World War II section 1: The Causes of World War II

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Unit 1:

World War II

Section 1: The Causes of World War II p.2

Section 2: Europe Goes to War p.5

Section 3: America: From Isolation to War p.8

Section 4: Mobilization p.11

Section 5: The War in Europe p.14

Section 6: Holocaust p.18

Section 7: The War in the Pacific p.21

Section 1: The Causes of World War II

Officially, World War II began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and the French and English declared war against Germany as a result of that invasion. But the war's beginnings came long before this invasion. World War II was the product of man events coming together in the wrong way at the wrong time.

The World War I Peace Agreement

When World War I ended, the winners (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) wanted the losers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire) to pay. Because the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires no longer existed, that left Germany to bear the brunt of the victors' peace agreement, called The Treaty of Versailles. Humiliated and broke, Germany began forming a grudge over the Treaty. Even some of the victors weren't happy with the outcome. Italy felt cheated; France felt that Germany hadn't been punished enough, and the U.S. felt that Germany had been punished too harshly.

In addition, the peace agreement created new nations (Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia) in Eastern Europe from the wrecked Austro-Hungarian Empire. This created more jealousy, anger, and resentment in Europe.

The Global Economy

All European nations faced financial troubles following World War I. Most (especially Germany, with the war debt hanging over its head) were practically broke. Slowly, each made an economic recovery — just in time for the world economy to spiral downward in the 1930s. The U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, and the economies in Europe tanked shortly after that. Weakened by the war, no European nation was able to stop the economic downturn.

The Rise of Totalitarianism

With the world in such a mess, people looked toward their governments to solve their problems, and those countries without a strong tradition of democracy were susceptible to promises made by future dictators who claimed that by combining all of a government's power in one person, that person could provide stability and order.

As a result, in Germany and Italy, the struggling democracies gave way to dictatorships and eventually to totalitarian rule (that is, all aspects of life are controlled by the dictator). In Italy, this dictator was Benito Mussolini; in Germany, it was Adolf Hitler.

The Birth of Fascism and Nazism

Fascism is a political system in which the nation and its government is held above all else. It is considered more important than the citizens' comfort, money, and even families. All effort and resources are committed to glorifying the government. Individual freedom doesn't exist; there is only the freedom to serve the nation. Fascists believe that people reach their full potential only through service to their nation. If the nation is great, the people are great. And the best representation of the nation's greatness is through war. Mussolini did his best to turn Italy into a Fascist nation after World War I.

Nazism is Fascism with a significant difference: the belief in the racial superiority of the people of that nation. The Nazis in Germany at this time, led by Hitler, believed that race was the most important characteristic of a group of people. Just as dogs are genetically predisposed to certain roles (some hunt and others herd, for example), each race is genetically predisposed to certain roles. Some are leaders; other races (the "inferior" ones) are meant to be mastered. The Aryan (original German) race is, according to Nazis, the Master Race. Then, in descending order are, non-Aryan Caucasians, Asians, Africans, and finally Jews.

The Rise of Hitler

There have always been dictators and people who abused power, and in many ways, Hitler began his rule no differently than other dictators. He rose to power by eliminating anyone who could oppose him. He targeted and abused groups he didn't like. He used propaganda (biased information spread by a government to convince people to support its cause) as a tool to fool the German people into believing that what he told them was true.

In other ways, Hitler was different. He had the power of an industrialized nation behind him. He had the capability to export his policies all over Europe through trickery and lies and then through takeovers and war. And, maybe most frightening of all, he had the ability to make the German people as a whole believe that, by following him down the path, they were fulfilling their destiny for greatness.

The British and French Fear Another War

The British and French, having just been through one horrific world war, were willing to do just about anything to make sure that they didn't find themselves in another. For both countries, this determination to avoid conflict resulted in their policy of appeasement. By giving in to the demands of Hitler, they hoped to avoid another crisis that would lead to war. When Hitler wanted to expand Germany into surrounding countries, Britain and France allowed him, hoping that he would be satisfied and not want to attack other countries. Obviously, this strategy didn't work.

The Isolationism of the United States

The United States, separated from Europe by an ocean, wanted to remain separated from the potential of another war in Europe. Like the French and British, the Americans had seen enough of war. As the drama unfolded in Europe, Americans were much more concerned about ending their country's Great Depression than they were about dictators in Germany and Italy. So they developed a policy of isolationism (keeping out of the affairs of other countries) and insisted that what went on in Europe — or anywhere else in the world, for that matter — was not their concern. The American President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, understood that the majority of the people in his country wanted isolationism, so he upheld the policy.
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