World War II, or the Second World War, was a global war fought by Germany, Italy and Japan; known as the Axis Powers; against a larger coalition led by Great Britain, France, the United States and Russia; known as the Allies. Lasting for a period of more than 6 years; from September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945; it was the deadliest conflict in human history leading to 70 to 85 million fatalities. There were numerous events that led to WW2. The rising Nazi and Fascist influence, in Germany and Italy respectively, led to these nations seeking out ways to expand their influence and territories. Events such as Italian Invasion of Ethiopia; German Annexation of Austria; and Italian Annexation of Albania; played a key role in initiating the Second World War. Moreover, there were various Pacts signed by the major powers which led to dividing the world into two major alliances: the Axis Powers and the Allied Nations. Here are the 10 most important events that led to World War II.
#1 Italian Invasion of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia)
Date: October, 1935 – May, 1936
Conflict: 2nd Italo-Ethiopian War
In 1935, Ethiopia along with Liberia were the only nations left on the African continent which had not been colonized by a European power. 40 years ago, in 1895, they had also been the only African nation to repel a European colonizer, defeating the Italian invasion in the 1st Italo-Ethiopian War. In post WW1 Italy, Benito Mussolini had risen as the supreme Fascist dictator over the decade. His colonial ambitions and aims for the revival of the Roman Empire were well known, as were his racist ideas about the “primitive peoples” of Africa. Ethiopia was surrounded by Italian colonies of Eritrea in the north and Somalia in the south east. Considering the recent history between the two countries and Mussolini’s ambitions, an Italian invasion was a matter of time and circumstances.
A conflict started in November 1934 when Italian forces entered the Ethiopian territory of the Wal Wal Oasis and clashed with Ethiopian troops. The League of Nations was appealed to but failed to provide any solutions. Great Britain and France dominated the League and in the hope of preventing Italy from drifting towards Germany, decided to ignore the Italian aggression. On October 3, 1935, Italian troops under General Emilio De Bono invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea. Also, General Rodolfo Graziani attacked Ethiopia from south along with the Somalians, implementing Milan Plan. Against the international code, the offensive had started before any declaration of war. The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I found some success in the counter-attack known as the Christmas Offensive but the Italians progressed steadily. In December, use of chemical gases was permitted by the Italian high command which decisively tilted the war in the coming months. Poison gas was delivered by special artillery canisters and with bombers of the Italian Air Force, killing more than 100,000 Ethiopians. The capital Addis Ababa fell on May 5, 1936, as Emperor Selassie was exiled.
#2 Japanese invasion of China
Date: July 1937
Conflict: 2nd Sino-Japanese War
The Meiji Restoration of the late 19th Century had propelled Japan into a modern industrial nation, with an advanced military as compared to China. Post WWI, as Japanese imperial ambitions grew along with militant nationalism, Japan looked to expand its influence politically and militarily in order to secure access to raw material reserves, food, and labor.
In 1931, Japan managed to invade and secure the Chinese territory of Manchuria, installing the last Qing emperor, Puyi as the puppet ruler. Full scale war began in July 1937 when a minor incident between troops at the Marco Polo Bridge escalated into a major conflict. Certain scholars consider this to be the beginning of the Second World War. China was assisted by the Soviet Union and America. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the war merged with other conflicts of World War II. The most devastating war fought in Asia in the 20th century, the Second Sino-Japanese War lasted until 1945. It accounted for 4 million Chinese and Japanese military deaths; and another 10 to 25 million civilians lost their lives in war related causes.
#3 German Annexation of Austria
Date: March 12, 1938
The idea of Großdeutsche Lösung (“Greater German solution”) favored unifying all German-speaking peoples under one state. It had its supporters since the mid-19th century. Post the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the German solution resolved into the lesser German solution; i.e. the formation of German Empire under Prussian leadership and without the inclusion of Austria. However the idea of Austrian territories joining a Greater German state remained popular in some circles both in Austria-Hungary and Germany. Post WWI, after the dissolution of the Austro Hungarian Empire and proclamation of German Austria, the Greater German dream began to take roots again. This was pursued by major Austrian political parties such as the Greater German People’s Party despite the Paris Treaties of Versailles and Saint-Germain specifically forbidding such a union. Adolf Hitler was born in Austria and once he rose to power in Germany, he considered the unification of the German people as a personal mission. To reach the objective, the first course of action was to spread the influence of the Nazi Party into Austria. The Austrian Nazi organization was secretly funded through the German Foreign Office. The growing Nazi influence met with stiff resistance from the ruling Christian Social Party. Parties supporting the Nazi cause were banned in 1933. A year later, in 1934, the Austrian Nazi Party attempted to wrest power in a coup d’état and failed. Their cause was further derailed with the formation of the single party ruled (Christian Socialist) Federal State of Austria, suddenly making them anti-state.
By 1938, Hitler had made up his mind for the annexation of Austria and made his intentions clear in the meeting with new Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. After an appeal to Italy did not get the desired response, Schuschnigg announced a nation-wide plebiscite on the annexation to be held on March 13, 1938; a political move to attract international pressure in case of any form of German aggression. This infuriated Hitler, and on 11th March he ordered his top military officers to prepare a military operation that would be ready by the next day in order to strike. On March 12, Hitler accompanied German troops invading Austria, where enthusiastic crowds met them. A new Nazi government was appointed, and the Anschluss (joining) was proclaimed soon after.
#4 Munich Agreement
Date: September 29, 30, 1938
Also: German claim on Sudetenland, Munich Betrayal
The nation state of Czechoslovakia was created post WWI in 1918, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The newly formed country had 3 million Germans (about a quarter of its population), living in the border areas of Bohemia and Moravia bordering Austria and Germany. This area was called Sudetenland. Being of German descent, it resisted Czech and Slovak nationalist politics. The failure of the state to integrate the German population over the years, led to the formation of the Sudeten German Party (SdP) under the leadership of Konrad Henlein in 1933. The SdP was openly hostile towards the Czechoslovakian government and had the strong support of Sudeten Germans. Bolstered by the rise of Nazi Germany under Hilter, the Sudeten German Party became a major pro-Nazi force in Czechoslovakia having as high as 1.3 million members by June 1938.
Emboldened after the successful annexation of Austria in March 1938, Adolf Hitler set his eyes on Sudetenland. He ordered his military to prepare for an invasion (Fall Grün or Case Green) while simultaneously instructed Henlein to stir up discontent. As tensions rose, the Czech government under President Edvard Benes ordered martial law in Sudetenland and partial mobilization of its forces. This meant that war clouds were now looming over Europe. Britain and France intervened with the intent of avoiding war and adopted what is now called a policy of appeasement of Hitler. When talks with Hitler over the Sudetenland broke down, Hitler gave Britain and France an ultimatum of 28 September, after which he said he would invade Czechoslovakia. At this point Mussolini proposed a 4 power conference to resolve the issue.
On September 29, 1938 the four leaders; Neville Chamberlain (Britain), Édouard Daladier (France), Adolf Hitler (Germany) and Benito Mussolini (Italy); met in Munich to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia. The Russians (who had guaranteed Czechoslovakia) were not invited while the Czechs were not admitted into the conference room. Mussolini suggested a plan whereby Germany would gain the whole of the Sudetenland, but would then refrain from any further expansionist moves. France and Britain accepted the plan and the Munich Agreement was signed on 30th September. The Czech delegation was effectively forced to agree to these terms, having been told that there would otherwise be war for which Czechoslovakia would be blamed. The next day, on 1st October, Sudeten Germans welcomed the Nazi troops into the region, while a large number of ethnic Czechs were forced to flee. A delighted Hitler had effectively taken Sudetenland without a fight.
#5 First Vienna Award
Date: November 2, 1938
Also: First Vienna Diktat
The First Vienna Arbitration was a direct consequence of the Munich Agreement. An appendix to the agreement requested Czechoslovakia to resolve the minority question with Hungary and Poland within three months through bilateral negotiations; otherwise matters would be resolved by the four signatories of the agreement. Negotiations between Hungary and Czechoslovakia began on October 9, 1938; but soon reached a deadlock. Unable to resolve the conflict Czechoslovakia and Hungary officially agreed to a German-Italian arbitration proposal. On November 2, representatives of involved nations met at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Austria. The arbitration decided to separate largely Magyar-populated territories in southern Slovakia and southern Carpathian Rus from Czechoslovakia and awarded them to Hungary. This was an area of 11,927 square kilometers in size with close to 1 million inhabitants. This decision was known as the First Vienna Award.
#6 Germany makes further inroads into Czechoslovakia
Date: March, 1939
Also: Czechoslovakia collapses, Fall of the Second Republic
The Munich Agreement and the Vienna Award had considerable weakened the Czech Republic; which was forced to make considerable concessions for the non-Czechs. Most of the Slovak and Ukrainian parties began collaborating and forming their own autonomous governments respectively. In November 1938, Emil Hácha was elected president of the federated Second Republic, consisting of three parts: Bohemia and Moravia; Slovakia; and Carpatho-Ukraine. In January 1939, Britain and France made their last efforts to save the existing state, lending the Czech government $8 million and offering another $4 million as gift. This would however be a case of too little too late.
On 14 March, after encouragement form Hitler, the Slovak Diet convened and unanimously declared Slovak independence, effectively becoming a German puppet state. Carpatho-Ukraine followed suit, but on 15 March it was occupied by Hungarian forces, which would further occupy eastern Slovakia on 23 March. Also, on March 15, 1939, Hitler would threaten Hacha with bombing Prague, and obtain permission for free passage of German troops into Czech borders. German troops would soon after enter the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia without much resistance, making them a protectorate of Germany.
#7 Anglo Polish Military Alliance
Date: March 31, 1939 – August 25, 1939
The German invasion on the remaining of Czechoslovakia in defiance of the Munich Agreement, sent warning bells ringing across Europe. The British and French policy of appeasement of Hitler had backfired, and it seemed apparent that the Nazi ambitions could clearly not be contained. Thus responding to the changing geo-political situation, United Kingdom pledged the support of itself and France to assure Polish independence on March 31, 1939.
The military alliance between United Kingdom and Poland was formalized by the Anglo Polish Agreement of 1939 and subsequent addenda of 1940 and 1944, for mutual assistance in case of military invasion from Germany, as specified in a secret protocol. On April 6, it was agreed to formalize the guarantee as an Anglo-Polish military alliance, pending negotiations. This guarantee was extended on April 13th to Greece and Romania following Italy’s invasion of Albania. On August 25, two days after the Molotov Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Germany; the Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland was signed. In a secret protocol of the pact, the United Kingdom offered assistance in the case of an attack on Poland.
#8 Italian Annexation of Albania
Date: April 7-12, 1939
Italy, along with Austria Hungary, had been instrumental in the creation of the Albanian state during pre-WWI times. Located at the entrance to the Adriatic Sea, the area under the newly formed Albania had long had considerable strategic importance for the Kingdom of Italy. At the outbreak of the First World War, Italy occupied the southern half of Albania, but post war Albanian resistance and problems at home forced Italy to pull out in 1920. This embarrassing failure played on the mind of Mussolini when he ascended to power in Italy. His dream of recreating the Roman Empire was not a secret to anyone and Albania was a low hanging fruit. Italy began penetration of Albania’s economy in 1925, and as economic dependence grew, the countries entered a defensive alliance via the Second Treaty of Tirana (1927). In a few years Albania was receiving subsidized Italian loans; its Army and government were under strong Italian influence; and one third of its imports came from Italy. Problems began when King Zog I of Albania began resisting the rising Italian influence. He began looking for alliances elsewhere in Europe; signing trade agreements with Yugoslavia and Greece in 1934.
As King Zod I was making considerable efforts to reduce dependence on Italy, by 1939, Italy had decided that they need to take action before it becomes something more difficult to deal with. After annexing Ethiopia in 1936, they were now focused on Albania. Hitler’s move on Czechoslovakia encouraged Mussolini to act promptly and on March 25, 1939 an ultimatum was delivered, demanding that Albania accede to Italy’s occupation of Albania. After a refusal to submit from King Zog I, who was allegedly offered money, Mussolini’s troops invaded Albania attacking all Albanian ports simultaneously. Albania, with its weak military and no alliances, failed to resist the enemy and on April 12, the country became a protectorate of Italy with Italian King Victor Emmanuel III being offered the Albanian crown.
#9 Pact of Steel
Date: May 22, 1939
Also: Formation of the Axis Powers
In 1936, the Rome Berlin Axis Agreement had informally linked Nazi Germany with Fascist Italy. This was a long way forward since the First World War, when the two sides had fought bitterly on the opposite sides. Attempting to rise after the setbacks of WWI and the Great Depression of 1930s, Italians and Germans were increasingly drawn towards militaristic Fascist and Nazi regimes respectively. Fascism and Nazism shared similar principles which played a role in bringing Hitler and Mussolini together, eventually leading to the agreement.
In May 1939, Germany and Italy were dealing with the political fallout of the annexation of Czechoslovakia and Albania. A possible war with Western Europe was not out of the question, especially considering Fascist and Nazi expansionist dreams. Thus on 22nd May, 1939, the two countries formalized their 1936 agreement signing the “Pact of Steel” alliance with each other. This political and military alliance formally gave birth to the Axis Powers. The pact was originally drafted as a tripartite military alliance between Japan, Italy and Germany. However the alliance was aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the focus to be the Soviet Union. This disagreement would result in Japan not being the signatory of the initial pact.
#10 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Date: 23 August, 1939
Also: German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, Hitler-Stalin Pact
The British and French support of Poland had infuriated Hitler. It was the first instance in history of Britain committing to fight on behalf of a European country other than France or Belgium. This discontent with the British-Pole alliance led Hitler to restructuring his strategy towards Moscow. Britain, France and the Soviets were already negotiating on a potential political and military agreement but were unwilling to yield to certain Soviet demands. All this time the Germans were secretly hinting to Soviet diplomats that they could offer better terms for a political agreement. Germany and the Soviet Union had had major political and ideological differences since WWI, but both the countries had a common enemy in Poland. The communist Soviet Union also feared “capitalist encirclement” from western European powers. Thus when Joseph Stalin did not get his desired concessions from Britain and France, he chose to have an agreement with Germany.
On 23rd August 1939 in Moscow, the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact was officially signed as a Non-Aggression treaty between Russia and Germany. Its signatories were German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov. Secret protocols of this treaty defined the territorial spheres of influence Germany and Russia would have after a successful invasion of Poland. According to the agreement, Russia would have control over Latvia, Estonia and Finland; while Germany would gain control over Lithuania and Danzig.