Interpretations Of The Origins Of Wwii Essay

, Research Paper

World War Two began on September 1st, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland, and the French and British declarations of war on Germany two days later. From even before this official beginning to the war, people have continually tried to analyze what actually brought about the most destructive war in history, with many different interpretations having been put forward. Richard Overy’s argument is a complex one, involving a look at each of the major countries that entered the war from Germany in 1939, to the U.S. in 1941. Each country is looked at in detail with analyses of how each reacted to the crises in the 1930’s, and what the concerns, difficulties, and attitudes were in each country. Another interpretation is PMH Bell’s, who takes the thirty years war interpretation, and makes the case for it by looking at how the situation in Europe developed as a result of the underlying forces which greatly affected the decisions made.

Richard Overy focuses primarily on the politics of the era in each of the major countries involved in the war separately. He argues that all the nations involved had complex motives for their actions, and highlights the importance of the links between the attitudes of the people in each country, domestic and foreign policy, and the economic situations at the time.

After the dictated peace of Versailles, there was a profound sense of injustice in Germany. The humiliation of Versailles, the loss of territory and resources, and the heavy war debts forced on her by the Allies created an unstable political and economic atmosphere, that frustrated the people and destroyed the wealth of the middle class. Despite these grave problems, the Weimar Republic managed to survive until the economic slump of 1929. The political impact of the depression was so severe, that many Germans began to look for alternatives to democracy and capitalism. One of these alternatives was Hitler and the Nazis, who provided a voice of protest to the desperate middle class, and promised action and national revival. On January 30, 1933, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Soon after the Nazi party completely took over government, all reparations were cancelled, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations, and publicly announced rearmament. On March 7, 1935, German troops occupied the Rhineland. This was a turning point in Nazi policy since the easy victory fuelled nationalist enthusiasm in Germany, and afterwards Hitler began to take on more responsibilities, and to accelerate his plans. He wanted to make Germany into a world power again, but to do this he argued that Germany needed living space in the East, resources, and to be committed to autarky. His economic and military plans were created with the expectation of a war with the major powers in the mid 40’s, when Germany would be ready. The diplomatic victory at the conference in Munich after the Czechoslovakian crisis in September 1938, convinced Hitler that the West was weak, and that France and Britain would not fight for Poland despite their guarantees. Because of this assumption, on August 31st 1938, German troops moved into Poland, and a few days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Hitler’s gamble started a war that he did not want, and one that Germany was not ready for. (Overy, Road, 21-61)

In the years after WWI, one of the most important issues to British politicians was the safety and prosperity of the British Empire. The Empire was larger than ever, but Britain did not have the economic or military strength to protect her if threatened. The dilemma Britain faced was how to maintain economic strength and progress at home, and still keep the Empire secure. Consequently, financial stability and the preservation of peace became one of the preconditions for the survival of the Empire, and Britain became one of the powers committed to the status quo. The international economic crisis in 1929 shattered the hope that the revival of world prosperity would also help Britain regain her strength, and in the early 30’s she became more isolationist and dependent on the Empire. Domestic issues became more important than foreign policy, and Britain began to retreat from the League system and collective action. The tactic of appeasement, and the belief that most hostile nations could be won over by economic concessions, thus became popular in the early 30’s. In the mid 30’s British leaders began to wonder if they might not be able to control Germany and the other revisionist states with concessions, and an assumption was made that there might be a war with Germany around 1939. A slow rearmament program was begun, but not much money was spent at the beginning because of economic considerations, and the public outcry against rearmament. When the Czechoslovakian crisis came, it was deemed to not be an issue to go to war over, and so the main strategy of the British in 1938 was to avoid war – appease Hitler and restrain France – until Britain was economically and militarily ready. However, in February 1939, a large shift occurred in public opinion in favor of standing up to Germany, and Prime Minister Chamberlain decided on a new policy of deterrence and encirclement, and to support France militarily on the continent. By this time, enormous amounts were being spent on rearmament, which actually threatened to undermine the security they were meant to defend. This created a kind of timetable since Britain could not maintain the financial effort of reaming much longer than the summer of 1939, when a war was actually expected. After Germany invaded the rump Czech state, Britain faced the choice of either accepting German domination of Europe and the collapse of British prestige, or face the prospect of war. On March 31 Britain guaranteed the safety of Poland, and prepared to go to war. Britain did not fight Germany in 1939 to save Poland, but to preserve the international system of which the British Empire benefited most. (Overy, Road, 62-104)

The victory of France in 1918 gave her the opportunity to reverse the decline of her international power, and to find a permanent security to the revival of the German threat. For the next 20 years France became obsessed with the fear that this opportunity had been lost, and with a fear of a repeat of history. In 1923, out of frustration with the minimal amounts of German reparations payments, France occupied the Ruhr. This effort, instead of helping France, severely harmed her international reputation and alienated the U.S, and Britain. This forced her into making several alliances with the new states in Eastern Europe, which would later put her in conflict with a revisionist Germany – the one thing France was trying to avoid. The economic and cultural boom of the late 20’s was ended by the crash of 1929, which created a financial crisis, and severe social and political divisions. The crisis in France and the attempts to get reparations fuelled a crisis in Germany, which in turn produced what France feared most: a revisionist Germany. When Hitler’s Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, France could do very little because of a weak government, a weak military, and a fear of a repetition of the Ruhr incident. France’s severe economic, social, and political problems continued into the late 30’s, and as a result of this, foreign policy did not have any coherence or sense of purpose. The appeasement tactics used by France after the Austrian and Czechoslovakian episodes were a realistic assessment in the face of all the problems France was facing at the time. In early 1939, France faced a choice similar to Britain’s: accept the prospect of another war with Germany, or accept German domination. Daladier greatly increased military spending, and began to pursue an alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union. With a rapidly recovering economy, the increased military spending, and a commitment from Britain, France believed to be in a position of strength once again. In the 30’s, France lost her will and direction and became a defensive, conservative society, split by social and political conflicts, but just before the war she revived herself. The reason this revived France went to war in 1939 was not Poland, it was to save her honor and status as a great power. (Overy, Road, 105-142)

At the end of WWI, Italy was in economic chaos, and political crisis. In this crisis, Fascism became popular with Benito Mussolini as an important leader. He believed in the doctrine of action, and wanted to create a new, vigorous Italian Empire. In October 1922, he was asked by the King to form a government. Mussolini wanted Italy to be respected as one of the great powers of the status quo in Europe. In the ten years after he gained power, his attempts to do this mostly failed, and in 1934 he decided on a new direction: to build an empire in areas of historic Roman expansion – Asia and Africa. In October 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. This, and Italy’s actions in the Spanish Civil War, alienated France, Britain, and the League, and moved Mussolini closer toward Hitler. In early 1939, Mussolini made the decision to complete his Roman Empire plan, but he needed Hitler’ s help both economically and militarily since Italy had been weakened by all of Mussolini’s military adventures. Italy was moving closer to Germany both economically and ideologically, but when Mussolini found out about Hitler’s plans for Poland in 1939, he decided on neutrality until Italy was more ready militarily. In 1940, Italy faced the same problem as in 1914: she wanted to become a great power, but her ambitions were greater than her resources. Mussolini had wanted to make Italy into a great power – to achieve Mediterranean hegemony – and in the process persuaded France and Britain that Italy was a dangerous revisionist state. It was political realism, not ideology that finally made Italy enter the war on the side of Germany. Mussolini believed Hitler offered more that Britain, and that Germany had a better chance of winning. (Overy, Road, 143-182)

In the years between the two world wars, the one thing that remained constant in the Soviet Union was the fear that the capitalist countries would join together to destroy the worlds only communist state. Because of this fear, and the isolation Russia was in, the main goal of foreign policy in the 20’s and 30’s was the survival of the Soviet Union, which meant avoiding war at all costs until Russia could defend herself. In the 20’s, there was a profound fear of war in the Soviet Union caused by regular scares that the capitalist states, led by Britain, were preparing to attack the USSR. This created the necessity for Russia to find any friends she could. The Communist International was created to help spread the revolution and to support the USSR, but the communist parties abroad created a hostility and fear of communism so strong that it actually helped the rise of fascism. With the rise of nazism in Germany, and Russia’s weakness during the upheaval of Stalin’s Five Year Plans and collectivization, it was necessary to switch to a foreign policy of collective security. However, the events of the Spanish Civil War destroyed collective security, and showed the USSR that Western statesmen would always be more hostile to communism than to fascism. This would greatly affects Stalin’s decision when in 1939, France and Britain came to him in the hope to recreate the old entente, and Germany in the hope to stop France and Britain. Stalin decided on an alliance with Hitler because he offered more, and because of the deep mistrust and hostility that was still present between the West and the USSR. In June 1941, Russia was caught by surprise. (Overy, Road, 183-222)

War for Japan in December 1941 was the logical consequence of a long period of collision between two visions for the future of Asia. Japan saw herself as a new nation and wanted to be a world power, but was blocked from her destiny by racial and political reasons. After the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, the West began to respect Japan, and France and Britain admitted Japan into the international system with a series of treaties. In the 1920’s the ordered Japanese society was breaking down from the stresses of urbanization and industrialization. There was a turn against the established political parties, and many new radical nationalistic parties were formed. By the late 20’s the Japanese army was controlled by extreme nationalist who wanted Japan to be purged of all Western influences, and to expand to become a world power. Japan’s position in the world and her wealth compared to Western countries was seen as a fundamental problem, to which the only solution was a reordering of Asia under Japanese rule. In September 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria, and in July 1937, she declared war on China. The war with China was in stalemate by 1939, but Japan was now seen as a revisionist power beside Italy and Germany. The navy saw an opportunity in 1940 to profit from the war in Europe and to create an Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. It was known that the Southward Advance that was started in 1940 would cause a confrontation with the U.S., but once started it could not be stopped. The motive for the final decision to attack Pearl Harbor was not power and resources, but the loss of honor Japan would have faced if she accepted the proposal sent by the U.S. on Nov. 26 for Japan to withdraw from China and Indochina. (Overy, Road, 223-257)

When WWI ended, the sentiment in America shifted from internationalism to non-intervention. The U.S. did not sign Versailles and did not enter the League of Nations. In the 1920’s, the U.S. became increasingly isolationist, and began to see Europe as economically untrustworthy because of the continual reparations problems. With the crash in 1929 and the world recession, America became even more isolationist and economically independent. F.D. Roosevelt’s first priority during the depression was to restore the economy at home, since he believed that economic recovery was the only cure for a social and political crisis. Roosevelt stood by and did nothing as the international situation deteriorated because that was all he could do with a weak military, and with the deep political hostility against foreign intervention and rearmament that he faced. Despite this, after Munich he made a decision to change American foreign policy and to stand by France, Britain, and democracy. After the war started in Europe, the U.S. still did not want to actually send troops, but the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan forced her to declare war on the Axis powers. The withdrawal of the world’s largest economy from an active role in world affairs created a power vacuum in the 30’s, which created the conditions and opportunities for the three aggressor states to start local programs of expansion that France and Britain were took weak to stop by themselves. By the late 30’s international conditions deteriorated to the point that U.S. safety could only be secured by going to war – the very thing isolationism was meant to avoid. (Overy, Road, 258-296)

The main principle behind the Thirty Years War thesis is that World War two was the culmination of the disintegration of Europe, which was begun by WWI and continued by the abortive peace. The political, psychological, and economic impact of WWI was enormous. The long period of stability and liberalism before the war was replaced by disorder and individualism. People became disillusioned and began to turn from their own government because of defeat or lack of rewards for victory. The treaty of Versailles was considered unfair and an economic error even by France and Britain. After the war, Eastern Europe was completely changed and in confusion. Versailles changed all the borders and even created new states like Poland and Latvia in the place of the two empires that had collapsed. In these new states nationalist movements thrived, and the result was a set of territorial disputes that festered for the next 20 years. The stable European order had disintegrated and its replacement was inherently unstable. (Bell, Origins, 14-30)

P.M.H. Bell takes this thesis and examines the underlying forces behind the process by which Europe drifted to war in 1939. The role of ideology in foreign policy and the origins of the war is important because Europe before the war was divided between fascism/nazism, parliamentary democracy and what it stood for, and communism, and this sometimes made it difficult for states to make decisions solely on the basis of power politics. The economic conditions that existed in the different countries in Europe throughout the years leading to the war are also important, since these conditions sometimes seemed to force countries to take a certain course. Along with the ideological and economic forces, military strategy also played an important role in foreign policy, since the actions of states are sometimes influenced by strategic considerations. (Bell, Origins, 46, 51-52,127,162)

While German Nazism has its roots in the racial theories and Social Darwinism of the 19th century, it is usually identified with Hitler and his ideas. Hitler’s beliefs of racial superiority, perpetual struggle, and the need for Germany to have living space are important because they form the guidelines for his world picture, and are major influences in his aims for German policy. Nazi foreign policy was very similar to that practiced by Germany before WWI, whose goals were mainly to unite with Austria, acquire living space in the east, and subordinate the Slav peoples. To this, Hitler added his theory of racial conquest, and his ambition to make Germany the leading power in the world. German policies and actions throughout the 30’s and during the war bear the mark of these goals and theories. (Bell, Origins, 70-87)

In contrast to Germany’s one party, one ideology system, France and Britain are pluralist states with a parliamentary democracy, and enjoy all the pros and cons of this system. The foreign policy in France and Britain before the war was based on a revulsion against war, support for disarmament, and attachment to the League system. (Bell, Origins, 89)

The biggest influence in France during the 20’s and 30’s was the complete rejection of war or any use of force. The strong divisions between extreme left and extreme right in French politics created a weak unstable government, and paralyzed foreign policy. This ideological conflict, and the revulsion against war, weakened French reaction to German expansion in the 30’s, and promoted the conditions in which war was very likely. (Bell, Origins, 90-100)

In Britain, like in France, the needs of power politics were obscured by ideology, but to a lesser extent. The importance placed on support for the League, and the prevailing attitude of pacifism, combined to create a belief in disarmament as the best way to secure peace. This view endured until nazi ideology became clear and there was a revulsion against their methods, and Hitler began to threaten Britain’s vital interests. (Bell, Origins, 101-109)

The preoccupation of France and Britain with peace allowed Germany and Italy to move forward with their programs until they could not be stopped without war. As the situation became clear, an ideological conflict developed between democracy and fascism, and the revulsion against what nazism stood for is an important factor in the final decision of France and Britain to go to war. (Bell, Origins, 109)

Out of all the powers in Europe, The Soviet Union was the most affected by ideology. As soon as the Soviet Union came into existence, relations between Russia and the West began to deteriorate on ideological grounds. During the 20’s, this rift grew because of the fear and mistrust of communism in France and Britain, which was intensified by Comintern activities, and the view of communists that capitalists were their enemies. The ideology of Stalinism, and the world situation in the 20’s and 30’s, created a cautious foreign policy which followed a double line of ideology and realism. To communism, the rise of fascism was not perceived as a threat since it was seen as a manifestation of monopoly capitalism in decay. In this respect, the Soviet Union, and the liberal democracies had something in common, in that they both had ideological misconceptions of fascism, and were much more concerned with each other to see the danger nazi Germany posed. The disarray the existence of communism and its international organization created, and the preoccupation of the liberal democracies and the Soviet Union with each other and their failure too see the danger Hitler posed, are two more important influences in the origins of WWII. (Bell, Origins, 111-126)

During WWII, many believed that the great depression had an important part in the origins of the war. The depression destroyed the positive economic and political developments that had been made after 1924, shattered the atmosphere of confidence and cooperation that existed in Europe, and created in its place an atmosphere of competition, and a drive for self-sufficiency. The social and political unrest that was also caused by the depression, which was especially prevalent in Eastern Europe, created fierce divisions in countries like Britain and France, and allowed Hitler to take power in Germany. (Bell, Origins, 127-132)

Because of the collapse in trade caused by the depression, Britain adopted a policy of protective tariffs, and imperial preference, thus separating her economically and politically from the continent. This collapse in trade was also one of the major economic influences that caused Britain to be against war in the 30’s. If Britain became involved in another major war, because she depended a great deal on imports, her import bill would be greatly increased, and her economic position might be irreparably damaged as it was in WWI. Also, the large markets for British goods in Germany made it economically necessary for Britain to maintain good relations with Germany, and not get involved in a war with her. Thus, all the economic interests of Britain benefited from peace. (Bell, Origins, 132-136)

In France and Russian the situation was very similar to that in Britain. Despite the fact that France depended much less on international trade, her industry was very weak compared to Germany’s during the 30’s, so her economic interests also benefited from peace. Russia’s economy was growing rapidly, but was still weak in the late 30’s since it was still feeling the dramatic effects of Stalin’s purges, and the rapid industrialization and collectivization. (Bell, Origins, 136-138)

The only exception to this was Germany, who actually had economic incentives to go to war. In the late 30’s, Germany faced an economic crisis because the extreme pace of rearmament caused an acute balance of payments and resource problem. To end this crisis Germany could easily have slowed down the pace of rearmament, but Hitler would not accept this, so the only other option was to acquire more resources by force. To acquire more resources Germany needed more arms, but to create more arms, Germany needed more resources. Thus, the belief that war could be made to pay, and the consequent German policy created a vicious economic circle, for which the only solution was to stop reaming, or start a major war. Despite all the economic incentives for war or against it, the ultimate decision to go to war was still a political one in all countries. (Bell, Origins, 151-160)

Along with the ideological and economic forces, military strategy also played an important role in foreign policy, since the actions of states are sometimes influenced by strategic considerations. During the 20’s and 30’s, the idea of war as an instrument of foreign policy was rejected by France and Britain, but in Germany, Italy, and Russia, force was used without restraint when deemed useful. (Bell, Origins, 162-166)

In France, the most important strategic assumption was that in any large European conflict, Germany would be the enemy. This made it necessary for a strategy of a long defensive war, where Germany would be overcome by the force of a coalition. This necessity for defense and a strong coalition, had a large influence of foreign policy. Because of the weakness of the network of alliances in Easter Europe, an alliance with Britain became a crucial element in France’s strategy. This policy, combined with a fear of the German military under Hitler, made the strategic influences in France very defensive and cautious. (Bell, Origins, 166-174)

Britain’s worldwide military commitments to the Empire, and the constraints placed on the size of British forces by economic factors, are two important influences in British foreign policy. With the increase in the number of enemies around the world (Japan in Pacific, Italy in Mediterranean, Germany in Europe) during the 30’s, and her already overstretched resources, Britain needed to find a way to diminish the number of potential enemies, and the danger of war. The policy of appeasement was an attempt at achieving this. Eventually however, with the increase in armaments, and the realization of the situation, this policy was changed to one of resistance. (Bell, Origins, 174-184)

One of the effect of the rapid remilitarization of Germany was the adaptation of the military to offensive purposes, which had a significant influence on foreign policy. Germany’s generals were fairly cautious compared to Hitler, but because of his consistent victories, this caution began to be eroded, and the effect was the loss of restraint on foreign policy with Hitler – who wanted a war – dictating it. With Hitler in control of foreign policy and the strongest offensive army in Europe, and the will to use it, the chances for war were greatly increased. (Bell, Origins, 188-197)

Strategic considerations also played a large role in Stalin’s decision to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact instead of recreating the Triple-Entente. In Russia, the use of force was considered an instrument of foreign policy, but since Russia’s military was weak because of the purges, Stalin had to consider the prospect of a two front war with German and Japan, and consequently he opted for neutrality with Germany. (Bell, Origins, 197-199)

The Thirty Years War thesis states that WWII began in 1939 because it was the result of the disintegration of Europe. Eastern Europe was full of potential conflicts, and was inherently unstable. Germany was beaten, but not destroyed in WWI, and because of this it maintained its aspirations and identity. The willingness of Britain and France to accept the expansionist urges of Germany and Italy for so long that it became impossible to stop them without a major war, combined with the eventual determination of the former powers to resist even if it meant war, created the conditions in which war was very likely. Why these conditions actually existed in Europe during the 20’s and 30’s can be explained by the underlying ideological, economic, and military forces, which had profound impacts of the policies of nations. In France and Britain, all the ideological, economic and strategic forces were opposed to war, whereas in Germany and Italy, all these forces were for war. The rift between the two groups created by the underlying forces made war almost inevitable. (Bell, Origins, 296-300)

In Richard Overy’s argument, each country had complex motives for their actions before the war, but the final decision was made by some overriding principle or aim unique to each country. Hitler wanted a war, but not the one his gamble created in 1939. Britain went to war to try to save her Empire and the crumbling world order she had created. The reason the revived France went to war in 1939 was to save her honor and status as a great power. Mussolini took Italy into war on the side of Hitler because he believed Hitler offered more that Britain, and that Germany had a better chance of winning. Japan’s main consideration when deciding to attack Pearl Harbor was not power politics, but honor. The U.S. went to war to protect her own interests, but also to save democracy. A very different view from this is PMH Bell’s, who states that Europe moved towards war during the 30’s because of the underlying ideological, economic, and strategic forces influencing foreign policy. Besides the interpretations discussed here, there are many other wide-ranging views on the origins of WWII. Some of these place the blame on one country like Britain, while still others look at it as a planned war, or an ideological war. There are many difficulties with any interpretation since historians only have a limited view of all the incidents created by forces and people. Despite this, new interpretations are constantly being formed from new evidence, and this will likely continue for many more years to come.


1)Bell, PMH. The origins of the second world war in Europe. Essex, England.

Longman Group. 1990, 7th impression

2)Churchill, Winston S. The second world war – the gathering storm. Cambridge,

Massachusetts, U.S.A. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1948.

3)Lamb, Richard. The drift to war 1922-39. London, England. St. Martin’s Press. 1991,

1st U.S. edition

4)Overy, Richard. The road to war. London, England. Butler and Tanner Ltd. 1989,

1st edition

5) The new Cambridge modern history – XII The era of violence 1898-1945. Cambridge University. Cambridge University Press. 1960, 1st edition



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