What events led to World War II?


During the 1920s and 1930s, many countries in Europe fell on hard times. They had to rebuild after World War I. The Great Depression began in 1929 and added to their problems. Many people in Europe were out of work and went hungry. Like Americans, the people in these countries wanted their governments to help them. Countries such as Great Britain and France were able to solve their problems and still keep freedom for their people. Other countries were not as successful. They turned to governments run by dictators.

The dictators ruled the country with the help of a loyal political party. They took away the freedom of the people and turned the country into a police state. Everyone had to obey the new leaders. If people protested against their government, the dictators used force to stop them. In Europe, the three most important nations ruled by dictators were the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany. In Asia, Japan also had a powerful new government. It was controlled by a group of military leaders who were preparing their nation for war.


 Russia was the first great power in Europe to become a dictatorship. For hundreds of years Russia had been ruled by czars. These czars had become hated. Russia suffered terrible defeats by the German army during World War I. This led the Russian people to revolt in 1917. They overthrew the czar and set up a new government. But the new government was weak. A new group, the Communists, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized control of the new government by force. Under Lenin's leadership, the Communists were able to bring all Russia under their rule. The Communists changed Russia's name to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Many people use the name the Soviet Union, or even the old name Russia, when speaking of the USSR. The Communist government slowly took over the factories, mines, and farms of the nation. Lenin died in 1924. He was followed by another dictator, Joseph Stalin. During the 1920s and 1930s, millions of people who opposed the Communist dictator were killed or sent to harsh work camps.


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In Italy, an ambitious young man, Benito Mussolini, organized a new political party, the Fascists. At first, the party was made up of young men who wore black shirts. Armed with guns and clubs, they often beat those who opposed them. Mussolini soon had a large following. People believed that he would give Italy a strong government and restore its greatness. In 1922 Mussolini marched to Rome and took control of the government. Once in power, he became a dictator. His secret police made certain that no one openly disagreed with him.

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While Mussolini was gaining power in Italy, Adolf Hitler was organizing the Nazi party in Germany. Hitler told the German people he would get back the land lost by Germany in World War I. He blamed the Jewish people for Germany's defeat in the war. He also blamed the Jews for the hard times in Germany that followed the war. He told the German people that Germans were a "master race." He said that non-German people were inferior and should be killed or made into slaves.

Once in power in 1933, Hitler became a dictator. Like Mussolini, he depended on force to keep control. He made use of a secret police, the Gestapo. People who opposed him were thrown into prison or concentration camps. Thousands just "disappeared." In particular, Adolf Hitler had a great hatred for Jews. On his orders, the Nazis drove the Jews out of their schools, their businesses, their jobs, and even their homes. The Nazis sent the Jews to concentration camps where they died from starvation and horrible tortures.

The Nazi party set out to control every aspect of the people's lives. It told factory owners what to make. It told workers they could not join labor unions or strike. Germans were allowed to read and hear only what their leaders wanted them to know. Schools taught German youth to serve Hitler and the state. Many church schools were closed when they protested Hitler's methods. A new German army was created under the slogan, "Germany today, tomorrow the world!" A country such as Nazi Germany where everything is controlled by the government is a totalitarian state.

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In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, a province of China. When the League of Nations said that Japan was wrong, Japan simply left the league. The member nations were not willing to send troops to stop Japan. They had hoped they might convince Japan by peaceful means, but they could not. When Germany and Italy saw that other nations would not fight against them, they began their attempts to conquer territory.

In 1935 Mussolini's armies invaded Ethiopia, a small nation in Africa. When the League of Nations protested, Italy left the league. In 1936 Germany sent troops into German land west of the Rhine River. This had been forbidden by the peace treaty ending World War I. Later the same year, Germany signed a treaty with Italy and Japan. These nations agreed to help each other. The alliance became known as the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. In 1937 Japan sent troops into the mainland of China.

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The Nazi attempt to conquer Europe began in March 1938. Nazi armies marched into Austria. Hitler said that Austria should be a part of Germany because many Germans lived there. He claimed that all Germans belonged under one government. The nations of Europe did not stop Hitler. They did not want war. They thought that Hitler might be satisfied with Austria. Most Americans wanted to be neutral in these European troubles. They thought the Atlantic Ocean would protect them from the problems of Europe.

Czechoslovakia was next on Hitler's list. Hitler demanded a piece of territory, the Sudetenland, from Czechoslovakia. This territory was close to the German border and had a large number of German-speaking people. England and France protested. A conference was held at Munich, Germany. Prime Minister Chamberlain of Great Britain and Premier Daladier of France went to the conference. These leaders agreed to allow Germany to have the Sudetenland. They believed this would save the world from war. On his return to England, Chamberlain said that the agreement meant "peace in our time." Winston Churchill, who was to follow Chamberlain as prime minister, claimed that the conference at Munich would only lead to war.

Six months later, in March 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Then Hitler made demands on Poland, which had been restored as a free nation in 1919. Poland refused Hitler's demands. On September 1, 1939, the German armies entered Poland. Great Britain and France now rushed to the defense of Poland. World War II had begun.

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