World History 2 218 - 13.1.2 Peace in Our Time

In furtherance of his promise to revive Italian glory, Benito Mussolini (popularly known as Il Duce, “the leader”) sought to expand the Italian protectorate of Somali in East Africa. A border dispute with Ethiopia, which Italy had long sought to colonize, arose in November 1934, and the Ethiopians took the matter to the League of Nations on January 5, 1935. When a full-scale Italian invasion of Ethiopia began on October 3 of that year, the League Council immediately declared Italy the aggressor, and fifty-one member nations approved sanctions against Italy. Unwilling to defy Mussolini, however, the British and French undermined the League in a secret agreement permitting Italy to absorb Ethiopia into a special economic zone. In May 1936, Italian forces took the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and shortly thereafter, Italy formally annexed the country. In Italy, Mussolini’s popularity grew, especially among Italian youth.

Britain and France were even more reluctant to confront Germany. Adolf Hitler had often pledged to scrap the Treaty of Versailles. His first step came just nine months after becoming chancellor when he conducted referenda to let the German people decide whether they wanted to remain in the League of Nations. The result was predictable, and in October 1933, Germany withdrew from the League.

By the 1930s, some in Britain and elsewhere had come to view Hitler as a deeply patriotic German seeking merely to serve the interests of his battered nation. Others saw him and his politics as potentially dangerous and unsettling to European stability. The British government did, however, negotiate with Germany to contain the size of the German navy, and France sought a Treaty of Mutual Assistance with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Using the French-Soviet cooperation as an excuse, in March 1935 Hitler publicly announced that Germany had already secretly begun to rearm in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. On March 2, 1936, about three thousand German troops reoccupied the Rhineland, a part of Germany demilitarized by the Treaty. France feared protesting this too strongly because it did not want and was not ready to fight another war. The British public did not see the move as overtly hostile.

Though the Versailles Treaty specifically prohibited unification of Austria with Germany, Hitler moved to accomplish this anyway. Austria’s prime minister attempted to stave off unification by calling for a referendum in March, but the next day Hitler preemptively sent troops into Austria. When the referendum was held, the people voted for union with Germany. Flush with his victory over Austria, Hitler continued to “gather the German people,” and his eyes turned to those portions of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland, containing some three million ethnic Germans, including many who had been folded into that nation by the Treaty of Versailles (Figure 13.5).

This drawing is a colored map showing the city of Prague in the top left, located in the country of Czechoslovakia. Austria is to the south, with Vienna labeled in the northeast of the country. To the right of Austria, in the lower part of the map is the country of Hungary. Poland is to the north of Czechoslovakia, and Germany is to the northwest. The northwestern half of Czechoslovakia is shaded dark yellow and bordered by a dark green shading. Austria is shaded dark pink. The rest of the left side of the map is shaded light pink. The right side of the map is shaded light yellow.
Figure 13.5 Inhabited largely by German speakers, the Sudetenland wrapped around the northern, western, and southern edges of Czechoslovakia, where that nation bordered Germany and Poland. (credit: modification of work “Die Ausdehnung des Deutschen Reiches im Jahr 1939” by Demis/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Czechoslovaks, in the only real democracy created by the Treaty of Versailles, pinned their hopes for defense against Germany on the western nations and on treaties for mutual defense signed with France in the 1920s and early 1930s. Sudeten Germans had organized their own Nazi Party, however, and began agitating to join Germany. By 1938, it seemed that Britain and France were most concerned with avoiding another major war, so to defuse the situation, the Czechoslovak government granted the Sudeten Germans self-government. Tensions grew. As Hitler pressed for full inclusion of the Sudetenland in Germany and war seemed on the horizon, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with him. Hitler seemed prepared for war. Instead, Chamberlain proposed to hold a general conference to address the crisis over the Sudetenland, and Hitler agreed.

The Munich Conference was attended by Chamberlain, Hitler, French prime minister Édouard Daladier, and Mussolini (ostensibly a neutral party but one who had already assured Hitler of his support). On September 30, they produced the Munich Pact, in which Czechoslovakia granted territorial concessions to Germany, Poland, and Hungary in what has since been called appeasement (Figure 13.6). The hope of Great Britain and France was that Hitler would be satisfied and cease to be aggressive. The alternative meant fighting Germany, which neither government wanted.

In this black and white picture, a man stands in the center of a large group of people, waving a piece of paper. A group surrounds him in a circle. Most of the crowd is men in suits and long coats and hats, with some women interspersed, in dresses and some with hats. There are microphones placed in front of the man, and there is the back of a plane visible in the back left of the picture.
Figure 13.6 British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (center, waving a paper) presents the Munich Pact upon returning to London on September 30, 1938. (credit: modification of work “Munich Agreement” by Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Western world had not yet decided which was the greater threat to world peace, a fascist Germany or the communist Soviet Union. Some political conservatives in England and France hoped for a German alliance against the Soviets, as did Hitler. The British military was not confident of its preparedness for war, and the isolationist policy of the United States diminished the hope of any aid from Washington. With anxiety growing in London over Britain’s possessions in Asia and Japanese aggressions there, domestic support for negotiated solutions was widespread among liberals, and a bargain with Hitler seemed a reasonable policy. In the ensuing weeks, German troops entered the relinquished areas, and by the spring of 1939, Germany had gone on to absorb the rest of Czechoslovakia.

During these years, the Nazis were progressively implementing increasingly severe persecutions of Jewish people. First, a law enacted on April 7, 1933, banned them from positions in the civil service. That same year, the first and longest-surviving Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, was set up near Munich, intended for political prisoners (Figure 13.7). Several laws collectively known as the Nuremberg Laws were promulgated in 1935, institutionalizing Nazi racial theories and discrimination against Jewish people. A Jewish person was defined as anyone with three Jewish grandparents, regardless of whether they were active in the Jewish religious community or how deeply they identified as German. Jewish people were denied citizenship in the new Nazi-led German empire, called the Third Reich, and were forbidden to marry or have sexual relations with ethnic Germans, designated as “Aryans.” They lost the right to vote and most other political rights.

This is a black and white arial photograph titled “Concentration Camp at Dachau.” Another label says, “N-6565 NPIC (3/94)”. In the top middle there is a large group of trees as well as some smaller sections scattered on the right side and in the middle. The left side of the picture shows two organized rows of long, skinny buildings, and an open area. There are roads and sidewalks throughout the picture.
Figure 13.7 This U.S. Army aerial photo shows the concentration camp at Dachau, which was opened in 1933. The numbers on the photo label different parts of the camp. On the far right are barracks, a hospital, and storehouses for the troops who guarded the camp. (credit: “Concentration camp dachau aerial view” by USHMM, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Germany was becoming legally structured as an “us” versus “them” nation, and the treatment of its Jewish people demonstrated the fearsome power of the state. Two days of violent attacks on them in November 1938, ignited by the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish Jewish man, became known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” Almost every synagogue in Germany was torched during the rampage, as well as 90 percent of Jewish-owned businesses. Some thirty thousand Jewish males were taken into custody and sent to Dachau, which by then had been augmented by camps at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. All but about two thousand were released in 1939.

Kristallnacht caused a severe deterioration in Germany’s international standing. In Britain, an outraged public pressured Parliament into allowing unaccompanied Jewish children under seventeen to take refuge in England. During the nine months before the war, this Kindertransport may have rescued as many as ten thousand children. Across Europe, many Jewish people became refugees as they fled the oppressive politics of the Nazis. A thirty-two-nation international conference was held in France during the summer of 1938 to solve the Jewish refugee crisis, but no country stepped forward to accept any such immigrants. In February 1939, a bill was introduced into the U.S. Congress to allow ten thousand Jewish children to enter the country in 1939 and another ten thousand in 1940. Though popular, the bill failed due to lukewarm political support.

In Asia, Shanghai was an option for Jewish refugees looking for a new home. The city, along with Franco’s Spain, was unconditionally open to Jewish migration. Nominally still a German ally in 1939, the Nationalist government in the southwestern corner of China formulated a plan to provide a haven for European Jewish refugees. It had multiple reasons for doing so, including attracting international Jewish support and gaining favor with Britain and the United States against Japan. A number of schemes were hatched, both by members of the GMD government and by private individuals, one even gaining the support of scientist Albert Einstein. GMD diplomats in Europe like Feng Shan Ho, consul general in Vienna, issued visas to Jewish refugees seeking to relocate to Shanghai. A Jewish community of more than twenty thousand displaced persons had reached the city by the end of the war.

In May 1939, almost one thousand Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution took passage on the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner, heading for sanctuary in Cuba. But Cuba refused to admit them. The ship’s captain then tried to get Canada or the United States to accept the refugees, but that effort failed as well. While the ship sailed around to no avail, conditions on board deteriorated to the point that it came to be called the “voyage of the damned.” Finally, after a month, the ship was forced to return to Antwerp, Belgium, where most of the passengers disembarked. Ultimately, England accepted about three hundred of them, France took some, and a few more went to Belgium and the Netherlands. Of the original passengers, 70 percent survived the war, but more than two hundred were killed by the Nazis.

The ambition to expand eastward had motivated Germany for some time. The hunt for Lebensraum, or living space, had fueled its search for overseas colonies in the late 1800s and was an express goal of World War I. In the lands seized from countries in eastern Europe, Hitler envisioned German families settling and producing large numbers of children, supplanting the native Slavic populations. In this way, physically and culturally “superior” Germans would reclaim Europe from “inferior” Jewish and Slavic peoples. Similar ideologies meant to rationalize the displacement of a territory’s residents by a supposedly superior population have appeared in history before, like Manifest Destiny in the United States and Japan’s expansionist policies in Korea and Manchuria. To the east of Germany, the Treaty of Versailles had created an independent Poland and awarded parts of Germany to Poland in the process. This “Polish Corridor,” in an area where many Polish people already lived, was intended to give Poland access to a port, and the German city of Danzig (Gdańsk), bordering it, was made a semi-independent city-state with its own parliament (Figure 13.8). Poland was a prime target of the Nazis as they looked for Lebensraum.

There are two maps shown. The map on the left is a world map. There is a small square in central Europe. This expands to the second map which shows the Baltic Sea in the top left with the German Empire bordering on the southwest and southeast. Poland is in between and includes the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig. Lithuania is shown on the east side of the Baltic Sea.
Figure 13.8 The twenty-mile-wide Polish Corridor was meant to give Poland access to a port after World War I, separating two parts of Germany in order to do so. (credit world map: modification of work “World map blank shorelines” by Maciej Jaros/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain; attribution close-up map: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The lessons learned from Hitler’s violation of the Munich Pact spurred Britain and France to take action to protect Poland. They have also been invoked by world leaders ever since, whenever the aggression of one nation threatens the sovereignty or the territorial integrity of another. Using the example of Munich to warn against the perils of allowing one nation to invade another without opposition, whether it be Hitler’s Germany or Putin’s Russia, is known as invoking the Munich Analogy.

The key to whether Germany could be boxed in was the attitudes of Stalin and the Soviet Union. As early as the summer of 1938, Stalin began to think of making some sort of deal with Germany. During the following summer, relations between Germany and the Soviet Union began to improve. Stalin, aware of Hitler’s musings in his book Mein Kampf, understood the long-term threat Germany posed and sought to buy time to prepare for possible war. For his part, Hitler wanted to avoid Germany’s World War I mistake of fighting on two fronts simultaneously. The result was the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 23, 1939. In this pact, Germany and the USSR agreed not to attack one another or to assist other nations in attacking the other. Included in the agreement were secret protocols that essentially divided eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of eastern Poland were allocated to the USSR as a reward for cooperating with Germany in the dismemberment of Poland.

Seeing the pact as an ominous green light for a German eastward thrust, two days later Britain signed a mutual defense agreement with Poland. All things seemed ready for the German onslaught, which was launched on September 1, 1939. Britain and France fulfilled their commitment to Poland and declared war on Germany, forming the partnership known as the Allies, but not on the Soviet Union. About two weeks later, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east. Crushed from two sides, Poland essentially ceased to exist. The European fires of World War II had been ignited.

Poland provided the Germans an opportunity to test their strategy for victory, known as blitzkrieg or “lightning war.” It consisted of quick, massive air strikes to secure domination of the air, destroy the enemy’s ammunition stockpiles and the transportation and communications infrastructure, and generally disorient the enemy and depress morale. Then a massive land invasion of troops, fast-moving armor, and heavy artillery would overwhelm defenses. The Polish army of a million troops lacked modern equipment and was saddled with older strategic thinking that urged confronting the Germans head-on. The relatively flat landscape of western Poland offered few natural barriers to traffic and suited Germany’s battle plan well, enabling the Germans to successfully employ several maneuvers to penetrate and encircle.

The British quickly discovered there was no practical way to render much assistance to the Poles. Instead, they relied on the French to engage the Germans. But the French felt they could not sustain an offensive against Germany’s western front. They preferred to prepare their defenses for an eventual German offensive against France. Britain joined the French by deploying the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to defend the French-Belgian border. By then, Poland was already lost and had been folded into Hitler’s plans of dominating Europe. During the winter of 1939–1940, little action took place on the French-German border save for a few clashes of patrols and reconnaissance units. That period of waiting has sometimes been referred to as the Phony War or, derisively, as the sitzkrieg (“sitting war”).

The German advance westward began with some forays into Norway and Denmark to the north on April 9, 1940. Not wanting to provoke German invasions, both Belgium and the Netherlands declared neutrality. This disadvantaged the British and French, since they were then not allowed to coordinate defenses with Dutch and Belgian forces or station troops in their territory. The Germans then launched their full westward offensive on May 10, 1940. Within a matter of weeks, German troops had overrun western Europe, storming through the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium and into France, avoiding the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications and weapons installations that had been built on the French border in the 1930s in order to protect France from another German invasion. Early in the morning of May 23, 1940, the British commander in France, seeing the perils of his position, gave the order to begin a withdrawal toward Dunkirk on the French coast. Eventually, this culminated in the extraordinary evacuation across the English Channel of much of the BEF and thousands of French and other Allied forces between June 15 and 25 using every British boat capable of crossing the Channel. The retreat saved 200,000 troops.

French prime minister Paul Reynaud resigned rather than sign the armistice agreement with Germany in June 1940. Instead, Marshall Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I, became the prime minister of a truncated French government based in Vichy, France, that, although nominally independent, cooperated with Germany.

The remarkable success of the German blitzkrieg in Europe during the summer of 1940 presented the Japanese military with some significant strategic opportunities. For instance, the isolation of European colonies in Asia might make them ripe for seizing. Consequently, to provide for mutual defense and perhaps to frighten the United States away from giving more substantial assistance against them, Japan joined Germany and Italy in the defensive military alliance called the Tripartite Pact in September 1940. (Japan and Germany had earlier signed the Anti-Comintern Pact against the Soviet Union, which Japan saw as a rival for dominance in Asia, in 1936, and Italy had joined in a year later. Japan had parted ways with Germany in 1939, however, when the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was signed, and a new agreement was thus in order.) The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, felt discouraged in the attempt to maintain peace. He observed to a colleague in February 1941, “I saw the work of eight years swept away as if by a typhoon, earthquake and a tidal wave combined.”

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax