From One War to Another: Post-WWI Global Conditions

  January 21, 2024   Read time 8 min
From One War to Another: Post-WWI Global Conditions
When a German warship opened fire on the Polish garrison in the special area reserved for them within the Free City of Gdansk (Danzig)—and German troops and airplanes attacked Poland—a terrible conflict began that was quickly called "The Second World War." This name implies some relationship to the great prior conflict of 1914-18.

At the beginning of September 1939, when German actions started this new war, however, there was already fighting in two other areas of the globe. Since the Japanese had struck in northern China in July 1937, there had been hostilities between the two East Asian nations; that war had reached something of a stalemate by the fall of 1939, but no end to it was in sight. In addition, since May 1939, Japanese and Russian troops were engaged in bitter fighting on the border of their respective puppet states in a conflict called after its location the Nomonhan Incident by the Japanese and the Khalkhin-gol Incident by the Russians. Diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Japan continued even while their forces clashed, and a cease-fire in this struggle on September 16, 1939, followed upon Japan's defeat in battle. The continuing East Asian conflict between Japan and China would, however, have remained isolated, like the war those two nations had fought in 1894-95, had not events in Europe led Japan to join the hostilities begun there. It is thus entirely appropriate to think of the Second World War as having been initiated by Germany and eventually embroiling the whole globe. How did this come about? Was not one world war enough?

The war which ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918, had been horrendous in its impact on the participants. In more than four years of bloodshed and destruction, vast portions of Europe had been wrecked and the domestic institutions of the continent transformed. The capacity of the modern state for mass mobilization had drawn human and material resources out of each belligerent to an extent no one had previously imagined possible, and these human and material resources had been consumed in the furnace of war. The other portions of the globe had become involved either because they had joined one side or because their colonial status had sucked them in; while the few remaining neutrals saw their trade and their very structures dramatically affected by the great upheaval all around them.

That struggle, which was generally referred to then as "The World War" to distinguish it from the localized or smaller conflicts of preceding decades, was the great formative experience of those who survived it: they would thereafter look at the world through the framework of the lessons they believed that war had taught them. This was as much the case for the victors as for the defeated; and the framing of peace in 1919, the conduct of policy in the two following decades, and the direction of the new war were all the work of individuals who saw and measured new choices by reference to choices made or not made in the great war just concluded.

The peace settlement of 1919 was complicated by a series of compromises primarily among the victors and secondarily between the victors and the defeated. Four major factors in the situation affected these compromises. First, the unanticipated suddenness of the German defeat—coming a year earlier than expected, afier German victories over the Allies in East, Southeast, and South Europe, and before the Allies had invaded Germany herself—meant that there were substantial limits on the choices of the victors and no clear recognition of total military defeat in Germany.

The troops of the victors were not in occupation of all or almost all of Europe, as the Allies had once anticipated, and this limitation on the authority of the victors became ever more significant as the pressures for demobilization in the victorious countries pushed all before them after the years of sacrifice and suffering. This situation meant that in many parts of Europe, especially in eastern and Southeastern Europe, local elements could take the initiative into their own hands. Since Russia had been defeated by the Central Powers, who were in turn defeated by the Western Allies, there was a unique situation in Eastern Europe: the great empires which had contended with each other in prior centuries were on this occasion all defeated, and the smaller powers and peoples of the area had their one opportunity to try to assert their own will, and at times to do so in defiance of the victors writing the peace treaties in the far-away suburbs of Paris.

This same circumstance, the early and unanticipated German defeat, left the people of that country dazed by events. A succession of great victories had led the Germans to anticipate possible total victory; the bitter, drawn-out fighting and the deprivations imposed on Germany's home front had led some Germans in the latter part of the war to fear or to hope for a compromise of some sort; but almost no one expected a total defeat. The decision of Germany's military leaders to call for an end to the fighting in September 1918 rather than risk a collapse at the front meant that the guns stopped firing when the war maps still showed German troops deep inside the territory of Germany's enemies. The shock of being told that the war was lost almost immediately produced a collapse of the German home front and the disappearance of its dynasties and institutions; and this in turn made the country practically totally defenseless.

The turmoil of a few weeks in the country that had had the most solid home front during the war of all the European belligerents would later be transposed in malice aforethought by some and in subjective honesty by others with the defeat at the front which had actually preceded and caused it.a The stab-in-the-back legend thus created—the false claim that action at home had caused defeat in battle—would have a large number of fateful effects subsequently, but the immediate result of the German military collapse would be that the victors became more concerned that there should be a government of some sort in Germany to accept the terms of peace than about possible German rejection of whatever was proposed. The victors were indeed prepared to march in and occupy the country if the peace treaty were rejected, but that contingency was correctly believed unlikely to arise.

The second major factor at work in the peace settlement was the desperate fear of German might. The very fact that it had taken most of the world to crush Germany and her allies and then only in a long, bitter, and costly struggle, with Allied defeat averted by the narrowest of margins, suggested that the German state at the center of the continent, newly formed less than half a century earlier, was extraordinarily dangerous to the welfare, even existence, of others. The fact that the victors were meeting in the French capital, which had been threatened by German capture a year earlier and still bore the marks of shelling, guaranteed that no one would forget how narrow the margin of victory had been. Furthermore, the German introduction into combat of what seemed to many people at the time the most horrendous of the new weapons and methods of warfare only accentuated concern about a continuing menace from that nation. The bombing of cities from the air, unrestricted submarine warfare, and the use of poison gas certainly looked to the victors as innovations the world owed to German genius but might well have done without.

This mixture of fear and hate combined with loathing for Germany's invasion of Belgium, her despicable conduct in that country, and her wanton destruction of French territory as it was evacuated, to suggest the wisdom, indeed the imperative need, for measures to limit German power in the future if other nations were to survive the German experiment of nationhood. Such measures were, however, halted short of eliminating that experiment by a fundamental assumption and principle of the peacemakers, the third of the conditioning elements of the peace settlement. This was the belief that Europe should be organized on the principle of nationality, and that violations of this principle had had a large part in bringing on the war. If one started from this belief—perhaps it would be better to say basic assumption—then certain highly significant implications for any peace settlement would necessarily follow. The first and by far the most important was that there would continue to be a German nation.

As can be seen by any analysis of even the harshest terms proposed by anyone before or during 1919, the continued existence of a German state, however truncated or restricted, was taken for granted by all.1 The experience of World War II would call this assumption in question, and one major facet of the war aims discussion among the allies who fought against Germany in that second conflict revolved precisely around this issue, but such was not the case in 1919. Although the process of German unification under Prussian leadership had been accompanied by the disappearance of several states which had existed for centuries, and although German war aims in the conflict just over had always included the end at least of Belgium's existence as a really independent state,2 not one among the victorious leaders assembled in Paris advocated such a fate for Germany. What arguments there were all revolved around the extent and the methods for weakening or restraining Germany. This focus of emphasis on the modalities of a continued German state would subsequently blind the Germans to possible alternatives to the peace treaty they were obliged to sign, as effectively as it would conceal from critics of the settlement its single most portentous feature.

Write your comment