The origins of World War Two

How did WW2 come about? And when were the opening salvos really fired?

Nazi troops marching into Prague during their invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1939.

This presentation was made to the Stalin Society in London by Harpal Brar on 18 November 2018.


The second world war was a continuation of the first world war. With the defeat of Germany, the first world war had strengthened the position of French and British imperialism, especially the latter. On the eve of the second world war, British dominions and territories covered a quarter of the world’s surface. The defeat of Germany propelled Britain to its zenith.

Britain secured the lion’s share of German colonies at the post-WW1 peace conference in Versailles, in the form of mandated territories of the League of Nations. In the middle east, Britain and France divided the remnants of the Ottoman empire between them. The empire, if you like, was Britain’s Lebensraum. By the late 1920s, almost two-thirds of Britain’s overseas investments and half her trade went to the empire. Not unnaturally, then, Britain was a power committed to the status quo.

Equally, by the same measure, the powers that lost most (Germany) or gained little (Japan and Italy) at Versailles sought to upset this status quo. Italy had been lured into joining the allies in the first world war after having been promised enough to tempt her. Although Italy lost 460,000 soldiers, and received many more wounded, she was treated, as was Japan, with contempt at Versailles.

“After the ‘war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘peace to end peace’”, Archibald Wavell is said to have declared in connection with the Treaty of Versailles, which made the second world war the most likely outcome.

Thus, the war that started with the invasion of Poland by Germany on 1 September 1939 was doubtless an interimperialist war for domination and redivision between two imperialist coalitions. Britain and France went to war, not to save Polish independence, but to preserve the status quo; while Germany went to war precisely to upset the existing state of affairs, and was joined by Italy and Japan subsequently for the same reason.

Doubtless, the population at large in Britain, gripped by an antifascist feeling, fought the war motivated by a sentiment which sensed the danger of being dominated by fascism as menacing indeed.

The USA stayed out of the war until 7 December 1941, when at 7.49am, Honolulu time, the first wave of Japanese aircraft launched their attack on the US Pacific fleet at anchor in Pearl harbour. That attack put an end to the US’s pretended neutrality.

Properly to understand the developments leading to this war, one must pay heed to the following factors:

1. The economic crisis;

2. The Treaty of Versailles and the struggle for the redivision of the world;

3. Fear of socialism and the USSR, the fatherland of the international proletariat.

Economic crisis

With the protracted economic crisis following the Wall Street crash of 1929 creating tension in capitalist countries – both within these countries and in their mutual relations; an intensified struggle for markets; the disappearance of free trade; prohibitive tariffs and trade war; currency war and dumping – all these made relations among various capitalist countries extremely strained and prepared the ground for military conflict, putting war on the order of the day as a means for overcoming the crisis and a redivision of the world and spheres of influence in favour of the stronger states.

This table gives a graphic picture of the volume of output in the seven major economies at the time:

Volume of output compared with 1929 (1929+100)

United States66.4072.00
Great Britain98.80112.00

The table shows that the USSR was the only country in the world where crisis had disappeared and industry was continuously advancing.

Meanwhile, the internal situation in the capitalist countries was becoming increasingly tense.

By the end of 1933, the number of unemployed workers stood at 3 million in Great Britain, 5 million in Germany and 10 million in the US (13 million according to some sources).

Working-class discontent, and the fear of social upheaval, obliged the ruling classes to resort to suppression of the working class, dispensing with bourgeois-democratic norms and driving the communist parties underground as they resorted to openly terrorist methods to maintain the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Chauvinism and preparation for war became the main elements of foreign policy, repression of the working class and terrorism in the sphere of domestic policy were seen as a necessary means for strengthening the rear with a view to future wars.

Fascism, not surprisingly, became the most fashionable commodity among bellicose bourgeois politicians.

The victory of fascism in Germany was not merely a symptom of the weakness of the working class following betrayals by the social-democratic party, which paved the way for fascism. It was also a symptom of the weakness of the bourgeoisie, showing that the ruling class could no longer rule through the old, peaceful methods of parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy.

As history was to prove, war, far from providing a way out, only unleashed revolution in many countries.

Versailles and the struggle for redivision

The punitive peace settlement at Versailles, which stripped Germany of her territory, all her shipping and overseas colonies, and imposed disarmament and a vast war indemnity onto her, along with a forced confession that she was solely responsible for the war, outraged the German people.

A powerful sense of injustice scarred an entire generation of Germans, and the desire to reverse the judgment of Versailles struck deep roots in German society.

11 November 1918: the armistice agreement

Germany was to be almost completely disarmed; her army was not to exceed 100,000 (for internal policing duties only); she was to be denied the use of tanks, warplanes and submarines; her general staff was to be disbanded; her colonies taken over by the League of Nations and distributed to Britain, France, Belgium and Japan as mandates.

In Europe, one-eighth of German territory was distributed to France and Belgium in the west, Denmark in the north and Poland in the east. Poland was given a ‘corridor’ of territory to the sea carved out of west Prussia, dividing the old heartland of the Reich and leaving a vulnerable rump of east Prussia surrounded by Polish territory and cut off from the rest of Germany.

The transferred territory in the east and west included almost one-third of the coal and three-quarters of the iron-ore resources of the pre-war Reich.

The iron and steel industry of the Saar basin was placed under international control, and the Rhineland was permanently demilitarised. In addition, reparations of 132bn gold marks were imposed on Germany. The schedule of payments drawn up in 1921 would have burdened the German economy until 1988.

The socialist politicians who signed the treaty became the ‘November criminals’ in the eyes of German nationalists.

After Germany’s defeat, its government was formed by an alliance of moderate and radical socialists for the first time.

The radicals saw an opportunity to repeat the Russian revolution of 1917, and in January 1919 they proclaimed a revolution. In Bavaria, a Soviet regime was established; in the German Ruhr valley, workers’ committees took over the running of factories. But the moderate left called in the army and militia to restore order. Within months the revolution was suppressed

This was followed by the establishment at Weimar of a national assembly – a parliamentary state.

Then followed years of economic dislocation and chaos. In the background stood German communism, which had almost triumphed in 1919 and rose up again during the crisis of 1923.

The end of the war and the Treaty of Versailles administered Germany three shocks:

1. A humiliating treaty;
2. Economic crisis, and
3. The spectre of social revolution.

1925: Following the death of social-democratic president Friedrich Ebert, Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was elected president.

1929: The worldwide slump hit Germany with exceptional force: in 1929, two million Germans were already unemployed, but by 1931 this had risen to five million, and by 1932 there were eight million fewer workers employed than in 1928, the unemployed then accounting for two in every five of the working population.

By 1932, industrial production had shrunk to 58 percent of its pre-war level. The humiliating Versailles treaty, the devastating economic crisis and the ruling class’s fear of social revolution created the conditions for the rise of Hitler’s fascist party. Coming to power in 1933, Hitler’s government refused to pay a single mark more by way of reparations.

In October 1933, Germany withdrew from the Disarmament Conference that was in permanent session at Geneva on the grounds of military parity, since the other powers had failed to disarm. It also resigned from the League of Nations (precursor to today’s United Nations).

Through economic revival programmes centred on rearmament and militarisation, the eight million 1933 unemployment figure came down to one million by 1936.

Internal opposition was eliminated through the 30 June 1934 purge of Nazi dissidents in a single night (the night of the long knives) of summary executions and assassinations.

In March 1935, Hitler publicly proclaimed German militarisation and signed a bilateral naval agreement with Britain, essentially giving Germany the green light for re-armament.

On 7 March 1936, German troops crossed the Rhine bridges, remilitarising Germany’s heartland in defiance of the proscriptions of the Versailles treaty. Neither Britain nor France was willing to oppose the move through reoccupation of Germany.

The Rhineland coup was a turning point in the fortunes of the Nazi regime. Racism, as well as the desire for Lebensraum (an empire in which to settle Germany’s ‘surplus’ population) and to defeat and conquer the Soviet Union, were integral parts of Hitler’s plans. Hatred of ‘jewish bolshevism’ was the obsession of the Hitlerite programme. By 1935, the 100,000-strong army had trebled in size.

On 25 November 1936, Germany and Japan signed the anti-Comintern pact. A year later Italy joined it, completing the triangle of powers that was committed to the reordering of world affairs.

The real start of the second world war

The second world war started long before Germany invaded Poland in 1939. It began when Japan invaded China in 1937.

“A new imperialist war is already in its second year,” Stalin told delegates at the 18th party congress in March 1939. “A war waged over a huge territory stretching from Shanghai to Gibraltar and involving over five hundred million people. The map of Europe, Africa and Asia is being forcibly redrawn. The entire post-war system, the so-called regime of peace, has been shaken to its foundations.”

It was a re-run of the first world war – a renewal of the struggle between the leading imperialist powers to redivide the world. On the one side were the ‘non-aggressive’, ‘democratic’ states of Britain, France and the United States, defending the status quo (from which they were the main beneficiaries); on the other side was a bloc of aggressor states – imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy – seeking to overturn the peace settlement of 1919. Stalin traced the inception of this interimperialist struggle to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935.

These events were followed by German and Italian military intervention in the Spanish civil war in 1936 and in 1938 by Hitler’s seizure of Austria and the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia.

Germany had succeeded in Spain, Austria and the Sudetenland because of the western powers’ policy of ‘non-intervention’. This was not a case of passive appeasement but an active policy to encourage the Germans and the Japanese to march towards the Soviet Union. This is how Stalin, in his report to the 18th party congress, succinctly portrayed that policy:

“The policy of non-intervention reveals an eagerness, a desire, not to hinder the aggressors in their nefarious work, not to hinder Japan, say, from embroiling herself in a war with China or, better still, with the Soviet Union; not to hinder Germany, say, from enmeshing herself in European affairs, from embroiling herself in a war with the Soviet Union; to allow all the belligerents to sink deep into the mire of war, to encourage them surreptitiously in this; to allow them to weaken and exhaust one another; and then, when they have become weak enough, to appear on the scene with fresh strength, to appear, of course, ‘in the interests of peace’ and to dictate conditions to the enfeebled belligerents.”

Stalin concluded with the well-known warning that the Soviet Union would not be “drawn into conflicts by warmongers who are accustomed to have others pull chestnuts out of the fire for them”.

In pursuit of imperialist policy, and ignoring the USSR, the ‘democratic’ and fascist powers came together at Munich and concluded the notorious Munich pact, which handed Czechoslovakia over to Germany.

The USSR was outraged by its exclusion from the Munich negotiations, and denounced the agreement as a betrayal of Czechoslovakia and the general interests of peace alike. This is how Soviet premier Vyacheslav Molotov put it in his speech to the Supreme Soviet in November 1938:

“The fascist and so-called democratic powers of Europe came together at Munich, and the victory over Czechoslovakia was complete … The French and English governments sacrificed not only Czechoslovakia, but their own interests as well, for the sake of an agreement with the aggressors …

“The bargain between the fascist governments and the governments of the so-called democratic countries, far from lessening the danger of the outbreak of the second imperialist war, has on the contrary added fuel to the flames. The aggressive European countries have worked out future plans not only for carving up the map of Europe again, but also for a new sharing out of colonies.” (Jane Degras (ed), Soviet documents on foreign policy Vol III, 1953)

In a telegram dated 18 July 1939 to Ivan Maisky and Yakov Suaritz, the Soviet ambassadors to Britain and France respectively, Molotov expressed his anger about the prolonged, tedious and frustrating negotiations with Britain and France concerning the conclusion of a collective security pact in the following terms:

“We are insisting that a military pact is an inseparable part of a military-political agreement … and categorically reject the Anglo-French proposal that we should first agree on the ‘political’ part of the treaty and only then turn to the question of a military agreement. The dishonest Anglo-French proposal splits up what should be a single treaty into two separate treaties and contradicts our basic proposal to conclude the whole treaty simultaneously, including its military part, which is actually the most important and political part of the treaty.

“You understand that if the overall agreement does not include as an integral part an absolutely concrete military agreement, the treaty will be nothing but an empty declaration and this is something we cannot accept. Only crooks and cheats such as the negotiators on the Anglo-French side have shown themselves to be all this time could pretend that our demands for the conclusion of a political and military agreement are something new in the negotiations … It seems nothing will come of the endless negotiations. Then they will have no-one but themselves to blame.”

Suspecting the insincerity of Britain and France as regards reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union, and suspecting further that their goal was to embroil the Soviet Union in a war with Germany single-handedly, Stalin went for the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact. “We preferred agreements with the so-called democratic countries and therefore conducted negotiations,” he told Comintern leader Georgi Dimitrov on 7 September 1939. “But the English and the French wanted us for farmhands at no cost.” (The Diary of Dimitrov 1933-1949, 2003)

During the same conversation, Stalin shed light on another aspect of the calculation that led him to conclude the pact with Hitlerite Germany:

“A war is on between two groups of capitalist countries … for the redivision of the world, for the domination of the world. We see nothing wrong in their having a good hard fight and weakening each other. It would be fine if at the hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially England) was shaken.

“Hitler, without understanding it or desiring it, is shaking and undermining the capitalist system. We can manoeuvre, pit one side against the other to set them fighting with each other as fiercely as possible. The non-aggression pact is to a certain degree helping Germany. Next time we’ll urge on the other side.”

The Soviet position

The position of the Soviet Union with regard to the war that broke out on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, as well as the explanation for the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, is provided by the following two quotations taken respectively from the Soviet newspaper Pravda and from Soviet statesman Vyacheslav Molotov:

“The Soviet Union is indifferent to the question which imperialist brigand falls upon this or that country, this or that independent state.” (Pravda, September 1938)

“It is our duty to think of the interests of the Soviet people, of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics … The countries which suffered most in the war of 1914-18 were Russia and Germany. Therefore the interests of the peoples of the Soviet Union and Germany do not lie in mutual enmity … The fact that our outlooks and political systems differ must not and cannot be an obstacle to the establishment of good political relations between both states.” (Vyacheslav Molotov, August 1939)

The Soviet Union well knew in advance that the second imperialist war was under way – a war that, with the best of intentions and efforts, she could not stay out of. This being the case, it was the endeavour of the Soviet leadership to build up her industry and strengthen her defences to a degree that would allow her to meet the challenges posed by imperialist bellicosity and hostility.

Any weakness on her part could only bring defeat and dismemberment of the country. In the memorable words of Stalin:

“One feature of the old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered for falling behind, for her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by the Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her for her backwardness, for military backwardness, for cultural backwardness, for political backwardness, for industrial backwardness, for agricultural backwardness …

“We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.” (Speech to the first all-union conference of managers, 4 February 1931)

As a result of colossal Soviet economic development, the Soviet Union was rapidly overtaking both France and Britain industrially and militarily, even though the western powers were less well aware of the shift in power effected by Soviet industrialisation. Hitler, on the other hand, was all too aware of it:

“Against this decay in Europe stands the extraordinary development of Soviet power … we see ourselves in a position which is extremely dangerous. Pictures of distraught insecure governments on the one side, and the gigantic Soviet bloc, which is territorially, militarily and economically enormously strong on the other side.

“The dangers which arise from this are perhaps at the moment not clearly recognised by all … But if this evolution goes any further, if the decomposition of Europe becomes more pronounced, and the strengthening of Soviet power continues at the same rate as hitherto, what will be the position in ten, twenty or thirty years?” (Sven Hedin, German Diary 1935-1942, 1951)

These remarks were allegedly made by Hitler to Lord Londonderry.

Strangely, Hitler’s observation fully confirms Stalin’s reflections on the mortal blows delivered by the October Revolution on world capitalism. This is what Stalin had to say on this score:

“The October Revolution inflicted a mortal wound on world capitalism from which the latter will never recover …

“Capitalism may become partly stabilised, it may rationalise its production, turn over the administration of the country to fascism, temporarily hold down the working class; but it will never recover the ‘tranquillity’, the ‘assurance’, the ‘equilibrium’ and the ‘stability’ that it flaunted before; for the crisis of world capitalism has reached the stage of development when the flames of revolution must inevitably break out.” (The international character of the October Revolution, 6-7 November 1927)

Faced with internal and external problems, imperialist countries saw a way out through war.

Speaking at the 17th party congress of the CPSU(B) in 1934, Stalin briefly examined the plans for the organisation of war then being hatched in the circles of bourgeois politicians.

Some think, he said, that the war should be organised against some one of the great powers, inflict a crushing defeat on that power and improve their own position at its expense. Referring to the first world war, which was intended to destroy Germany, the victory, he said, far from destroying Germany had only managed to sow hatred among the Germans and create fertile soil for revenge to such an extent that they, the victors, have not been able “to clear up the revolting mess they made to this day”.

But the victors did get “the smash up of capitalism in Russia, the victory of proletarian revolution in Russia”, he pointed out, going on to add: “What guarantee is there that the second imperialist war will produce ‘better’ results for them than the first? Would it not be correct to assert that the opposite will be the case?”

Others think, he said, that the war should be organised against a country weak militarily, but representing an extensive market, say China. Still others think that war should be waged by a ‘superior race’, say the German ‘race’, against an ‘inferior race’, primarily the Slavs.

In both the above cases, he observed, the organiser of these wars would fare no better than in the first case.

Still others, he said, think that the war should be organised against the USSR, defeat it, carve up its territory, and profit at its expense. If the planners of such a war should pass from words to deeds, “there can hardly be any doubt that such a war would be the most dangerous for the bourgeoisie”, for in such a war not only will the people of the Soviet Union fight “to the very death to preserve the gains of the revolution”, but they will also enjoy the support of the working class in the rear of the enemy against their own oppressors “who start a criminal war against the fatherland of the working class of all countries”.

Stalin went on to declare: “It can hardly be doubted that a … war against the USSR will lead to the complete defeat of the aggressors, to revolution in a number of countries in Europe and Asia, and to the destruction of the bourgeois-landlord governments in those countries.” (Speech at the 17th party congress, 26 January 1934)

And that was precisely the result of the war unleashed by German imperialism on the Soviet Union. Through heroic effort and colossal sacrifice, the Red Army smashed German imperialism to smithereens, while the Soviet victory was accompanied by the emergence of the bloc of people’s democracies in eastern and central Europe, and, soon after, by the birth of the DPRK, the People’s Republic of China, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. These developments shook imperialism to its foundations.

As his dream of a German ‘new order’ lay in ruins around him, Hitler perceived all too clearly the reality of the new power constellation:

“After the collapse of the Reich, and until the arrival of nationalist striving in Asia, in Africa and perhaps even in Latin America, there will now be only two powers in the world: the United States and Soviet Russia. Through the laws of history and geographical position these two colossi are destined to measure each other’s strength either in the military sphere, or in the sphere of economics and ideology.” (2 April 1945)

In the space of a mere six years, the two great powers that had stood aside from the war against Poland, each anxious to avoid being entangled in the conflict for different reasons, found themselves slowly but surely defining a new world order of their own making.

Had it not been for the triumph of Khrushchevite revisionism in the CPSU following the 20th party congress, the world would have been a far different, and a far better, place.