Dr. Susmit Kumar

World War I and World War II were significant events in the history of human civilization. Although millions of lives were lost in these wars, they served as essential catalysts in transforming the socio-economic and political environment around the globe and in Europe in particular. They accelerated the demise of most of the feudal kingdoms that still existed in the early and mid-20th century, and World War II ushered in the independence of Asian and African nations.

World War I and Germany

At the onset of the 20th century, Britain and France were increasingly skeptical of Germany’s powerful navy, which was second to Britain’s in size. It was the huge British navy that enabled her to control her vast colonial holdings around the world. Naturally, Britain, France, and other imperial powers became apprehensive regarding the growing military and naval power of Germany.

After the unification of Germany in 1871, its manufacturing, financial, and shipping arenas along with its population grew exponentially. From 1897 to 1912, the German monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II, along with his cunning naval adviser Alfred von Tirpitz, launched a policy of Weltpolitik, which led to its navy becoming one of the strongest in the world within a decade.

Due to confidence in its growing military power, Germany began making moves to claim more territories adjacent to its own. In reaction, Britain formed the Triple Entente, comprising Britain, France, and Russia. Germany had no alternative but to respond by forming the Central Powers alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was then ruled by the Hapsburgs. With the exception of France, most European countries, including Russia and Germany, were ruled by kings who had the right to declare war. This was before the creation of the League of Nations and many decades before the evolution of international treaties and conventions comprising international law, including Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which declared unequivocally that pre-emptive invasion of another country is illegal.

During that era, it was essential for a country to participate in war if an ally was at war with another country, regardless of who was the victim or the aggressor. In addition, because it used to take months for a country to mobilize its troops, an adversary also had enough time to mobilize. Once this process started, it was very difficult to prevent war because mobilization was an irreversible process: Stopping it would make a country militarily vulnerable. Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, baptized this process “The Military Doomsday Machine.”[1]

The Beginning of World War I

Although from a military standpoint Germany was clearly responsible for starting World War II, its participation in World War I was a direct result of its treaty with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then ruled by the Hapsburgs, and to the Russian mobilization against Germany.

On June 28, 1914, Austrian heir to the throne Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a Bosnian Serb terrorist who was protesting the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. This incident gave the Hapsburgs the opportunity to humiliate Serbia and enhance the empire’s prestige in the Balkans. Before leaving for his annual cruise to the North Cape off the Norwegian coast on July 6, Kaiser Wilhelm gave Germany’s unequivocal support to Austria in case it decided to take action against Serbia.

Austria decided to present an unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia and then declare war, relying on Germany to deter Russia from any intervention. On July 23, Austria issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Serbia and put forward several near-impossible demands. On July 25, Serbia managed to accept all demands except one—regarding the participation of Austro-Hungarian officials on Serbian soil against organizations hostile to Austria. Serbia wanted this demand to be turned over to international arbitration. When the Kaiser returned from his cruise on July 27, he learned of the Serbian reply and instructed Austria-Hungary not to take any military action. However, as Austrian troop mobilization had already begun, Austria declared war against Serbia the following day, July 28.

On the same day, Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian emperor, ordered his troops to mobilize against Austria. To his surprise, he found that his generals had only one plan for mobilization, and this was against both Germany and Austria. As Germany had not taken any military steps against Russia, the tsar tried his best to pressure his generals into limiting an attack to counter Austria only. Finally, however, on July 30 he ordered an attack against both Austria and Germany. On July 29 and again on July 31, Germany demanded that the tsar end the Russian mobilization. When this request was ignored, Germany had no alternative but to declare war on Russia.

Similar to the Russian mobilization plan, the Germans likewise had planned for a two-front mobilization—one against Russia in the east and the other a massive assault on France in the west. Here also, the Kaiser had to abide by the advice of his generals, who had been planning a two-front mobilization for the previous two decades.

According to their plan, Germany was first to go west into neutral Belgium, and then south to Paris. Germany asked Belgium to give its forces free passage, a request that was denied; in response, Germany invaded Belgium on August 4. In reaction, Britain declared war against Germany, because a German victory over France would have altered the balance of power. For these reasons, it is difficult to blame any one country for starting World War I.

Germany at the End of World War I

When World War I began in 1914, each side thought that it would last only a few months. On the eastern front, Germany had great successes against Russia. After the Lenin-led Bolshevik revolution in 1917, which brought the tsar regime to an end, Russian military efforts against Germany came to a standstill. In March 1918, Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Germany annexed one-third of European Russia.

On the western front, a stalemate prevailed for nearly three and a half years and included perpetual trench warfare, with neither side moving more than 30 miles forward into the other’s territory, despite the loss of millions of soldiers by each side. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany could at least free its troops from the east and transfer them to the west to use against France and Britain. At that same time, however, the U.S. declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, which helped turn the tide of the war. While Ger many had the manpower and resources to overpower Britain and France, the U.S., with its massive natural resources, easily took the upper hand over Germany. In addition, Britain’s naval superiority allowed it to blockade the Central Powers.

After the severe winter of 1916-17, Germany suffered widespread malnutrition and starvation, causing major domestic dissent, public outcry, and protest against the prolonged war. In addition, President Wilson gave his famous “Fourteen Points” peace proposal in early 1918. The combination of prolonged war and Wilson’s Fourteen Points led to the collapse of morale among the German populace. They no longer wanted to fight.

While Germany experienced some victories on the western front in the early months of 1918, it was unable to take advantage of these initial gains due to the lack of army reserves. More than 11 million men, or about 18 percent of the German population, were in uniform, out of which about 2 million were killed.

German military leaders realized that they would be unable to win the war and began peace negotiations with Wilson in early 1918. The negotiations were based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. In return, as per U.S.-German records, Wilson attempted to persuade the Allied Powers to accede to his program. The Fourteen Points included ending secret treaties and secret diplomacy; freedom of the seas; removal of barriers and inequalities in international trade; reduction of armaments by all powers; colonial readjustments; evacuation of occupied territory; self-determination of nationalities and a redrawing of European boundaries along national lines; as well as an international political organization to prevent future world wars.[2] France and Britain, however, held to certain conditions: They wanted near-monopoly of the seas and also compensation for the heavy damages incurred during the war on their civilian populations.

The armistice terms were stiff. Not only was Germany forced to return to its pre-war position on all fronts, it was also required to evacuate all land to the east of the Rhine River. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was annulled, and Germany was required to hand over the major portion of its war acquisitions to the Allied Powers.

Matthias Erzberger, a civilian politician, signed the armistice on behalf of Germany. This action was viewed by the German army as “a stab in the back.” Most German generals were of the view that in November 1918, when the armistice was signed, Germany’s military position at the front was not hopeless—it was the civilian population and political leaders who were denying the German army their political and moral support. This was partially correct. At the time of signing, the German army was on enemy soil in every direction, and none of the Allied Powers had its army on German soil.

Germans Vote for Democracy

Bismarck was the first political leader to propose universal suffrage. In his system, primary decision-making power was vested in the chancellor and the monarch. The chancellor and imperial ministers were nominated by the monarch and were not responsible to the legislature. However, after more than four years of war with accompanying food and fuel shortages and millions of lost lives, Germany was heading towards wholesale upheaval. Certain Marxist pundits predicted that it was only a matter of days before Germany underwent a Bolshevik revolution.

The abdication of the German throne by Wilhelm II on November 10, 1918, followed by elections on January 10, 1919—in which for the first time women were allowed to vote—resulted in a resounding verdict in favor of democracy. Nearly 75 percent of the electorate voted for a German democratic republic. The elected constituent assembly began its deliberations in February. After election of the president and chancellor, its first major task was to negotiate a peace treaty with the Allied Powers.

Severe Provisions

Victors and losers began peace treaty deliberations in Paris on January 18, 1919. In contrast to the Congress of Vienna, held in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars and in which both vanquished and victors participated, after WWI German leaders were invited only to sign the treaty, not to participate in composing its terms.

The treaty contained several extraordinarily severe provisions. The coal-rich Saar region was to be taken over by the League of Nations, an organization formed after the war and the precursor to the United Nations, while France would utilize the coal for its post bellum reconstruction.

In order to give Poland access to the Baltic Sea, a corridor of land was taken from Germany, cutting it off from the eastern part of the German state of Prussia. In this manner, Germany lost about 13 percent of its prewar territory and all of its overseas colonies.

Germany had to give up nearly all of its foreign financial holdings, including several German patents and nearly 90 per cent of its merchant carrier fleet. It is due to the Treaty of Versailles that Bayer Aspirin is today an American product and not a German one.

In order to prevent the revival of Germany as a military power, its army was limited to 100,000 men and it was forbidden to produce tanks, poison gas, or military aircraft.

Under the treaty, Allied countries obtained provisions for the right to try individual Germans, including the former monarch, as war criminals, and to stipulate reparation payments that were eventually set at 132 billion gold dollars, an amount that would have taken Germany on its own more than 80 years to pay. And all this for a war that Germany did not even really start.


Versailles was the first European peace treaty to include provisions for reparations. The German government fell into chaos when it came to know about them. Chancellor Scheidemann resigned rather than sign the treaty. The German army chief did the same. Only after the Allied Powers issued an ultimatum did a German delegation come to Paris for signing on June 28, 1919. German leaders declared that Wilson’s Fourteen Points had tricked them into the armistice. Had they known what to expect, they would have had second thoughts about the armistice and likely prolonged the war’s stalemate until they achieved better terms.

During treaty deliberations, France essentially wanted to dismember Germany and take it back to its pre-Bismarck status, that is, a confederation of small states. Wilson, however, who was a proponent of self-determination, opposed this plan. Since both the U.S. and Britain considered themselves relatively protected from Germany—the U.S. due to its geographical distance and Britain because of the downsizing of the German navy—it was only France who continued to fear its hostile neighbor breathing heavily on its eastern border. Before Bismarck’s unification, France had been the dominant force in continental Europe, both in manpower as well as in industrial production. After unification, however, German industrialization grew rapidly, and by 1914 it had become an industrial giant, second only to the U.S. France was no match for Germany in the production of coal and steel. In 1873, only one-third of German exports were finished goods, but by 1913 the percentage had risen to 63 percent.[3] In 1865, Germany produced less steel than France, but by 1900 Germany produced more steel than France and Great Britain combined.[4] This was partially due to the hard-working nature of the German people.

For these reasons, it was France who insisted on the reparations clauses, demanding both the occupation of the coal-rich Saar region to use for its own post-war reconstruction, and also to keep Germany an economically weak country. According to Kissinger, the wisest course for the Allies after the war would have been to relieve Germany voluntarily of the most onerous Versailles provisions and to instead forge a strong alliance with France and Britain. It is exactly what Winston Churchill had in mind when he advocated an alliance with France “if (and only if) she entirely alters her treatment of Germany and loyally accepts a British policy of help and friendship towards Germany.”[5]

Similarly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, French president Mitterand tried to enlist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in preventing the reunification of a Germany that had been rather mercilessly carved up by the victorious WWII powers. Gorbachev, however, was preoccupied with his own domestic problems, and France lacked the strength to block Germany’s reunification by itself.

Military Occupation

Because Germany was not solely responsible for starting WWI, it was with great difficulty that Germans swallowed the Treaty of Versailles. They put the entire blame for the treaty on the political leaders of their fledgling democracy. By 1922, more than 400 political assassinations had been carried out in Germany, mostly by right-wing political extremists. Treaty signatory Matthias Erzberger was one of the leaders assassinated.

In 1921, Germany paid the first installment of 1 billion marks as reparations. It did so by printing paper Deutsche marks and selling them in the open market. This caused horrendous inflation of the German currency. Following this, Germany asked for a four-year moratorium on reparations. Without consulting the other Allies, French and Belgian military forces immediately occupied the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany, in January 1923, in retaliation for the German failure to pay up. Instead of acceding to French demands, Germany told its workers not to work, which caused production to shut down. This industrial shutdown caused hyperinflation of the German currency, although the government paid the workers.


By mid-1923, the Deutsche mark was losing value by the minute. A loaf of bread that cost 20,000 Deutsche marks in the morning would cost 5,000,000 by nightfall. Restaurant prices went up while customers ate their dinner. Workers were paid twice a day just to keep up with inflation. On November 15, 1923, when final economic collapse arrived, it took 4.2 trillion German marks to buy a single U.S. dollar.[6] The French occupation of the Ruhr became a failure, and caused a severe rift among the Allies. The U.S. showed its displeasure by withdrawing its forces from the occupied Rhineland. Britain then likewise asked France to withdraw its troops from the Ruhr region.

The social and political costs of the inflation were enormous. A lifetime of savings was now not even worth a subway ticket. This resulted in the rise of radical political parties on both the left and right. It was during this period in 1919 that a man named Adolf Hitler joined one such small group, called the German Worker’s Party. The party was renamed in 1920 as the National Socialist German Workers Party, or “Nazi” Party for short, which is the German way of pronouncing the first two syllables of “National.”


It was not until the fall of 1923 that France finally withdrew its troops from the Ruhr. In mid-1924, the Allied Reparations Commission, headed by American banker Charles Dawes, rescheduled reparations payments for the next five years and urged the Allies to grant sizable loans to Germany so as to enable German economic recovery. During that period, Germany paid about $1 billion in reparations and received about $2 billion in grants, mostly from the U.S. Hence, really speaking it was the United States that paid for German reparations and for the German economic recovery.

By 1927, German industrial production had bypassed its 1913 prewar high. Due to the stabilization and upswing of the German economy, the popularity of both left- and right-wing parties dropped. In the 1928 elections, these two groups received only 13 percent of the vote, with the Communists receiving 10.6 percent and the Nazi Party 2.6 percent.

After the expiration of the Dawes Plan, another Allied Reparations Commission headed by American business executive Owen D. Young reduced the reparations amount to 37 billion gold marks—about one-third the original amount—and payment was stretched out until 1988. Rightist parties forced the German government into a referendum on this plan, but only 13.8 percent of the population favored the objectives of the right-wing extremists.

Hitler's Rise

The stock market crash on Wall Street on October 29, 1929, and following worldwide economic depression altered Germany’s economy and political scenario. After the crash, American investors who had been the backbone of the German economic recovery began withdrawing their funds. The German stock market proceeded to collapse dramatically. Unemployment rose to three million in 1929 and six million by 1930. Between 1929 and 1932, industrial production fell by 50 percent. Foreign trade fell by two-thirds during the same period.

In March 1930, the rift between the ruling coalition parties fell apart over funding of the mandatory unemployment program. This led to a series of elections over the next three years. The Nazis and Communists received 18 and 13 percent of the vote, respectively, in September 1930, 37 and 15 percent in July 1932, and 33 and 17 percent in November 1932. Hitler ran for president in 1932 and received about 32 percent of the vote, but failed to unseat reigning president Hindenburg. Nevertheless, Hitler’s charismatic appeal and his record as a World War I veteran led to a sharp increase in Nazi Party membership, from 170,000 in 1929 to 1,378,000 in 1932.[7]

Due to the economic depression and ensuing political chaos, the 84-year-old Hindenburg finally appointed Hitler as chancellor. In order to keep Hitler’s radical policies in check, he gave conservative leaders important posts in the cabinet and only three posts to Nazis. Nevertheless, Hitler was able to become dictator within 18 short months, due partly to his daring nature and partly due to good luck.

One instance of his good luck occurred when a lone and deranged Dutch communist set fire to the Reichstag, the German legislature building, in February 1933. Using this pretext Hitler suspended all civil liberties and arrested Communists and other opposition leaders. The election held eight days after the fire was marred by a brutal and violent Nazi stormtrooper campaign. The Nazis got 43.9 percent of the vote, but failed to obtain a majority by themselves in the Reichstag. This they did with the help of another right-wing party. Finally, on August 2, 1934, after the death of Hindenburg, Hitler became president.

Hitler consolidated all executive powers unto himself and employed a massive propaganda machinery, including films, to blame Jews for Germany’s misfortunes. In an era of economic depression, it is extremely easy to manipulate the desperate masses. Although Germany’s economy improved due to massive public spending on weapons production and public work projects like the Autobahn (superhighway), the image of Jews remained the same amongst the German populace: Jews were responsible for all German sufferings of the early 1930s.

Hitler’s Foreign Game

After becoming dictator, Hitler played his foreign policy skillfully. Seeing Italy’s annexation of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) and Allied non-interference in the matter, Hitler took a gamble and ordered his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, a move which marked the death of the Treaty of Versailles. In the meantime, he restarted Germany’s rearmament on a grand scale. As Kissinger stated:

Internationally, he ruthlessly exploited the democracies’ guilty conscience about the Treaty of Versailles.... All his great foreign policy triumphs occurred in the first five years of his rule, 1933-38, and were based on his victims’ assumption that his aim was to reconcile the Versailles system with its purported principles.

Great Britain and France opted to let German rearmament unfold because, quite literally, they did not know what else to do... In the 1930s, British leaders were too unsure about Hitler’s objectives and French leaders too unsure about themselves to act on the basis of assessments, which they could not prove…In 1937 even Lord Halifax, then Lord President, praised Nazi Germany as the bulwark of Europe against Bolshevism. [8]

In 1937, British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax visited Hitler and praised Nazi Germany as Europe’s bulwark against Bolshevism. He even discussed with Hitler the possible rearrangement of European boundaries and mentioned Austria and Czechoslovakia, countries with German majorities, for this purpose.

Causes of World Wars I and II

The main motive behind World War I and World War II was the desire of European countries to “rule the world.” Britain fought to preserve her hegemony on the seas in order to control her overseas colonies. France was trying to maintain the superiority in continental Europe she had held since the 19th century. Bismarck’s unification of Germany had created an imbalance amongst the European powers, however. After becoming an economic and military superpower, unified Germany tried to get its “fair share” in the world, a prospect that other European powers were unwilling to tolerate and that led to two world wars. If an advanced society is wrongfully held hostage or mistreated, that society will definitely one day retaliate when it reaches a position of strength, and that is what happened with Germany between World War I and World War II. Had Wilson been successful in implementing his 14-point charter, and had France not insisted on reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, we would most probably have never seen a Hitler rise to power.

After Wilson failed to convince colonial powers Britain and France to follow his more generous peace plan, the U.S. became introverted, isolationist, and withdrew from global politics. This may have accelerated the path towards World War II.

1 Kissinger, Henry A., Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1994, p. 201.

2 Palmer, R.R. and Colton, Joel, A History of the Modern World, Alfred A. Knopf, New York., 4th ed., 1971, p. 754.

3 The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 20, Ed. 15, Chicago, 1991, p. 114.

4 Palmer, R.R. and Colton, Joel, op. cit., p. 722.

5 Kissinger, Henry A., op. cit., p. 255.

6 The New Encyclopedia Britannica, op. cit., p. 118.

7 Ibid., p. l20.

8 Kissinger, Henry A., op. cit., pp. 289-307.

Additional information