Signs of impending war were appearing in Europe in the second half of the 1930s. The horrors of the First World War were still fresh in everyone’s mind and many European leaders were determined to avoid going to war. This attitude resulted in a policy of appeasement toward Hitler’s aggressive actions between 1936 and 1939.
In 1933, Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany and quickly consolidated his power to rule the country as a dictator. In 1936, he defied the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and remilitarized the Rhineland, a zone in Western Germany near the borders of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Later that year, Germany and Italy signed the Rome-Berlin Axis; Japan formally joined the Axis in 1940.
Facing no significant opposition to his policies from international leaders, Hitler began taking over territories around Germany. In 1938, he annexed Austria and unified the two countries, called Anschluss. This, too, received no significant resistance from European leaders, and emboldened Hitler to lay claim to the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland was an area of Czechoslovakia with a majority ethnic German population. European leaders were forced to respond this time, and the result was the Munich Agreement between Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. Though war was deferred, the Munich Agreement was another act of appeasement towards Hitler and the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany under the condition that Germany could take no other territory. Czechoslovakia was not involved this agreement and was extremely opposed to losing their militarily strategic Sudetenland to Germany. Nevertheless, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London after the negotiations and declared that the Munich Agreement was securing “peace for our time.”
Hitler’s territorial claims did not end with the Sudetenland, though, and he set his sights on Poland. The non-aggression pact that Germany had signed with the Soviet Union meant that Germany could invade Poland without fear of the Soviet army advancing to meet them from the east. Britain and France had guaranteed Poland their support for Polish independence. However, their policy of appeasement since 1936 left Germany feeling secure that Britain and France would not jump to the aid of Poland.
The war officially began in Europe following Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain delivered an ultimatum to Germany to cease their military operations, but this was ignored. Consequently, on September 3, Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Canada followed suit and declared war exactly a week later, on September 10, 1939.
The Second World War broke out in 1939, twenty-one years after fighting ceased in the First World War. WWI left belligerent countries broke and fatigued. The 1920s and 1930s presented their own ups and downs, including extreme global economic booms and busts. Though there were hints at the time, we can see through hindsight the lead up to the beginning of WWII throughout the 1930s. In this blog series, important local, national, and international economic and cultural events and attitudes are discussed as Canada and the world prepares to engage in another massive global conflict.