Russia was the first great power to collapse under the strain of the Great War, which demoralized its peasant army and hastened the disintegration of the Tsarist regime.
From the beginning of 1917 Russia experienced a tremendous domestic political and socio-economic upheaval with several factions struggling to gain exclusive power.
In October-November 1917 the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin replaced a coalition of socialists in the Kremlin and immediately sued for peace with Germany.
The Bolshevik Revolution affected every aspect of Russian life and also had profound effects on the rest of the world, most immediately in Europe and on international relations.
The western allies pressured Russia to remain in the war and assisted ‘White’ Russians opposed to the Bolshevik in southern, northern and Siberian provinces while civil war raged until 1920, without success.
On the other hand, Lenin’s expectations of an early communist revolution in Germany were not fulfilled, though there was rash of radical socialist uprisings in many parts of Central Europe in 1919.
Avowed Bolshevik aims of fostering world revolution aroused acute anxiety in all capitalist societies that lasted over the next seven decades. The ideology of revolution and its accompanying propaganda of workers’ rights across national borders became an instrument of the Communist Third International, which replaced the Second International in 1920, as well as that of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, Lenin wanted Russia to have normal relations- including credits and trade-with the western powers, which did not then recognize the Soviet Government, and to regain its place in world councils, from which it was presently excluded.
Announcement of a New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921 enabled a commercial agreement with Britain but de jure recognition was not forthcoming from Britain, France or Italy until 1924 and from the US only in 1933.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and Germany found them similarly ostracized by the Peace Treaties, and burdened with reparations or debts; the two counties signed the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922 resuming diplomatic relations, cancelling financial claims on each other, and providing most favored nation treatment for trade, but including no defense provisions.
Soviet diplomacy in Europe, Asia and toward colonial dependencies was based on the self-interest of the Soviet state as well as the ideology of communist revolution and did not mesh with established Western practices of the time.
Moreover, Stalin’s assumption of power in 1928 and the means he adopted to ensure his supremacy and implement his policies of economic transformation in the 1930s- such as the forced collectivization of agriculture and purges of the Communist Party-were extreme by any definition, and made the Soviet synonymous with ‘totalitarianism’ in the western lexicon.
Totalitarianism was not confined to the Soviet Union and surfaced to varying degrees in the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, Japan, Spain, and most completely in Germany. Considerable scholarship has been devoted to exploring the roots of totalitarianism, which eradicates individual liberty in the name of the state.
Benito Mussolini established a Fascist regime in Italy in October 1921 when dissatisfaction with parliamentary democracy was high, and the peace settlement was unpopular for having brought only limited gains.
Italy’s territorial ambitions in southeastern Europe were opposed by France, an uncompromising upholder of the Treaty settlement, and Italy’s bit to augment its North African colonies by occupying Ethiopia in 1935 antagonized Britain as well as creating a crisis in the League of Nations, which was unwilling to enforce meaningful sanctions against Italy under Article 16.
Mussolini had come to admire the more efficient Adolf Hitler and signed a pact with him to create a “Berlin-Rome Axis’ in 1936. Their first collaboration was to assist militarily General Francisco Franco in overthrowing newly formed and fragile Republic in Spain governed by a left-oriented coalition called the Popular Front.
Germany was penalized by the 1919 peace treaties but not destroyed; it remained potentially the strongest power in Europe. Germany harbored many grievances that some people in Britain and the US considered legitimate and was the leading proponent of ‘revisionism’ even while it strove in the 1920s toward acceptability in world councils and democracy at home under the Weimer Constitution.
That constitution could not withstand the strain of coping with economic depression The Nazi Party had eliminated all opposition, especially of the Communists and the Socialists.
We need not elaborate here the reasons and methods by which the Nazis established control over a people considered to be cultured and advanced, though many scholars have done so, but emphasize the fact that Hitler led a ‘resurgence’ of Germany on an explicit ideology of ‘Aryan’ racial purity, virtue and superiority, reunification by ‘self-determination’ of the German race, lebensraum or ‘living space’ for them, and cancellation of the 1919 peace treaties.
Further, other countries, large and small, even while making paper pacts to safeguard their own security, were so frightened of Soviet Bolshevism that they long turned a blind eye to the internal brutalities of the Nazi regime, such as the genocide of Jews and Gypsies, and ‘appeased’ rather than opposed German transgressions of the peace settlement.
Germany abrogated the disarmament clauses of the Treaty in December 1933 and proceeded to build and army air force and navy machine oriented to the future that virtually overran Europe in 1940- 41. Germany recovered the Saar region by plebiscite in January 1935, overturned the free city status of Danzig between 1934 and 1936, and remilitarized the Rhineland in March 1936.
Hitler’s timing and estimate of feeble resistance in each case proved more accurate than that of his more cautions advisers. Hitler also brought about an Aeschylus (Union) with Austria-where a Nazi party and gained strength since 1934- in March 1938 and then make a bid for Czechoslovakia, first launching a propaganda barrage about ill-treatment of the German minority in the Sudeten province.
France was committed by alliance to the security and integrity of Czechoslovakia but would not act without British support. The British Government of Neville Chamberlain did not feel justified in risking armed conflict with Germany on the issue of what he called a ‘distant’ province.
Months of negotiation of increasing tension culminated in a four power conference of Britain, France, Germany and Italy in Munich on 29 September 1938 renouncing was and permitting German military occupation of most of Czechoslovakia. Less than one year later, having first protected his eastern front through a pact with the Soviet Union on 23 August 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland and declared war on Germany.
The Second World War was a ‘total’ war, unprecedented in its destruction of military and non-military assets and people, and truly world-wide in its scope. Its outbreak in Europe in September 1939 was preceded in August 1937 by the Sino-Japanese War and succeeded in December 1941 by the entry of the US against both Japan and Germany. The war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender on 10 May 1945 and in Asia with Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945.
The causes of this war have been expounded and explored repeatedly by different people, and at different times, with varying and often disputed interpretations of specific events and the actual intentions of key players. Nevertheless, some generalizations can be drawn from the huge body of archival and documentary material available on the subject.
Most importantly, the peace treaties of 1919, coupled with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and fundamentally weak League of Nations, did not resolve the basic problems of security in Europe.
Deep seated ambitions, fears, insecurities, and mistrust there were bound to clash politically and militarily in the absence of habits, institutions, and mechanisms to facilitate the peaceful resolution of conflict. Nor did the then existing international system make provision for the rising power of Japan, which eventually brought the US into the war.
Beyond the underlying systemic weakness, specific causes are stressed differently by different people and include both design and blunder on the part of decision-makers.
Main interpretations are as follows: Nazi Germany in general and Adolf Hitler in particular was primarily responsible for the war and deliberately prepared for it, whether or not he intended the exact timing of its but break or expected its ultimate scope.
Britain and France were equally responsible for the war because their leaders had appeased Hitler’s ambitious demands instead of checking them, had neglected to build an anti-fascist alliance, and had encouraged an eastward expansion of Germany so as to draw the Soviet Union into war.
The US was at fault for not participating in the League, for being isolationist and ambivalent about Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and then for encouraging Britain, France and Poland to resist without clearly warming Hitler. Poland was at fault for not forming a common front with the Soviet Union and then for not submitting ‘peacefully’ to German demands.
Mussolini was blamed for support and encouragement of Hitler, before joining the Western allies in 1943. The Soviet Union was responsible for propagating the idea of an ‘inevitable’ conflict between communism and capitalism/ fascism, but most of all for entering into a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939 and so giving it a ‘green light’ for attack on Poland while simultaneously annexing several territories itself.
This temporary alliance was reversed when Hitler ordered an invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and his armies advanced toward Moscow and other cities before being halted at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43.
In East Asia and the Pacific militarist Japan took on an aggressive role, with all its neighbors to build an Economic Co- Prosperity Zone, antagonizing the US, another Pacific Ocean power that tried to deny Japan access to oil and other raw materials.
When Japan destroyed part of the US fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 6 December 1941, and Hitler declared war on the US on 11 December 1941, the US entered a new global war against both Japan and Germany, which ended only with their ‘unconditional surrender’ in 1945.