5 Steps to a 5: AP European History 2024 - Bartolini-Salimbeni B., Petersen W., Arata K. 2023

STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
23 The Interwar Years and World War II


Summary: In the 1930s, the grim economic conditions of the Great Depression caused the political parties of the center to lose support to socialists on the left and to fascists on the right. Mussolini’s fascists took power in Italy. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and embarked on a policy of rearmament and expansion that led to World War II. This chapter provides a review of these events and the course of World War II, during which 50 to 60 million people lost their lives, including 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.


Key Terms:

Image Weimar Republic The name given to the liberal democratic government established in Germany following World War I.

Image Spartacists Marxist revolutionaries in post—World War II Germany, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were dedicated to bringing a socialist revolution to Germany.

Image New Economic Plan (NEP) A plan instituted by Lenin in the early 1920s that allowed rural peasants and small-business operators to manage their own land and businesses, and to sell their products—a temporary compromise with capitalism that worked well enough to get the Russian economy functioning again.

Image Great Depression A total collapse of the economies of Europe and the United States, triggered by the American stock market crash of 1929 and lasting most of the 1930s.

Image Blackshirts (squadristi) Italian fascist paramilitary groups, largely recruited from disgruntled war veterans, commanded by Mussolini. They were increasingly relied upon by the Italian government to keep order in the 1920s.

Image National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP, or the Nazi Party) German political party that began as a small right-wing group—one of the more than 70 extremist paramilitary organizations that sprang up in post—World War I Germany. It was neither socialist nor did it attract many workers; it was a party initially made up of war veterans and misfits. The man responsible for its rise to power was Adolf Hitler.

Image Anschluss The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938.

Image The Holocaust A genocide in which approximately six million Jews were killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

Image Spanish Civil War 1936—1939 Often referred to as a “dress rehearsal” for World War II. Brought Francisco Franco to power and ended the monarchy.

Key Individuals:

Image Adolf Hitler

Image Benito Mussolini

Image Francisco Franco

Image Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Image Winston Churchill

Image Charles De Gaulle



The 1920s were an era of deep uncertainty, as the population of Europe grappled with the experiences and consequences of World War I. In the 1930s, the politics of the extreme flourished, as fascism emerged as an ideology that appealed to the downtrodden. By 1939, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party controlled Germany, and his systematic repudiation of the Versailles Treaty led to the Second World War, which raged from 1939 to 1945.

Problems and Challenges After World War I

The men who survived the Great War, as World War I was called in the 1920s and 1930s, came home to a world of economic, social, and cultural uncertainty. Governments had borrowed heavily to finance their war efforts, and interest payments were now coming due. The need to pay enormous sums in veteran and widow war benefits and unemployment benefits further burdened the economies. The inability of economies to meet the reviving demand for goods added inflation to an already grim economic mix. For the first ten years following the war, Europe experienced a roller-coaster economy, as recessions followed brief periods of prosperity.

Socially, conditions were equally uncertain. Class deference was a casualty of World War I; lingering notions that the wealthier classes were somehow superior to working people were eroded by the experience of working and fighting side by side. Traditional views on gender had also been challenged by the wartime need to suspend restrictions on where and how women worked. In rapid succession, women across Europe gained the right to vote and fought to hold on to the greater freedom they had enjoyed during the war years. Activists like Marie Stopes in England and Theodore van de Velde in the Netherlands published works emphasizing birth control and sexual pleasure for women in marriage.

Politically, uncertainty fueled continued radicalization. In France, ultraconservative and socialist parties vied for power. Responding to the rise of fascism, French moderate, socialist and communist parties allied to form the Popular Front, which gained control over the government in 1936. Though short-lived, this coalition enacted important reforms including collective-bargaining rights, a 40-hour work week, and a minimum wage. Eventually the alliance fell victim to extremist factions on both the left and right. The Popular Front was less successful in Spain, where it controlled the government for only a few months before falling to a fascist coup led by General Francisco Franco.

In Great Britain, the wartime coalition government led by David Lloyd George stayed intact and won another term in office, but the Labour Party made great gains at the expense of the Liberals. The various subjects of the British Empire, who had supported Great Britain in the war effort, now began to demand that their loyalty and sacrifice be rewarded, and independence movements coalesced in Ireland and India.

In the newly created or reconstituted nations of East-Central Europe—Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia—liberal democracy failed to take root, for a variety of reasons. As primarily agrarian societies, these nations lacked the necessary stable, industrial economy; democratic traditions; and experienced politicians. Additionally, arbitrary post—World War I borders were imposed and incorporated minority ethnic groups, resulting in internal conflicts that further eroded the political stability of these states, and ultimately led to right-wing authoritarian regimes coming to power. The social democratic governments of the Scandinavian region fared much better during this period. Generous social services were funded through relatively high taxes, though this didn’t seem to hinder economic growth. Several key industries were organized into privately owned cooperatives, which weathered global economic swings better than in other countries.

The cultural developments of the Interwar years also reflected the deep uncertainty of the period. The 1920s have often been referred to as “the Roaring Twenties.” The cabaret culture, where men and women mixed easily, seemed to reflect a loosening of social conventions and a pursuit of pleasure after the sacrifices of the war years. But cultural historians have increasingly pointed out that the culture of the Interwar years seemed to reflect a deep anxiety for the future.

This was partly fueled by new scientific theories that exacerbated this uncertainty. During the Industrial Revolution, science seemed to march inexorably forward, improving the human condition, and gradually revealing the mysteries of the universe. However, the horrors of World War I highlighted the destructive aspects of technological progress. Even before World War I, Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity (1905), demonstrating that space and time do not exist as absolutes, but are relative to the observer. Danish physicist Niels Bohr, together with Ernest Rutherford, proposed an atomic model with electrons orbiting a nucleus. Later Bohr posited that electrons can be both particles and waves, though not at the same time. Building on Bohr’s work, Werner Heisenberg argued that one cannot know a single particle’s exact position and velocity at the same time. The more precisely one measures the first variable, the less precisely one knows the second, and vice-versa.

Psychology, too, contributed to this sense of uncertainty with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality that stated that personality was formed through childhood conflicts which were stored in the unconscious mind. Freud introduced psychoanalysis as an attempt to uncover these previously hidden drivers of conscious behavior and thought. Carl Jung extended this idea to include a “collective unconscious,” with ancestral memories from our evolutionary past, which expresses itself in dreams through symbolic forms and archetypes. All of these theories seemed to run counter to the previously dominant Newtonian view, that the world was fixed, orderly, and ultimately knowable with careful application of logic and reason.

Social anxiety and uncertainty found expression in Interwar artistic movements. Based on the idea that artistic and cultural norms were meaningless in the wake of the atrocities of World War I, Dadaists used elements of chance, absurdity, and incongruity in their work. Examples include Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), consisting of an upside-down urinal with a fake signature, and Hans Arp’s Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance (1917). Dadaism paved the way for other movements like surrealism, in which images are changes and juxtaposed in a dream-like way, epitomized by Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), with its “melting” watches.

Musicians, too, attempted to break with convention during this time. Arnold Schoenberg created atonal music, with a new compositional form based on a twelve-note scale, independent of any traditional key.

In architecture, the Bauhaus school in Germany attempted to unite applied arts, like furniture and textiles, with fine arts of painting and sculpture. Led by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus school helped spread functionalism, in which the purpose of the building takes precedence over its ornamentation. Sometimes simply concrete and steel boxes with glass windows, these buildings were intended to represent the future.

Though most movies were aimed at pleasing a mass audience, some filmmakers captured the uncertainty of the time. An excellent example is Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1925). Filmmaking became a popular art form in the Interwar years, and film stars became celebrities whose lifestyle seemed to epitomize the Roaring Twenties. However, Lang’s Metropolis depicted a world in which humans are dwarfed by an impersonal world of their own creation. Similarly, T. S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Waste Land (1922), depicts a world devoid of purpose or meaning.

The Weimar Republic in Germany

The problems and uncertainties of the Interwar years were felt most keenly in Germany. The new government, known as the Weimar Republic, was a liberal democracy led by a moderate Social Democrat, Friedrich Ebert. It was a government doomed to failure by several factors. First, liberal democracy was a form of government largely alien to the German people, whose previous allegiance had been to the kaiser. Second, the German people perceived the government as having been imposed upon them by vengeful enemies after World War I. Third, the Weimar Republic was blamed for the humiliating nature of the Treaty of Versailles. Fourth, it was faced with insurmountable economic problems, as the general economic difficulties of Interwar Europe were compounded by Germany’s need to pay the huge war reparations imposed on it.

Almost immediately, the government of the Weimar Republic was challenged by Marxist revolutionaries, known as Spartacists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were dedicated to bringing a socialist revolution to Germany. In order to defeat them, Ebert turned to the old imperial army officers who formed regiments of war veterans known as the Freikorps (“Free Corps”). Once the right-wing forces gained the upper hand, they too tried to overthrow the Weimar government in a coup attempt in 1920 that has come to be known as the Kapp Putsch. The government was saved, ironically, by the workers of Germany, who forced the right-wing insurgents to step down by staging a general strike. Just as the Weimar government began to stabilize, it found itself unable to pay the reparations demanded of it. When the French occupied the Ruhr Valley in retaliation, German workers again went on strike. The overwhelming uncertainty caused by the situation triggered hyperinflation, which made German currency essentially worthless.

A weakened Germany would be vulnerable to communism so Western nations attempted to stabilize Germany’s economy. The United States proposed the Dawes Plan in 1924 to help Germany with reparations, consisting of U.S. loans and investments to foster economic recovery, with reduced reparations and loan repayments, based on Germany’s ability to pay. This was followed by the Locarno Treaty in 1925, a series of agreements reaffirming Germany’s western border with France, demilitarization of the Rhineland, and Germany’s entry in the League of Nations. While moderate Germans saw the treaty as a positive step, with Germany being treated as an equal partner on the world stage, others perceived it to be a betrayal of Germany and an attempt to validate the hated Treaty of Versailles.

The Soviet Union in Economic Ruins

By the onset of the 1920s, the bloody civil war between the monarchist “Whites” and the Bolshevik-led “Reds” was finally over, and Lenin held uncontested leadership of Russia. But it was a country in ruins, whose people could find neither jobs nor food. In order to deal with the crisis, Lenin launched the New Economic Plan (NEP), which allowed rural peasants and small-business operators to manage their own land and businesses and to sell their products. This temporary compromise with capitalism worked well enough to get the Russian economy functioning again.

In July 1923, Lenin constructed the Soviet Constitution of 1923. On paper it created a federal state, renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), but in practice, power continued to emanate from Lenin and the city that he named the capital in 1918, Moscow. Lenin died unexpectedly from a series of strokes in 1924. The man who won the power struggle to succeed him was the Communist Party Secretary Joseph Stalin. From 1924 to 1929, Stalin used a divide-and-conquer strategy combined with his control of the party bureaucracy to gain full control of the party and, thereby, of the Soviet Union. In the autumn of 1924, Stalin announced, in a doctrine that came to be known as “Socialism in One Country,” that the Soviet Union would abandon the notion of a worldwide socialist revolution and concentrate on making the Soviet Union a successful socialist state.

In 1928, Stalin ended the NEP and initiated the first of a series of five-year plans, which rejected all notions of private enterprise and initiated the building of state-owned factories and power stations. As an extension of the plan, Stalin pursued the collectivization of agriculture, destroying the culture of the peasant village and replacing it with one organized around huge collective farms. The peasants resisted and were killed, starved, or driven into Siberia in numbers that can only be estimated but that may have been as high as eight million.

Many of Stalin’s reforms targeted the Ukraine, which had seen a weakening of Soviet influence. Perhaps because their social class was inconsistent with communist ideals, or perhaps because they were the most likely sources of resistance, kulaks, or relatively well-off land-owning peasants, were targeted as enemies of the people. Between forced collectivization and forced relocation to work camps or mines, perhaps a third of them died in deplorable conditions. Still, resistance continued, as farmers stole back their tools from the collectives, or simply refused to harvest the crops. In response, Stalin continually increased the grain quotas Ukraine shipped to the Soviet Union, eliminating any surplus to feed the Ukrainian people. Stalin also sealed Ukraine’s borders, effectively denying relief to the Ukrainians and preventing news of the famine from spreading. The Soviet government emphatically denied any famine, the Red Cross was barred from entry, and Westerners were confined to Moscow. A few Westerners were shown “Potemkin villages,” artificially constructed villages, populated with party loyalists to create an image of happy and prosperous peasants. Because of this, little was known about the extent of this catastrophe, known as “the Holodomor,” until the fall of the Soviet Union uncovered relevant documents. Because of its deliberate, man-made nature, some consider the Holodomor a form of genocide, while others argue that many non-Ukrainians also died as a result of famine.

Between 1935 and 1939, Stalin set out to eliminate all centers of independent thought and action within the party and the government. In a series of purges, somewhere between seven and eight million Soviet citizens were arrested. At least one million of those were executed, while the rest were sent to work in camps known as gulags. The end result was a system that demanded and rewarded complete conformity to the vision of the Communist Party as dictated by Stalin.

The Great Depression

The post—World War I European economy was built on a fragile combination of international loans (mostly from the United States), reparations payments, and foreign trade. In October 1929, the New York stock market crashed, with stocks losing almost two-thirds of their value. Unable to obtain further credit, trade dried up. The result was an economic collapse that has come to be known as the Great Depression. Attempts to deal with the problem in traditional ways—by cutting government expenditures, tightening the supply of money, and raising tariffs on imported goods—only made things worse. By 1932, the economies of Europe were performing at levels that were only half those of 1929. Jobs became scarce as the economy contracted, and large segments of the population fell into poverty.

British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that governments needed to increase their expenditures and run temporary deficits in order to “jump-start” the stagnant economy, but his ideas were only slowly accepted. Europe’s economies recovered very slowly, and in the interim, parts of Europe succumbed to a new ideology of the desperate and downtrodden—fascism.

The Rise of Fascism

Historians struggle with definitions of fascism because it has no single coherent ideology, and its form varied from nation to nation. But all fascism was a mixture, to one degree or another, of the following ingredients: intense nationalism; emphasis on struggle and shared sacrifice; devotion and obedience to a charismatic leader (sometimes called a cult of personality); glorification of the military and warfare; and expressed hatred of both socialism and liberalism. Motherhood was exalted, with women encouraged to stay home and raise the next generation of “warriors.” Both Germany and Italy gave medals to women based on the number of children they had. Fascist regimes in both Germany and Italy used modern media as propaganda to further reinforce the people’s obedience. They also used architecture to generate nationalistic pride, as well as demonstrate their strength and power. Fascist architecture typically consisted of large public buildings, similar to a Roman style but without ornamentation, and dedicated to a “mass experience.”

Mussolini and Italian Fascism

The birthplace of fascism was Italy, which became the first country in Europe to have a fascist government. Italy, though a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, had originally chosen to remain neutral in World War I. But in 1915, Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente in hopes of recovering lands previously taken by Austria-Hungary. Italian war veterans returned home disillusioned, as the war experience had turned out to be a nightmare. One such veteran, a former socialist named Benito Mussolini, founded the National Fascist Party in 1919. The new party began to field candidates for the Italian legislature and to establish itself as the party that could save Italy from the threat of socialism. By 1922, squads of fascist “Blackshirts” (squadristi), largely recruited from disgruntled war veterans, were doing battle with bands of socialists “Redshirts,” and the Italian government was increasingly unable to keep order. In October 1922, Mussolini organized 20,000 fascist supporters and announced his intention to march on Rome. King Victor Emmanuel III responded by naming Mussolini prime minister of the Italian government.

Mussolini quickly moved to consolidate his power by pushing through a number of constitutional changes. A showdown between Mussolini and what parliamentary forces still existed in Italy came in the summer of 1924, when fascists were implicated in the murder of the socialist member of the Italian parliament, Giacomo Matteotti. The masses supported Mussolini, and by early 1926, all opposition parties had been dissolved and declared illegal, and the king had abdicated, effectively making Mussolini dictator of Italy.

Mussolini acted to limit dissent from the public, too. After Mussolini recognized Vatican City and Catholicism as the state religion, the Catholic Church encouraged Italians to support the new regime. Mussolini also exercised some control over media outlets and organized a secret police, though with mixed results. Though educational institutions did retain some independence, Mussolini’s government organized outside youth groups as a way to maintain its ability to indoctrinate Italian youth. The Dopolovoro was a national recreation agency, which organized public viewings of films, concerts, athletic events, and even holiday excursions. They were all carefully coordinated and supervised by the State in service to its message.

Hitler and German Nazism

Understanding the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany requires an understanding of the post—World War I context. Wartime propaganda had led the German public to believe that the war was going well. As a result, Germany’s surrender came as an inexplicable shock. The peace settlement seemed unfair and unduly harsh, and there was a growing sense among the German people that Germany must have been betrayed. In that context, the Nazis became popular by telling the German people several things they desperately wanted to hear. The Nazis told unemployed youth and displaced veterans that they would form an essential part of a rebuilt Germany. They blamed Germany’s World War I defeat on a betrayal by the Jews, and promised to end the payments for war reparations. The Nazis also pledged to restore Germany’s military greatness and eliminate socialism. This helped ensure the support of the Church and business interests, both of whom would be weakened by the spread of socialism.

The so-called National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), or the Nazi Party, began as a small right-wing group and one of the more than 70 extremist paramilitary organizations that sprang up in postwar Germany. It was neither socialist nor did it attract many workers; it was a party initially made up of war veterans and the unemployed. The man responsible for its rise to power was Adolf Hitler, a failed Austrian art student and war veteran.

Hitler used military attitudes and techniques, as well as expert propaganda, to turn the NSDAP into a tightly knit organization with mass appeal. Hitler and the Nazis made their first bid for power in November 1923 in the “Beer Hall Putsch,” when they tried to stage a coup to topple the Bavarian government in Munich. It failed, but Hitler gained national attention in the subsequent trial, during which he publicly decried the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and espoused his views of racial nationalism. Years of reorganization and building of grassroots support produced significant electoral gains in the elections of 1930.

In the elections of 1932, the Nazis won over 35 percent of the vote. Hitler refused to take part in a coalition government, and the German president, the aging military hero Paul von Hindenburg, made the crucial decision to appoint Hitler chancellor of Germany (the equivalent of prime minister). Early in 1933, the German parliament building, the Reichstag, burned down. Hitler declared a state of emergency and assumed dictatorial powers. He then used them to eliminate socialist opposition to Nazi rule. In the elections of 1933, Nazis won 288 seats out of 647. With the support of 52 deputies of the Nationalist Party, and in the absence of Communist deputies, who were under arrest, the Nazis were able to rule with a majority. By bullying the members of the Reichstag into passing the Enabling Act of March 1933, Hitler was essentially free to rule as a dictator.

Manipulation of public opinion through the use of propaganda formed a key part of Hitler’s strategy. With a special propaganda ministry headed by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis used modern communications to consolidate control. Hitler’s radio speeches were so effective that public loudspeakers were erected to broadcast his messages to those without radios. Film documentaries also reinforced the Nazi message, the most famous of which was The Triumph of the Will (1935) by Leni Riefenstahl, which recorded the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Riefenstahl used techniques that were cutting edge at the time, like long-lens shots and traveling cameras, to emphasize the grandeur and majesty of the event.

Fascist Dictatorships in Spain and Portugal

In both Spain and Portugal, Western-style parliamentary governments faced opposition from the Church, the army, and large landowners. In 1926, army officers overthrew the Portuguese Republic that had been created in 1910, and gradually António de Oliveira Salazar, an economics professor, became dictator.

In Spain, antimonarchist parties won the election of 1931, and King Alphonso XIII fled as the new Spanish Republic was set up. When a socialist cartel won the election of 1936, General Francisco Franco led a revolt against the Republic from Spanish Morocco, plunging Spain into a bloody civil war. Franco received support from the Spanish monarchy and the Church, while Germany and Italy sent money and equipment. The Republic was defended by brigades of volunteers from around the world (famous writers George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway among them) and eventually received aid from the Soviet Union. The technological might provided by the Germans allowed Franco’s forces to overwhelm the defenders of the Republic. A branch of the Luftwaffe was sent, primarily as a means for them to obtain valuable war experience and to evaluate the German aerial capability and strategy. Essentially serving as a trial run for World War II, the destruction of the town of Guernica by German planes was memorialized in Pablo Picasso’s 25-foot-long mural Guernica (1937), poignantly illustrating the nature of the mismatch. By 1939, Franco ruled Spain as dictator.

Fascism in France

During World War I, France had essentially been administered by the military. At the war’s conclusion, Parliament rushed to reassert its dominance, and France became governed by moderate coalitions. But the elections of 1924 swept the Cartel des Gauches, a coalition of socialist parties, to power, causing a reaction in the form of a flurry of fascist organizations, with names like Action française (“French Action”), the Legion, and the Jeunesses Patriotes (“Youth Patriots”). These organizations remained on the political fringe, but they provided extremist opposition and a source of anti-Semitism, which became prominent in the collaboration of the Vichy regime during the German occupation of France in World War II.

Fascism in Great Britain

In Great Britain, small right-wing extremist groups were united in the 1930s under the leadership of Sir Oswald Mosley, who created the British Union of Fascists (BUF). They were united by their hatred of socialism and their anti-Semitism. Although never politically significant in Great Britain, the BUF did mount a serious public disturbance in October 1934 when it battled with socialists and Jewish groups in an incident that has come to be known as the “Battle of Cable Street.” More importantly, the existence of the BUF and the initial reluctance of the British government to ban it demonstrate the existence of some sympathy for their authoritarian and anti-Semitic views among powerful people in Britain. Once the war broke out, the BUF was banned and Mosley was jailed.

World War II

Adolf Hitler had come to power by promising to repudiate the Treaty of Versailles. In March 1936, he took his first big step by moving his revitalized armed forces into the Rhineland, the area on the west bank of the Rhine River, which the treaty had deemed a demilitarized zone. When that move provoked no substantive response from France or Great Britain, Hitler embarked on a series of moves to the east that eventually triggered the Second World War:

• In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria without opposition (an event sometimes referred to as the Anschluss).

• Hitler then claimed the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia that was home to 3.5 million German speakers.

• Great Britain reacted with what has been called a “policy of appeasement,” agreeing in the Munich Agreement of September 1938 to allow Hitler to take the Sudetenland over Czech objections in exchange for his promise that there would be no further aggression.

• In March 1939, Hitler broke the Munich Agreement by invading Czechoslovakia.

• As Hitler threatened Poland, the hope of Soviet intervention was dashed by the surprise announcement, on August 23, 1939, of a Nazi—Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, guaranteeing Soviet neutrality in return for part of Poland.

• On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland.

• On September 3, 1939, both France and Great Britain declared war on Germany.

In order to understand why Great Britain followed a policy of appeasement and was slow to recognize the pattern of aggressive expansion in Hitler’s actions in 1938 and 1939, one has to take into account the historical context. The Germans, feeling humiliated by their World War I defeat, were eager for the opportunity to avenge themselves, which necessarily involved rebuilding its military. Great Britain and its allies, on the other hand, considered World War I as “the war to end all wars” and had little appetite for renewed hostilities. Great Britain hadn’t rebuilt its military at all, and consequently was in no position to back up any ultimatums they might give to Hitler. Many British leaders privately agreed with the Germans that the Treaty of Versailles had been unprecedented and unwarranted. Without support from the public and key leaders, any attempt by the British government to pursue a military response to Hitler’s actions would have been political suicide.

Blitzkrieg and the “Phony War” (1939—1940)

As Germany invaded Poland, Great Britain and France were not yet in a military position to offer much help. The Poles fought bravely but were easily overrun by the German blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” which combined air strikes and the rapid deployment of tanks and highly mobile units. Poland fell to Germany in a month.

Meanwhile, Great Britain sent divisions to France, and the British and French general staffs coordinated strategy. But the strategy was a purely defensive one of awaiting a German assault behind “the Maginot Line”—a vast complex of tank traps, fixed artillery sites, subterranean railways, and living quarters—which paralleled the Franco-German border but failed to protect the border between France and Belgium. Over the winter of 1939 and 1940, war was going on at sea, but on land and in the air there was a virtual standoff that has come to be termed the “the Phony War.” During the lull, however, the Soviet Union acted on its agreement with Hitler, annexing territories in Poland and Eastern Europe, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and invading Finland.

The Battles of France and Britain (1940)

In April 1940, the Phony War came to an abrupt end. The German blitzkrieg moved into Norway and Denmark to prevent Allied intervention in Scandinavia and to secure Germany’s access to vital iron ore supplies, and then into Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands in preparation for an all-out attack on France.

By early June 1940, the German army was well inside France. The Maginot Line proved useless against the mobility of the German tanks, which skirted the Line by going north through the Ardennes Forest. On June 14, 1940, German troops entered Paris. Two days later, the aging General Marshal Pétain assumed control of France and signed an armistice with Germany, according to which the German army, at French expense, would occupy the northern half of France, including the entire Atlantic coast, while Pétain himself governed the rest from the city of Vichy. Not all of France was happy with the deal. General Charles de Gaulle escaped to Britain and declared himself head of a free French government. In France, many joined a Free French movement, which would provide active resistance to German occupation throughout the remainder of the war.

In Great Britain, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had been the architect of Great Britain’s appeasement policy, resigned. King George VI turned to the 65-year-old Winston Churchill, who had been nearly the lone critic of the appeasement policy. Churchill used his oratory skill throughout the war to bolster moral and strengthen the Allies’ resolve. The German blitzkrieg now drove to the English Channel, trapping the Allied army at the small seaport of Dunkirk. In an episode that has come to be known as “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” more than 338,000 Allied troops (224,000 of them British), surrounded on all sides by advancing German units, were rescued by a motley flotilla of naval vessels, private yachts, trawlers, and motorboats. The episode buoyed British spirits, but Churchill was somber, pointing out that “wars are not won by evacuations.”

Hitler, and many neutral observers, expected Great Britain to seek peace negotiations, but Churchill stood defiant. The German High Command began preparing for the invasion of Great Britain, but the invasion never came. Hitler’s staff was handicapped by both the lack of time given to them and by their relative lack of experience in mounting amphibious operations. A successful invasion of England required air superiority over the English Channel; a combination of daring fighting by the Royal Air Force and a coordinated effort of civilian defense operations all along the coast foiled German attempts to gain it.

A frustrated Hitler responded by ordering an intensive nightly bombing of London in a two-month attempt to disrupt industrial production and to break the will of the British people. In the end, neither was achieved. In mid-October, Hitler decided to postpone the invasion; the Battle of Britain had been won by the British. As a result, Hitler turned his attentions to the Soviet Union.

The War in North Africa and the Balkans (1941—1942)

Italy already had a presence in North Africa, having colonized Libya since 1912 and having invaded and conquered Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935. Still, Mussolini longed to recreate the glory of the Roman Empire, a key component of which was British-occupied Egypt. In 1941, the war spread beyond Europe as Italian forces invaded North Africa, attempting to push the British out of Egypt. However, British forces routed the Italians; Germany responded by sending troops into North Africa and the Balkans. Germany had two objectives: It wanted control of the Balkans for their rich supply of raw materials, especially Romanian oil, and also control of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which was the vital link between Great Britain and its resource-rich empire.

The Germans successfully occupied the Balkans, as British efforts to make a last-ditch stand in mainland Greece and on the nearby island of Crete proved in vain. Italian regiments in Libya were reinforced by German divisions under General Erwin Rommel, and the ill-equipped British forces were driven back into Egypt.

German Invasion of the Soviet Union (June to December 1941)

The Nazi—Soviet Non-Aggression Pact had always been a matter of convenience. Both sides knew that war would eventually come; the question was when. Hitler answered the question late in the spring of 1941, launching Operation Barbarossa and sending three million troops into the Soviet Union.

Hitler hoped that by creating a German empire across the entire European continent, Great Britain would simply capitulate, eliminating the need for an invasion of Great Britain. In addition, his army would benefit from the additional resources, specifically Ukrainian wheat and oil from the Caucasus. Because of his racialist view of the world, Hitler believed that the “Slavic” peoples of the Soviet Union might prove an easier target than his “Teutonic cousins,” the British.

Germany’s eastern army succeeded in conquering those parts of the Soviet Union that produced 60 percent of its coal and steel and almost half its grain, and by December, it was within striking distance of Moscow. But as winter set in, the Russian army launched a counterattack against German forces, who were ill-supplied for a winter war. The Russian army suffered millions of casualties but turned back the German invasion.

Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union had one other great consequence: it forged the first link in what would become the Grand Alliance between Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, as Churchill (despite being a staunch anticommunist) pledged his support to the USSR. Publicly, he announced, “Any man or state that fights against Nazidom will have our aid.” Privately, he remarked that if Hitler invaded Hell, it would be desirable to find something friendly to say about the devil. The final link in the Grand Alliance would come through a combination of Churchill’s persuasion and a Japanese attack.

The American Entry and Its Impact (1942)

Churchill and the American president, Franklin Roosevelt, met in August 1941 on a battleship off the Newfoundland coast. They composed the Atlantic Charter, a document setting forth Anglo-American war aims. It rejected any territorial aggrandizement for either Great Britain or the United States, and it affirmed the right of all peoples to choose their own form of government.

By 1939, a modernized and militarized Japan had conquered the coastal area of China, and its expansionist aims led it to join Germany and Italy as part of what came to be known as the Axis. When war broke out, Japan occupied the part of Indochina that had been under French control and began to threaten the Dutch East Indies. The United States responded with an economic embargo on all exports to Japan. On December 7, 1941, Japanese air forces launched a surprise attack in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, hoping to cripple U.S. naval forces in the Pacific Ocean. The United States immediately declared war on Japan, and within a few days, Germany and Italy had declared war on the United States.

Initially, America’s impact on the war was through resources rather than soldiers, but its entry provided the third and final turning point (along with the Battle of Britain and Germany’s decision to invade the Soviet Union) in the war. Throughout 1942, American productive capacities were being built up, and the American military force kept growing. In the autumn of 1942, American marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal; it was to be the first of many islands to be recaptured from the Japanese at great cost of human lives.

The Holocaust

Under Adolf Hitler, Germany engaged in a systematic campaign of anti-Semitism, which gradually escalated to a horrific degree, known as the Holocaust. Starting in 1935, the Nuremberg Laws denied Jewish Germans the rights to German citizenship, to vote or to hold office, and prohibited Jews from marrying German citizens. Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and segregated in ghettoes. When a low-level German officer was killed by a Jew in November 1938, a night of coordinated violence known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) resulted, in which synagogues were burned, Jewish businesses were destroyed, and more than 100 Jews were killed. Later, Jews and others regarded by the Nazis as “undesirables” were transported to concentration camps, like Dachau, in which they were used as forced labor in appalling and inhumane conditions.

In 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, Hitler and his senior officers planned and coordinated the “Final Solution,” the deliberate and methodical extermination of Jewish people in Europe. It began when Schutzstaffel (SS) troops under Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler began executing Jewish and Slavic prisoners, who had been gathered from around Europe and forced into concentration camps. At first, firing squads were used. Next, the process was speeded up through the use of mobile vans of poison gas. Eventually, large gas chambers were constructed at the camps, including Treblinka and Sobibór, so that thousands could be murdered at one time. In the end, an estimated six million Jews were murdered. In addition, an additional seven million other people were murdered; among them were Gypsies, homosexuals, socialists, and political dissidents generally, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other targeted groups.

Outside the Nazi inner circle, people and governments were slow to believe and to comprehend what was happening; they were even slower to respond. Neighbors turned a blind eye when Jews were rounded up and put on trains. Collaborating governments—from Vichy France to Croatia—assisted in various ways with the rounding up and extermination of the Jews. Finally, British and American commanders refused to divert bombing missions from other targets in order to put the camps out of commission. Some brave individuals, though, did act to resist the Nazis. Occupied nations like Poland formed governments-in-exile in London. Resistance movements throughout Europe disseminated anti-Nazi propaganda, sabotaged Nazi facilities, and even engaged in espionage. Women, too, acted as couriers and even assassins for resistance movements. Within Germany, a group of Nazi officers attempted to assassinate Hitler by planting a bomb in his headquarters. It failed to kill Hitler, and several thousand were executed in the ensuing purge.

The Axis in Retreat (1942—1943)

In June and August 1943, the tide turned against the Axis forces in the Soviet Union, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. In June 1942, the Germans resumed their offensive in the Soviet Union. By August, they were on the outskirts of Stalingrad on the Volga River. The mammoth Battle of Stalingrad lasted six months; by the time it ended in February 1943, the greater part of a German army had died or surrendered to the Russians, and the remainder was retreating westward.

In October 1942, the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery halted General Rommel’s forces at the Battle of El Alamein, 70 miles west of Alexandria, Egypt, and began a victorious drive westward. In May 1943, Germany’s Africa Korps surrendered to the Allies. In November 1943, Allied forces under General Dwight Eisenhower’s command landed in Morocco and Algeria and began a drive that pushed all Axis forces in Africa into Tunisia. Seven months later, all Axis forces had been expelled from Africa.

Allied victories in Africa enabled them to advance steadily northward from the Mediterranean into Italy and precipitated the overthrow of Mussolini and the signing of an armistice by a new Italian government. Germany responded by treating its former ally as an occupied country. German resistance made the Allied campaign up the Italian peninsula a long and difficult one.

Allied Victory (1944—1945)

On “D-Day,” June 6, 1944, Allied forces under General Eisenhower’s command launched an audacious amphibious invasion of German-held France on the beaches of Normandy. The grand assault took the form of an armada of 4,000 ships supported by 11,000 airplanes. By the end of July, Allied forces had broken out of Normandy and encircled the greater part of the German army.

By late August, Paris was liberated, and Hitler’s forces were on the retreat. Germany seemed on the point of collapse, but German defensive lines held, and the British people were exposed to a new threat: long-range V-2 rockets fired from the German Ruhr rained down on them for seven months more. The last gasp of the German army came in December 1944 with a sudden drive against thinly held American lines in the Belgian sector. In what has come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, the Allies checked the German attack and launched a counteroffensive.

In early 1945, Allied troops finally crossed the Rhine River into Germany. In May, they successfully defeated German forces in the Battle of Berlin. On May 1, it was announced that Hitler was dead, and on May 7, the German High Command surrendered unconditionally. In the Pacific, the long and deadly task of retaking the Pacific Islands was averted by the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities: one on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and another on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Japan surrendered unconditionally on September 2, 1945.

Assessment and Aftermath of World War II

World War II was even more destructive than World War I, and civilian casualties, rather than military deaths, made up a significant portion of the 50 to 60 million people who perished in the conflict. Many of Europe’s great cities lay in ruins from repeated aerial bombings.

Vast numbers of Europeans were displaced and on the move. Some were trying to get back to homes they were driven from by the war, while others whose homes were destroyed simply had no place to go. Russian prisoners of war were compelled, many against their will, to return to the Soviet Union, where they were greeted with hostility and suspicion by Stalin’s regime; many were executed or sent to labor camps. Between 12 and 13 million Germans were moving west. Some were fleeing the vengeance of Soviet troops, while others were driven from their homes in the newly reconstituted Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, and from East Prussia, which had been handed over to Poland.

The war also produced a new power structure in the world. The traditional European powers of Great Britain, France, and Germany were exhausted. Their overseas empires disintegrated rapidly, as they no longer had the resources or the will to keep their imperial holdings against the desires of local inhabitants. In the years immediately following the war. India gained independence from Britain, Syria and Lebanon broke away from France, and the Dutch were expelled from Indonesia.

More importantly, ideological and pragmatic differences among the Allied Powers, which had been subjugated to the more pressing goal of defeating the Axis Powers, now began to bubble to the surface. Mutual distrust, resentment from differences over wartime strategies, and a fundamental disagreement about the fate of Eastern European countries soured relations between the Soviet Union and the other Allied Powers, setting the stage for a political divide that was to dominate international relations for the next forty years. As the new world order emerged after World War II, it became clear that the United States and the Soviet Union stood alone as great powers.

Review Questions


Multiple Choice

Questions 1—3 refer to the following passage:

Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism—born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision—the alternative of life or death. . . .

Fascism [is] the complete opposite of . . . Marxian Socialism, [according to which] the materialist conception of [the] history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production. . . . Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied. . . .

Fascism denies, in democracy, the absurd conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of “happiness” and indefinite progress . . . political doctrines pass, but humanity remains, and it may rather be expected that this will be a century of authority . . . a century of Fascism.

Benito Mussolini, What Is Fascism?, 1932

1. How did fascists view war?

A. As a necessary evil

B. As a path to greatness for a nation

C. As the cause of Europe’s troubles

D. As motivated by economic concerns

2. Which of the following most precisely defines fascism?

A. A party that was another type of socialism

B. A party that believed that class conflict is inevitable

C. A party that believed that people are no more than puppets

D. A party that rejected the Marxist understanding of history

3. How did fascists view the state?

A. As the supreme authority in a nation

B. As the protector of individual liberty

C. As rightful owner of the means of production

D. As the guarantor of the equality of citizens

Chapter Question (Causation)


4. Briefly describe TWO of the problems facing European countries in the Interwar years, and explain how ONE of the problems you identified helps to explain the causes of World War II.

Answers and Explanations

1. B is correct because the passage says that war “puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it.” A is incorrect because the passage indicates that war is beneficial to a people, not evil. C is incorrect because the passage does not state that war is the source of Europe’s troubles. D is incorrect because the passage rejects the notion that people are motivated by economic concerns.

2. D is correct because the passage states that fascism is the “complete opposite of . . . Marxian Socialism,” and goes on to reject the materialist contention that history is explained through class conflict. A is incorrect because the passage asserts that fascism is the opposite of Marxian socialism and contends that individuals act in ways undetermined by economic and class interest. B is incorrect because the passage denies that class conflict is inevitable. C is incorrect because the passage attributes the notion that people are puppets to socialism, not fascism.

3. A is correct because the passage indicates that a century of fascism is a century of authority, and because it denies the liberal notions of individual liberty and equality. B is incorrect because the passage does not refer to the protection of individual liberty. C is incorrect because the passage does not refer to a seizure of the means of production. D is incorrect because the passage explicitly denies the liberal notion of equality.

4. Suggested answer:

Thesis: During the Interwar years, European countries faced severe economic uncertainty and political radicalization. The political radicalization brought to power governments that desired a second military conflict.

Paragraph Outline:

I. The post—World War I European economy was built on a fragile combination of international loans (mostly from the United States), reparations payments, and foreign trade. In October 1929, the New York stock market crashed, with stocks losing almost two-thirds of their value. Unable to obtain further credit, trade dried up. The result was an economic collapse that has come to be known as the Great Depression.

II. Politically, the economic and cultural uncertainty fueled continued radicalization. In France, ultraconservative and socialist parties vied for power. In Italy and Germany, fascist parties came to power.

III. The fascist ideology was predicated on militarization and a belief that war tested and ennobled a people. Such an ideology was one factor causing World War II.

Rapid Review


Europe in the 1920s was characterized by a fluctuating economy built on debt and speculation. With the Stock Market Crash of 1929, credit dried up, and the Great Depression ensued. The economic problems added to a climate of social and cultural uncertainty and disillusionment. Political parties of the center lost support to socialists on the left and fascists on the right.

In the late 1930s, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and embarked on a policy of rearmament and expansion. France and Great Britain responded initially with a policy of appeasement, but when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the Second World War began. Initial German success in the war was reversed in stages by three crucial turning points:

• Great Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain in 1940

• Hitler’s decision to abandon an invasion of Great Britain and invade the Soviet Union instead

• The entry of the United States into the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941

Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945, following the dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. In the end, between 50 and 60 million people lost their lives in the Second World War, including 6 million Jews, who were murdered in the Holocaust. The traditional powers of Europe—Great Britain, France, and Germany—gave way to two new superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union.

Further Resources

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country—post—World War I

Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun—post—World War I and antiwar

Pat Barker, Regeneration—post—World War I and antiwar

Ken Follett, The Fall of Giants—World War I, Russian Revolution, and women’s suffrage

John Hersey, Hiroshima—Atomic Age

Louis de Bernières, Corelli’s Mandolin (the book, not the movie)—World War II

Lawrence of Arabia (the film) (1962)—World War I

A. J. Liebling, World War II Writings and The Road Back to Paris (journalism at its best)—World War II