The Great War ended with a treaty, in this case, the Treaty of Versailles. That treaty has now been vilified by historians, such as myself. It was the worst treaty man has ever written. While it accomplished its goal of ending World War I, it left a slew of unanswered questions and allowed for the rise of fascist dictators in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe. While the US enjoyed the party that was the 1920s, newly formed nations struggled to hold on to new land. Germany took full blame for the war with the War Guilt Clause which left them humiliated, much of their land stripped of their control, and indebted to larger nations such as England and France. Accepting blame for the war meant they had to pay other nations for the cost of going to war, a term known as reparations. The reparations set in the treaty were so high, that Germany did not pay them off officially until 2012.
Germany tried hard to avoid paying reparations of any kind. After the war ended, they purposefully devalued their own currency by producing as much as possible. If England and France wanted money, they would give them money. It’s just that the money would be worth less and less with each passing year, then each passing month, and by the 1924, each passing day. France and England both had loans and had conducted so much trade with the US that they needed that money. So, France invaded an industrial sector of Germany and demanded payment in real cash. The French move alarmed so many people afraid of the war starting up again, that the US decided to step in and provide Germany with loans to pay France and England. Then France and England could repay the US, sending the money out of the US and then back in again in one cycle. All of this created an incredibly unstable economic situation globally. When the US economy took a nose dive in 1929, so did the rest of the world. Every nation was touched in some way by the Great Depression. Therefore, the treaty is also considered a cause of the global Great Depression.
Back in Germany, things had gotten so bad, especially as the depression started, that the people were hungry for someone to pull them out of it and restore their honor to the world. The German government had a president, a chancellor, and a legislature with multiple political parties. Whichever party held the most seats in the Reichstag (legislature) chose the chancellor. By 1930, the Nationalist Socialist Workers Party (Nazis) had gained enough seats to appoint the chancellor. The German government in the 1920s had become suspicious of this party as it started to grow in popularity and began to sending in World War I veterans to spy on it. One such veteran was Adolf Hitler. Although Austrian by birth, he had served in the German military as a messenger. He went into the beer halls where party leaders would give speeches and soon became a supporter. He rose in the ranks himself after joining. The party was meeting a need many in Germany had at the time. They were depressed, the value of their currency still continued to fall after the depression started, and they felt globally humiliated after the way World War I ended. Hitler and the party told them what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that someone could bring them out of this and get them back on solid ground again. So, they listened. When the Nationalist Socialist Party had enough members, they essentially appointed Hitler the chancellor, but through the office of the president, Von Hindenburg. In a wave of events that took place between 1933-1934, the Reichstag building in which elections were held burned to the ground by arson, the president died, and Germans were told that communist spies were all in Germany plotting a revolution. In the midst of all that fear, Hitler offered to dissolve the office of president and incorporate it into the chancellor office. He also declared a state of emergency with the fire and had the legislature dissolve so he could meet the crisis through orders from his office. The Reichstag agreed and he took the new title of Furer.
After Hitler took full power, he denounced the Treaty of Versailles and refused to pay any more reparations. He also declared that Germany would remilitarize, a move strictly forbidden of Germany in the treaty. Those with land given to them in the treaty were obviously concerned he would try to take that land back. Key nations like the US, France, and England, watched his moves closely. In the US, FDR supported the Neutrality Acts. These were pushed through Congress so that American businesses could not conduct trade with any nation involved in a conflict. Spain was in the midst of its own civil war and these acts were in direct response to that. However, with Hitler’s actions uncertain, these acts could potentially keep the US out of a larger global conflict. No one wanted to go to war again.
Hitler began his offensive in 1936. He threw the French out of areas along their border that they had held, an area known as the Rhineland. The land wasn’t militarily significant and neither the US nor England wanted to declare war over that, so they essentially issued Hitler a warning. His response was that German speaking people lived there and German speaking people should be under German control. In 1938 he annexed Austria. This was a much bigger issue because Austria was a large and organized nation. However, German speaking people lived there, they had a large Nazi party, and they petitioned to be annexed by Germany. While no one was comfortable with this union, little could be said if the two countries wanted to merge. However later that year, Hitler annexed a land bordering the Czech Republic now. That area was again land Germany lost in World War I. After that the rest of the country fell to Germany. At this point something had to be done.
Leaders from England and France officially, and the US unofficially, met with Hitler in Munich in September of 1938. They decided to reason with him. The larger area they felt he would go after next consisted of about half of Poland, newly formed Poland. Hitler assured the leaders he had no desire to go and take Poland. No German speaking people lived there he claimed. He gave them his word. They signed the Munich Agreement, later called the Munich Appeasement. Back in England, leaders like Winston Churchill claimed all we had done was delay a war, not really address it head on. We appeased a dictator. Churchill was right. Hitler never planned to abide by that agreement. He wasn’t ready to launch his all-out attack on Europe and conquer everyone just yet. He had plans to invade Poland and did so within a year of signing this. The US would not get involved in the war right away, but took this as a very stern lesson. Never again will the US negotiate with dictators. Hitler taught us a lesson, dictators lie. When people today mention Munich in terms of our foreign policy decisions, this is what they are referring to. When they say we don’t negotiate with dictators, this is why. Many of our current foreign policy decisions are based on what happened in Munich in 1938. Hitler invaded Poland, September 1, 1939.
While the world focused on what was going on outside of Germany as Hitler invaded country after country, few knew of the horrors inside Germany. Some concentration camps were work camps. The movie, Schindler’s List portrayed one such camp. There were early on relocation camps, simply to move Jewish people out of the population. There were medical camps where horrible medical experiments were conducted on people. There were also extermination camps designed to kill as many as possible. Treblinka in Poland was one of the worst. German commanders destroyed as much as possible, but ongoing work in Poland has uncovered quite a bit. Germans documented the Holocaust in many different ways. We know from their records, approximately 800,000 people died there. Despite the rumors coming out of Europe, the US, concerned that somehow German Jewish refugees would conspire with Hitler, refused to change the number of refugees allowed to come into the country and turned many boats back, sending many German Jews back home to face the Nazis after trying to escape.
The war in Asia essentially started in 1931, before Hitler was even made Chancellor. Japan felt they were not given enough credit or respect after participating on the side of the US, England, and France in World War I. They also did not get all the land in China that Germany had controlled either. They launched what they called, the Great East Asia Co Prosperity Sphere. In essence, they went out to claim as much territory as they could in Asia. One of Japan’s key problems was the fact that Japan is a resource poor country. Being a set of islands, they have no oil deposits, rubber, tin, or many of the other items necessary for industrialization and militarization. They import these items. Part of the reasoning for their offensive starting in 1931 was to access areas that had these resources. Plan A for Japan was to get into Southeast Asia where these resources are in abundance through China. They would start from Korea and work their way south. They installed the last emperor of China, Henry Puyi, as emperor of Manchuko. The Qing were from Manchuria, in the north, and they claimed to be reinstating him in his rightful position. In reality, he was a puppet emperor. He had little knowledge of the concentration camps the Japanese were creating outside his walls. These camps were visited once by German commanders who vomited upon entering some of them due to how horrific things were inside.
The Japanese did their best to provoke a war with China. However, China was a divided nation. Two competing factions, the communist and nationalists, were essentially at war with one another. The nationalists held the government and were devoting all of their military forces to hunt down and kill all the communists, in the south. Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the nationalists has been criticized by many for concentrating too much on consolidating his own power and ignoring the Japanese threat to the north. The Japanese military, largely operating on their own without the knowledge or consent of the Japanese government, kept trying to provoke something with the small Chinese forces on the boarder to justify invasion. In July 1937, they got their wish and launched an all out invasion. They were able to get into Nanjing (former capital under a previous dynasty, Nan translates southern and jing translates capital in English). The city held unique historical significance. As the troops invaded, the Chinese population there essentially surrendered. What happened next is now known as the Rape of Nanjing.
Few know of the Rape of Nanjing. Very few history books cover this topic. The atrocities committed in Nanjing compare with what happened in Germany. In Japanese military culture, going back to the samurai and Code of the Bushido, one never surrenders. It was expected of men who faced surrender to commit ritualistic suicide. In fact, if one performed badly in battle, they were expected to perform this suicide. The act involved a special sword, made specifically for this purpose. The sword was inserted into the abdomen slowly, then drug slowly across the abdomen and hooking up before removing. Then the samurai were to bend over some, although already in a kneeling position, and allow their insides to fall out. Under the Tokugawa regime, usually there was another samurai to behead at this point to end the suffering. However, if done correctly, no sound ever came from the samurai and his act would restore honor to the family name. It is important to understand all of this to understand Japanese actions in World War II and in Nanjing. Their invasion touched off a full scale killing spree by the military. They viewed the people as surrendering without committing suicide, therefore any actions against them were justified. They raped hundreds of women, then disemboweled them, and lined their bodies along the streets just after the invasion. They took the remaining people and used them for “killing practice” for new recruits to the Japanese military. All of these actions were documented by many, many photographs. Iris Chang wrote the first significant history book on the topic, The Rape of Nanjing. It is easy to find in bookstores in town, but very difficult to read.
The US learned a little of what was going on in China and decided to help the Chinese fight the Japanese off. The Japanese military did not have much success in China past Nanjing. US involvement was very unofficial. Pilots known as the Flying Tigers harassed and targeted Japanese movements and did not allow them to move any more forward toward Southeast Asia. So the Japanese military decided in 1940 to go forward with Plan B.
Plan B for the Japanese military meant going into Southeast Asia through their navy, basically bypassing the landmass and just using boats. Hawaii, the US state home to the US Navy, was very, very close to the region they wanted to invade. In fact, their first target was planned to be the Southeast Asian island held by the US, the Philippines. In 1940, tensions kept rising between the US and Japan. Actually the US-Japanese relationship had always been tense. The US forced Japan to open up to trade in 1853, starting the cycle that would end the last regime. Then the US negotiated the treaty that ended Japan’s war with Russia in 1905. While that may sound like it would help the relationship, it did the opposite. The US president refused to put reparations in for Japan since they won. He didn’t want them before more powerful with more money. However, the Japanese government and people felt it was incredibly disrespectful if not racist. Then there was the Gentlemen’s Agreement when gentlemen from Japan and US decided not to openly restrict Japanese immigration to the US. The agreement was that the US would not pass a law restricting immigration if the Japanese government agreed not to allow anyone to migrate to the US. Over and over again, the US offended the Japanese. Now the Japanese needed those supplies in Southeast Asia. The US had proven once again they would hinder their efforts, as they knew we had pilots in China. On top of that, the US placed an oil embargo on Japan in 1941. Things got worse and worse in terms of the relationship. Knowing this now, it seems almost like common sense that Japan would attack at Pearl Harbor. It would give them the time they needed to get into Southeast Asia and rebuild up their navy by the time the US could rebuild what was lost in the battle. The severely underestimated the ability to reproduce those ships and the determination of the American people to strike back.
Looking back at one of the most devastating global conflicts, historians evaluate the motivations and issues on all sides. Part of the reason we do this is to identify what caused the war in the first place, and what we can take from what we know, to avoid another conflict. After reading through this set of notes, what do you think are the most important lessons to learn? How important is it to know your enemy and their culture and history? How important is it to really analyze the past in order to understand what the US is currently doing and what other countries are currently doing? Do you think world leaders actively think the past to inform present day decisions? What do you think is the most important lesson to learn from World War II?
I know you guys have been answering all the questions, and that’s great. But you don’t have to answer all of them. I just want you guys to have some variety. So let’s get a great discussion going!!