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World War Two was a truly remarkable conflict in human history, not only because it was the bloodiest, but because it was the war least wanted by any of its belligerents. Ultimately, its main cause was the unjust and poorly balanced Treaty of Versailles. Other factors that contributed to this is the weakness of opposition to Hitler and the ambiguous international diplomacy of the time by Western statesmen. These factors all drove German foreign policy to expansion, rather than an inherent desire for world domination frequently attributed to Hitler.
The Treaty of Versailles was an unjust and vindictive settlement. Its clauses were spiteful and emanated from a desire to punish Germany for her guilt in starting the First World War. The removal of 17% of Germany’s land, and millions of ethnic Germans from their homeland ran contrary to Wilson’s principles of national self-determination. The imposition of a huge reparation bill of $6.6 billion dollars was quite a burden for the defeated Germany to bear, but it did by no means cripple her. Although the peace was malicious, it was not a Carthagean peace cruel enough to permanently remove Germany from the forefront of European power. Sooner or later, a revived Germany would return and demand its drastic revision. Although this did not necessarily have to lead to war; Germany was not alone in agreeing that the treaty needed revision, as shown by the Locarno Spirit of compromise and reconciliation, in which French PM Briand even suggested a Franco-German customs union, Stresemann’s territorial successes were modest at best. It was clear that he would not be able to regain Germany’s lost land, especially from the Eastern European successor states through diplomacy. This was the key issue in the hearts of the German people, and was the most appealing aspect of the Nazis. This factor had a knock on effect on other elements on the road to war. Its injustice was what changed the means of how Germany would achieve her continuous foreign policy aims from international diplomacy to militarism and forceful expansionism. It also heightened the viability of Hitler’s aggression as the fall of the Russian and Habsburg Empires and their replacement by a series of weak successor states meant he could easily annex land in the East in the absence of stern opposition. Due to its wide reaching impact throughout time and on the eventually fateful course of German foreign policy, it is undoubtedly the most important cause of the Second World War.
German foreign policy, shaped by the Treaty of Versailles, was ultimately the immediate cause of World War Two. The nature of German foreign policy is extremely misunderstood. This is largely due to the demonic figure of Adolf Hitler. Although Hitler the Fuhrer of Germany was a murderous racist, Hitler the international statesman was simply a German nationalist. The aim of his policy was a continuation of the tradition set by Bismarck, Bethmann-Hollweg and Stresemann: make Germany the master of central Europe. However, the nature of achieving this objective changed massively from 1871. The biggest change was the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles. There were legitimate grievances, and although many statesmen symphasised with Germany, Stresemann failed to reverse the humiliating territorial settlement through negotiation with the victorious powers. It was in continuity with Nazi ideology to regain this land through force of arms. The status quo on the continent was also ripe for German expansion; Britain and France won a pyrrhic victory and were incapable of engaging the Wehrmacht and the fall of the Habsburg and Russian Empires meant that there was no longer stern resistance to revision of Hitler’s Eastern frontiers. This expansion to create Lebensraum was not a deviation in German foreign policy, he shared the aims of Wilhelm II, Bethmann-Hollweg and indeed Stresemann, he only changed the method. This argument is thoroughly explored by AJP Taylor in The Origins of the Second World War, review here and by Fritz Fischer in German War Aims. Hitler did not have a long term plan, he merely held the open ended principle of regaining Germany’s past greatness, and would exploit any opportunity to achieve this. Such opportunities encouraged Hitler to revise the treaty with the Wehrmacht rather than through diplomats. After the lack of resistance from the only major counterweights in Europe, the Western democracies, when he remilitarised the Rhineland in 1936 and incorporated Austria into the Reich in 1938, he was encouraged to pursue an aggressive policy, as the lack of resistance made it clear that he could push the limits of international tolerance without fear of retribution. The humiliating nature of the Munich settlement imposed after he annexed the Sudetenland, never a part of Germany and how he dismembered the Czechoslovakia to form a German vassal state, without resistance, he was convinced of the weakness of the Western powers. The League of Nations was also entirely discredited by this time by its failures to deter fascist aggression in Abyssinia and Manchuria. With the opportunity presented by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Hitler believed that he could achieve the hallowed aim of retaking the port of Danzig. Thus, the road to war in 1939 was not the outbreak of a German bid for European hegemony, but was an accidental war for Danzig. While this was the trigger of the Second World War, it is not its principle cause as this desire for European dominance has endured since the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, it only turned to aggression as a reaction to the clumsy Versailles settlement.
The incompetent Western Statesmen also bear much of the guilt of bringing about the Second World War. They were unable to provide a viable counterweight to Hitler, but this was not their fault due to the dire economic climate of the 1930s and the anti-war mood of the public, still marred by the Great War. Appeasement was their only feasible policy towards Hitler, they had no armies to resist, nor any basis to until it was too late, as Hitler had legitimate grievances and the public were not in favour of intervention in favour of a vindictive peace treaty. It was only apparent that Hitler was a malevolent force that threatened European peace by 1938, when he dismembered Czechoslovakia. However, the diplomatic failure of Western politicians between 1938 and 39 directly led to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and the subsequent invasion of Poland. They initially backed Benes, the Czech PM to resist any Nazi aggression. However, Chamberlain rapidly demanded him to stand down and to give up the Sudetenland in the name of European peace. The French fiercely backed Chamberlain, looking desperately at London for any excuse to not honour their commitment to defend Czechoslovakia. When it became apparent that Hitler was not content, and demanded the whole country, Chamberlain flew in and gave away Benes’ country. Chamberlain, alarmed by the brutality of the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, then guaranteed the frontiers of Poland and instructed her to resist. However, they cold shouldered Russia, believing her to be aggressive and another threat to Eastern Europe due to her demands to intervene in the affairs of her neighbours. This led to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, as Stalin desperately sought security as he rearmed. Without the fear of Soviet intervention, Hitler believed he could easily dismember Poland by imposing another Munich on the weak Western democracies. While being important in the short term, due to being an immediate cause of the war, it was only a significant factor because of the aggressive German foreign policy, which in turn was moulded by the spitefulness of Versailles.
To conclude, the outbreak of the Second World War was made extremely likely as the Treaty of Versailles was signed twenty years earlier, and was made inevitable by Hitler’s new course in reversing the settlement. Hitler acted in accordance with Bismarck and Stresemann in making Germany the master of central Europe, however his means were forcing territorial concessions from his neighbours, a method determined by the malicious Treaty of Versailles. This policy was made more viable by the weakness of opposition to Hitler and the ambiguity of Western statesmen.