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World War Two Key Debates
Have a read of some discussion questions to help generate your own ideas for your writing.
Why did World War Two break out in Europe?
Ultimately, Britain and France abandoned their policy of appeasement and went to war against Nazi Germany after Poland was invaded without justification in September 1939. However, the circumstances leading up to this event are complex. For many historians, the road to World War Two began in 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles saw Germany receiving harsh punishment for its role in provoking World War One.
The national pride of the German people was compromised by the war guilt clause and the weakening of the German military, which was reduced to a small army and six naval vessels. Furthermore, the 6,600marks owed in reparations caused considerable economic decline, particularly after the Wall Street Crash cut off US loans and trade and sent Germany into crippling economic depression and hyperinflation. It was this economic deterioration that enabled Hitler to rise to power; from being a small, obscure party in the late 1920s, the Nazis were dominating government by 1933 and Hitler had been appointed chancellor. He had achieved this by promising to restore national pride and German strength, whilst also exploiting public fear of his communist opposition and relying on violent intimidation. Hitler’s aggressive plans were certainly responsible for triggering the war but it could be argued that the allies failed in their response to initial Nazi militarism. Hitler openly began to rearm Germany and there were many warning signs of his ambition; the Rhineland was reoccupied in 1936 (when the army still only numbered 22,000), the Anschluss occurred in March 1938 and then the Sudetenland was pursued, prompting the Munich Conference where the allies naively believed that Hitler had been tamed.
The Russians made a similar assumption after signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 and had any of the major European powers taken an earlier stand, Hitler may have never developed the military capacity to pursue his plans. The only international organisation designed to stop aggressive attacks on other nations was the League of Nations but this had already been proved a failure by 1939. Nations could just leave and pursue expansionist policies anyway (as Japan had in 1931) or decisions were not enforced (as shown by the continuation in trade with Italy following its invasion of Abyssinia in October 1935).
How did Britain contribute to the defeat of Germany in the Second World War?
Britain’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany was significant, even if it was ultimately Soviet troops that liberated Berlin. Until the Luftwaffe failed to gain aerial superiority over the British during the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Nazi war machine had appeared unstoppable. If the RAF had failed in their attempts to intercept so many German aircraft or if they had run out of the resources and pilots that enabled them to continue flying before Hitler called off the operation, it may have been possible for the Germans to launch a ground invasion of Britain and consolidate their hold on Northern Europe. Instead, the hardships of the blitz were matched by the psychological and economic damage that the RAF caused to Germany from 1940 onwards. Furthermore, British troops played an important role in opening a second European front against the Nazis through Operation Overlord in June 1944. The D Day landings caught the Germans by surprise and the allies were able to gain a foothold in occupied France which then enabled them to begin the slow drive towards Paris, forcing the Nazis into retreat.
Although Germany was entered from the east in April 1945, it was the pincer movement created by the success of the British and American offensive as well as Soviet progress that made the situation so deadly for Hitler. By spreading their military activity so widely across the globe, the British also took on a broader role in the defeat of the Axis powers. Victories over fascist Italy forced Hitler to divert troops to central Europe and operations in Burma and parts of Indonesia inflicted significant damage on Japan.
It must however, be remembered that the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers was a joint operation and Britain was not capable of winning the war singlehandedly. The BEF was unable to stop the initial German advance, resulting in a lamentable retreat from Dunkirk in May 1940. America’s entry into the war significantly strengthened allied efforts and yet there was still a significant delay in the opening of the second front, with some historians arguing that the war could have ended sooner if the D Day landings had been brought forward. Instead, it was the Soviets who inflicted the most damage on Hitler’s army, defeating it at Stalingrad and causing over ninety per cent of German military casualties.
How did World War Two change life in Britain?
It would not only be inaccurate to claim that the British public had a uniform experience of war but also that the experience remained consistent across the six years of the conflict. Images of the home front tend to be dominated by the winter of 1940-1941, when British cities were bombed heavily by the Luftwaffe. This was probably the most difficult time for the population; the blitz shocked Britain and had a profound psychological impact on all, even if the physical impact was highly geographically concentrated on key urban areas. However, the bombing campaigns had been anticipated long before they actually begun, meaning some of the changes brought by the war were experienced from the outset. Blackouts, evacuation and other government controls curtailed freedom from September 1939 and economic hardship also came early because of the inflation which resulted from the disruption of imports and from stockpiling.
The cost of living certainly increased, along with taxation, but the British people did not go hungry; in fact, rationing acted as a social leveller and ensured that all classes had access to necessities. Furthermore, the increase in military production required a mobilisation of the entire workforce and ensured that unemployment became practically non-existent. By 1941, all citizens were required to undertake compulsory service, either through conscription or as part of the home front. Government control and interference was certainly more profound but life was generally easier for the working classes not directly affected by fighting or bombings. Wages rose at a faster rate than the cost of living and infant mortality fell.
Although the Beveridge Report of 1942 highlighted that the government could do a great deal more to ensure the welfare of British citizens, the war at most delayed these improvements, rather than diminishing the general standard of living further. Undoubtedly, the expense of the war caused a sacrifice in the range and choice of consumer goods in order to prioritise the military but it was temporary and few questioned the legitimacy of the conflict itself, enabling maintenance of morale.
How far could it be argued that the Cold War was caused by World War Two?
To some extent, the roots of the Cold War lay in World War Two. Although Britain and the United States were allies of Soviet Russia and formed the Grand Alliance that caused Nazi defeat, the partnership was fraught with difficulties. The hardships of the war were not spread evenly, with the Americans playing a significant military role but not experiencing invasion or aerial bombing. In contrast, the Soviets lost twenty million civilians and inflicted the majority of damage on the German army. This meant the victors took very different approaches at Yalta and Potsdam, with the Soviets focusing on a need for retribution and the acquisition of territory to ensure there was a buffer zone to protect them from any future German attack and the Americans pursuing plans for democratic elections and a rebuilding of Germany so it could be integrated into the world trading system.
The dubious conduct of both sides during the war also caused tensions; the Soviets’ poor treatment of Jews and Poles, (such as in the Katyn Massacre of 1943) provoked suspicion and the delay in opening the second front and secrecy over the atomic bombs implied that America and Britain were conducting the war on their own terms. However, explanations for the Cold War go far beyond the conflict that preceded it. It could be argued that the war-time alliance was little more than a marriage of convenience that temporarily masked the poor relations that had existed since Russia went communist in 1917, threatening the ideological basis of Western capitalism. There is also much evidence to suggest that the years after WW2 were more crucial than the war itself; Stalin’s decision to sovietise Eastern Europe and the US policies of containment and Marshall Aid solidified the tension that already existed between the superpowers.