This article will discuss and assess the origins and beginning of World War II. The accepted view is that the war began in earnest on 1st September 1939 with the invasion of Poland by German troops, and concluded on 2nd September 1945 with the official surrender of the last Axis force (Japan)
The term is used however to describe both the initial stages of the conflict and the later American involvement. Even after the US became involved, however, not all countries were involved, some through neutrality (such as the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland, others through strategic insignificance (Mexico).
The European Theater
Some historians consider that the origins of WWII in Europe stretch back to Versailles and the terms of the peace treaty.
The period of the inter-war years from 1918 to 1939 was to prove a fertile breeding ground for the global conflict which was to follow. When we are referring to the beginning of the war, it is as a full-blown international conflict of arms and not a political standoff (as it was during the occupation of the Ruhr, the anschluss of Austria and the occupation of Czechoslovakia).
The Versailles treaty was considered by the German people as a punishing and degrading document, which forced them to surrender resource-rich areas and pay massive amounts of compensation. These punitive reparations severely damaged the German economy and caused even greater consternation and resentment from the German populace. This created the necessary conditions that eventually led to the appointment of a hitherto unknown Austrian to the chancellorship of Germany on 30th January 1933. This Austrian was Adolf Hitler.
Within less than a year all other political parties in Germany apart from the National Socialist (Nazi) Party had been outlawed, the political opponents of the party were gradually rounded up and put away in Concentration Camps and all authoritative powers were removed from the Reichstag rendering it an impotent servant to Hitler.
The Munich Putsch
The Reichstag Fire
The Reichstag Fire occurred on 27th February 1933. Blame was attached by the Nazi party (who it is thought by many historians actually set the fire) to the Communists, and it was used as an excuse for the arrest and subsequent execution of many Communists. The scapegoat was a Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe. Van der Lubbe was arrested at the scene, and later found guilty in a put-up trial. He was subsequently decapitated.
Nazi rise to power
Re-occupation of the Rhineland
Once the home front was secured, the Nazis turned their attention to foreign policy with four increasingly daring acts. On the 16th of March 1935, the treaty of Versailles was violated by Germany as military conscription was reintroduced (the treaty stated that the German Army should not exceed 100.000 men). When nothing more than official protests from England and France ensued, Hitler proceeded a year later (7th March 1936) to occupy the demilitarised Rhineland, again violating the Versailles treaty.
Two years later, on the 12 of March 1938, Germany announced the "Anschluß" of Austria, making it a province of the Reich. This was facilitated by the earlier assassination of the Austrian Chancellor, Englebert Dolfuss, on July 25th 1934. At the same time, members of the local Nazi party seized the radio station and broadcast the news that Dolfuss had resigned. Prior to this, the Austrian Nazis, inflamed by Hitler's demagogic broadcasting, had instituted a reign of terror, dynamiting government buildings, and murdering supporters of the Dolfuss regime.
After a lengthy political standoff, including Hitler making threats of war, a Nazi lawyer, Arthur Seyss-lnquart, was appointed first Foreign minister and then Chancellor of Austria.
Annexation of the Sudetenland
With Austria now a province of the Reich, Hitler turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. Areas in the north and west of the country (that contained a natural mountainous defence line and a fortress line against Germany) were populated by a large minority of Germans. Again following lengthy negotiations (that contained blatant threats of war from the German dictator) that culminated in the Munich meeting of 30th September 1938. At this meeting the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went out of his way to appease Hitler; Czechoslovakia allowed German troops occupy the Sudetenland. A few month after that (March 1939), the rest of Czechoslovakia passed into German hands.
The Pacific Theater
In the Pacific, war was not formally declared between the belligerents until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However there was active fighting dating back to the 1930's. The cause of the war was the political fragmentation and weakness of China combined with a strong Japan who with a militaristic and expansionist ideology. There is no evidence that Japan ever intended to directly administer China or that Japan's actions in China were part of a program of world domination. Rather, Japan's goals in China were strongly influenced by 19th century European colonialism and were to maintain a secure supply of natural resources and to have friendly and pliable governments in China who would be unwilling or unable to act against Japanese interests.
In the 1920's, China fragmented into warlordism in which there was a weak central government, and Japan was able gain influence in China by imposing unequal treaties with what remained of the central government. This situation was unstable in that if China dissolved into total anarchy these agreements would be unenforcable while if China was able to strength, the strong China would be able to abrogate those agreements.
In 1927, Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang led the Northern Expedition. Chiang was able to militarily defeat the warlords in southern and central China, and was in the process of securing the nominal allegiance of the warlords in northern China. Fearing, the the warlord who controlled Manchuria, Zhang Xue-liang was about to declare his allegiance for Chiang, the Japanese intervened and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo.
Although Japanese actions would not have seemed out of place among European colonial powers in the 19th century, by 1930, notions of Wilsonian self-determination meant that raw military force in support of colonialism was no longer seen as appropriate behavior by the international community. Japanese actions were thereform roundly criticized and led to Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations. During the 1930's, China and Japan reached a stalemate with Chiang focusing his efforts at eliminating the Communists who Chiang considered to be a more fundamental danger than the Japanese. The influence of Chinese nationalism on opinion both in the political elite and the general population rendered this strategy increasingly untenable.
Meanwhile in Japan, a policy of assassination by secret societies and the effects of the Great Depression had caused the civilian government to lose control of the military. In addition, the military high command had limited control over the field armies who acted on their own interest, often in contradiction to the overall national interest. There was also an upsurge in nationalism and anti-European feeling and the belief that Japanese policies in China could be justified by racial theories. One popular belief with similarities to the Identity movement, was that Japan and not China was the true heirs of classical Chinese civilization.
In 1937, Chiang was kidnapped by Zhang Xue-liang in the Xian Incident. As condition of his release, Chiang promised to united with the Communists and fight the Japanese. In response to this, officers of the Kwantung Army without knowledge of the high command in Tokyo decided to manufacture the Macro Polo incident by which they intended and succeed into provoking a conflict between China and Japan.
By 1941, Japan had occupied much of north and central China. However, Japan was faced with continued opposition from both the Kuomintang and the Communists. Although Japan was deeply mired in a quamire, it did not undertake or even consider undertaking policies which would help it resolve the situation. Although it created several puppet governments, its policies of brutality toward the Chinese population, of not yielding any real power to the governments, and of support several competing governemnts failed to make any of them a popular alternative to Chiang government. Japan was also unwilling to negotiate directly with Chiang, nor was it willing to attempt to create splits in united front against it, by offering concessions that would make it a more attractive alternative than Chiang's government.
Instead, Japan's reaction to its situation was to turn to increasingly more brutal and depraved actions in the hope that sheer terror would break the will of the Chinese population. This, however, had the effect of was turning world public opinion against it. In early 1941, the United States announced an embargo of oil and scrap metal. This was serious in that without these resources Japan's military machine would grind to a halt. Faced with this situation and with the belief that war with the United States was imminent, the Japanese began planning an attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and a general campaign to occupy the Philliphines and Malaya. Although Japan knew that it could not win a sustained and prolonged war against the United States, it was the Japanese hope that faced with this sudden and massive defeat that the United States would agree to a negotiated settlement that would allow for Japan to have a free reign in China. They were incorrect, and Japan was faced with a war it knew it could not win.
Japan's policies in the 1930's are remarkable for their disastrously self-defeating nature. Japan's grand strategy was based on the premise that it could not survive a war against the European powers without secure sources of natural resources, yet to secure those resources it decided to undertake the war that it knew it could not win in the first place. Moreover actions such as its brutality in China, and its attempt to first set up puppet governments in China and then undermining them were clearly antithetical to Japan's overall goals, and yet it continued to persist in them anyway. Finally, this march to self-destruction is remarkable in that many individuals within the Japanese political and military elite realized the self-destructive consequences of its policies but were unable to do anything about it and there appears to be no debate over policy alternatives which may have enabled Japan to further its goals in China.