When did the Second World War Begin?

British school children are taught the Second World War began on 3rd September, 1939. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, declared war on Germany after they invaded Poland.1 Britain began a European war not the world war. The Second World War was a series of regional wars which coalesced into a single conflict. British school children have been misled. The answer isn’t 3rd September, 1939.

USSR

The USSR was an enemy of Nazi Germany. Communists were victims of the Nazis filling concentration camps for brutal ‘re-education’. Nonetheless Realpolitik2 trumped ideological hatred. In a political coup, the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was signed on 23rd August, 1939. Germany attacked Poland a week later and this attack was quickly followed by the USSR.

Britain declared war on Germany but not3 the USSR. Poland was quickly conquered. As it was mopped up, political certainties were destroyed. Hitler’s treaty with the USSR meant he’d secured his eastern frontier making an attack on western Europe probable. The Germans and USSR regained territory lost at Versailles, 1919. The European war began in earnest.

Japan

The Japanese began their conquest of China after the Marco Polo Bridge incident.4 This event continued for three days, 7-9th July, 1937. It was an Asian war until the USA converted it into a geopolitical event. The USA,

“…..supported China through a series of increasing boycotts against Japan, culminating with cutting off steel and petrol exports into Japan by June 1941.”5

American boycotts crippled Japan’s economy and they retaliated with an audacious attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour.6 The Japanese interpreted sanctions as an existential provocation. Destroying Pearl Harbour was a declaration of war but the Japanese underestimated American military capacity and the USA underestimated Japan. Both miscalculations clouded decision-making. The Japanese-USA war began on 7th December, 1941 as a regional war in the Pacific rim.

Germany

Hitler began the European war with territorial gains between 1936-9 made without warfare. War began when he misread Neville Chamberlain,7 who’d bizarrely guaranteed support for Poland. British support was illusionary and the eight-month Phoney War began.8 In Spring 1940, German forces swept through western Europe. The failure of the Blitz and Operation Sea Lion9 left the German conquest incomplete.

The scale and decisiveness of German victories stunned western Europe. German gains could have been consolidated as they were in France with Petain’s Vichy regime. Instead, Hitler’s Lebensraum policy was implemented with Operation Barbarossa.10 He tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty and committed Germany to an unwinnable two-front war.

If Chamberlain’s support for Poland was quixotic, Hitler’s actions after Pearl Harbour were insane. On the 11th December, 194111 Hitler declared war on the USA to ‘support’ Japan, which, of course, he couldn’t do. It’s unlikely Roosevelt could have persuaded Congress to fight simultaneous wars. The USA was dragged into the war and Hitler unwittingly unleashed the world’s greatest war machine. America developed an unprecedented world-class two-ocean fleet alongside armies in Asia and Europe.

Conclusion

The Second World War broke out on the 11th December, 1941. Hitler brought together the warring countries of Europe, Asia and America by declaring war on the USA. Three regional wars coalesced into a world war.

Notes

1 Radio Address by Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister, September 3, 1939 | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com) For the full text

2 “…a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.”

3 Why Didn’t Britain & France Declare War On The Soviet Union In 1939? | HistoryExtra

4 Second Sino-Japanese War – Wikipedia and The Marco Polo Bridge Incident (thoughtco.com)

5 Second Sino-Japanese War – Wikipedia

6 Pearl Harbor: Attack, Casualties & Facts – HISTORY

7 Hitler regarded Chamberlain as a ‘worm’ and this clouded his judgement.

8 Phoney War – Wikipedia

9 Hitler’s Invasion Plan: Operation Sea Lion, 1940 | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com)

10 The Strategic Context of Operation Barbarossa: June 22nd 1941 | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com)

11 German declaration of war against the United States – Wikipedia For the full text this is really quite interesting see Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA, 11th December 1941 | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com)

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