05 — the Interbellum period pt3


  1. The Poisoned Peace of 1919: The Big Three, their aims, and their plans for Germany, Italy’s reaction to ToV, Terms of ToV, its goals, successes + failures
  2. The Good Men: Peace initiatives of the 1920s (while failing to address underlying grievances)
  3. …Doing Nothing: GD and its link to rise of totalitarianism; breakdown of collective security in 1930s

Questions to consider

  1. What were the main causes of WW2? Which factors seem the most important?
  2. In what ways did the peacemaking process at the end of WW2 help create conditions for the Cold War?   

…Doing Nothing

While the victorious Allied powers tried to secure peace through collective security and prevent another world war, they failed to meaningfully address the serious grievances created at the Paris Peace Conference. Germany, Italy, and Japan each had reasons to be leery of the post-1919 world order, and while each briefly participated in collective security, economic problems caused by the Great Depression in the 1930s working hand-in-hand with national humiliation and resentment sent all three down the road to aggressive war. 

For their part the ‘good men’ (the upholders of collective security, especially Britain and France) showed themselves unwilling and unable to stop the aggressors, choosing often to appease them instead of applying League pressure, thus encouraging even more aggression, and discrediting collective security

One key similarity between developments in Germany, Italy, and Japan was the rise of totalitarianism. This ideology strongly gripped government and society in all three states, starting with Italy in the 1920s, and solidifying in Germany and Japan in the 1930s. Totalitarianism took on slightly different forms in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and militarist Japan, but generally:

  • Demanded absolute obedience; single-party rule (if not outright dictatorship) using secret police, terrorist and military action to suppress opposition and maintain control 
  • Threw enemies of the state into concentration camps — communists in particular were targeted (also homosexuals, outspoken Christians, ethnic minorities, etc)
  • Subordinated everything to the state; the economy, culture, and society (even domestic life) were all geared toward serving the state and the military
  • Upheld militarism as part of national pride; conscription was almost guaranteed 
  • Controlled public opinion through propaganda and media censorship. The national leader’s personality cult was strongly promoted to build up support — except in Japan, where there was no single, charismatic dictator (even the Japanese Emperor wasn’t a dictator, though there was an imperial cult)
  • Adopted aggressive, expansionist foreign policies to win national glory: Hitler dreamed of lebensraum, the Japanese militarists dreamed of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Mussolini wanted to recreate the ancient Roman Empire 
  • Saw autarky as a key economic policy, as opposed to free market-style international trade

Italy’s grievances began concretely with the ‘mutilated peace’, the term used by Italians to condemn their alleged betrayal by the Big Three. When Mussolini became leader of Italy in 1922, he turned it into a fascist state, and set out to reverse Italy’s humiliation in 1919 and recreate the ancient Roman Empire. His aggressive foreign policy, the League’s resulting failure to uphold collective security, and his eventual close alignment with Germany (uniting the two western totalitarian states) helped lead to WW2:

1923 — the Corfu CrisisItaly bombed the Greek island of Corfu after an Italian official was killed nearby; the League mediated and found Greece guilty, forcing her to pay a fine. Mussolini came away with a strong reputation, and suffered no consequences for the damage and deaths he caused on Corfu
1924 — Mussolini acquires the port of Fiume from YugoslaviaFiume had been part of Austria-Hungary for a long time, though most of its inhabitants were Italians; Italian soldiers took over Fiume during the Paris Peace Conference, and were only thrown out in 1921. Fiume was then made into a free state, though a weak one, its port jointly run by Italy and the new nation of Yugoslavia. In 1924 it was fully granted to Italy
1926 — Albania becomes an Italian protectorateAlbania and Yugoslavia quickly became rivals after 1919, with the former making common cause with Italy. During the 1920s Italy steadily bought up and took over Albania’s businesses and politics, till Albania became an Italian protectorate in 1926
1935 — the Abyssinian CrisisOnly shortly after issuing the Stresa Front, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (which had already repelled an Italian invasion in 1896). Britain and France, and key League members, quickly led the League in morally condemning the invasion, but did little else: they did not want to drive Mussolini toward Hitler by alienating him, and did not want to exacerbate the effects of the Great Depression by applying economic sanctions. Two ministers from Britain and France even offered up the Hoare-Laval Plan, which would appease Mussolini by granting him two-thirds of Abyssinia in return for his withdrawal; the plan was scrapped, but the damage had been done: the League and collective security were completely discredited, Abyssinia was annexed by Italy.
Britain and France looked weak, and Mussolini and the totalitarians came away convinced that aggression pays off; the Crisis also so disgusted the US that she retreated further into isolationism (also had to deal with Great Depression effects)
1936 — Italy intervenes in the Spanish Civil War together with Germany → Rome-Berlin AxisMussolini increasingly aligned Italy with Hitler’s Germany after the fiasco of the Abyssinian Crisis, and both countries sent troops to intervene in the Spanish Civil War (fighting on the side of the Spanish fascists), while the USSR sent aid to Spanish government forces.
Britain and France followed a non-intervention policy, and neither they nor the League did anything to oppose the intervention of Italy, Germany, and the USSR. Italy signed the Rome-Berlin Axis shortly afterward, confirming Italy’s alignment with Germany
1939 — Italy annexes AlbaniaItaly fully annexed Albania in early 1939, with minimal military effort. By now the League was irrelevant; Britain and France did nothing in response

British cartoon, 1936, titled The Burglar’s Dream. The policeman represents the League of Nations, and the burglar, Mussolini. Note the policeman’s club, labelled ‘SANCTIONS,’ lying on the street

Japan’s grievances had originated in the late 19th century: as an Asian nation she had been treated with discrimination by the western great powers despite her remarkable growth and military strength (even defeating Russia in war in 1905). This sense of humiliation was only confirmed at the Paris Peace Conference, despite Japan being one of the victorious powers. As the Japanese economy was hit by serious depression first in the early 1920s and then 1930, the militarists came to dominate the government, sending the country down the road to war, and aligning her with Germany and Italy:

1931 — Manchurian Crisis breaks out
Shortly after the end of WW1, Japan’s bubble economy burst, sending her into a serious depression; this began a power struggle as the weak, corrupt, civilian politicians vied with the militarists for control of the Japanese government. The militarists insisted that an invasion of Manchuria would revive the economy, and in 1931, a Japanese army in Manchuria went rogue (the Mukden Incident), and began seizing control of the territory; the League immediately sent the Lytton Commission to investigate, but otherwise did nothing.
Britain, the only League member who had the naval resources to intervene, likewise did nothing out of economic self-interest (neither did the US, who was not a League member). By now Japan had stopped abiding by the restrictions of the 1930 London Naval Treaty
1932 — Japan annexes Manchuria, followed by League condemnation The Lytton Report was finally published in 1932, resulting in the League morally condemning Japanese aggression and demanding withdrawal of Japanese troops; by now Japan had fully annexed Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchukuo

1933 — Japan responds by withdrawing from the League
But the League (or more accurately Britain and the US) ultimately did nothing against this fait accompli; and so Japan was appeased, aggression having gained what the militarists had wanted with no serious consequences. In response to League condemnation, Japan simply withdrew from the League, again with no serious consequences, and began aligning with Germany 

1936 — Japan signs the Anti-Comintern Pact 
The Manchurian Crisis resulted in Japan’s diplomatic isolation as well as bringing her to the doorstep of the USSR. As a result Japan began to gravitate toward Germany, and in 1936 signed the Anti-Comintern pact with her against the USSR, firmly aligning the two totalitarian states
1937 — Lugouqiao Incident → beginning of Second Sino-Japanese WarIn 1937 Japanese troops stationed near Beijing launched a possibly unplanned attack which soon snowballed into a full-scale invasion; the subsequent killing of a Japanese officer in Shanghai sparked fierce fighting, marking the beginning of the Second-Sino Japanese War (sometimes seen as the beginning of WW2). Though the League again condemned Japan, by now its opinion was largely irrelevant 
1937 — formation of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo AxisIn the face of condemnation by the western great powers, Japan now spread its net of relations further, and accepted Italy as a partner in her alignment with Germany. The three totalitarian states were now firmly aligned as the Axis Powers
British cartoon, 1931. Who does the cartoonist hold responsible for the trampling of the ‘Honour of Nations’?

Germany had concrete grievances from the Treaty of Versailles. She chafed bitterly under the Versailles terms, struggling with political instability, serious economic depression (after a brief French invasion in 1923), war reparations payments, and a festering sense of national humiliation. Though Germany flirted with collective security (even joining the League in 1926) and enjoyed economic recovery in the latter 1920s, the lingering bitterness was never addressed; the Nazi Party played on these feelings to build support throughout the 1920s, and though it was ignored while the economy recovered, the Great Depression made it very popular. By 1933 the Nazis under the charismatic and shrewd Hitler had won control of the government, and outlawed all other political parties. Hitler would now tear up the Treaty of Versailles piecemeal, leading the country to war in 1939: 

1933 — Germany withdraws from the League of NationsAlmost immediately after coming to power, Hitler withdrew Germany from the League, suffering (like Japan) no serious consequences; he now stepped up German rearmament in secret (which had actually been secretly taking place since the 1920s), in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles
1935 — Hitler reintroduces conscriptionBy 1935 Hitler was confident enough in Germany’s position to openly announce her rearmament programme, including the existence of an Air Force, and the goal of a 600,000-strong army after conscription — all of this in flagrant breach of the Treaty of Versailles. The League did nothing, and while Britain, France, and Italy protested through the Stresa Front, this quickly fell apart as Britain appeased Germany with the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, and Italy invaded Abyssinia
1936 — Germany remilitarises the Rhineland; also intervenes in the Spanish Civil War together with Italy → Rome-Berlin AxisWhile the Abyssinian Crisis was raging, Hitler sent German troops into the Rhineland in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. His gamble paid off; the League (and Britain and France), preoccupied with events in Abyssinia, did nothing against this fait accompli; there was even some sympathy for Hitler’s actions.
Shortly afterward Hitler intervened in the Spanish Civil War, sending German troops to fight alongside Italian and Spanish fascist troops while Britain and France did nothing to stop any of the parties involved; the Rome-Berlin Axis was signed shortly afterward, confirming the alignment of the two totalitarian states. Both incidents only deepened Hitler’s contempt for collective security and its champions
1938 — Germany annexes Austria, and occupies the SudetenlandHitler, firmly convinced that Britain and France wouldn’t lift a finger to defend the Treaty of Versailles, now took more drastic steps in repudiating it: he now called for union with Austria (outlawed in 1919) on the grounds of national self-determination. This quickly resulted in the annexation of Austria (Anschluss); Britain and France did nothing in response, and so appeased Germany again. 
An emboldened Hitler then turned his attention to the Sudetenland (former territory of Austria-Hungary given to Czechoslovakia in 1919, but inhabited mainly by Germans), publicly calling for national self-determination and threatening a military invasion if his demands were not met. Britain and France appeased Germany once again: they signed the Munich Agreement, delivering the Sudetenland to Hitler who in return would respect Czechoslovakia’s remaining borders. Neither the Czechs nor the Soviets (who had offered to help) were consulted. And while Chamberlain (British leader) claimed he had won ‘peace for our time’, in reality Hitler had been merely reaffirmed in his aggression, Britain and France had been made to look weak, and the USSR had been strongly alienated from the western Allies
1939 — Germany annexes Czechoslovakia, invades PolandAn emboldened Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia in early 1939, expecting to be appeased again. He was, but this would be the last time; Britain and France did not stop the annexation, but quickly pledged to uphold Poland’s sovereignty — the old system of alliances had returned
Hitler now turned his attention to Poland and demanded the return of Danzig (set up in 1919, separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany), and as insurance against the Anglo-Polish alliance he signed the Pact of Steel with Italy (a military alliance) and signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with the USSR, a ceasefire agreement allowing her and Germany to divide Poland between themselves. With these assurances Hitler felt confident enough to invade Poland, still convinced that Britain and France would appease him again; but this time he overplayed his hand, misjudging his opponents. Britain and France declared war on Germany, and WW2 began in Europe
British cartoon, 1936. An accompanying caption (spoken by Hitler) reads “How much will you give me not to beat you up?” 

We sometimes oversimplify the interbellum story of Germany, Italy, and Japan as totalitarian villains versus the dithering ‘good men’. In reality the picture was more nuanced and complicated: appeasement, though unglamorous, at times really was the only viable option short of war (which Britain and France simply were not ready for before 1939); nor were the totalitarian states obsessed with conquest for its own sake, but often saw it as a viable solution to the economic damage done by the Great Depression (or at least used this as an excuse for aggressive expansion); and we often forget that the USSR, equally wary of German expansion in the 1930s, was herself a totalitarian state as well, sharing many characteristics with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and militarist Japan. This only complicates the picture since the USSR would become a key member of the Allies in the struggle against the Axis powers during WW2.

The unholy alliance — between an old empire (Britain), a self-proclaimed champion of democracy (the US), and a totalitarian juggernaut (the USSR) — that would defeat the Axis powers by 1945 fell apart very quickly; the fallout from this would shape the international order until the end of the 20th century.

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