The Causes of World War II
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Cause #1:  Political instability and economic
devastation in Europe after World War I

Example:  Massive unemployment and
a world-wide depression

   The end of World War I in 1918 led to a depression (an economic downturn) all across Europe.  Many businesses and factories closed, and there were not enough jobs.  In the 1930s, the same economic depression that hit the U.S. also affected countries in Europe, especially Germany and Italy.  Once again, there were millions of unemployed people and businesses were going bankrupt.

   Below:  A street scene in Germany in 1919.  A woman carries milk pails with a wooden yoke across her shoulders while two men, perhaps looking for work, walk down the street.



war debt

   The treaty that ended World War I, called the  Treaty of Versailles, required Germany to pay the Allied Powers billions of dollars for the damage the war caused. 

   This war debt
hurt Germany badly, and made it difficult for the economy to get back to normal.

   At the same time, most Germans considered this requirement grossly unfair.  A deep and long lasting anger against France, Great Britain, and the other Allies was the natural result.

   The payments Germany was required to make to the Allied Powers are usually referred to as reparations or reparations payments.  The term reparations means payments to make up for damage that one has caused.


High inflation (rapidly rising prices)

   High inflation was another problem for the Germany economy after World War I. 

   The German government kept printing more and more paper money to try to cover its war debt and expenses.  That made the value of the money itself drop rapidly.  The term for this problem is inflation.

   The German woman shown here is lighting the wood burning stove in her kitchen with paper money that had become almost worthless because of inflation.

   The high inflation made it very difficult for German businesses and banks to operate properly or create new jobs.

A natural result of all these problems:
Political instability

   The problems in Germany and Italy during the 1920s led many different groups to try to gain political power.  At times there were riots in the streets among the supporters of different political parties. 

   The photo below shows Adolf Hitler and a group of Nazi Party members on a city street in Germany in 1929.  It was still only a minor political party.  The economic depression that hit Germany especially hard in 1930 gave the Nazis an unexpected opportunity.  Hitler attracted many more followers by promising to lead Germany back to success as a strong and respected nation.

Cause #2:  The rise of fascism in Europe and Japan

Fascism in Europe:  Hitler and Mussolini

    Both Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy believed in the political system called fascism.  In a fascist government system, total power is given to a dictator.  Individual rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press are denied.  The nation and its power are what counts, not the life of the individual.

   The photo below shows Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in 1934.  By that time Hitler was the dictator in Germany and Mussolini was the dictator in Italy.

Fascism in Japan:  Hideki Tojo

   In Japan, a form of fascism also took hold in the 1920s and 1930s.  Japan had an Emperor named Hirohito.  Most of the real power in Japan, however, was in the hands of a group of military leaders.

   Hideki Tojo, shown on the right, was a Japanese general who became a fascist dictator.  He pushed Japan to join the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy.  He also helped Japan plan for war with the United States.

What is fascism?

Fascism is a political philosophy (a set of ideas about government) that includes:

Extreme nationalism - a determination to build up the nation's glory and power.

Rule by a dictator - one leader with total power controls almost everything.

No individual rights - the nation is what matters, not the life of the individual.

Racism - a belief in the superiority of the nation's own race or ethnic group.

Military power and wars of conquest - to expand the nation's territory.

A symbol of fascism and the Nazi Party

   Hitler's Nazi Party took an ancient religious symbol from India called the swastika, changed it slightly, and made it their official symbol. 
During the 1930s, enormous outdoor rallies like the one in the photos below helped Nazi leaders build up more followers in Germany.  For many people who attended these rallies, it seemed that fascism and Adolf Hitler might be the answer to Germany's problems.

Germany, Italy, and Japan became the Axis Powers

   The photo below is from 1940, the year after World War II began.  Adolf Hitler is on the right, with Benito Mussolini seated next to him.  Japan joined in an alliance with Germany and Italy that same year, forming the three Axis Powers.


The photo of Tojo and the Versailles Treaty are from Wikipedia. 
They are used here under fair use and educational provisions of U.S.
copyright law. 
The photo of Mussolini and Hitler riding in a car is
from the National Archives and Wikipedia.  All other photos
are from the Library of Congress.
Some have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2011, 2014 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.