The Beginning of World War II


At daybreak on the first day of September, 1939, the residents 
of Poland awakened to grave news. A juggernaut force of tanks, guns, 
and countless grey-clad soldiers from nearby Germany had torn across 
the countryside and were making a total invasion of the Pole's 
homelands. Germany's actions on that fateful morning ignited a 
conflict that would spread like a wildfire, engulfing the entire globe 
in a great world war. This scenario is many people's conception of 
how World War II came about. In reality, the whole story is far more 
detailed and complex. The origins of war can be traced as far back as 
the end of the first World War in 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles 
placed responsibility for that terrible war squarely on Germany. 
Years later, in the Far East, Japanese ambition for territory led the 
nation to invade Manchuria and other parts of nearby China, causing 
hostilities to flare in the Pacific Rim. Great Britain, the United 
States, and many other nations of the world would all be drawn into 
battle in the years to come, and each nation had it's own reason for 
lending a hand in the struggle.

 Although Germany was the major player in World War II, the 
seeds of war had already been planted in the Far East years before 
conflict in Europe. On September 18, 1931, the powerful Japanese 
military forces began an invasion of the region known as Manchuria, an 
area belonging to mainland China. This action broke non-aggression 
treaties that had been signed earlier. It also was carried out by 
Japanese generals without the consent of the Japanese government. In 
spite of this, no one was ever punished for the actions. Soon after 
the assault on China, the Japanese government decided it had no choice 
but to support the occupation of Manchuria. By the next year the 
region had been completely cut off from China (Ienaga 60-64). Because 
of the Japanese offensive in China, the League of Nations held a vote 
in October to force Japan out of the captured territory. The vote was 
passed, 13 to 1, but Japan remained in control of Manchuria. A second 
vote, taken in February, 1933, a formal disapproval of the Japanese 
occupation, was passed 42 to 1. Instead of expelling Japan from the 
area of Manchuria, it caused the nation to formally withdraw it's 
membership in the League of Nations the next month (Ienaga 66).

 Now unrestrained by the recommendations of the League of 
Nations, Japan continued it's intrusion onto Chinese soil. By 1937 
Japan had moved military forces into Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing, 
as well as other regions of China. By 1940, Japanese seizure of 
territory had spread to deep inside Southeast Asia and even parts of 
Australia (Sutel et al). Also in 1940, the Triparte Pact was signed, 
allying Japan, Germany, and Italy into a powerful force that stretched 
halfway around the planet. The association with Hitler and Germany 
unified the war in the Pacific and the war in Europe. Japan was now 
fully involved in what came to be known as World War II. As warfare 
raged in the Pacific Rim, a chain of events was unfolding that would 
produce catastrophic results. The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 held 
Germany fully accountable for the tragedy of World War I. The nation 
was stripped of large areas of land, it's armaments, as well as it's 
dignity. In addition, the reparations that were to be paid to the 
allied nations virtually destroyed the economy of Germany. The 
resentment of the treaty burned in the hearts and minds of Germans for 
years afterward. In 1933, a man by the name of Adolf Hitler was 
elected Chancellor of Germany after working his way up the ladder of 
government. By speaking against the Treaty of Versailles and making 
promises of a better life to the German people, Hitler gained the 
support of his fellow countrymen, and he easily won the election. 
Almost immediately after Hitler took office he began securing his 
position in power. Hitler took steps to eliminate all opposition, 
including political parties and anyone else who spoke out against him. 
 The death of President Hindenburg in 1934 clinched his high standing, 
and he in effect became dictator of Germany. Hitler held the titles 
of Head of State, Commander in Chief of German military forces, 
Chancellor, and Chief of the Nazi Party (Elliott 57). There was no 
question of his supremacy. With his empire established, Hitler took 
steps to rearm Germany, leading the nation down the road to war. In 
violation of the Treaty of Versailles and a naval treaty signed with 
Great Britain, Hitler rebuilt the nation's army and naval forces. By 
1935 the ranks of the army had swelled to over 500,000 and production 
of arms and ammunition had resumed (73). Also, the Rhineland, a 
region in western Germany next to France, was reoccupied by military 
units. This region had been demilitarized after World War I, and the 
Treaty of Versailles forbade occupation of the area. In spite of the 
violations of treaty after treaty, little was done by the world powers 
to control the renewed German militarism.

 With the stage now set, Hitler set his plan for conquest into 
motion. Beginning in 1938, Hitler used threats and political 
maneuvering to overthrow the government of nearby Austria. His next 
target was Czechoslovakia. In March of 1939, the nation was overtaken 
after Hitler threatened a bombing of Prague if his army met resistance 
on it's invasion of the country (80). With the conquest of Europe 
well underway and his reich expanding rapidly, Hitler's power and 
influence was growing greater each day. He now planned to add Poland 
to his list of accomplishments and further extend the German empire. 
The threat of Russia backing the Poles to defend against an attack was 
neutralized when Germany and Russia signed a nonaggression pact saying 
that the two nations would not go to war. Great Britain sternly 
warned Germany that an attack on Poland would be considered an act of 
war. Hitler fearlessly ignored the warnings, and his operation swung 
into action. In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, German 
forces mobilized and swarmed into Poland. The old-fashioned Polished 
cavalry was devastated in the assault, as they stood no chance against 
the mighty Panzer tanks that rolled through the country with 
frightening speed. Two days after the attack, Britain and France 
joined in a declaration of war against Germany. Their belated 
reactions, however, could not save the army of Poland. In a battle 
that raged for nearly a month, the Polish army was eventually cornered 
in the capital city of Warsaw. After a brutal siege of the city, the 
valiant countrymen of Poland had no choice but to surrender to the 
overwhelming German force. The point of no return had been crossed, 
and Europe had fallen into the clutches of war for the second time in 
the century. Great Britain still remembered the horrors of World War 
I, and when Germany began to renew it's sense of militarism, Britain 
was hesitant to start another war. Instead of using force, the 
British leaders, including prime minister Neville Chamberlain, sought 
a diplomatic solution to conflicts. When Germany's ambitions were to 
capture the area known as Sudentland, in Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain 
held several meetings with Hitler and other nations, desperately 
trying to prevent an armed conflict with Germany. Chamberlain 
believed that by granting Hitler's demands, he could avoid a war with 
Germany (Elliot 73-74). He was sorely mistaken. Even after all the 
negotiation and bargaining, Hitler's forces eventually overtook the 
entire nation of Czechoslovakia by force.

 When it became clear that Hitler next planned an invasion of 
Poland, Great Britain had no choice but to issue a threat of war if 
Germany went through with the operation. The threat was simply 
disregard, and the attack on Poland was carried out as planned. On 
September third, 1939, two days after the Polish invasion began, 
Chamberlain gave a speech in which he finally stated that, "This 
country is at war with Germany..."(Wernick 8). The joint 
declaration of war on Germany with France became official the same 
day. In spite of efforts to avoid combat, the fears of the British 
people had come true on that day.

 The United States of America, like Great Britain, had hoped to 
avoid bringing the horrors of war to it's people. For many years 
after the development of tensions in Europe and the Far East, the 
leaders of the U.S. had done nearly everything possible to remain 
neutral. For them, too, the memories of World War I were still fresh 
in mind. Although the U.S. did participate in such affairs as the 
temporary peace treaty that prevented the capture of Shanghai by the 
Japanese, the U.S. was determined to prevent the need for it's troops 
to be placed in the way of danger(Ienaga 66). And so it would have 
remained, if it were not for one incident that would change the lives 
of many in the United States.

 The morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941 began as any other day 
in Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. At 7:49, the Japanese 
fleet of carriers that had been making it's way toward the Hawaiian 
Islands sprang into action. Wave after wave of Japanese aircraft 
screamed into the harbor and pounced on the American fleet as it sat 
helpless (Ienaga 136). No one saw the attack coming, so defense to 
the brutal assault was minimal. In the aftermath of the carnage, the 
final tallies shocked the nation. Five U.S. battleships and ten 
warships had been destroyed, and three more battleships were severely 
damaged. The human death toll was also high. Over 2,400 American 
soldiers were slaughtered in the strike.

 Franklin D. Roosevelt wasted no time in reacting to the attack 
on Pearl Harbor. By the afternoon of December 7th, Roosevelt had 
ordered protection for Washington D.C., major cities along the western 
coast, major bridges, and dozens of other security precautions in the 
event of another wave of enemy aggression (Bailey 20). The next day, 
Roosevelt delivered a speech to congress asking for a declaration of 
war. The beginning of the speech would become famous in American 

 Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in 
infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately 
attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan... (23) Less 
than an hour after Roosevelt gave his powerful speech, congress voted 
to declare war on Japan. The declaration was signed by Roosevelt 
himself at 4:10 that afternoon (23). In the space of only two days, 
the United states had gone from a neutral spectator to a major 
participant in World War II.

 The United States, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan were four 
of the largest countries that became heavily involved in the second 
world war. But, many more nations played smaller roles in the event. 
 For instance, Italy was an ally of Germany and Japan, having signed 
the Triparte Pact in 1940. But, the Italians were less than essential 
to Hitler's domination of Europe, and Benito Moussolini, dictator of 
Italy, suffered many humiliating defeats at the hands of the allies 
(Keegan et al).

 Another country that played a role in the war in Europe was 
the U.S.S.R. Once considered neutral in the war because of a 
nonaggression treaty with Germany, the Soviet Union was drawn into the 
fighting on June 22, 1941, when the German offensive code-named 
Operation Barbarossa began. The German forces planned to attack the 
Soviets at three points - Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad, and was 
expected to be completed in 6 weeks. The Russians proved tenacious, 
however, and defended their capital and country with great effort, 
eventually halting the German advance.

 France was a third major European state that was caught up in 
the chaotic beginnings of World War II. Allied with Great Britain, 
France joined in the battle of Europe after the invasion of Poland in 
1939. Unfortunately, Hitler's forces eventually invaded France, 
ending their ability to fend off the attacks of the Axis powers.

 Germany's invasion of Poland in late 1939 is considered the 
major event that set World War II in motion. But, like many other 
events in history, there is more to the story. Dozens of smaller 
occurrences pushed the world closer and closer to the brink of war 
over a period of many years. The results of each of these incidents 
culminated in total warfare that turned half of the world into a 
battleground. Several major countries were plunged into chaos and 
disorder, and the scars and horrible memories of the nightmare that 
was World War II are something that can never be erased or 

Works Cited

Bailey, Ronald H. The Home Front: U.S.A. Morristown: Silver Burdett 
Co., 1977.

Elliott, Brendan John. Hitler and Germany. New York: McGraw-Hill, 

Ienaga, Saburo. The Pacific War, 1931-1945. New York: Random House, 

Keegan, John. Who Was Who in World War II. New York: Crescent, 1984.

Ross, Stewart. Causes and Concequences of World War II. Austin: 
Steck-Vaughn, 1996.

Snyder, Louis L. The War - A Consice History. New York: Julian Messner 
Incorporated, 1960.

"Some Japaneese Still Don't Get It." Wisconsin State Journal. 
[Madison] 14 September 1995.

Sutel, Seth. "Japaneese Official Puts New Spin on World War II." The 
Capital Times. [Madison] 5 June 1994.

Wernick, Robert. Blitzkrieg. Morristown: Silver Burdett, 1977.


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