An inevitable outcome?

Was there always going to be a Second World War?

The culmination of the First World War in 1918 was a watershed moment that reverberated across the globe, ushering in a transformative era.

The aftermath witnessed the remolding of political landscapes, the redrawing of national borders, and a profound shift in the dynamics of international relations.

The query of whether the events encompassing and succeeding the First World War were destined to culminate in a Second World War remains a complex and contentious subject.

This pivotal juncture in history marked not only the end of one epoch but also set the stage for the uncertainties and geopolitical tensions that characterized the interwar period.

Soldiers gingerly make their way across a path made of wooden duckboards in Chateau Wood near Ypres, Flanders, during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Shelling has reduced the wood's trees to gaunt skeletons

Imperial War Museum

est100 一些攝影(some photos): WW1, colour photos. 第一次世界大戰, 彩色照片 (

The ensuing analysis delves into the multifaceted arguments and counterarguments surrounding this question, scrutinizing the intricate web of factors that either contributed to the inevitability or contested the foreseeability of a subsequent global conflict.

Treaty of Versailles and the Seeds of Resentment:

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, stands as a pivotal factor in discussions about the inevitability of a Second World War.

Its punitive provisions imposed severe terms on Germany, encompassing territorial losses, disarmament, and exorbitant reparations.

The profound impact of these punitive measures contributed to the emergence of a deep-seated resentment among the German population, providing fertile ground for the rise of radical ideologies.

A painting depicting the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 by the artist John Christen Johansen.

Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919 | National Portrait Gallery

Adolf Hitler, who would later become the Chancellor of Germany, skillfully exploited this prevailing resentment, making it a cornerstone of his propaganda.

The National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party), under Hitler's leadership, gained popularity by promising to rectify what was perceived as the egregious injustices inflicted upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.

Hitler's rhetoric resonated with a population burdened by economic hardship and national humiliation, creating a political environment conducive to the radicalization of German society.

Adolf Hitler. As leader of the Nazi Party, he exploited the resentment in Germany caused by the terms of the Treaty of Versaiiles.

...Hitler's determination to overturn what he regarded as the unjust territorial restrictions imposed by the treaty...

The aggressive expansionist policies pursued by Hitler in the 1930s can be viewed as direct consequences of the punitive measures outlined in the Treaty of Versailles.

The reoccupation of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria (Anschluss), and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia were all driven by Hitler's determination to overturn what he regarded as the unjust territorial restrictions imposed by the treaty.

These acts not only violated the treaty but also demonstrated the profound impact of punitive measures in shaping the geopolitical landscape of Europe.

Austrian citizens greeting German troops during the Anschluss of Austria, 12th March 1938.

Life Magazine

In essence, the Treaty of Versailles, by virtue of its punitive nature, sowed the seeds of discontent and resentment in Germany, providing a fertile breeding ground for radical ideologies that ultimately paved the way for the aggressive actions and territorial ambitions of Adolf Hitler, ultimately setting the stage for the cataclysmic events of the Second World War.

Economic Instability and the Great Depression

The global economic instability that ensued after the First World War, further compounded by the Great Depression, constitutes a compelling argument for the inevitability of a Second World War.

The severe economic hardships faced by numerous nations during this period created fertile ground for the rise of extremist ideologies.

In Germany, specifically, the economic turmoil played a crucial role in fueling the appeal of the Nazi Party, which promised not only economic recovery but also a restoration of national greatness.

The effects of the Great Depression were felt around the world. A family travels toward California in search of work after their life in Missouri was devastated by drought. 1937.

45 Heartbreaking Color Photos Of The Great Depression (

...weakened by the prevailing economic challenges...

Furthermore, the widespread economic struggles triggered a surge in nationalism and protectionism across various countries, contributing to a breakdown in international cooperation. The rise of protectionist policies, coupled with the prioritization of self-interest over collective security, significantly undermined the efficacy of the League of Nations.

This international organization, established in the aftermath of the First World War with the aim of preventing future conflicts, found itself weakened by the prevailing economic challenges and the growing disregard for collaborative efforts.

The economic turmoil of the interwar period thus not only destabilized individual nations but also eroded the foundations of the collective security framework, setting the stage for the geopolitical tensions that eventually culminated in the outbreak of the Second World War.

A newspaper cartoon reflecting on the creation of the League of Nations in 1919.

Wilsonian idealism and the League of Nations

One compelling counterargument against the inevitability of a Second World War revolves around the visionary efforts to institute a new world order based on Wilsonian idealism.

President Woodrow Wilson of the United States played a pivotal role in shaping the post-First World War global landscape by advocating for the establishment of the League of Nations.

Wilson envisioned an international organization that would serve as a platform for fostering cooperation, preventing future conflicts, and promoting the self-determination of nations.

US President Woodrow Wilson (seated) advocated for the creation of the League of Nations in an attempt to stave off future global conflicts.

Imgur: The magic of the Internet

...its mere existence represented a genuine effort to construct a more peaceful world order...

Although the United States did not ultimately join the League of Nations, the organization marked a departure from traditional power politics that had characterized the pre-First World War era.

The League aimed to address disputes through diplomatic means, emphasizing dialogue and collective security over military intervention.

While critics often highlight the League's failure to prevent certain conflicts, such as Japan's invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s, its mere existence represented a genuine effort to construct a more peaceful world order.

Japanese Forces during the invasion Of Manchuria (18th September 1931 – 27th February 1932) . The League of Nations were powerless to stop it occurring.

1931 Japan Invades Manchuria (

The League's shortcomings were not necessarily inherent flaws but rather challenges that underscored the difficulty of implementing such an ambitious vision.

The League's inability to enforce its decisions, particularly in the face of aggressive expansionism, revealed the limitations of the international community's collective will.

Nevertheless, the idea behind the League laid the groundwork for subsequent efforts to establish institutions dedicated to global cooperation and conflict resolution, ultimately contributing to the evolution of the United Nations after the Second World War.

A map of the world showing when countries joined the United Nations, the successor to the failed League of Nations.

At the top right is an inset map showing Cold War countries - USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and West Germany. Also shown are North Yemen and South Yemen, and Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are given a 1945 date for joining, with the other former-Soviet republics given a 1990s date. China is given a 1945 date for joining, when they were represented by the Republic of China (which later relocated to Taiwan in 1949), and was replaced by the People's Republic of China as China's representative in 1971.

All areas listed in gray are not UN members.

United Nations member countries world map - History of the United Nations - Wikipedia

...its very existence demonstrated a tangible commitment...

In essence, the Wilsonian idealism embedded in the League of Nations exemplified a sincere attempt to break from the patterns of historical power struggles and establish a framework for international relations that prioritized peaceful solutions and diplomatic discourse.

While the League faced obstacles and criticisms, its very existence demonstrated a tangible commitment to forging a more cooperative and harmonious world order in the aftermath of the First World War.

Contingency and Alternative Paths:

Another argument against the inevitability of a Second World War emphasizes the contingent nature of historical events.

The conditions fostering conflict, such as the Treaty of Versailles and economic instability, were significant factors.

However, it's crucial to recognize that political leaders and nations played pivotal roles, making choices that ultimately shaped the course of events, rather than being bound by predetermined outcomes.

Diplomatic alternatives, compromises, and different policy choices could have steered the world away from the path that led to the Second World War.

The economic instability sparked off by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, would contribute to the eventual outbreak of the Second World War.

Today 90 years ago - Black Thursday, start of the Wall Street Crash 1929 | Talk Tennis (

...a notable example of failed appeasement...

1930s-era Soviet poster by Kukryniksy showing Western powers giving Hitler Czechoslovakia on a dish. Inscription in the flag: ”On towards the East!”

Matthew A. McIntosh

For instance, the appeasement policies pursued by Western powers in the face of Hitler's territorial ambitions are often criticized.

However, an alternative scenario where a more assertive and unified response was taken might have altered the course of history.

The Munich Agreement of 1938, which permitted Hitler's annexation of a portion of Czechoslovakia, serves as a poignant illustration of failed appeasement, significantly contributing to the outbreak of World War II.

This diplomatic compromise, driven by a desire to avert conflict, ultimately emboldened Hitler's aggressive expansionist ambitions.

The international community's reluctance to confront the growing threat posed by Nazi Germany showcased the limitations and pitfalls of appeasement policies.

Map depicting German aquisitions in Czechoslovakia.

However, amidst the condemnation, the counterfactual argument emerges, suggesting that alternative decisions could have altered the trajectory of events, potentially preventing the devastating conflict.

This historical episode underscores the intricate interplay of diplomacy, power dynamics, and the consequences of political choices on the global stage during a tumultuous period in history.


In assessing whether the events surrounding and following the end of the First World War made a Second World War inevitable, it is evident that multiple factors and complex dynamics were at play.

The punitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles and the economic instability of the interwar period certainly created conditions conducive to conflict.

However, the counterarguments highlight the role of contingency, diplomatic efforts, and the pursuit of a new international order through organizations like the League of Nations.

German soldiers marching in Russia, 1941, during Operation Barbarossa.

World War II in Color: German Soldiers Marching in the East in 1941 (

Ultimately, historical events are shaped by a myriad of factors, and while certain conditions may increase the likelihood of certain outcomes, they do not guarantee inevitability.

The Second World War was a tragic and avoidable conflict, but understanding the complexity of the historical context is crucial for drawing lessons and preventing the recurrence of such catastrophic events in the future.

Timeline showing some key events that took place in the Interwar (Interbellum) period.

Timeline of the Interwar Period (1919-1939) - Timeline

Further reading

A meticulously researched narrative unraveling the complexities of pre-World War I political decisions, delving into the interplay of diplomacy and power dynamics that set the stage for the conflict and its aftermath, offering a profound understanding of the era.

An illuminating examination of the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, providing nuanced insights into the political decisions and negotiations that shaped the post-World War I geopolitical landscape, fostering a deep appreciation for the intricacies involved.

A thought-provoking analysis of the political decisions and dynamics leading to the outbreak of World War I, offering a rich historical narrative that explores the complexities of the era and the profound consequences of seemingly inexorable events, compelling readers to reconsider historical inevitabilities.

A compelling exploration of the causes and consequences of World War I, Ferguson dissects political decisions and socio-economic conditions, challenging conventional narratives to offer fresh perspectives on the interplay of factors that shaped the post-war environment, laying the foundation for the Second World War.

A sweeping account of World War I, Meyer skillfully navigates through political decisions, military strategies, and societal impacts, providing readers with a comprehensive understanding of the war and its aftermath, illuminating the intricacies that set the stage for subsequent global events.

Eric Hobsbawm's "The Age of Extremes" is a masterful exploration of the interwar period, offering a panoramic view of global history from 1914 to 1991. With insightful analysis, Hobsbawm examines political, economic, and social developments, capturing the turbulence of the era marked by wars, revolutions, and ideological shifts. Engagingly written, the book provides a nuanced understanding of the interwar dynamics, making it an indispensable read for anyone interested in this transformative period.