WWII Curriculum Background
Background to European History
and the Causes of World War II
In 19th Century Europe the dominant governments included the all encompassing British Empire on which the “sun never set”; the rejuvenated French Monarchy; the Russian behemoth that straddled both Europe and Asia; the Austro-Hungarian Empire that comprised of numerous nationalities and ethnic cultures; the militaristic Prussian Empire and the aging and sick man of Europe known as the Ottoman Empire. Each of these empires had their own national goals for their own best interests. These goals became known as the concept of “Imperialism”. For each, it was their desire to take the natural resources from areas throughout the world that were under their control and expand their own national interests. In the course of these events we see the conflicts that emerged between them. On the other hand we also see other actions that served to bring them together, because a common bond at a particular period of time would serve their own interests.The Crimean War of 1853 – 1856 began as a dispute between Russia and France and saw alliances being created between Turkey, France, England, Sardinia (Piedmont, Italy) and Austria who had already formed an alliance with Prussia. The outcome of the war saw Russia being humiliated at the expense of having the other countries gain concessions, rights and territories from her. Within ten years Prussia would conduct three quick wars against Denmark, Austria and France. The result was the creation of the modern state of Germany. In the Italian peninsula, the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont was responsible for taking the lead over a ten year period that saw a modern Italy emerge by 1870. In each of these situations, the major European powers were focused on their own national interests that would give them more power in European and World affairs. The one interesting event that actually saw them all work together, albeit for individual reasons, was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China. The relief expedition that came to the aid of the besieged legation quarter of Peking in the summer of 1900 consisted of military personnel from England, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United States, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Each of these countries had significant financial interests that they wanted to preserve in China. The outgrowth of all of this was very competitive nationalities that would shift as events changed. The dawn of the 20th century saw a world that was strongly “Euro-centric”.
Since Germany was one of the last countries to develop during the 19th century it found itself in great competition to “catch-up” to the wealth of colonies, natural resources and markets that the other European powers had enjoyed. In the competition that this created Germany came into conflict with neighbors in various parts of the world to include Africa. The balance of power in Europe was tipping toward a strong German alliance with Austria-Hungary. As Austria-Hungary sought to maintain their territory and extend their influence in the Balkans, also known as the “Powder Keg” of Europe, conflict arose in Sarajevo that was to plunge the world into war.
The mutual “self defense” alliances that had existed in the 19th century quickly brought the Euro-centric world in conflict. By the end of the four and a half years of fighting, over 20 million people had perished and an incalculable value of loss and damage had been wrought on Europe and the world. With the exception of England, the empires that brought on the “Great War” ceased to exist. The Russian Empire collapsed under Communism, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in to a mere fraction of its former self, the German Empire lost land and territory in both their continental possessions and their overseas colonies. The Ottoman Empire shrunk and became ripe for its subsequent demise in the early 1920’s. Meeting in the Palace of Versailles on the outskirts of Paris, the victorious allied powers imposed a treaty on a defeated Germany that was to sow the seeds of another war. This angst that this treaty would create in Germany would be inflamed by the oratorical skills of an Austrian who had served as a corporal in a Bavarian Infantry Regiment in the Great War.
The discord and unrest that emerged in Germany after World War I came primarily from one clause of the Versailles Treaty. That clause was in Part VIII, Reparation, Section I. – General Provisions. Article 231. “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm, and Germany accepts, the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies”. This became known to Germany as the “War Guilt” clause. To those in Germany after the war it became the rallying point that would bring groups of different backgrounds together under a common cause. Those Germans felt that the actions of Germany at the start of World War I was not entirely their fault and that their country was being made to bear the entire burden for the war. On top of that it was felt that France was demanding unjust compensation for her losses in the war. These reparation claims were seen to be of such a degree that they would cripple Germany economically for decades. Many Germans felt that France was trying to retaliate against Germany for her actions during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
On all accounts, there was bitterness. Germany was angry for being blamed for the war, being forced to pay enormous reparations and for the loss of what was considered sovereign territory. Italy was unhappy with the Versailles Treaty because they were not given the lands containing Italian speakers from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the Middle East, small Arab nationalistic groups who were finally free of the Ottoman yoke of domination now found themselves being made mandates and protectorates of the British and French governments. Russia no longer existed as an Empire that stretched from Central Europe to the Pacific Ocean. It was now known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and was not even extended an invitation to participate in the ceremonies of the Versailles Treaty. This new socialist state found itself being occupied by the victorious Allies who were trying to protect the supplies originally sent to the Czar from falling in to the hands of the Bolsheviks. In the Siberian far east, a Regiment of the United States Army watched an army of over 60,000 Japanese soldiers attempt to occupy Russian lands that the Soviets were too weak to defend. Japan as a nation was quite happy with some of the outcome from the Versailles treaty. Japan was assigned a mandate over the Marshall, Mariana and Caroline Islands in the Central Pacific that had once belonged to Germany. Japan soon demonstrated a desire to do more than just serve as a guardian when they began building permanent facilities and began to collect information about the entire region.
When World War I began, the United States under President Woodrow Wilson was determined not to get involved in “this European War”. At the end of World War I, the United States had suffered 55,000 battle deaths and a near equal number of deaths from disease, sickness, and accidents. The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 was raging across the world and the United States was suffering at levels not seen in her brief history. Maintaining troops in Europe was a costly endeavor, “bring them home was the cry”.
Germany was not forced to undergo the modern equivalent of being a vanquished foe at the end of World War I. Rather when the armistice took effect on the 11th of November 1918, German soldiers were marshaled into the units and within days began an organized withdrawal back across the frontiers of Belgium, France and Luxembourg, finally crossing the Rhine River in December of 1918. These units kept much of their individual equipment and small arms that even included some automatic weapons. Their systematic retreat was followed by the victorious allied armies. In some cases the distance between the German and allied forces was no more than five or six miles. This was quite unusual since in wars past, the vanquished foe would always have had to surrender is weapons and equipment in the formal surrender ceremony. It must not be forgotten, that the end of World War I was not caused by a formal surrender, but rather it was an armistice which merely meant a cessation of the fighting.