Chapter 25 Growing Aggression and World War II

Section 1 Aggression and Crisis in the 1930s

During the 1930s, three powers, Japan, Italy, and Germany grew increasingly aggressive. Each power sought to enhance its influence and to expand its territory through the use of military force. Each power only became more ambitious as the Western democracies, led by Britain and France, continued to yield to aggression in crisis after crisis. In 1939, however, nearly a decade of aggression and crisis culminated in the outbreak of world war.  

The Failure of Collective Security

The system of collective security set up at Versailles in 1919 proved powerless to stop international aggression in the 1930s. Aggressors simply ignored international opinion—nor did economic sanctions have much effect on them, partly because of the Depression. In the end, no member of the League was willing to commit its military forces to stop aggression when its own interests were not immediately threatened. Countries ruled by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes were the worst aggressors.

Japanese aggression in East Asia. The first major international acts of aggression began in Asia, where Japanese interest in China generated serious conflict. Worried by Japan’s lack of critical raw materials with which to sustain its growing population, some prominent Japanese began to call for the establishment of a new order in East Asia—a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”—in effect an enlarged Japanese empire. Imperialist officers in the Army decided to force the issue by seizing Manchuria, where Japan already controlled the railways.

            On September 4, 1931, a small group of Japanese army officers staged a fake attack on their own railway at Mukden, the capital of Southern Manchuria. Blaming the attack on China, Japanese forces in Manchuria seized the whole province. Within a year, Japan proclaimed Manchuria independent under the name of Manchukuo. In a further act of provocation, they installed a puppet government under emperor Pu Yi, the last Manchu emperor of China who had been deposed in 1911 when the Chinese Republic had been proclaimed.  

            Unable to defeat Japan militarily, China appealed to the League of Nations. The League Council condemned Japan’s aggression and demanded that Japan restore the province to China at once. Instead, the Japanese simply withdrew from the League. Because no member was willing to commit military forces on China’s behalf, the League could do nothing further to restrain Japanese aggression. In July 1937 the Japanese launched a general war against China. By 1939, the Japanese army had occupied nearly one-fourth of China’s territory.

Italy and the Ethiopian Crisis. Collective security was equally ineffective in Africa, where Mussolini’s ambitions for a revived “Roman Empire” threatened the peace. During the 1920s, Mussolini had consolidated Italy’s position in Libya. In 1935 he fixed his sights on Ethiopia, Africa’s last independent kingdom. Ethiopia ’s conquest would help secure Italian possessions in neighboring Eritrea and Somalia. With both Libya and Ethiopia, Italy would also be able to command the approaches to the Suez Canal.

            On October 3, 1935, Italian forces invaded Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s army proved no match for Italy’s armored cars, aircraft, and poison gas. The kingdom’s only hope lay in the principle of collective security. As a member of the League of Nations, Ethiopia appealed for support. The League voted both to condemn the invasion and to impose sanctions against Italy. Angered, Mussolini simply ignored the League. By May 1936, Ethiopia had fallen and Haile Selassie, its emperor, had fled to Britain.

            In June, the League’s Council met to reconsider its policy of sanctions. Haile Selassie personally addressed the delegates. Eloquently, he warned of the dangers of backing down:  

“It is not merely a question of a settlement in the matter of Italian aggression. It is a question of collective security; of the very existence of the League; of the trust placed by States in international treaties; of the value of promises made to small states that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and assured. It is a choice between the principle of equality of States and the imposition upon small Powers of the bonds of vassalage.”[iii][iii]

Despite Haile Selassie’s eloquence, Britain and France, the League’s leading powers, declined to use force, and in July the League even voted to lift the sanctions. Mussolini had won.

The Spanish Civil War. While Japanese and Italian aggression made clear the weakness of collective security, the outbreak of civil war in Spain demonstrated the growing division between democratic and totalitarian regimes in Europe. Spain became a testing ground for new weapons and tactics, as Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union used the civil war for their own purposes. Many in Europe came to see the Spanish civil war as a proxy struggle between the forces of fascism and communism.

            European fascists were sympathetic to the self-proclaimed Nationalists, who included the fascist Falange Party along with conservative and Catholic allies, all united under General Francisco in rebellion against the new Spanish Republic. Germany, Italy, and Portugal all supported the Nationalists, contributing weapons, advisors, and “volunteers.” Mussolini, for example, sent more than 50,000 troops to Spain to help Franco.

            On the other side, the Soviet Union supported the Republican government. Some 60,000 anti-fascist volunteers from other countries, including Britain, France, and the United States, also went to fight on behalf of the republican government in what became known as the International Brigades. Western democratic governments were more cautious. George Orwell, the famous British writer, went to the antifascist stronghold of Barcelona in 1936. His description illustrates the dilemma the civil war created for democratic western leaders:  

“Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. . . . Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags . . . ; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.”[iv][iv]

The civil war had led to the ascendancy of communists and other radical groups in the anti-fascist opposition. Western leaders did not want to see a fascist regime in Spain, but neither did they want a communist one—and both sides, as Orwell found, were guilty of terrible excesses. Unsuccessfully, British and French leaders tried only to keep other powers from interfering in the conflict. Franco’s ultimate victory reinforced their sense of helplessness in the face of fascism.  

The Revival of German Power

Of all the threats that emerged in the 1930s to disturb the world’s peace, the revival of German power under the National Socialist, or Nazi, regime was the greatest. Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader, spoke of revenge for the Versailles treaty. His larger goal was German domination of Europe and ultimately the world.


Hitler’s expansionist aims. Ten years before he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Hitler had outlined his foreign policy objectives in his book, Mein Kampf. “Germany will either be a world power.” he wrote, “or there will be no Germany.”[v][v] Hitler identified race and space as the two basic international problems facing Germany. He believed the Germans were a naturally superior people destined to rule peoples like the Slavs, whom he believed to be biologically inferior. By ‘rule’ Hitler meant the enslavement or annihilation of other peoples. He believed that Germany could not assimilate “inferior” peoples—if it tried it would only dilute the Germans’ own racial “purity.” In this respect, Hitler saw the Jews as a special threat.

            The other issue Hitler focused on was geographic space. He believed that Germany required Lebensraum—living space—to accommodate its expanding population, and planned to find such space to the east:  

“An additional 500,000 square kilometers in Europe can provide new homesteads for millions of German peasants, and make available millions of soldiers to the power of the German people for the moment of decision. The only area in Europe that could be considered for such a territorial policy therefore was Russia.”[vi][vi]

Before commencing a full-scale war against Russia, however, Hitler believed Germany must first secure its western flank from France.[vii][vii]

German preparations for expansion. Hitler began to implement his plans for German expansion immediately after becoming the Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. In October 1933, he withdrew Germany from both the League of Nations and world disarmament talks. In March 1935, he announced the reinstitution of conscription and the formation of several new armored divisions, as well as the creation of an air force. In 1936, while Britain and France were preoccupied with the Ethiopian crisis, he again violated the Versailles Treaty and moved German troops back into the Rhineland.

            When France protested, Hitler defended his actions by insisting that he was merely correcting one of the injustices of the Versailles Treaty. He promised that Germany had “no territorial demands in Europe.”[viii][viii]  In mid-1936, however, he embarked on a new program of rearmament called the Four-Year Plan. “The German army,” he declared in August, “must be fit for operations in four years’ time; the German economy ready for war in four years’ time.”[ix][ix]

            Hitler’s successful remilitarization of the Rhineland increased Germany’s prestige among other totalitarian powers. In the fall of 1936, Italy agreed to loose cooperation with Germany and Mussolini used the phrase “Axis” to describe the relationship between the two countries. In November, Germany concluded the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, which recorded each government’s opposition to communism. Italy joined the Pact in November 1937. The three major aggressors of the 1930s had joined forces.

Anschluss with Austria. Austria occupied a central place in Hitler’s plans for German expansion. Not only did he want its resources, but he also believed that its annexation would give Germany “shorter and better frontiers.”[x][x] Perhaps most important, most of Austria’s population was German-speaking and Hitler himself had been born in Austria. “Common blood,” he said, “belongs in a common Reich [Empire].”[xi][xi] After a German ultimatum, on March 11 the head of the Austrian Nazi Party took over the government in Vienna. The next day he declared the Anschluss, or union, of Austria with Germany and invited the German army to enter the country.

            The Anschluss dramatically altered the strategic situation in Europe. Britain’s Winston Churchill, not yet Prime Minister, understood clearly the significance of what had happened. The annexation of Austria, he warned, gave Germany “military and economic control of the whole of the communications of Southeastern Europe, by road, by river, and by rail.”[xii][xii] Germany was now well positioned for eastward expansion. Nevertheless, the Western democracies accepted Hitler’s moves in Austria as they had those in the Rhineland.

Appeasement in Europe

Nazi leaders attributed their success in the 1930s largely to the inaction of the Western democracies. Had he been a western head-of-state in 1933, claimed Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, he would have given Germany an ultimatum rather than tolerating Hitler’s accession: “Either he disappears or we march!” Instead, he marveled, the Western democracies “left us alone and let us slip through the risky zone, and we were able to sail around all dangerous reefs.”[xiii][xiii]  In fact, Western leaders had accepted Hitler’s demands as part of a deliberate policy of appeasement, or giving in to avoid war.

Reasons for appeasement. The leaders of the Western democracies adopted appeasement for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the global depression diverted their attention. In addition, many worried that standing against Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany required working with the Soviet Union. Yet the totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin appeared no less dangerous or brutal than those of Mussolini and Hitler. Curbing Italian and German power might only strengthen Soviet power, bringing neither lasting peace nor security to Europe.

            Perhaps the greatest influence behind appeasement was the impact of World War I in the Western democracies. The enormous cost of the war in both lives and treasure had led to a widespread belief that all war was ineffective and unjustifiable. Popular anti-war novels, like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, reinforced such ideas. Not even the rise of Nazism changed many minds. Wishfully, most people believed that, as one influential British magazine put it, “Hitler . . . does not want war. He is susceptible to reason in foreign policy.”[xiv][xiv]

            Such sentiments made the idea of “peace at any price” extremely popular. Soon after Hitler took power and made clear his intention to re-arm, for example, the Oxford Union, an elite university debate group in Britain, resolved, “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.”[xv][xv] In a 1934 campaign speech, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party even promised to “close every recruiting station, disband the Army, and disarm the Air Force.”[xvi][xvi]

            In practical terms, the disarmament policies that had prevailed throughout the world after World War I also convinced many Western leaders that they had no choice but appeasement. Having ignored the warnings of military experts about the need to maintain and modernize their forces, they simply found themselves unprepared to deal with aggression in the 1930s. During the Ethiopian crisis of 1935, for example, the Royal Navy warned that fighting Italy would mean leaving British territories in Asia vulnerable to Japan. Consequently, Prime Minister Baldwin told his Foreign Minister: “Keep us out of war, we are not ready for it.”[xvii][xvii]

The Sudetenland and Munich. One of Nazi Germany’s primary grievances concerned the Sudetenland, a mountainous region in northwestern Czechoslovakia. More than three million Germans lived in the area, which had been part of the Habsburg Empire until World War I. Although the Czech government had taken steps to protect the rights of the Sudeten Germans, Hitler complained about Czech “oppression.” He further portrayed Czechoslovakia as a grave danger, calling it a “dagger pointed at the heart of Germany.”[xviii][xviii] In the spring of 1938, Hitler demanded the cession of the Sudetenland to Germany.

            Hitler’s posturing threatened war. As part of its effort to construct an alliance system to contain the German threat, France had earlier promised to support Czechoslovakia in case of German aggression. Edouard Daladier, the new French prime minister, suspected Hitler intended to take more than simply the Sudetenland. Even Napoleon’s ambition, he observed, had been “far inferior to the aims of the present German Reich.”[xix][xix] However, Daladier also realized that France needed British support to stop Hitler.

            Anxious to avoid war, however, Neville Chamberlain, the new British Prime Minister and one of the architects of appeasement policy, preferred to negotiate. With Mussolini acting as a go-between, in late September 1938 the British and French leaders met Hitler in Munich. While the Czech leaders were forced to wait outside the council chamber, Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to German annexation of the Sudetenland in return for Hitler’s promise that this was “the last territorial claim I shall make in Europe.”[xx][xx]

            Returning to London by plane, Chamberlain appeared before reporters and radio microphones on the airport tarmac. Waving a copy of the agreement, he claimed to have achieved “peace for our time.”[xxi][xxi] Winston Churchill, a former Cabinet Minister, provided a more accurate analysis when he prophetically observed: “The government had to choose between shame and war. They have chosen shame and they will get war.”[xxii][xxii] Churchill was right—Munich made war more, not less, likely. Hitler now believed he had little to fear from the Western leaders. “I saw them at Munich,” he said, “they are little worms.”[xxiii][xxiii]  

Poland and the coming of war. The situation in Europe rapidly deteriorated after the Munich Conference. In March 1939, having occupied the Sudetenland, Hitler moved against the rest of Czechoslovakia. At the same time, he moved to recover territories lost to Germany in the east after World War I. After forcing Lithuania to return the port of Memel he focused his main attention on Poland. In 1919, the Versailles treaty had awarded Poland the Baltic port of Danzig along with a strip of connecting land carved from German territory. Hitler demanded that Poland return Danzig and the so-called “Polish Corridor.” His real intention was to destroy Poland itself. Realizing that this might lead to an immediate war with Russia, for which Germany was not yet ready, Hitler secretly opened negotiations with the Soviet government.

            In August 1939, Hitler announced the conclusion of a “non-aggression” pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Stalin’s motives for the treaty remain less clear than Hitler’s. Like Hitler, he may have wanted time to prepare for a war he regarded as inevitable. Stalin also had his own expansionist aims—in a secret protocol attached to the non-aggression pact Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to partition Poland between them and Germany recognized Soviet “authority” in the Baltic states and parts of the Middle East. With the non-aggression pact in his pocket, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. This time, however, he had at last gone too far for the western democracies to ignore.

            After Hitler’s violation of the Munich agreement in Czechoslovakia, Britain and France had finally decided they could no longer tolerate German aggression. They had subsequently pledged to support Poland against Germany. Responding to Hitler’s invasion, on September 1, 1939, they issued an ultimatum demanding an immediate German withdrawal. Hitler ignored their demands. Two days later, on September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.