The period before the Second World War is critical to understanding the war itself. Why is it important and what will the podcast discuss.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 1, an introduction to Season 1 of the show, which I am calling, rather ominously, Return of the Shadow. This week I would like to thank everybody who is currently supporting this podcast on Patreon. There are too many of you to thank individually, but just know that I thank you. As part of my thanks for their support I provide Patreon exclusive content once a month, like the episode that released this month that discusses the evolution of the Royal Navy in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. If that sounds interesting to you, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. This episode is all about the first season of episodes, which will cover the interwar period. At the end of this episode I hope you understand why the interwar period is so important, and why this podcast will be spending so much time discussing the events before September 1, 1939.
The Second World War is in many respects the event of the 20th century. It was influenced by earlier events, and it would cast its shadow over the following decades. Fighting would stretch around the globe, and few areas would escape its effects. The human cost of the war is almost incalculable. Even if you could arrive at a final figure for military personnel killed or wounded, of civilians killed or injured, that number will still just barely scratch the surface of the pain and suffering caused by the war. The mental, emotional, and physical oppression and persecution perpetrated by foreign invaders and local despots. The deprivation and destitution caused by the demands of fighting a total war with its resulting poverty and starvation. The grief caused by the loss of spouses, siblings, parents, and children. All of these things are the legacy of the war, even if it is at times plastered over by patriotism and propaganda. That is how we end up here, over a hundred years after the war that was supposed to End All Wars, but which was destined to be known not as the World War, but as the First World War. If there is an event titled the First World War, then there must be a Second. They would both be wars that would begin with fighting in the same geographical regions, between some of the same nations, with armies led by many of the same individuals who had participated in the first. These facts bring us to the question of the interwar period, how was it possible that a generation that had lived through and participated in the greatest war in human history would start another, and even more devastating, global conflict just 20 years later.
The events of the interwar period are often neglected and if they are given any of the spotlight they are often treated not as discrete events but as inevitable stepping stones on the path to war. The story of events generally begin with Hitler coming to power in 1933, then rapidly move to the Munich Agreement, and then to September 1, 1939 with all of the speed of the mythical blitzkrieg. If we are going to try and take a different approach it cannot fully divorce itself from the fact that a European and later a global war would begin in 1939, to try and do so would be folly. Instead we will try to avoid answering the question “Why did the Second World War begin?” and instead focus on three more nuanced questions, which are perhaps not quite so leading in nature. The first is: Were there any points during the period between 1919 and 1939 that provided an opportunity for the leaders around the world to avoid, postpone, or reduce the likelihood of a future conflict? Second: Were there any events before 1939 that brought the world close to a global conflict, if so how was it avoided and why were similar strategies unsuccessful in 1939? Third and finally: How did the people, both leaders and average citizens, view the events that occurred during the period, did they see them as the seemingly unavoidable slide toward conflict?
This third question may be the most important, specifically because of how the study and discussion of history before events like the Second World War should be treated. It is very easy to fall into the trap of criticizing, or praising, decisions based on the outcome of history. This results based analysis is very easy to do but it can be a disservice to the actual events that occurred. It can also cause incorrect conclusions to be made about events and decisions that were made at the time. Instead of judging decisions based on the outcome, an outcome that those making the decision did not of course know, we should instead seek to judge decisions based on the information available at the time. It is only in this way that the correctness, or incorrectness, of a decision can be determined. These outcomes do not always alter the correctness of the original decision, but not all decisions that result in bad outcomes were bad decisions, not all decisions that result in good outcomes were good decisions. This is due to one of the great tragedies of life, and it is just as true in war as in any other theater, people can make all of the right decisions, and still fail, and they can make many incorrect decisions and still succeed. This ties into a very easy trap to fall into when looking at the interwar period which is judging decisions based on the fact that we know exactly when the war begins. Nobody around the world knew when, where, or how the war would begin until just months before it happened. Even the Germans, who would be the ones to invade Poland, did not know they would be launching the operation in 1939 until just months beforehand. During the interwar years people did not even know that a war would begin at all, and this altered perceptions of what should be done. The uncertainty of possible future war also interacted with political movements all around the world to change how governments and nations reacted to the actions of other states both toward and away from war. All of these considerations and complications will be a running theme for the interwar period and I will refer back to the question of how we judge decisions during this period of history several times.
The other two questions: Could the war have been prevented? Was it possible that it could have started earlier? Will also be a topic we will refer back to. We will spend the better part of the next 50 episodes trying to answer them. The next two episodes will be brief overviews of the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference. These events would be critical to the world views of many world leaders and citizens in the 1920s and 1930s, and they would cast a long shadow. For many groups the most important outcome of the war and the Treaty was the creation of the League of Nations. It was an organization designed to foster and promote international cooperation, it was supposed to prevent future conflicts, to provide an alternative means for nations to adjudicate their differences. It of course failed, we will discuss why and how it failed, and also how in some ways it succeeded. We will then turn our eyes to Italy to discuss the rise to power of Benito Mussolini and the creation of the Italian Fascist state. Mussolini would not be the first fascist, but he would be the first to find his way into a position to lead a nation. Then we will discuss the New York Stock Market crash of 1929 and the resulting economic downturn experienced around the world, known as the Great Depression, the Great Slump, and by many other names. These economic problems would put many nations, already under economic strain from the events of the 1920s into a serious crisis. For some it would cause drastic political changes, for others it would force drastic economic policy alterations. One country that would see both was Germany, where the leaders of the German Republic created after the First World War had always been somewhat precariously perched at the top of the German nation. After the German political changes, there are many topics and trends that would run throughout the 1930s in many nations that we will need to discuss. These include the discussions and decisions made around disarmament, arms control, and rearmament, peace movements around Europe, and the slide of many nations into economic isolation and political nationalism. All of these topics will then set the stage for conflict, and the first that we will discuss will be the Italo-Ethiopian Crisis that would begin in 1934. The violent expansion of Italian influence in Africa would bring Europe remarkably close to war, far closer than it had been at any point since 1919. This would just be the first conflict in Europe in the 1930s that would cause international tension to greatly increase, with the second being the Spanish Civil War which would see the various political ideologies of the Western World all come into direct conflict. The increasing interest and intervention of nations around Europe would also introduce the very serious threat of the Spanish conflict spilling out into a larger war. We will then close out the first season of episodes by turning our eyes away from Europe and toward events in Asia. Tension in China had been ongoing for many years, and these tensions would occasionally flare up in violence. This tension, and the continual push by the Japanese political and military leaders to expand their influence and control in China would eventually lead to the Second Sino-Japanese War, which would see a new level of violence erupt in Shanghai in 1937.
I have setup a website for the podcast over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com and on that website you can find links to all of the various social media sites where the podcast has a presence, you can find a link to the Patreon page if you would like to support the show, you can also find a rough podcast roadmap that lays out the basic structure of future content. I have also posted a full list of sources used for the podcast which will continue to grow in the coming months and years. There are also episode notes for every episode, including the sources used for the episode and a rough transcript. I hope you have enjoyed this episode, and I hope you will join me for the next one in which we will discuss, in the briefest way I know now, the History of the Great War.