The years 1939 – 1945 bore witness to the worst of humanity, cruelty on an epic scale, something unheard of before this time. The cruelty though was of another sort, it was a racial and ethnic hatred born out of fierce competition between imperialist nations. To get definitive causes for World War Two we have to move beyond this, to examine the nature of human competition and struggle at its source, ourselves and more specifically the workings of human societies.
This article will attempt to prove that World War Two was about more than just imperialist tension, but human need, ambition, hatred and pride. The Japanese Empire, unable to resource their growing population decided to take what they needed from Manchuria, they began to hate the Manchurian populace, if only to justify their actions to themselves. Nazi Germany, completely swept away by pride and drunk on the machinations of a despotic madman found itself at the throat of 20th Century Europe.
The Industrial Revolution was a double sided coin in many respects. It allowed nations to finally realise their desires for expansion, steam powered ships and new methods of warfare allowed the imperial nations of Europe to expand outwards and ‘colonise’ large parts of the world in a way that was never before possible. There were of course consequences; a large overseas empire requires vast resources to sustain and keeping those vital trade routes open are more important than ever. The inevitable outcome of all this is fierce competition between nations and empires, this is in large part what led to the outbreak of World War I. World War II was very much a continuation of that ‘imperialist conflict’ but the second great war of the 20th Century would be fought over ideologies. Where dreams of expansion previously took precedence, the popularization of class struggle, racial homogeneity and domination were now becoming the flavour of mid 20th Century thinking. It’s important to note at this point that World War II, despite being driven by these new ideals was still very much at the mercy of imperialist tensions left over from World War I.
The interregnum of 1918 – 1939
This period is often seen as one of relative growth, harmony and consolidation. Perhaps on the surface this may be true but to maintain this view on closer inspection would demonstrate ignorance. The once great British Empire was in decline, allowing other nations to fill its place in the world. The onset of World War II would finish the British completely and begin the Suez Syndrome that would ultimately consume the entire British Empire. What’s interesting about the British involvement in World War II was that their involvement was not motivated by a racial hatred like the Japanese and German factions. I would put this down to the fact that they were scrambling to secure what they already had, which was a lot. Racial hatred had already been spilled during the four hundred years of British racial dominance and to repeat the mistakes of the past would have been unwise. Japan and Germany however with growing resource demands and equally exuberant ambitions looked scornfully over at those who they saw as squatting on the fuels of empire, Jews, Chinese and anyone else who got in their way. For the Japanese it began in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria. The invasion of Manchuria saw some of the most brutal war crimes in human history, most notably the Rape of Nanking where Japanese soldiers raped every woman in the city including girls and elderly, no-one was spared. The whole invasion was in itself a demonstration of how ineffective the League of Nations was in its attempts to stall Japanese aggression.
German racial hatred was to come next, driven by Adolf Hitler a man with an insatiable dislike of Jews, a race of people he saw as the root of all problems for the world and for Germany. By 1939 and the outbreak of World War II in proper this had translated into the Holocaust an event that would see seven million Jews put to death over the next five years. Hitler’s hatred extended not only to Jews but also to Eastern Europeans, Poles in particular who he saw as usurpers that were living on Prussian land. The German policy of Lebensraum was the practical arm of this hatred which aimed to displace Eastern Europeans to free up space for Germans.
Hitler’s personal contribution to the outbreak of World War II is also very important. His innate ability to capture the admiration of a nation in a weakened state, burdened by war debt and crushing shame almost ensured some sort of ideological and physical confrontation. History shows this to be true as all attempts to appease Hitler failed miserably, men like Neville Chamberlain tried to slow Hitler’s expansion during the Munich conference of 1938 but it was indeed false hope. Hitler’s aggression slowly began to break down European stability. From the re-occupation of the Rhineland to the deployment of the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil war and the occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia the outbreak of War became ever more likely. Hitler is an interesting figure in that he doesn’t conform to other likely causes of World War II; he was quite simply a sociopath, a man who fell victim to his own prejudices and then took advantage of a nation in need of strong leadership.
This period also gave birth to another type of hatred, ideological hatred. One rivalry in particular stands out to me, that of Fascism and Communism. Communism in Germany had been suppressed by Hitler’s fascists but in the Soviet Union Communism was alive and well, the latter being rather debatable. In any case a rivalry existed and propaganda defacing one and promoting the other was rife. Despite an uneasy truce, tensions exploded in 1941 and a fight to the death ensued leading to the downfall of fascism, a unique system of national pride which I don’t think has been sufficiently exploited. Communism however, the victor of the great rivalry was put to the test, a test which it failed miserably taking Eastern Europe down with it. I think it’s also important not to discount the impact Fascism and Communism had on World War II and the causes thereof.
Fascism, National Pride and Dominance
I mentioned earlier how I thought Fascism could be exploited further; it was by any standards an impeccable economic system however 21st Century enlightenment would be quick to denounce its social convictions. This is because Fascism derives its power from national pride; pride of course is one of humanities most destructive sins which led to the Holocaust and various other lamentations of racial and global dominance. This also leads to economic dominance; people feel so good about their country that they want to work, they are motivated to help their nation succeed which isn’t necessarily a good thing. National pride leads to aggression and was a large instigator for World War II and there are a few examples during the 1930’s in particular, Mussolini who wanted to create a new Roman Empire (from which the term evolved during the 1920s), Franco’s Spanish Civil War and of course Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. In saying that, if there was ever a way to emulate the economic success of Fascism, absent of the social disadvantages then I would recommend an amended version of Fascism to any government. With that in mind you also have to combat the stigma and association between Fascism and the Holocaust which isn’t entirely fair but holds some truth if we deal with Fascism in its barest and corrupted form.
In any case Fascism’s contribution to the outbreak of World War II cannot be denied; Fascism managed something that historical dictators had been trying to achieve for thousands of years. That was to magnify national convictions and beliefs to a point where the said nation was a force to be reckoned with. The issue with this new found strength is that it burns itself out rather quickly, ambition, a product of Fascism is a dangerous thing and World War II is the perfect metaphor for the dangers of national ambition.
Communism, War on affluence
The brainchild of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their 1848 manifesto, Communism advocated class warfare. Communist utopia would be a world where initially the proletariat waged war on the wealthier classes, a world where everyone is paid according to their labour and need. Visionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky tried and failed to create a Communist utopia and their successors such as Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and later Leonid Brezhnev had even less success. Communism would lose the confidence of the Soviet Union and crumble in 1989 but in the years leading up to World War II this was a very different story. During the 1930s Communism, or at least the more corrupted form of Communism, Stalinism, held the confidence of the Soviet populace. This confidence would be desperately needed during World War II itself when the people of the Soviet Union would rally so readily to the call to war.
The problem was that Communism was inherently violent as well; after all it did advocate class warfare. I have a book in my personal collection that details the extensive military writings and theories of Mao Tse Tung from about 1928 onwards. He advocates a very aggressive military policy against the white (the class) landowners throughout. Fascism was of course a complete abomination in the eyes of true Communists and Stalinists despite sharing some similarities which I won’t cover here.