Did the First World War Lead to the Second World War?

In some ways, the Second World War was even more terrible than the First World War: It introduced the world to heavy bombing, mass murder, genocide and the atomic bomb. Most of the leaders in the Second World War had served in the First World War. So what exactly was the relationship between the two world wars? The answer to this question is quite subtle, but important. The roots of the Second World War certainly lay in the First World War, but the First World War did not cause the Second World War.

The destruction and losses of the First World shocked everyone; what left many people angry and bitter for long afterwards, however, was the peace settlement at the end of the war. The Germans were aghast at the way the Treaty of Versailles blamed them for the war, cut down their army and navy, carved off huge areas of their territory and made them pay reparations payments to the French and Belgians for the foreseeable future.

To make matters worse, the Germans simply didn’t believe that they’d lost the war fairly. They believed that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by communists and Jews at home, who’d overturned the government and betrayed Germany’s soldiers (this idea was complete tosh, by the way, but many Germans found it comforting).

The Hungarians were equally furious about the way the Treaty of Trianon had taken so much land off them. And the Italians, despite being on the winning side, didn’t think they’d won anything like enough land from the peace settlement. This all meant that various countries had good reason to hate the peace settlement and to want to change it. It doesn’t, however, mean that these changes had to be brought about by war.

In the 1920s, the German Foreign Minister, Gustav Stresemann, set to work getting the Treaty of Versailles changed into something much more acceptable to the Germans. He made huge progress: he got Germany accepted into the League of Nations, he negotiated a much more reasonable way of paying War Reparations and he even started work on getting Germany’s borders extended. He died in 1929, so who knows whether he’d have succeeded. But if he had the Germans might well have decided they had no need to vote for Hitler and the Nazis. Just think how different history would have been!

What really led to the Second World War wasn’t the peace settlement of 1919 but the worldwide economic slump of the 1930s. When times are really desperate, as they were at that time, people turn to extremist parties such as Fascists or Nazis. Once Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933 he got people to support him by attacking the Treaty of Versailles and promising to tear it up. The British and French went along with this to start with, but finally, when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 (he said it was to regain land taken from Germany after the First World War) they reluctantly decided to go to war again. The First World War hadn’t caused the Second World War – but it certainly led to it.

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