Written Work by Graham T. Baden
While the generations that face the twenty-first century might wish it, history can point to no single cause for the Second World War. Though we might accuse the “War Guilt Clause,” or the overbearing reparations payments required of defeated Germany, the overall failure of the Versailles Treaty would have to be addressed. Where we might reference “Balkanization,” the arbitrary re-bordering of the colonial world, or the imperial exploitation of developing countries, these explanations would require an understanding of the inefficacy of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. It would be easy to blame the surge of hyper-nationalism, the polarization of political and economic cultures, and the development of industrial militarism during the interwar period, but one should first recognize the general deficiency of the League of Nations to prevent it. Instead of one culprit, all of these factors played a part, and together they set the stage for a war that cost tens-of-millions of lives— a war that might have been avoided, but was not.
Prime Ministers Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau saw their nations blighted by the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of British and French men died in European trenches, defending their “Triple Entente” against the German onslaught. From its outset, the Paris Peace Conference was a one-sided affair. Though they intended to broker peace between the fractured states of Europe, the talks that led up to Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, did not include the interests of even half of the nations involved. Clemenceau demanded a weak and handicapped Germany. George, elected to parliament on a platform of German guilt, advocated that Germany pay for the war it had started. Though American President Woodrow Wilson desired a more measured peace, disagreements and compromises forced his concession.
The terms imposed upon the Central Powers were strict, if not outright hostile, and only prolonged the bitter rivalries that caused the war in the first place. Where, less than a century before, the unification of Germany created a new superpower on the Eurasian continent, France and Britain were determined to use the Treaty of Versailles to dissolve it again. If it can be said that history is written by the victors, the Allies who signed the Treaty of Versailles had decided Germany’s blame before it was even written. In Article 231 of the Treaty, Germany was demanded to admit to its “war guilt” publicly and ordered to fetch outlandish reparations in payment for war damages. The peace settlement of 1919 intended to inflict such stringent requirements of Germany that it would be incapable of regaining its former strength. Unable to satisfy the overbearing reparations required of them, Germany plunged into a desperate depression. These requirements, as well as the crushing disgrace of the outcome of World War I, provided the platform upon which Hitler built his entire political career. Though they did not intend to, Britain, France, and the United States could not have provided Germany with a better foundation for its nationalistic growth during the interwar period.
After the terror of the Great War, Woodrow Wilson sought to create a fruitful end to a tragic period of history. His “Fourteen Points,” a cry for lasting peace and transparent alliances, were met with discord— when they were heard at all. Though Wilson acknowledged the importance of nationalistic self-determination, he could not have expected the fallout from the redistribution of imperial and colonial holdings. Apart from the German losses of territory in Poland, Denmark, and along the Rhine, its colonial holdings in Africa and the Pacific were confiscated by Britain and France. As well, based on separate peace treaties frequently signed in secret, the once-great empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans were splintered, creating a dozen new polities based on ethnolinguistic regional populations.
Often referred to as “Balkanization,” the re-bordering of previous nations was not a straightforward affair. Especially in eastern Europe, where the boundaries between ethnicities were not so plain, the redistribution of territory produced a veritable “powder keg” of nationalistic self-interest. Ethnic minorities were present in nearly every new nation constructed in the aftermath of the Great War. While the colonial territories in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia were reordered as arbitrarily as in Europe, they suffered more by economic hands than political ones. To pay back monumental American war-debts, Britain and France relied heavily on their colonies to provide raw trade goods and resources. Colonial territories suffered as greatly after the war as they did during it, due to their economic requirements to the metropole.
These territory shifts and opaque political alliances, as well as the self-interest of nations born in the vacuum of political power, drew a new map of European tension. The dream of nationalism only worsened relations within disputed regions of mixed ethnicity. Many of the very points Wilson championed, rather than facilitating peace, led to the foment of political discord and encouraged the possibility of a second World War. Wilson’s Fourteen Points plead for the peace he wished to see through the new League of Nations, but even he could not convince the U.S. Senate to join. Wilson’s brainchild, an international political force that could prevent future wars, was neither fully international, nor strong enough to prevent anything other than its own collapse. While the League encompassed nations from across the globe, and promised them a forum to discuss their political aspirations, these nations had little clout within the assembly. Further, due to American isolationism and nationalistic anxiety at the potential loss of sovereignty, many nations rejected the establishment of an international peacekeeping force. Thus, while the League of Nations seemed an exciting premise for a world worn by four years of war, it was impotent, and held no actual power with which to govern world affairs.
From the start, many Germans saw the peace settlement as a humiliating punishment. It was often referred to in Germany as the diktat, or “dictate.” Many Germans, not the least of which was Adolf Hitler, claimed they had been “stabbed in the back” by the traitorous new Weimar Republic, who used the Versailles Treaty to seize power for themselves in exchange for the pacification of Germany. As well, the political ideology of ethnolinguistic sovereignty led to ethnic strife throughout the globe. These border disagreements, made worse by the continued economic ambitions of imperialistic mercantilism, exacerbated a growing trend of hyper-nationalism.
To ensure cohesive political and national identities, governments engendered historical memories that glorified their nations. Often these manufactured national identities were based on myths of a shared national ethnicity. Through propaganda and sweeping political promises, authoritarian governments rose from the ruins of World War I. Though it seems absurd from the comfort of the present, the rise of autocratic, totalitarian governments was met with resounding approval. Historical demons like Hitler and Mussolini, despite the brutality that they are known for today, were adored and won their positions of authority by popular support. To buttress these political cultures, a cult of nationalistic, ethnic glorification grew throughout Europe. This was intensified by the growth of military industrialization, the desire to regain lost territories, and the lust for new ones. The ultimate apotheosis of the nation, from the perspective of totalitarian states such as Germany, Italy, and Japan, was the establishment of Empire. These empires, which had grown in strength and uniformity, faced off across a vast cultural rift. The political cultures of the twentieth century were polarized into a Manichean duality of opposites.
Many today do not realize the Second World War began years before American involvement in it. Before France and Britain were humiliated by Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, before Germany annexed Austria to Allied chagrin and before even the German reoccupation of the Rhineland, nationalistic exploits had acted in direct disobedience to the League of Nations Charter. Italy, in a quest of revenge for their embarrassing defeat at Adawa in Ethiopia in 1896, sought to expand their empire into Africa in 1935, hoping to acquire a foothold to conquer the Mediterranean. Even before this, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, expanding their territory from today’s Korean peninsula. The helplessness of the League of Nations, worsened by the isolationist policies of Allied appeasement, allowed for the remilitarization of nationalistic enterprises that sought global empires.
Writing in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, published in 1852, Karl Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” He proceeded to explain further, while at each moment mankind has the freedom to choose its own fate as it pleases, the choices of the present are powerfully ordered by the events of the past. Though it would make our past easier to interpret, our mistakes easier to avoid, and our history books easier to write, the myriad causes and effects that led to the first shots of the Second World War cannot be reduced to a single source. If we are to blame ultra-nationalism or the totalitarian upswing of the 1930s, we must look also to the failure of the League of Nations and the overbearing reparations demanded of Germany. If we are to blame the failure of the Versailles Treaty, should we not also look to the Congress of Vienna of 1815, a similar treaty that aimed to accomplish similar goals? Even then, one might say that Europe’s nationalistic fervor, which came to fruition during the twentieth century, was raised by the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, and born of the French Revolution in 1789. Can it be said, then, that World War II might have been averted if a few small mistakes had never occurred? Or instead, is it not more likely that it would have happened regardless? The sands of time slip ever through the dialectical hourglass.
 Karl, Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. 1852. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/index.htm (accessed March 17, 2014).