World War II: Prerequisites

26.04.2018 |

Episode #1 of the course Ten turning points of World War II by Patrick Allitt


Welcome to this course! My name is Patrick Allitt, and I’m a professor of American history at Emory University in Atlanta. Over the next ten days, I plan to teach you about ten turning points of World War II, the formative event for the late 20th century and for the world in which we still live. Since the war’s causes are complex, in this first lesson, I’ll say a few preliminary words to set the scene.

The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I in 1919 seemed outrageously unjust to most Germans. They were forced to take the blame for the war and to pay reparations to the victors, Britain and France. Resentment at this state of affairs led to the rise of political extremism in the 1920s, including the rise of the new Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler, an angry World War I veteran.

The onset of the Great Depression made matters worse, causing widespread unemployment. Hitler won the German election of 1933 with the promise to restore German greatness, avenge the defeat of the first war, get people back to work, and purge Germany of Jews and Communists. A charismatic speaker and a great simplifier, he instilled a sense of pride and hope in millions of voters.

Intelligent British and French observers, dismayed by these events, were determined to prevent a return to the horrors of war. By the 1930s, many of them also recognized that the Treaty of Versailles had been unjust and vengeful. They hoped to placate Hitler by indulging his plans to restore German pride and failed to intervene when he began to break the terms of the treaty by remilitarizing Germany. These “appeasers,” led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, seemed prudent and statesmanlike to most of their contemporaries. A small minority in British politics, led by Winston Churchill, warned that Hitler was a menace and that sooner or later, he would have to be stopped by force.

America had played an important role in the winning of World War I. But afterward, it had withdrawn from European politics and declined to join the new League of Nations, an organization designed to resolve international crises peacefully. Because the US was now the world’s greatest economic power, its absence weakened the League from the outset. President Franklin Roosevelt watched German developments with concern but knew that his popularity depended on maintaining a stance of strict detachment and neutrality.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had been founded in the Russian Revolution of 1917. It quickly became a tyrannical one-party state, subjecting its people to a program of forced industrialization. Its leader, Joseph Stalin, exterminated nearly all his old revolutionary comrades and killed entire categories of the population in his scheme for national transformation. Yet, to many anxious men and women in Depression-wracked Europe and America, the Soviets’ Communist ideology represented a superior alternative to capitalism.

Finally, Japan was the rising power in Asia. It had shocked the world in 1905 by defeating Tsarist Russia in a naval battle, the first time an Asian power had defeated one from Europe. In the 1930s, it was building a colonial empire of its own and was the dominant force in China. Its leaders believed it could only achieve greatness through expansion across the continent.

In the next lesson, we’ll talk about the first turning point of World War II: the Hitler-Stalin Pact.


Recommended book

World War II: The Definitive Visual History by DK


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