Second World War--Road to War

Aggression - Appeasement

[ Background ] [ Nazis ] [ Road to War ] [ War ]


For the democracies, especially Britain and France, the Depression brought the same hardship and economic/social dislocation that it did to Germany and the United States. The governments and people could not consider the prospect of another war, less than two decades after the Great War. At the same time, British and French leaders deeply feared the spread of communism and saw--to a certain extent--the Fascist and Nazi dictators [Mussolini and Hitler]--as antidotes to communism. Furthermore, they experienced a bit of guilt regarding the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles. Hence, from 1931- 1939, they pursued a policy that came to be known as Appeasement.
 The road to World War II actually began not in Europe but in Asia. There, in the "inter-war years," nationalist leader Chiang K'ai-shek battled Chinese Communist Party chief Mao Zedong for control of China. Chiang seemed to be winning the civil war in the 1920s. The possibility of a re-united and strengthened China set off alarm bells in Japan, which had its own vision for a "New Order in Asia." As Chiang launched the Northern Expedition in 1926, to attach (or re-attach Manchuria to China,) Japanese Foreign Minister Tanaka issued the "Positive Policy" or "Tanaka Memorandum," warning China that Japan had special interests in Manchuria that were not to be encroached upon by China

For more detail on Asia and the Pacific Theatre of WWII, visit
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.A glance at the map indicates how Manchuria's location made it a tempting morsel for both rising Asiatic nations--China and Japan--not to mention the infant Soviet Union. When you look at the map (right) note that Korea was not divided at that time; it was a province of Japan.  


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Follow link below for interactive map of Japanese aggression in East Asia/the Far East
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 In 1931, the Japanese made good on their threat by staging an explosion on the South Manchurian Railroad and blaming it on Chinese nationalist terrorists, though later investigations indicated that responsibility for the "Mukden Incident" lay on Japan's doorstep. Within a few months, despite both American and League of Nations' investigations and condemnations, the Japanese Kwantung Army over-ran Manchuria and occupied its capital, Mukden. By 1932, the Japanese had transformed Manchuria into the Japanese satellite state of Manchukuo. If you have seen the movie, The Last Emperor, Pu Yi was installed as Japan's puppet in Manchukuo until the end of the war.

For the text of the treaty linking Manchukuo to Japan, visit

The debilitating policy of meeting acts of Aggression (whether originating in Europe or in Asia or in Africa) with Appeasement began with American and League of Nations' responses to Japanese actions in Manchuria, summarized above and triggered by the "Mukden Incident" or the "Incident on the South Manchurian Railway." Japan's response to stern warnings and verbal condemnation in the League was to resign its membership from that august body. In the mid-30s, the scene shifted from Asia to Europe and Africa.
In 1934, Hitler attempted an Anschluss--that is unification with Austria, which was prevented, not by League action, but by a quick, firm, counter-threat by Il Duce, Mussolini, who moved his army to the Brenner Pass on the Italo-Austrian border. Recent historical research indicates that Anschluss was not universally despised by Austrians, The Sound of Music to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather, quite a few Austrians favored it (not taking Nazi rhetoric at its face value.) In any event, in 1934, Hitler backed down, continuing to implement economic reforms, re-armament, withdrawal from the League, and Anti-Jewish policies in Germany. Austria remained Austrian for two more years. Mussolini sized up the international situation, the weakness of Britain and France, and made an aggressive move of his own.
Mussolini, as previously noted, resented that the Peace of Paris (Treaty of Versailles) allocated none of the former Ottoman or German colonies to Italy. His exuberant, belligerent nationalism, furthermore, called for a restoration of the Roman Empire. He cast his eye on Ethiopia/Abyssinia, one of two remaining independent nations in Africa, conveniently adjacent to Italian Somaliland.

Technologically and militarily, Abyssinian/Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, "The Lion of Judah,"(left) was ill-prepared to face the more modernized, mechanized forces of Mussolini, Il Duce. See graphics below. When the League of Nations slapped Mussolini's wrist--so to speak--by bawling him out and threatening economic sanctions, Il Duce withdrew from the League, joining Germany and Japan as "outlaw nations." (left) (right)

Meanwhile, back in Europe: In the area of international diplomacy (1934-1936,) Hitler, as noted, renounced the disarmament clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, rearmed Germany, withdrew from the League of Nations. He, with Goering's help, created the German Air Force or Luftwaffe and announced conscription to expand the armed forces. Naval re-armament proceeded as well. Though thwarted in the first effort at Anschluss, Nazi Germany re-occupied the Rhineland in 1936, shortly after the Berlin Olympics. As the Times of London put it, the Germans "went back into their own garden" (Spielvogel 818). Britain and France, deep in their own struggle with the Depression, issued verbal condemnations and stern warnings to Germany, but without the will to enforce them with military action, could not halt Nazi rearmament or territorial expansion.

A glance at the map of Europe after the Great War seems, with 20/20 hindsight almost to provide a roadmap to German aggression. Note on the map to your right the territories lost to Germany at the Treaty of Versailles and/or containing large German-speaking minorities.

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This map identifies the Polish Corridor that is blocked by the key in the map above.

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In the fall of 1936, Hitler and Mussolini signed a treaty creating the "Rome-Berlin Axis," the new power center in Europe and the world. A glance at a map of Central Europe quickly reveals that their alliance spelled the doom of Austria as well as the article in the Treaty of Versailles that forbade the unification of Germany and Austria. The two dictators met and agreed not to fight over Austria: each would take/seize those areas where his co-nationals lived. Il Duce, Mussolini, shown with Hitler at left and alone at right below. (left) (right)

The scene moved back to Asia. In 1936, Chiang K'ai-shek, President and Generalissimo of Nationalist China, made peace with Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party in the interest of presenting a "common" or "united" front to Japan's growing threat. Having lost Manchuria/Manchukuo in 1932, neither Chinese leader intended to cede additional territory to Japan.

 These Chinese moves drove Japan to search for an ally and to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, followed within the year by the Incident at the Marco Polo Bridge (the famous "Double Seven" [1937] Incident.) The Japanese invasion of China marked the beginning of the Second World War in Asia. Japanese troops poured over the Great Wall into China Proper.


  Nanjing/Nanking, the capital of the Chinese Republic, held out for several months, but in December, 1937, Japanese tanks rolled into the city. A massacre of unprecedented scale followed, chronicled by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking and by others as World War II's "forgotten holocaust" (not unlike the Armenian Genocide of 1915.) Some estimates place the number of civilian deaths at 300,000. Though Japanese accounts deny this figure, eyewitnesses and Chinese records suggest even larger numbers. Relations between Japan and China continue to be negatively affected by the horrific events of 1937.

President and Generalissimo Chiang K'ai-shek refused to surrender. Instead, he retreated with his Kuomintang/KMT (Guomindang/GMD) supporters deep into the Chinese interior, where he established his wartime capital at Chung King (Chongqing.) Chiang and Mao called off their civil war to fight the common enemy, Japan.  

1938 marked a kind of "point of no return" on the "road to war." Appeasement produced aggression, which produced more Appeasement. In March, 1938, the Anschluss (unification of Germany and Austria) took place. Many Austrians wept as German troops marched in triumph through Vienna; other Austrians welcomed the German annexation. According to legend (and Hollywood) the Von Trapp family fled over the Alps to neutral Switzerland rather than live under Nazi rule.


While subject to interpretation and debate, the Anschluss of 1938, which united Austria and Germany, was greeted with some degree of joy in Austria. The crowd in Vienna shown in the graphic (left) seem to be welcoming their occupiers (?) After the Anschluss, 3000 Austrian Jews per day lined up at the American Embassy to apply for visas. The US did not open its doors. American journalist Dorothy Thompson offered a scathing indictment of Nazi cruelty and American apathy in the face of a growing catastrophe (Kennedy 410).


Opponents of German rule, including Chancellor Schuschnigg awaited deportation to the burgeoning concentration camp network. Go: Anschluss

 Quickly Nazi attitudes and practices made themselves felt in Austria. Bystanders in the graphic to your right smirk as Jewish men, some of them veterans of The Great War, are forced to scrub the sidewalks and streets.
(Photo credits: U.S. National Archives. Below, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives)


In the summer of 1938, it was the turn of the Sudeten Germans (Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland) to demand--thanks to Nazi money, propaganda, and agitation--liberation from Czechoslovakia and annexation by the Reich. Hitler announced his "unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia..." (Spielvogel 819). Czech President Bênes, buoyed up by treaty alliances with both France and Stalin's Soviet Union, prepared to defend Czechoslovakia.
At the Munich Conference, September, 1938, Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and France's Foreign Minister Harald Daladier met with Hitler and Mussolini, to secure "peace in our time." They handed the Sudetenland over to Germany, upon receiving Hitler's guarantees, pledges, and promises that he had no more territorial demands. Neither Benes nor Stalin attended the conference as their position might have been to fight.
Chamberlain returned to London waving his "piece of paper" that had preserved "peace in our time" in one hand and his umbrella in the other. Londoners cheered.

 Everyone did not cheer the German absorption of the Sudetenland. Many Czechs openly wept as the German tanks rolled into their homeland, down the streets of Prague.
(Photo credit: U.S. National Archives)

Although Britain and France pledged to defend Poland (the Polish Corridor--clearly Hitler's next target,) Stalin remained skeptical. The Polish Corridor and Danzig/Gdansk contained a sizable population of Germans, whom Hitler intended to "rescue" as he had "rescued" the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia. In the spring of 1939, he covered his bases by strengthening the Axis Pact with Mussolini's Fascist Italy with the so-called Pact of Steel. Stalin, deep in the throes of his purges, fearfully noted the tight alliance between vehemently anti-communist Germany and Italy. He doubted that Britain and France would fight to preserve the territorial integrity of Poland, any more than they had to preserve the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia (or independence of Austria.) Furthermore, he knew that deep anti-communist feelings dominated the western democracies. Thus, to the dismay and consternation of communists everywhere, Stalin's Foreign Minister Molotov welcomed German Foreign Minister Ribbontrop to Moscow, where they signed the Molotov-Ribbontrop Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939. How could these two powers, each of whose rhetoric vilified the other, sign a treaty of "friendship"?

 As the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact of 1936 spelled the doom of Austria, the Molotov-Ribbontrop Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 spelled the doom of Poland. To your right, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov (the "Hammer") signs the treaty with a smiling Stalin (in the white jacket) looking on.

Works Cited:


The History Place. Online Available.

Schoenherr, Steve. "World War II Timeline." San Diego: University of San Diego, 1999.
Online Available.

Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2000.

Wurst, Jeff. "Causes of World War II: Japanese Aggression--World Civilization Project." Bethany, OK: Southern Nazarene University, 1997.
Online Available.

World War II Vets. "Anschluss." The Greatest Generation to the Latest Generation. Online Available.
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