never invades and meets up with UK + F + I in Munich conference (1939) instead to solve the problem diplomatically. Hitler makes demands about Sudetenland and UK + F + I appeases him because they want to avoid war (however, UK + F agreed that this was the last territorial demand Hitler would get!, from now on German expansion in Europe would lead to war!). Sudetenland is handed over to Germany without the consultation of the Czech government and the USSR.

Invading Poland in 1939
Expand in the east
Unite German speakers in Poland with Germany
In 1939, Hitler demands that Lithuania return the city of Memel (lost in 1919) to Germany.
He also pressurizes Poland and demands a corridor of land to east Prussia as well as that the Poles return the city of Danzig to Germany
Poland was not ready for negotiations as Chamberlain had said that Hitler could not be trusted and guaranteed that Britain would stand up for Poland if Germany attacked the country.
On 31 of August SS troops dressed as Polish soldiers attack German border. This Polish provocation is enough to justify the invasion of Poland, which starts on 1 of September. 3 September, F + UK declare war on Germany and WW2 has begun.
-Hitler is cautious in his approach to his aims and TOV during 1933-35, as he has not yet created a German army, which can compete with the other European nations’ armies.
-Rearmament (which includes reintroducing conscript) is done cautiously to not attract discontentment from other European nations.

Anglo-German naval agreement dissolves Stresa front (UK, F, I), which was formed to stand together against future Nazi aggression.
In early 1930s he succeeds to peacefully divide his opponents and build up the German army.

Anschluss (unification of Austria and Germany) with Austria in 1938
Unite German speakers
Smash treaty of Versailles

Austro-German agreement ensured anschluss.
In 1938 a plebiscite was held in Austria and the people voted in favour for anschluss with Germany because of the bad + weak Austrian economy.
Because of appeasement, UK + F did not resist anschluss.

Nazi-Soviet aggression pact:
Why in 1939:
Pact was formed so Hitler did have to worry to wage war with USSR and could focus on invading Poland.
The pact ensured that USSR + G would not attack each other.
The pact also divided up Poland between the countries

How successful was Hitler’s foreign policy, 1933-39?
Remilitarize the Rhineland in 1936
Annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938
Anschluss (unification of Austria and Germany) with Austria in 1938
Annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938
Invading Poland in 1939
Hitler’s prestige both domestically and internationally was boosted

Germany had secured its western border and could now focus on expanding in the east.
Germany gains considerable economic and military resources (Skoda factories + strategic military bases in Sudetenland)

Hitler’s popularity increases
Germany gains 6.7 million German speakers, much territory and resources as Iron-ore
Germany gains 3.5 million German speakers + military and natural resources
Germany gains 400 000 German speakers + territory in the east + dockyards that can be used to build ships.
The ‘orthodox’ view of Hitler put forward by those like Hugh Trevor-Roper stressed that Mein Kampf provides clear evidence of long-term goals and a ‘blueprint’ for future action, which is consistently followed when Hitler later comes to power. According to this interpretation, the major cause for the Second World War was Hitler’s desire for the expansion of Germany.
However, AJP Taylor’s revisionist view of Hitler is as a man of improvisation. He dismisses Mein Kampf as wishful day-dreaming, and argues that Hitler took advantage of the opportunities presented to him in the 1930s to follow traditional German aims of Eastward expansion. He therefore challenged the orthodox view that WWII was Hitler’s war, and suggested it was at least as much due to the appeasement policies of Britain and France.

Definition + background to the policy:
· Policy of trying to solve international conflicts through compromise and negotiation, followed chiefly by the British in the 1930s as the League of Nations was largely ignored after the failure in Abyssinia.Neville Chamberlain chiefly followed the policy from 1937, and believed that appeasement’ could help to bring order and lasting peace to international relations. · He believed that Germany had some fairly legitimate grievances about territory and economic resources (Treaty of Versailles), and that resolving these through peaceful negotiation could prevent war with Hitler.
Example of how appeasement can be seen as a cause of WW2.
· The classic example of this policy in action is the Munich conference, September 1938, over Hitler’s claims over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Under Mussolini’s supervision, this agreement saw Britain and France giving in to Hitler’s demands and handing him the Sudetenland without even consulting Benes, the Czech prime minister. · Hitler then showed, in March 1939, how little respect he had for the agreement, and his earlier promise that he only wished for the Sudetenland, by invading and annexing the rest of the country. This brought Europe still closer to war, as though Britain and France did not respond in this instance they pledged to defend Polish independence, the next likely target of Hitler’s aggression. -The appeasement policy also alienated Stalin from the allies as he thought Britain and France pursued it to allow for German expansion in the east to prevent a general European war. Thus, Stalin went to Hitler to secure the position of the USSR and signed the Nazi-Soviet pact, which in its own way contributed to the WW2 (dealt with in the next paragraph).
Appeasement has been a hugely controversial issue among historians as a possible cause of war since Chamberlain’s policies in the 1930s. The ‘orthodox’ view developed directly after the war blamed Chamberlain for failing to challenge Hitler earlier, and argued that he thus played an important role in bringing about war. A striking version of this view was given by A.J.P. Taylor in 1961, when he argued that Hitler was an opportunistic statesman rather than a ‘clear planner’ in foreign policy, which meant that appeasing him simply encouraged him to be bolder in seizing new opportunities to expand. However, the release of British government documents more recently, however, has allowed a more sympathetic view of appeasement to emerge. Chamberlain’s policy is now seen as having been shaped by a complex range of domestic, national and international considerations, as ‘hoping for the best while preparing for the worst’ in that it allowed Britain the time to re-arm until in a position to be able to challenge Hitler militarily.
Nazi-Soviet Pact

· Following the failure of Britain’s half-hearted attempts to make an agreement with Stalin, Germany and the USSR signed the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in August 1939.· The pact saw the two great ideological enemies pledge not to attack each other, but they also secretly agreed to split Poland between them and identified ‘spheres of influence’ in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.· Stalin wanted to try and avoid war with Nazi Germany as long as possible, but was fully aware of Hitler’s intentions to invade. He saw the agreement as a way of ‘buying time’ to prepare for this future war. He also hoped that Germany and the West would exhaust each other in the war, leaving the USSR as the strongest nation.
How did the pact contribute to the outbreak of the war?
· Hitler made the agreement to avoid war on two fronts, and hoped that it would scare Britain and France from acting to honour their pledge to Poland. He saw it as a short-term measure, to allow him to deal with the West first - he still planned to invade the USSR in the future.· Having made this agreement, Hitler could go ahead and invade Poland on 1st September. On 3rd September Britain and France kept their word to Poland, and declared war on Germany. -The Nazi-Soviet Pact served to make war inevitable. It was yet another example of Hitler’s opportunism and willingness to be flexible in order to achieve his foreign policy aims, and the alliance with Russia meant that he was free to pursue his goal of annexing Poland. Hitler might have been expecting Britain and France to back down again and appease him, but in this case he was wrong and his invasion led to the start of World War II in Europe, when Britain and France finally decided to challenge him.
Evaluation: how are these factors inter-connected? Which are of highest importance in explaining why war broke out when it did?


  • Lewis Namier (1946): German desire to dominate Europe as the single most important cause of both World Wars!

Hitler -
  • Hugh Trevor-Roper (1960), stressed that Hitler was a planner who deliberately sought and started the war for deeply-held ideological reasons. He argued that Hitler had a clear, step-by-step plan to realise his goal of creating a racially pure German empire in Eastern Europe. Trevor-Roper uses Mein Kampf, written while Hitler was in prison in 1926, and the 1937 Hossbach memorandum, to support his view that Hitler's foreign policy was based on clear objectives that were consistently and coherently followed once he came to power: Lebensraum in the East, and the 'final solution' to exterminate the European Jews. "To the end, Hitler maintained the purity of his war aims."
  • A.J.P. Taylor (1961), argued that Hitler was from being a planner in foreign policy, and in fact was an opportunist taking advantage of the situations presented to him. This view of Hitler therefore reduces the extent of Hitler's responsibility for causing the war, and implies that Britain and France encouraged Hitler's opportunism through their policy of appeasement. Taylor also shocked his readers by arguing that Hitler was not a radically different German leader, but rather he was simply an 'ordinary statesman' following in traditional German foreign policy concerns - i.e. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as proof that earlier German statesmen had ambitions in the East. "Far from wanting a war, a general war was the last thing Hitler wanted."
  • Alan Bullock (1964), and something of a synthesis of the above two positions: yes, Hitler was a strategist with clear aims and objectives, but he pursued these using clearly opportunistic techniques. So Hitler as both a planner and an opportunist!