Lest We Forget:
   World War II














World War II, or World War I, Part Two?

Many historians view World War II as the "second chapter", or the finishing of the unfinished business of World War I. While the two wars were in fact very different, they can be viewed as two sections of the same war. When looking at Hitler's rise to power, there is a definite link between World War I and World War II. There is also a major link between the two wars in the Treaty of Versailles.

At the end of World War I, an obscure German soldier named Adolf Hitler lay grieving in a military hospital. He had just learned that Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated, and that the Weimar Republic had been proclaimed in Berlin. Even worse to Hitler than the declaration of the republic, however, was the fact that the war had been lost.

In Hitler's mind, the armistice had not resulted from German defeats on the battlefield. It had instead come about because the Jews and Socialists had undermined the government and the war effort, leading to the armistice and the advent of the Weimar Republic. Ironically, though the defeat of Germany and the abdication of the Kaiser deeply saddened and angered him, it would be "these developments, which Hitler so lamented, that allowed him to emerge from obscurity to become one of the most powerful and infamous dictators in history." [Nazi, 1]

Had it not been for Hitler's experiences in World War I, and the anger and sense of betrayal that they caused, he never would have built up the Nazi Party, never would have become dictator, and never would have launched World War II. In this way, World War II can be seen as Hitler's, and Germany's, quest to right the "wrongs done by the Socialists and the Jews" in World War I.

When vying for power, Hitler himself came right out and said that, if elected, he would close the book on World War I by ending the struggle against France, England, and Russia. If elected, he said, he would end the "legacy of war and defeat." [Rise, 34] In order to carry on and attempt to end the struggle that he joined in World War I, Hitler launched World War II.

The second way in which we can see that World War II is really the continuation of World War I is in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. When the Weimar Republic signed the armistice at the end of World War I, the allies had a very difficult time of determining how harsh the punishment of Germany should be. On one hand, they wanted to assure that Germany would not be strong enough to rise up and engulf Europe in war again, and France especially had a strong desire to punish Germany mercilessly. On the other hand, the new threat of communism was threatening to swallow Europe, and Germany, if strong enough, could act as a barrier between Russia and the rest of Europe.

Unfortunately, cooler heads did not prevail, and the bloodthirsty French got their way. In addition to enormous, almost unpayable reparations forced upon Germany, Germany was also slapped with an embarrasing "war guilt clause" which stated that Germany alone was responsible for World War I.

Though this was clearly not the case, Germany was forced to sign the armistice and "accept" the guilt of causing World War I. The ridiculous reparations later combined with the Great Depression drove Germany to ruin. Every other nation in the world was having trouble coping with the depression without having to pay reparation payments, so the Great Depression affected Germany twofold. The rapid decline of Germany, and the anger over the war guilt clause and the outlandish reparations directly led to the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists, and hence to World War II as well.

By looking at the way in which Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and by examining the inter-war period with respect to the Treaty of Versailles, it is clear that World War II was actually a continuation of World War I. Whether or not the tragedy of World War II was avoidable is up for debate. Had the post-WW I situation been handled differently, World War II may very well never have happened. Instead, by too aggresively pursuing the idea of a punished and weakened Germany, the formulators of the Treaty of Versailles ensured the resurgence of German militantism and attempted military expansion.
Works Cited

Bendersky, Joseph W., A History of Nazi Germany, Nelson-Hall, Chicago 1985 [Nazi]

Conan, Fischer, The Rise of the Nazis, Manchester University Press, Manchester, England 1995 [Rise]

Copyright © 1994-2005 Stephen Payne