Comparing and contrasting the causes and results of the two World Wars

Past Questions
  • 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)
  • Compare and contrast the results of the First World War and the Second World War. (May 2006)
  • In what ways did the causes of the Second World War differ from the causes of the First World War? (May 2004)

Markscheme notes on these questions

Compare and contrast the causes of the First and Second World Wars

  • Both wars caused, to an extent, by German ambition, as Lewis Namier argued in 1946: German desire to control Europe as most important cause of both wars!
  • WW1 - Kaiser’s policy of weltpolitik; issuing ‘blank cheque’ during July crisis; von Moltke “war inevitable and the sooner the better” (1912)
    - Fischer thesis: German plans for world domination as shown by Bethman-Hollweg’s September programme. German ruling elite provoked war, both to pursue long-held expansionist aims and defeat socialist at home.
    - Versailles, article 231: the war was imposed “by the aggression of Germany and her Allies”.
    (though this view has been challenged by later historians, who find limited evidence of German expansionist aims before 1914, and tend to point towards shared failings among the leaders of the Great powers.)
  • WW2 - Taylor - WW2 as rerun of WW1. Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy in overturning Versailles and taking control over Central Europe between 1936 and 1939; though A.J.P Taylor rejected view of Hitler as planner, clear consistency between aims in Mein Kampf (1926), Hossbach memorandum (1937) and launching of war against Poland in 1939. Opportunistic in pursuing his expansionist aims for his racially pure reich, yes, but as Trevor- Roper stated: “Hitler maintained the purity of his war aims”!

  • Both wars involved alliances between nations, to ensure smaller scale incidents developed towards ‘world wars’, though these took a different form and worked in different ways in the outbreak of the respective conflicts.
  • WW1 - German failure to renew the Reinsurance treaty with Russia in 1890 symbolised the end of the Bismarckian approach - Russia driven towards France - 1892 treaty - contributing to German sense of isolation. This increased after 1904 entente cordiale and 1907 Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia. Though these alliances were intended to be defensive in nature and included little firm military ties, they still served to cement division between the two ‘sides’, increasing suspicion and fuelling the arms race in the decade before the war. They also played a decisive role in ensuring that a single incident in the Balkans on 28th June escalated into a European-wide conflict, as Russia stepped into defend its Slavic ally, Serbia, against a German-backed Austria- Hungary prompted a ‘domino-effect’ that brought Europe to war.
  • WW2 - despite Wilson’s attempt to replace the Great Power diplomacy of secret alliances with the more open system of collective security, pacts and alliances also contributed to the outbreak of WW2. Alliances can explain why war broke out in 1939, and also, as with WW1, how a conflict between two nations escalated towards a world war. From Hitler’s perspective, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact made with Stalin’s USSR on 23rd August 1939 opened the way for him to continue his quest to overthrow Versailles and seek lebensraum in the East., by offering Stalin half the spoils in return for his non-interference. However, Hitler’s hopes for a rapidly successful blitzkrieg to further his recent foreign policy successes in Czechoslovakia were dashed by Britain’s decision to honour its defence pledge to Poland. This guarantee, made in March 1939 after Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, brought Britain into the war, and shows again that alliances played an important role in starting world war.

  • Though German expansion and the role of alliances support Taylor’s view that WW2 was a rerun of WW1, the issue of colonies shows that this is not 100% correct.
  • WW1- Colonial rivalry between the Great Powers was an important factor in increasing suspicion between the countries. Indeed Germany’s quest for colonies and Kaiser Bill’s ‘place in the sun’ prompted the Moroccan crises of 1906 and 1911, as Germany was keen to acquire the status and resources of more African colonies. While it is true that these colonial crises were solved peacefully, and thus cannot be seen as direct causes of the war, they did serve to intensify the arms race, strengthen the Triple Entente and encourage Germany’s sense of isolation and injustice at not being able to express its great power status through colonial acquisition overseas. In this sense, colonial ambitions were an expression of the challenge that the rising power of Germany posed to the balance of power in Europe.
  • WW2 - Though Germany was stripped of her colonies at Versailles in 1919, and despite some historians suggesting Hitler had ambitions for world-wide domination, the lead up to WW2 focused more on territorial expansion within Europe and colonial rivalries were not present. Instead war resulted from Hitler’s determination to overthrow Versailles, and the Allied struggle to contain him. While it is possible to see Hitler’s lebensraum as a form of imperialism, with him seeing the East as a giant food-producing colony for his new reich, the nature of this was very different from the earlier Great Power ‘scramble for Africa’. Though A.J.P Taylor has drawn connections between German gains in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 and Hitler’s drive Eastwards, Hitler’s foreign policy included a radical racial element that distinguished it from previous German expansionism. The quest for lebensraum which drove Germany towards the Second World War was based on the Nazi belief in the inherent inferiority of the Slavs and on the ‘right’ of the Aryan Germans to acquire the land and resources needed to support their ‘master race’, something quite distinct from Kaiser Bill's 'place in the sun'.

  • A further distinction between the causes of the two wars is the role that diplomacy played in leading to conflict.
  • WW1 - immediate cause of the war: diplomatic failures of the July crisis helped to turn one assassination into a war - i.e. Kaiser’s blank cheque, Austria’s ultimatum, Russia’s decision to mobilize, all built up momentum towards war as Great powers failed to communicate with one another about their aims (John Keegan). In many ways, war was made possible by the decisions made by political leaders in this month, as war was certainly not inevitable before and 5 weeks unfolded after the death of Franz Ferdinand.
  • WW2 - if short term diplomatic failings led to WW1, it was longer term issues of diplomacy that contributed to WW2. The failure to uphold the agreements of Versailles and the Kellogg-Briand Pact against war in 1928 showed the collapse of Wilson’s ‘collective security’ in the interwar period. The turn away from the ‘League of Nations’ and back towards traditional diplomacy, in the shape of appeasement, has also been cited by some historians as a major cause of the war. As Taylor argued, if Hitler was an opportunist then Britain and France’s failure to confront him simply boosted his appetite for further expansion. The diplomatic concessions made to Hitler at Munich in September 1938 were rapidly exploited by Hitler as he moved beyond Czechoslovakia to his next target. Though many historians now see appeasement as a rational policy given the relative weakness of the Allies in the mid-30s, it clearly played a role in the escalation towards war. So while WW1 was sparked off by diplomatic shortcomings in 1914, WW2 resulted from the gradual, protracted failures of Allied diplomacy to counter aggressive fascist expansion.


German expansion was clearly an important cause of both World wars, though there remain considerable differences of emphasis between Kaiser Wilhelm's government in 1914 and that of Hitler in 1939. However, we can not rely on the view of the Versailles settlement that it was Germany alone who was responsible. Indeed, in both wars alliances and pacts between nations were fundamental in spreading the conflict from local issues to what would become two global wars: the July crisis following Ferdinand's assassination brought Europe into a dangerous game of domino rally, while Hitler's gambled invasion of Poland in 1939 brought Britain and France into the conflict. A clear difference in the relative causes of the wars is the way in which the colonial rivalries of WW1 had given way to Hitler's racial and nationalistic drive for lebensraum in the East - while Britain and France were prepared to stand up for Poland to try and halt Hitler, they certainly were not interested in colonial acquisitions in Central and Eastern Europe, so this was not a question of rivalry but rather one of perceived self-survival against Hitler's expanding empire. That Britain and France chose to start a war against Hitler in 1939 marked the end of the policy of appeasement that was the sorry outcome of the failings of 'collective security'. In contrast to the short-term diplomatic misunderstandings of the July crisis in 1914, which made war out a crisis which could have been resolved, the Second World War grew out of the controversies of Versailles and the diplomatic failures to enforce it, and was made more likely by the diplomatic controversy that was appeasement. Clearly, the Second World War was not quite a re-run of the First World War, whatever A.J.P. Taylor might have argued.