Unrest in Europe continues after World War I and the outbreak of a second major war is sparked in 1939 when Adolf Hitler’s Germany invades Poland.
Feelings of discontent and resentment are high among Germans in the wake of punitive peace treaty conditions post-WWI, including crippling reparation payments. A perfect storm is brewing as support for nationalist groups rises and economic woe leads to hyperinflation and social unrest.
After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles is drawn up. It is signed on June 28 1919 and marks an end to the state of war between Germany and Allied Powers (though the armistice of November 11 1918 had already brought an end to fighting). The treaty forces Germany to disarm, accept full responsibility for the causing of all loss and damage sustained during the war, concede certain territorial areas, and pay reparations to the victorious nations.
At the time of the treaty signing, John Maynard Keynes describes the reparations as excessive, overly harsh and akin to “Carthaginian peace”. The Locarno treaties of 1925 serve to mitigate the punitive impact of Versailles, and aim at re-establishing Franco-German relations, but feelings of bitterness remain commonplace in Weimar Germany. It is in this context of contempt for treaty conditions and anger at those German leaders that were signatories to the treaties, that the far-right National Socialist (Nazi) party gains support.
By the end of January 1933, President Hindenburg appoints Hitler as Chancellor. From here, Hitler moves relentlessly to consolidate power. Civil liberty suspensions are imposed and political opponents are ousted. On March 24 1933, after March’s Reichstag elections hand no single party a majority, Hitler convinces Reichstag members to pass the Enabling Act, granting the Chancellor emergency power to act outside of the constitution and without parliamentary consent, for a period of four years. Upon passage of the Enabling Act, Hitler outlaws rival political parties and takes power away from the states.
Between June 30 and July 2 1934, The ‘Night of the Long Knives’ – a series of political executions predominantly targeting SA (Brownshirt) leadership, conservative members of the establishment, and other anti-Nazis – consolidates Hitler’s grip on power as he systematically purges his party. The purge is also known as the ‘Rohm Putsch’ in recognition of the murder of Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA.
When Paul von Hindenburg dies a month later, in August 1934, Hitler assumes absolute power as ‘Fuhrer’.
A defining moment of the 20th century takes place on September 1 1939, as Hitler invades Poland and, in so doing, sets off a chain of events that change the world forever. Within two days of the Polish invasion, after Germany ignores a British ultimatum to cease military operations, Britain and France declare war on Germany.