World War II – through the lens of geopolitics and the writings of people – part I, Premises, Pacts and Belligerence

World War II – through the lens of geopolitics and the writings of people – part I, Premises, Pacts and Belligerence

WW2September 1st 1939 – September 2nd  1945, the timeframe between the escalation of tensions, through the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the capitulation of Japan through the signing by Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu of  the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, is arguably the most geopolitically active period in modern history, actively and continuously changing the balance of power, recycling the status quo and inexorably diverting world history towards our present day and further, towards an uncertain, multipolar future.  Few periods have had such a concentration of significant events for reshaping the geopolitical landscape and the redistribution of power on a global scale.  The premises of this tragedy are extremely complex and vast. The resulted conflict is a product not only of macropolitical variables such as the proliferation of left and right wing extremism or ill-conceived juridical instruments such as the infamous Treaty of Versailles but also of an intricate web of details that defined the lives of some of the key figures in the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan, the two main instigators of the conflict. It is safe to say that World War II, as all conflicts, has a duality of perspective that ranges from the macro scale of the theaters of war, Europe, Pacific, Atlantic, Southeast Asia, perspective that is reserved in details for higher echelons of military and political command and the perspective of the common individual, the soldier or civilian that has no pull on the forces that created the maelstrom in which he/she is engulfed and that ultimately changes his/her life. This article struggles to find common language between this two vistas by deconstructing World War Two as a geopolitical event in three parts and by voicing both perspectives in each part in order not only to deepen our understanding of this colossal landmark in human history but to better our understanding of ourselves and the future that is ahead of us. The first part of this series will deal with the premises for war, the confusion regarding the actual start of the conflagration, the paper trail of bilateral and multilateral international agreements that defined future adversaries and also with the geopolitical themes that were used to give substance to action.

Papers of War – Versailles, Ribbentrop-Molotov, Anti-Comintern

None of the myriad of causes that led to the Second World War is more important than the financial, geopolitical, military and psychological impact of the Great War and the solution issued by the Allies in the form of the Treaty of Versailles. In November 1918 Europe was finally ready to lay down its arms and see the chaos that it had instilled on itself. Corporal Robert William Iley enlisted in 21st (Service) Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps stated that month in his journal:

As we carried one man up, I saw the wounded orderly dying bravely.  Smoking a cigarette, he told the medical officer to dress those who would live.  He died in the ambulance shortly afterwards.  There was a gaping hole in my steel helmet, a piece of shrapnel in my towel, and the hut was riddled, but I was untouched.

Soon after this our big push that was to end the War started.  We kept the enemy on the move and talked excitedly when the first rumors of the Armistice came through.  On the morning of November 11th I was with a section in the front, and had orders to harass the Hun until 11 a.m. when hostilities would cease.  At eleven o’clock we halted at an estaminet and amazed the landlady by demanding beer and shouting “Le guerre finis”.

Following the Germans next day to make sure that they were retiring, we met frightened figures in strange clothing – men of the Allied Armies, fearing and starving, staggering towards freedom.  Some died by the roadside, dead on the day of their delivery from a living death, turned out by an enemy without any provision for their safe return. “

Looking back to the enormous logistical effort that the peace talks demanded with 1646 meetings held from January to June 1919, 58 different committees, one for each of the 27 participating countries and for other issues such as rivers, war reparations, harbors, railways, sea lanes, war criminals, we cannot help but notice the immense error of not including the defeated countries, Russia and Germany in the negotiation process and automatically and irrevocably assigning blame, through article 231 to Germany, making it the sole culprit for the massacre that swept over Europe.  Another grave structural error of the treaty was the antagonism between Great Britain and France on one side and America on the other side regarding foreign policy. The American view of the war was very clear: the faulty principle of the balance of power had finally crumbled under its own infeasibility and plunged Europe into chaos. Thus, this precarious system based on a complicated network of alliances and treaties had to be terminated and replaced with a moral and judicial system, in which nations had a similar status to a person under civil law. It had rights and obligations and could face international opprobrium if it would not adhere to the 14 principles program that Woodrow Wilson, then president of the United States, stated in his address to Congress on 8th of January, 1918. Among the most important principles were those of self-determination of homogenous masses of people under nations, free trade, general disarmament of belligerent parties and the foundation of the League of Nations. The inception of the lather is not of American origin but of English, as foreign minister Sir Edward Grey stated in a letter to Edward M. House, Wilson’s chief negotiator and confident, that

 “He will propose to the president the foundation of a League of Nations that will force itself against any power that breaks a treaty… or which refuses, in case of a dispute, to adopt another method of reconciliation apart from war”.

Even though these principles were morally correct and reflected a different national sentiment and social structure, opposite that of Europe, it could not be easily reconciled with France and in a smaller scale, with Great Britain. France was one of the victors only on paper. It had its industrial heartland destroyed and almost 5% of its population killed and with a demographic deficit over Germany of 20 million. With the war stopped prior to reach its borders, Germany managed to keep its hegemonic status in terms of industrial might and potential for mobilization after the issuing of the armistice, thus creating paranoia in Paris which vocally asked for specific guarantees from America and Britain, through Georges Clemenceau and Andre Tardieu, stating that a status quo that is upheld based on moral principles and without any form of international coercion, such as the presence of Allied troops in Renania, is the equivalent of asking the United States to burn its navy. For Wilson it was impossible to give firm promise of interventionism because war in America is declared only by the Congress, and binding America to a clause that could automatically be triggered would not only have been unconstitutionally but also extremely unpalatable by American voters. This meant that in an act of legal hypocrisy, America, the building block of the League was refraining from joining it, dealing a heavy blow on the entire credibility of the concept. The treaty also issued the dismantling of the German Imperial Army to a force of only 100.000 men and a committee on German disarmament was formed with very ambiguous authority and as proven, with no efficiency in preventing the reappearance of the Wehrmacht.  The financial conditions imposed on Germany were very severe and further inflated the revisionism of a population with deep grievance over article 231. Foreign assets in total value of 7 billion dollars were confiscated along with immediate war reparations demands of 5 billion dollars, along with the internationalization of its rivers and the negation of its sovereign right to collect taxes.  Most of Germany’s commercial fleet was transferred to Great Britain and all of its patents were distributed amongst the Entente Powers. Poland only managed to cumulate more German irredentism because of the approximately 51.000 square kilometers of land surface that Germany was forced, under the treaty, to cede. Furthermore, the issue of security for a frail Poland, standing between Russia and Germany, was not solved. It would later be the spark that ignited the fumes of war in Europe. The Treaty of Versailles together with the economic conditions created by the Great War encouraged Russia and Germany to practice Realpolitik and see past ideological differences. This was concluded in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact signed on 23rd of August, 1939 and was essentially the quintessential failure of Versailles and a result of opacity in foreign affaires from the Entente powers.  The news of the signing sent shockwaves around the world, both in governments and individual households.  Winifred Basham, civilian from Ipswich wrote in her diary while in vacation in Cornwall:

“August 1939 – On holiday in Cornwall

Wed August 23rd – The Danzig problem has been coming to a head for the last week, and now this morning we were greeted by the news that Germany is about to sign a non-aggression pact with Russia – Russia who is negotiating with us for a military alliance. It quite spoilt the day.

Thurs August 24th – The news was so bad today with the Russo-German Pact signed and Hitler rampaging about Poland that we have decided to go home tomorrow.

The pact was the result of a similar situation that both countries found themselves. Both were ignored by the Entente, both had severe economic problems, both had political turmoil ravaging their societies, both had reparations to pay, including to each other and finally Germany needed the vast resources and raw materials that were found in Russian soil and Russia, by now, the Soviet Union, needed finite products, that were made in industrial Germany. The interlacing between Soviet Russia and the Reich dates back even to the events that lead to the inception of the Soviet Union. V.I. Lenin was sent by general Ludendorf in a train via Sweden and Finland to Petrograd, modern day Sankt Petersburg, to start a revolution that would end the war on the Eastern front, task of which Lenin was successful.  The treaty was not a complete surprise because it was preceded by a number of bilateral agreements that regulated and encouraged different aspects of foreign policy between the two states, mainly on economic and military cooperation. An important landmark is the German-Soviet military convention of 17 April 1919 which stated that Germany obliged itself to send military strategists and specialists to train Soviet troops, to reorganize Soviet Baltic and Black Sea fleets, to deliver a large number of planes and to set up new factories that were adjacent to war production. Versailles again is the main culprit behind this unnatural collaboration. Germany benefited greatly from this by managing to elude the treaty’s ban on military development, testing and rearmament by doing it on Russian soil. On 16 April 1922 the Treaty of Rapallo was signed, treaty that mutually raised war damage reparation claims, normalized diplomatic relations and clarified the status of Germans in Russia and Russians in Germany.  The defiant and ignorant attitude of the Allies in the proceedings of Versailles was slowly eroded to an incoherent and apologetic behavior. They tried to involve Russia in a military alliance directed towards German continental hegemony but stumbled upon Clemenceau’s cordon sanitaire, captive states like Poland, The Baltic states, Romania, that did not want to allow free and unconditional passage for Soviet troops in case of German aggression.  Furthermore, Stalin on the occasion of the 18th Communist Party Congress severely limited his verbal belligerence against national-socialism and fascism, referring to the normal relations with Italy, unhindered  by ideological disputes and differences, reference that for most diplomats and men of foreign affairs translated to improved, future relations with Germany. Former American ambassador to Russia, Joseph E. Davies, wrote in a letter to senator Key Pitman on 11th of March, 1939:

“Hitler is making a desperate effort to break Stalin from France and Great Britain. If the French and British don’t wake up, I’m afraid he will succeed”

Indeed on 23 August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union, through their respective Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Viaceslav Molotov, signed a non-aggression pact that effectively solved two major geopolitical and ideological problems for the two nations: for Germany it offered a way out of dealing with a war on two fronts and for Russia it encouraged and one year later it partially materialized Stalin’s plan to turn Western Europe against each other in a war of attrition and shelter the unprepared Soviet Union from an aggressive Germany.  Unfortunately for Stalin, the war of attrition turned into a lesson of war tactics and strategy from the heirs of von Moltke, Schlieffen and Clausewitz and turned the combined might of the Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe against the plains and seas of Russia.  Looking back to this diplomatic endeavor, Germany was the one who gained the initiative, opting for the first move and successfully isolating Russia from any continental military help.  Hitler’s pathologic behavior towards manipulation and deceit is made clear by ample talks with Japan, in 1936, talks that were concluded in the Anti-Comintern Pact, on 25 November, pact that was directed against the spread of communism and its constant attempt to topple sovereign states in the name of the global revolution. This move was part of an act to improve Anglo-German relations, to reiterate his, then, archenemy, the Soviet Union, and to portray the Reich as the pillar against the spread of bolshevism in Central and Western Europe. The pact had also the effect of creating the term “axis” and cementing the future WWII Axis powers into one military block, at least on paper, due to the fact that their divergent and uncoordinated military strategies ultimately led to their defeat.  This diplomatic trail of papers that precede World War II is a written and legalized form of the will of the United States, France, Great Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan and Italy, a series of papers that try to commit nations and governments to the defense of one another and to the aggression of others. In many ways they are désuet taking into account that the above mentioned texts meant nothing when one of the signatory parties was Adolf Hitler, which even contrary to Stalin, which kept his commercial obligations until the start of operation Barbarossa, managed to break every promise that he made.

Belligerence or breaking promises

Versailles and most notably Woodrow Wilson portrayed a future world where war was impossible due to the fact that the old “wretched” system of balance of power was replaced with the concept of collective security, where war itself and aggression were outlawed and condemned by a homogenous global community.  The avatar of this concept should have been the League of Nations, which should have judged through the prism of state equality any aggression that was bestowed on one of its members and act towards deterring the respective aggressor.  It had a rather diverse array of social, economic and political targets that it proposed to tackle, including children and women traffic, the administration of special zones such as the Danzig and Saar, treatment of minorities, etc.  Unfortunately, one of the key attributes of the League of Nations was its inability to give concrete and unanimously accepted decisions and even more important, even if these solutions were found, they lacked a coercion body to uphold them. Moreover, the supposed moral symmetry of Wilson’s project was questionable from the beginning, when in his famous 14 points address to the Congress on 8th of January 1918 the concrete, factual recommendations on the list, such as the creation of a politically independent Poland and the autonomy of former imperial minorities where deemed as optional in opposition to more theoretical and vague concepts as open diplomacy or free access to sea lanes that were deemed as mandatory. This constituted a primal sin for the League of Nations – the lack of concrete back-up for smaller nations in the face of aggression. The path towards conflict was not built with the bricks of the Anschluss, the divide of Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Poland but rather started with the invasions of Manchuria and Abyssinia, clear cases of aggression from Axis Powers, directed towards members of the League of Nations, that were not dealt with and thus, substantiated the arguments and confidence of fascist governments to promote imperialism on neighboring countries.

ManchuriaThe invasion of Manchuria by the Empire of Japan following the staged Mukden incident by the Japanese army, that started on 18th of September 1931, was a prime example of how a nation that was under geopolitical stress due to the 1929 economic depression coupled with a growing need for resources and inefficiency in providing food for a growing population led to a move on the near continental space of Manchuria, a northeastern Chinese province that had significant resources in coal, minerals and plentiful fields at hand to feed the Japanese industrial war machine. Under the influence of a powerful army group, Japan acted consistently, premeditated and decisively in organizing the Kwantung Army and sending  other infantry divisions from the home islands to reinforce them, thus gaining quick control of the province, later transformed into a puppet state, Manchukuo, playing by the strings of Tokyo.  The fast acting Japanese strategy was met with bureaucratic slowness by the League, which assembled a commission comprised by 5 members from the U.S., Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy, the Lytton Commission – which by the time it had completed its report one year later, Japan had absolute operational control of the province, a fait acompli that will be followed by many others on the political stage in the coming years. The report did portrayed Japan as the aggressor but fail to dissect the exact details of the Mukden incident thus letting some arguments flow towards Japan.  The League, through its General Assembly body, issued a meeting to discuss and address the matter as late as February 1933, which was met with a clear and cynic Japanese response through the voice of its future Foreign Minister, then ambassador, Yosuke Matsuoka:

“Japan, however, finds it impossible to accept the report adopted by the assembly, and she has taken pains to point out that the recommendations in the report cannot be considered such as would secure peace in that part of the world”

“That means the withdrawal of our delegation from the league,” he told the United Press. “We can no longer co-operate on this question.”


The faith in the League of Nations would be greatly shaken two years later, when another brutal annexation took place, this time in East Africa, by Italy, who invaded Abyssinia, a former opponent of the Italians, on whom it inflicted a shameful defeat at the beginning of the XX century.  Since 1933 Germany succeeded in gaining more military inertia, including the reintroduction of an obligatory active service which generated fear in its peripheries. France was the most exposed to an aggression, thus, feverishly tried to secure concrete military guarantees either from the Soviet Union or Britain in order to contain Germany, guarantees that it partially found in the Stresa Front agreement, between France, Great Britain and Italy, the lather who became increasingly worried over the status of South Tirol, which was ethnically German. The Front suffered from the signing, two months later, of a Anglo-German naval agreement which shaken the credibility and adherence of Britain to the notion of preservation of the statements of the Treaty of Versailles, exactly what the Stresa Front tried to uphold. Mussolini found himself in face of a rather simple political option: either support the Stresa Front and be an active target for Hitler, with dubious back-up from England and possibly France or make a move that would consolidate his rule and steer him towards the Axis powers. He chose the lather. He invaded and conquered Abyssinia in 1935 and transformed it into present day Ethiopia.  The pretext was a similar incident to Mukden, this time called the Wal Wal incident after the name of an Italian garrison that broke the border terms stated in the Italian-Ethiopian Treaty of 1928. The League exonerated both parties from this incident, essentially giving a free hand to Italy.

EthiopiaThis time, after the Manchurian invasion, the League had official economic instruments to punish aggression. But the sanction that could have had an impact to Italy, an oil embargo, was not enforced by the Royal Navy because of fears of war, and trying to keep intact the Stresa Front. This political line was called “any sanctions except war”.  France and Britain were put to a difficult test: should they reinforce the fundamentals of the League and punish Italy and risk war or accept another fait acompli and contain Germany. They did neither, and tried a compromise.  The Hoare-Laval pact, named after Samuel Hoare – British Foreign Minister and Pierre Laval, his French counterpart, promised Haile Selassie – the Emperor of Ethiopia, access to the sea via British Somalia and rule over the country from his mountain bastion. Italy would have been given control of the fertile plains of Ethiopia and practical control of its politics.  The pact became public through a leak and was harshly condemned, leading to the resignation of Hoare and the complete control of Ethiopia by Italy.  On the 30th of June 1936 Haile Selassie gave a memorable speech in front of the League of Nations General Assembly which could echo through the ages, being eerily relevant for our present status quo:

“It is not just about the settlement of the Italian aggression. It is about collective security, about the very existence of the League, the trust of which states have in international treaties and in the value of promises made to smaller states regarding the respect towards their integrity and independence and their subsequent guarantees. We have a choice between the principle of equality and the imposing of bondage conditions on the smaller nations by larger states”

He was forced into exile and on 15th July 1936 the League lifted all sanctions on Italy. Two years later after Munchen, fearing Germany, France and Britain accepted the sovereignty of Italy over Ethiopia.

These two events are examples on how frail and worthless are words put on paper by men of state if they are not backed with actions. The devastation of World War I did infuse a sense of the future, a glimpse on how Realpolitik could be partially replaced by the idea of collective security and the common ideal of peace. But this state of mind was flawed from the start by accepting compromise in the Treaty of Versailles. The events that followed also showed the growing interconnectivity between nations. An economical and social chaotic Germany, overburdened by war debts, had sunken into political extremism which fueled its revisionism. The Marshall Plan, that came into effect after the war was a wise and utterly necessary strategy to infuse capital into former opponents in order to balance them towards democracy, a concrete political strategy that today is associated with the notion of soft power. Another problem that clearly is visible from the above argumentation is the fact that international organizations need full support from their members, which did not happen from the Americans which refused to adhere to the League, in fear of being dragged into a European conflict. But exactly this running away from responsibility attitude gave way to chaos into Europe and the Pacific and forced an American response. American presence remained in Europe and Japan, showing that America was ready after the Second World War to play the most important role on the global stage.

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