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Peace and Rearmament
World War II began in Europe at dawn on September 1, 1939, as units of the German Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border. Britain and France, honoring their pledge to Poland made earlier in the year, declared war on Germany on September 3. The war lasted nearly six years, and by the time it was over, much of the civilized world lay in ruins, something more than thirty million people had been killed, great empires had been destroyed, and weapons of new and hitherto unimagined potential had been unleashed upon the world.
Such a result could not have stemmed from a border dispute between Germany and Poland. The powder train that led to the outbreak of war went back far beyond the immediate causes of it. Without stretching historical continuity too far, the causes of World War II can be taken back at least into the nineteenth century. For practical purposes, however, World Wars I and II can be considered part of one large struggle--the struggle of united Germany to claim its place as the dominant power on the European continent--and the causes of World War II can be traced from the immediate aftermath of World War I.
In 1919, a series of treaties was made between the victorious Allies and the various defeated powers. All of these were punitive in nature. They consisted of the Peace of Versailles with Germany, the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye with Austria, the Peace of Neuilly with Bulgaria, the Peace of the Trianon with Hungary, and the Peace of Sères with Turkey, later modified by the Peace of Lausanne. The fact that all of the original treaties were signed in the suburbs of Paris and bore their names was indicative of the place still occupied by the French in the world of diplomacy and power. Though she had virtually ruined herself, in the present and for the future, France had proved that she was still the major power of Europe. All of the peace treaties, though they did put the burden of the war on the defeated Central Powers, also contained the provision that the vanquished might subsequently be admitted to the League of Nations, that much maligned brainchild of President Woodrow Wilson. The League, its supporters hoped, with its provisions for collective security, would provide alternatives to war in the future.
The five years after the establishment of the "Versailles system" have been called "the period of settlement." Assorted border disputes left over from the war and the collapse of the eastern European empires--Russia, the Hapsburgs, and Turkey--were settled, and diplomatic groupings were made and unmade. The Greeks fought the Turks; the Poles fought the Russians; Italians and Yugoslavs quarreled over the head of the Adriatic. France, Britain, and the United States negotiated a defensive alliance that promised to protect France from Germany. On the basis of that, the French modified their demands against Germany. The United States Senate then refused to ratify the alliance treaty, as it did also the Versailles treaty. The French were then disposed to meddle ineffectually in German politics, trying to foster a breakaway Rhenish republic, occupying the industrial Ruhr district, and engaging in activities that made the Americans, at least, believe that the French could not have been trusted anyway.
Nonetheless, by 1924, it looked as if some degree of stability were returning to Europe, and the late twenties were the nearest to a period of peace and prosperity that post-World War I Europe got. In 1924, assorted member-states of the League of Nations attempted to overcome some of the security deficiencies of the League by drafting treaties of compulsory arbitration. None of these developed, largely because the United States, Germany, and Russia were not members, and because the British dominions were unwilling to commit themselves to minding distant neighbors' houses.
The unsuccessful discussions did lead, though, to a conference held at Locarno in Switzerland in 1925. This produced another series of agreements, known as the "Locarno system," which effectively updated the Versailles system. In the first of these, France, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, and Italy guaranteed the Franco-German and the Belgo-German borders. Next, Germany signed an, arbitration treaty with Poland, and one with Czechoslovakia. Then Germany signed a similar treaty with France and one with Belgium. Theoretically, these treaties removed any likelihood of German aggression in the future. In spite of that, France then proceeded to develop further her mutual defense treaty with Poland, in which one agreed to come to the rescue if the other were attacked by Germany. France then went on and signed the same kind of treaty with Czechoslovakia.
Locarno was hailed as a milestone in European diplomacy, and for a while the "spirit of Locarno" and the "Locarno honeymoon" were phrases widely used by the newspapers. A later outgrowth of it was the famous Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed between the United States Secretary of State and the French Foreign Minister; this pact was rather like the Holy Alliance of Tsar Alexander in 1815, which Metternich called a "high-sounding nothing." All the states that eventually adhered to it renounced the use of aggressive warfare as an instrument of policy. There was, however, an opting-out clause, and there was no provision for any enforcing of the pact. Like Locarno, it looked good on paper.
It was Germany's neighbors who had most to fear, or thought they had, and it was they, particularly France, who soon discovered the cracks beneath all this paper. France had after all been twice invaded by Germany in recent memory, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and again in 1914-18, and she was not disposed to put her faith in someone else's expression of good intent. Even in the early twenties then, the French began creating their own private alliance-system against Germany.A Short History of World War II. Copyright © by James Stokesbury. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from A Short History of World War II by James L. Stokesbury
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