This article describes the immediate prelude to World War II. In summary:
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'The Peace to End all Peaces'
- Also the Chinese Civil War and Russian Civil War The roots of humanity's greatest conflict go back centuries, but the immediate causes of the war lay in the resolution of the First World War and The Great Depression. November 1918: All Quiet on the Western Front and everyone breathes a sigh of relief that The Great War has ended. The sigh of relief is justified: more than ten million soldiers were killed over the course of the four-year war (more soldiers died than quite a few countries had people), in addition to more than seven million civilian deaths and uncounted numbers of civilian and military wounded. These catastrophic death tolls resulted from military technology outstripping military thinking, and the application of 19th-century tactics to 20th-century weapons resulting in a horrifying learning curve that featured many in long, indecisive, and horrendously inefficient battles. And even the battles that happened after the sides had learned were on scales most could scarcely imagine before. The collapse of the German and Habsburg empires after the war led to the creation of many 'new' states and the re-drawing of borders all over central-southern Europe. The Habsburgs' dual-monarchy of Austria-Hungary was divided into German Austria, Magyar Hungary, and Czechoslovakia (a union of the Czech and Slovak peoples, with large minorities of Germans and Hungarians), with substantial chunks going to Yugoslavia (a pan-Slavic union led by/under Serbia, which had been independent prior to the war) and Poland (most of which was taken from Germany and Russia). Italy and Romania also received Austrian Trent and Hungarian Transylvania, respectively. Germany itself became a democracy (with numerous inner conflicts due to the spread of communism throughout Europe after the Russian Revolution and military coups) and lost land to Denmark, a large chunk to Poland, and Alsace and Lorraine went back to France ('Again', after a fashion. Nominally 'German' and 'French' people had been fighting over this region since before the modern nation(-state)s of Germany or France existed). Germany also lost all her overseas colonies, which had been economically useless but nonetheless a great source of national pride before the war. The creation of the 'new' states and the redrawing of national borders left German minorities dotted all over central-eastern Europe. What was more, in some areas bordering Germany and Austria they were actually majorities, such as in now-Italian Trent (in the modern province of Alto-Adige/SüdTirol) where the Italians had rigged the League of Nations census in their favour in order to obtain a natural border with the Alps. All this would be important later. In the meantime, Austria, Hungary, and Germany had their armed forces heavily regulated, were required to pay heavy reparations to the Allies and were forbidden from any kind of political union with one another. It is debated as to how harsh these reparations were and what their role was in the later economic collapse. While initially high, they were greatly reduced in the intervening decades, and much leeway was given to the Germans in how and when to pay them. This is in addition to the fact that, in practice, the reparation payments were for the most part all but ignored, with the Germans often simply refusing to pay. Nevertheless, many Germans considered the treaty an unforgivable national humiliation and continued to believe that Germany could have won the war, or at least could have avoided making such concessions had it been settled by soldiers on the battlefield and not the politicians. A "stab in the back" myth of betrayal grew up around the treaty of Versailles, centered on the incompetence and gutlessness of the German leadership, the betrayal of the German Socialists in abandoning all claims of international workers' solidarity to support the government's unwanted war, the Liberals and Democrats for screwing up the economy in the post-war period, communists and their sympathizers who were alleged to have infiltrated German industry and deliberately sabotaged war production, as well as the all-too-familiar scapegoating of the Jews. Anything and anyone to justify the "real" cause of their defeat and avoid the conclusion that apparently, against all logic, Germany had been bested, something that did not sit well with the Nationalist and Social Darwinist theories popular at the time. The monetary cost of the war is literally incalculable; while Russia dodged its bill entirely by becoming a whole new country, the average cost to European human capital was about 6%, domestic assets about 11% and national wealth some 10-20%. Worse still, the 'Spanish 'flu' Pandemic of 1918 - the spread of which, among other diseases, was greatly aided by the mobilisation of so many troops - more than doubled the total loss of European human capital over the period 1914-1919. Furthermore, the conclusion of the war and the creation of so many new states along national lines resulted in Europe spending most of its time grappling with great political unrest instead of addressing the fundamental structural economic problems which underpinned much of said unrest. Almost overnight, Europe went from a handful of currencies with fixed exchange rates to over a dozen currencies with variable exchange rates. Where there had been a handful of tariff barriers and taxation systems before, now there were dozens. Germany, the biggest economy of pre-war Europe, was deliberately weakened, saddled with war-reparations debts, and alienated by Britain and France - who would've needed Germany onside if they had wanted to 'manage' Europe properly. London had managed the world's prewar commerce and trade; now, the situation was too complex and London too weak for it to exert any real control, and New York (which had begun to rival it for size) refused to step up to the plate and help, or take charge of the situation itself. Furthermore, the war had disrupted the natural trade cycles of Europe, and the re-gearing towards peacetime industries resulted in mass unemployment, giving impetus to various movements through much of Europe.
The Great Depression and the Rise of Fascism
The danger seemed to have passed by about 1923, with things taking a shaky turn for the better... but then came The Great Depression, which saw world industrial production down by a fifth and trade by half. With this came unemployment rates of some 5-30% for many countries, these figures often concealing vast regional and temporal variations. The political implications of all this for social unrest were only intensified given the poor or non-existent state of social welfare throughout the industrial world. Meanwhile, the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty puts strict limits on battleship sizes and numbers in an attempt to stave off another ruinously expensive naval arms race like the one that preceded World War One. Unfortunately, the treaty also reveals growing rifts between former allies, as the Japanese (who joined the Allies to stay on Britain's good side, and to take German possessions in Shandong and the Pacific) are deeply offended by the US and British insistence that the Japanese fleet be held to 60% of either of theirs - the so called 5-5-3 ratio - which they see as a grievous insult on-par with the latter's rejection of a Universal Declaration of Racial Equality in the League of Nations.note The Japanese are allowed near-parity in the so-called 'aircraft carrier' ships - an experimental ship-type, they serve as mere landing strips for aircraft - because of the minimal threat that they pose. Aircraft may be good scouts and spotters, after all, but they have no fighting capabilities. The Treaty of Versailles also set up the League Of Nations—a kind of proto-United Nations, where all states could gather and discuss their problems, solve them diplomatically and enforce international treaties. However, the United States did not join—ironic, given that the League was conceived by the country's President Woodrow Wilson. The USA's not becoming a founding member of the League was due to the actions of Wilson himself, who refused to accommodate his domestic political opponents in the process of founding the league and having the USA's membership thereof later ratified at homenote . The US's continued non-involvement was officially because the US did not like the idea of becoming an Imperial Power (with capitalisation and bad connotations) with 'foreign entanglements'. In reality, the USA was already a de facto colonial power and would not have appreciated The League commenting on the way it occasionally invaded various nominally-independent Latin American countries to force governments on them that would support US business interests. Granted, as a 'Victor's Club' with two Colonial Powers at its core The League would never have stopped the USA, but participation in it would have showcased the USA's hypocrisy in condemning formal 'Imperialism' while practicing informal 'imperialism' to her heart's content. The non-involvement of the US was crucial, as the United States accounted for a fifth of world GDP at the time; this was a touch more than Britain, France, and their Empires and Allies combined. Furthermore, the new state of the Soviet Union was refused entry because they were a poor and backwards country of Dirty Communists to be despised by all civilized peoples. As a result, the League's success and implementation was limited. Despite this, the Allies were satisfied with their work and went home, each confidently declaring that there would be no more war. They were wrong. Unemployment and under-employment combined with inflation and transportation problems to leave millions of post-war workers short of their daily bread. Consequently, Europe was swept by revolutionary fervor inspired by the example of the Soviet Union as communist parties tried to seize power in Germany, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere. The confusion and loss of control that came with suddenly giving the vote to millions of now-hungry people who had never been involved in politics before - in the name of democracy and freedom, of course - looked to have backfired spectacularly. For a period of time, it looked as if the World Revolution, so long foretold, might actually be at hand. To the Marxists' disappointment, many working professionals and skilled workers turned to fascism, a movement which combined mass-politics with dictatorship and nationalism with socialist attitudes to the community and welfare. Fascism was touted as a revolutionary new movement, a 'Third Way' between the evils of fully-fledged International Communism and the chaos of the beleaguered (and apparently economically ruinous) liberal-democracies. Political elites proved willing to compromise with these new movements or institute their own dictatorial regimes to stave off the advances of 'The Red Hydra'. This political environment allowed the Partito Nazionale Fascista (the National Fascist Party, or PNF for short) to come to power in Italy in the early twenties, setting a precedent for the rest of Europe. It was over a decade later that one of history's (least) favourite and most exclusive parties, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (the National Socialist German Workers' Party, better known as the Nazi Party or NSDAP for short), came to power in Germany by similar means. Under the leadership of the charismatic demagogue (and frontrunner for the title of "Most Evil Painter Ever") Adolf Hitler, the Weimar Republic was reformed out of existence, and Germany set up violating every remaining provision of the Versailles Treaty, rearming its military and (after five years of testing the international waters) joining with Austria to create a unified German state in 1938.
Spanish Civil War
Two years earlier, the Republic of Spain had descended into a heated Civil War. After a controversial election which resulted in a government that the Army in particular found too socialist, there was a botched right-wing coup which ended up splitting the country more or less right down the middle with most of the Army on one side and the Government on the other. The Nationalists - Christian conservatives with a predilection for Monarchy and Dictatorship - eventually found a leader in Generalissimo Franco, the support of whose North African Army proved invaluable in the opening months of the war. The Republicans - taking after the ruling, liberal-socialist party at the time - were a motley mix of everything and everyone to the political left of the Nationalists. While one would think that France and Britain would be natural allies for the Republicans, this was not at all the case - both were deeply suspicious of the Republicans and their motives. The Republicans were sharply divided between three factions - the socialists, the communists, and the anarcho-syndicalists - and had failed to implement effective reforms and alienated the country's Catholics and Monarchistsnote . Perhaps more important than the course of the war itself, in retrospect, was the participation of other countries and their peoples in it. Rallying to the Governmental-Republican cause there were the international brigades - Frenchmen, Americans, Britons, you name it. Sent to aide the Republican cause was a force of volunteers from the Red Army, complete with tanks and aircraft. Sent to the Nationalists was the 'Condor Legion' of volunteers from the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, again complete with aeroplanes and tanks, and an Italian contingent. Much more important than the soldiers were the materials both sides managed to scrounge and throw at each other. Broadly speaking, the Nationalists ended up with the major rural and agricultural areas, and the Republicans with the urban and industrial districts. However, although most companies were willing to sell arms and equipment to both sides, absolutely nobody was willing to loan the Republican government any money... except the Soviets, who demanded massive down-payments from the gold and silver held in reserve by the central banknote . Franco, on the other hand, was given absolutely massive loans - with 1% interest that was to be paid in crops and raw materials - which covered as much as 90% of his expenses by Nazi Germany. Moreover, the Republicans also found it much harder to buy things from parties other than the USSR's armaments bureau because business interests like the Shell and Standard Oil corporations effectively embargoed themnote and even gave discounts to the Nationalists. However, the Nationalists only needed to buy some 10% of their war-material, albeit all of their petroleum supplies, from Anglo-American companies. The other 90% was pretty much given to them by Germany, and some from Italy. Many have read portents of things to come into the conflict, such as Mussolini's enthusiasm for participating at great expense despite Italy's economy being in a poor state - all the while continuing to believe that war was necessary to make Italy strong 'again', remaining oblivious to the fact that the Roman Empire's strength had come from more things than having Italy at the heart of it. Also of note was the way Britain and France led the League of Nations into total inaction over the conflict despite the Republicans' appeals for them to intervene - save instituting an arms-embargo across the peninsula, which Germany and Italy somewhat hilariously take leading roles in 'enforcing'. By the Summer of 1939, Franco's Nationalists eventually triumph, with Axis support as the decisive factor in their victory. The international volunteers are left to return home, the victors amid much fanfare, and many see the war as having been a proxy conflict fought between the emerging forces of European Fascism, and everyone else - one that may well testify to the future of the latter. The French in particular are stung by the apparent proof that the citizen-militias of democracy were no match for The Forces of Fascism, and Hitler sees his belief in the Allies' inherent apathy, decadence and cowardice vindicated. The Allies' worries about Generalissimo Franco and his New Spain are unfounded, however; unlike his dictatorial benefactors, he is a man with a realistic assessment of his country's economic and military strength - i.e. not much - and no real thirst for conquest, or vengeance.
'The China Incident'
A year into that war, a border clash had broken out between the disorganised and factious Republic of China and Imperial Japan, after a Japanese soldier went missing during exercises at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing. Ironically, after nearly half a century of political and economic expansion at the expense of China, Japan was in the spring of 1937 minded to follow Britain and France's examples in East Asia and gradually disengage (politically and militarily) from the region, viewing the Soviet Union as a far greater threat for reasons both ideological and practical. Some overly-optimistic elements of the military had long-hoped that they might even be able to expand the Empire into Siberia. After half a century of Japanese expansionism, Chinese (urban) public opinion, on the other hand, would not stand for anything less than firm opposition to Japan. Many among the emergent middle classes opposed any further political compromises (with Japan), railing at both real and perceived insults to Chinese national pride. So when the Marco Polo Bridge incident turned into yet another border skirmish, the conflict quickly escalated to a scale that the leadership of neither side wanted. Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi (better known as Chiang Kai-Shek to Anglophones) and his entourage would have much preferred to avoid a full-scale war so they could focus on eliminating the Communists, independent-minded warlords and bandits; the Imperial Cabinet had been happy with trading with China and preparing for the seemingly-inevitable war against the Soviets. As it was, Jiang's warlord 'allies' in North China soon proved incapable of offering serious resistance to the Imperial Army. He quickly committed his loyal forces - less than a fifth of the forces in the area he controlled, which was less than half of inner China - to destroying the Japanese concession in Shanghai, opening up a new front there as part of his strategy for defending the lower Yangzi delta. This was the economic heartland of the Guomindang's territory, containing three quarters of their industry. This led to a curious spectacle wherein the Japanese government continued to insist that this latest 'China Incident' was not a war, even as they committed half a million men, supported by tanks, airplanes and warships, to fight a highly visible battle which dragged on for three months. The street-to-street, house-to-house fighting at Shanghai is yet another of the many origin stories for what would later became known as the 'Molotov Cocktail'. Jiang's men resort to using them against armoured cars and tanks because they don't have enough anti-tank weapons, and the ones they do have usually aren't where they're needed. The Empire's usual spiel about pan-Asian co-operation (with them as the leaders, of course) rang rather hollow when the advancing Japanese army broke discipline for a spot of unpleasantness in the comparatively-lightly defended (now former-)National Capital at Nanjing. The few foreigners remaining in the city tell of events which newspapers in the Occident eye-catchingly call 'the Rape of Nanjing' or 'the Nanjing Massacre'. With Jiang's best and, more importantly, most loyal forces in disarray, the situation becomes critical. Japanese forces are striking westward from their concession in Shandong province, and the victorious lower Yangzi force is pushing inexorably up the Yangzi with the support of Imperial Navy warships - the river is deep enough, and the Guomindang's artillery forces weak and ill-coordinated enough, to make sailing battleships (as well as supply- and troop-ships) up the Yangzi a valid tactic. At the same time, the Northern Expeditionary Force is moving southward and is threatening to link up with them - together, they have a good chance of surrounding and eliminating most Guomindang and Guomindang-allied forces north of the mid-Yangzi. Jiang orders the dykes of the Yellow River blown to disrupt their logistics and prevent them from consolidating their hold on the occupied territories. The flooding buys his forces time to regroup and to arm and organise partisan groups, but at least a million die from the disastrous flooding and droughts that ensue. In any case, the Imperial Army's supply chains are stretched to their limits, and their forces are spread dangerously thin. Japan is now in control of all the most economically and strategically important regions of China... fighting a war of huge expense against the world's most populous nation for no good reason, with no end to the conflict in sight. Neither side could accept the terms the other was willing to offer - Jiang could not settle for anything less than a white peace with Japan, who couldn't accept anything less than an indemnity or reparations. Furthermore, the Soviets are looking more threatening than ever - the conflict has driven Jiang to sign a non-aggression pact with the USSR in exchange for a one-off gift of arms, ammunition, equipment and technical assistance - they're using neutral Mongolia to send him artillery, airplanes, and advisers by the score. What followed was years of some of the messiest partisan fighting ever, on top of the standard fare of poorly-coordinated and -supplied open warfare which raged on and off between the IJA and Jiang's loyal Guomindang forces. The reaction to the 'China Incident' abroad was one of apathy. Upon the death of President-for-Life Yuan Shikai in 1916, the Republic of China had disintegrated and undergone a long period of intermittent factional warfare between different warlord coalitions. The rise of the Guomindang had seen the bloodshed decrease, but even in 1937, it was almost considered a perfectly normal state of affairs for there to be fighting in China. Though news of the Imperial Army's atrocities had generated international disapproval and condemnation, few non-ethnic Chinese cared enough to actually pressure their governments to do anything about it. People related more to the people and events in Europe, particularly the Spanish Civil War - which was better-documented, featured European people, and seemed like it might be a testament to the future of (European) Civilisation. From the Japanese seizure of the France-sized northern provinces of Manchuria in 1931 to the full-scale invasion and occupation of 1937, the whole mess served to highlight the true uselessness of the League of Nations. Its reaction to the very obvious problems at hand was effectively to sit in a corner with its eyes shut and its fingers in its ears saying "La la la I can't hear you!". When they had tried to reprimand Japan for its actions back in 1931, Japan simply left the League. This last straw, when taken with incidents like the Italian annexation of Ethiopia, only encouraged the 'Axis' (formed by the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan) powers to take action against what increasingly seemed like tired and weak old democracies which hadn't the stomach to fight. Hitler in particular was convinced that Britain and France were in no way interested in another war with Germany and would likely only fight to defend themselves. This misjudgement was just asking for trouble, as was the belief that having an Empire was an automatic guarantor of prosperity, never mind the enormous costs of fighting a war.
Annexation and Imminent War
Getting back to Europe, the Allies did nothing for a long while. This was the result of feelings of guilt and apathy. Guilt about the treatment of Germany at Versailles, and apathy because what was happening in Germany and particularly in China was in a sense none of their business - everyone remembered all too well just how that 'intervening in the Russian Civil War' business turned out, and Japan had proven their unwillingness to listen in the aftermath of the Manchurian Incident of '31. But remember all those ethnic German majorities bordering The New Germany? Hitler wanted them 'back', and that meant taking the territory 'back'. Austria, the Allies didn't mind so much - despite it being a violation of the Versailles Treaty, they felt they couldn't go to war to stop Germans being attached to other Germans. What's more, a post-facto poll seemed to show that Austrian-Germans wanted it by a margin of 99.3%note . However, this was followed by claims on 'the Sudetenland' - territories just over the border of Czechoslovakia which held German majorities. This was a bit more difficult, as Czechoslovakia was overwhelmingly Czech and Slovak and they were quite unwilling to give up their border areas (which not-coincidentally held most of their fortifications and military bases.) War was narrowly avoided with the signing of the Munich Agreement, A League of Nations initiative signed by Germany, Italy, France, and Britain. (Czechoslovakia notably being absent from negotiations, with the Soviets also being excepted on the usual grounds that they were Dirty Communists.) Czechoslovakia was thereby made to give up the Sudetenland to Germany, a slice of territory to Hungary and a scrap to Poland. This done, Europe and her dependencies breathed a sigh of relief - war had been avoided. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (in)famously announced, "I believe it is peace for our time." Hitler promised that this would be his last territorial demand. He lied. Not only was this followed up by a lighting-fast invasion which saw the Czechs integrated into Greater Germany as Bohemians and the Slovaks being given their own, 'independent' country, but Hitler then started making claims on Poland. Finally alarmed, Britain and France declared their support for Poland and stated that any threats to Poland's independence would mean war. We all know what happened next.