Europe stumbles towards conflict

History repeating

The years leading up to the Second World War were characterized by a range of significant events, political decisions, and alliances that ultimately led to the outbreak of the war in 1939.

From the Spanish Civil War to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a variety of factors contributed to the escalation of tensions between the major powers of Europe and the eventual descent into conflict.

Despite the horrors of the First World War blighting the world only two decades prior, and statesmen across Europe desperately manoeuvring and negotiating in an effort to stave off another conflict, there was nonetheless, a sense of grim inevitability that clouded the continent in the last few years of the 1930s. 

A sense that despite all efforts to the contrary, Europe would once again, find itself plunged into another widespread conflict, one even more devastating than the previous one.    

Thousand Yard Stare: The horrors of the First World War saw countless soldiers like this young German, suffering from 'shell shock' (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in modern parlance). 

The League of Nations

The League of Nations, established after the First World War, was intended to promote peace and prevent future conflicts.

However, the League proved ineffective in stopping the aggressive policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and ultimately failed to prevent the outbreak of war.

The Allied Powers made up of Britain, France, and later the Soviet Union, were united in their opposition to Germany's aggressive policies. The Axis Powers, consisting of Germany, Italy, and Japan, were united in their pursuit of territorial expansion and dominance.

A 1919 newspaper headline reporting on the creation of the League of Nations.

Nazi Germany

German 'Fuhrer' Adolf Hitler. His totalitarian Nazi regime was most responsible for the escalation of tension in Europe during the late 1930's.

Study Suggests Adolf Hitler Had Jewish and African Ancestors - HISTORY

One of the most significant figures of this period was Adolf Hitler, who rose to power in Germany in 1933 and began pursuing an aggressive expansionist policy.

Hitler was determined to establish German dominance in Europe and to reclaim territories lost after the First World War.

With Hitler at the helm, the Nazi party in Germany had steadily risen in power in Germany throughout the 1930s, squashing all opposition, persecuting Jews, political enemies and other ‘undesirables’ and creating an aggressive, totalitarian state, eager to take revenge for the perceived injustices inflicted upon it at the end of the First World War.

His willingness to use military force in the pursuit of his aims would ultimately lead to war breaking out once again in Europe in 1939.

Fascist Italy

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sought to expand his country's influence in Europe. He sought to establish a new Roman Empire that would include Italy's former colonies and territories, as well as territories in the Balkans and Africa. Mussolini intervened in the Spanish Civil War by sending troops to support General Franco's Nationalist forces.

He also formed an alliance with Nazi Germany, signing the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936. Mussolini's aggression in Europe contributed to the escalation of tensions that ultimately led to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The alliances and treaties formed during this period also played a significant role in shaping the events that led to the outbreak of war. The Treaty of Versailles, signed at the end of the First World War, established the post-war borders of Europe and imposed significant financial and territorial penalties on Germany. The treaty was widely criticized in Germany and contributed to the rise of nationalism and fascism in the country.

Italian leader Benito Mussolini was a major political figure in the late 1930's as his Fascist Italy sought to expand its influence across Europe.

 Italian forces line the street with Fascist banners flying behind them as they await the arrival of Adolf Hitler during his visit Italy in 1938. 




  • 19th January: Japan occupies Shanghai, escalating the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • 7th July: The Second Sino-Japanese War intensifies with the Marco Polo Bridge incident.
  • 26th July: Spain's Nationalist forces capture the city of Santander, effectively ending the Spanish Civil War in northern Spain.
  • 25th October: Italy joins the Anti-Comintern Pact, strengthening the Axis alliance.


  • 12th – 13th March: Germany annexes Austria in the Anschluss, violating the Treaty of Versailles.
  • 29th- 30th September: Munich Agreement signed, allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.
  • 2nd November: First Vienna Award secretly signed by Germany and Italy.
  • 9th – 10th November: Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass," sees widespread violence and destruction against Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany.


  • 15th – 16th March: Germany invades and occupies the remainder of Czechoslovakia, violating the Munich Agreement.
  • 22nd May: Germany and Italy sign the Pact of Steel, forming the military alliance previously known as the Rome-Berlin Axis.
  • 23rd August: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, agreeing to divide up Eastern Europe.
  • 1st September: Germany invades Poland, officially starting the Second World War.
  • 3rd September: France and Britain declare war on Germany.

Remilitarization of the Rhineland

The remilitarization of the Rhineland on the 7th March 1936 was a significant event leading up to the Second World War.

It involved Nazi Germany sending troops into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland, which violated the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties.

This move was a risky gamble for Hitler, as it went against the advice of his military commanders and risked war with France and Britain.

...which emboldened Hitler and encouraged him to pursue further aggressive actions...

However, the French and British chose not to act, which emboldened Hitler and encouraged him to pursue further aggressive actions. The remilitarization of the Rhineland helped pave the way for Germany's expansionist policies and eventual invasion of Poland in 1939.

Hitler's gamble: In a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, German troops marched unopposed into the demilitarised Rhineland region, violating reclaiming it for Nazi Germany.  

Spanish Civil War

In 1936, one of the most significant events that took place was the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War which began on the 17th July. This conflict was fought between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratically elected government of Spain, and the Nationalists, who were led by General Francisco Franco and supported by fascist regimes in Italy and Germany.

The conflict lasted until 1939, and it served as a precursor to the larger conflict that was to come.

The Spanish Civil War also brought attention to the rise of fascism and the need for alliances between the democratic powers of Europe.

A German officer from the Condor Legion instructing Nationalist infantry soldiers in Ávila, Spain January 1939. Nazi Germany was one of several countries which sent soldiers to support the Nationalist or Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Berlin Olympics

Nazi Germany utilised the 1936 Olympics which started on the 1st August, as a propaganda tool. The Nazis portrayed a new, strong, and united Germany while concealing the regime's persecution of Jews and Roma. 

For the first time in modern Olympic Games history, activists in the United States and Europe called for a boycott of the games due to what would subsequently be regarded as human rights violations. Although the effort was ultimately unsuccessful, it established an important precedent for future Olympic boycott initiatives (such as those in 2008 and 2014).

Germany had its propaganda coup after the boycott movement narrowly failed: the 49 nations who sent teams to the Games legitimised the Hitler dictatorship in the eyes of the world as well as German domestic audiences.

Enormous flags hung during the Summer Olympics in 1936 in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.

Changing Berlin - 1937 | "HUGE FLAGS HUNG DURING THE OLYMPIC… | Flickr

Rome-Berlin Axis

The Rome-Berlin Axis was a political alliance established on 25th October 1936, between Italy and Germany, with the aim of establishing a "New Order" in Europe.

The creation of the alliance was the result of the increasingly close relationship between the two fascist regimes, which began with Mussolini's rise to power in Italy in 1922 and Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933.

The Axis was formed in response to international tensions, including the League of Nations' sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia and Hitler's decision to rearm Germany and pursue expansionist policies in Europe.

The alliance represented a significant shift in the balance of power in Europe and would eventually evolve into the Pact of Steel in 1939 and be one of the contributing factors to the outbreak of the Second World War.

A Nazi Germany/Fascist Italy propaganda poster.

Anti-Comintern Pact

The Anti-Comintern Pact was a treaty signed on 25th November, 1936, by Germany and Japan, with Italy joining later.

The pact was aimed at countering the perceived threat of the Comintern, an international organization established by the Soviet Union to promote world communism.

The signatories agreed to exchange information and cooperate in their efforts to counter communist influence. The pact was seen as a significant step towards the formation of the Axis Powers, which would go on to play a major role in the Second World War.

The pact also helped to isolate the Soviet Union diplomatically and increase tensions between the major powers in the lead-up to the war.

The Anti-Comintern pact was formed to counter the perceived threat from communism, and by definition, the Soviet Union.

Italy joins Anti-Comintern Pact w/ Germany & Japan... -

Second Sino-Japanese War

The Second Sino-Japanese War was a brutal military conflict that began in 1937 and lasted until Japan's surrender in 1945.

It was fought between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan, and was the largest Asian war of the 20th century.

The conflict was characterized by widespread atrocities committed by the Japanese, including the Nanking Massacre, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and soldiers were killed or raped by Japanese troops.

The war had a profound impact on the Chinese people and economy, leading to a significant loss of life and infrastructure damage. As the war dragged on, it would become both entwined with and then part of the larger Second World War. It also paved the way for the Communist Party of China's rise to power.

Three Chinese civilians in Chungking witness a Japanese air-raid. during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Three Chinese Civilians In Chungking Witness A Japanese Air-Raid. Second Sino-Japanese War World War 2. Ca.1937-45. History - Item # -


The Anschluss was the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany on 12th March 1938. The Nazi regime, led by Adolf Hitler, had long sought to unite all German-speaking people under one state.

Following the appointment of a pro-Nazi Austrian chancellor, a staged coup and threats of military intervention, German troops marched into Austria unopposed.

The annexation violated the Treaty of Versailles and was condemned by the international community, but Hitler ignored their objections.

The Anschluss was a key step in Hitler's expansionist plans and paved the way for further aggression in Europe, ultimately leading to the Second World War.

The Munich Agreement

The same year, the Munich Agreement was signed between Britain, France, Italy, and Germany.

This agreement allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise to not make any further territorial claims.

A key figure in these negotiations was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who advocated for appeasement of Hitler's policies in the hope of avoiding war.

Chamberlain's decision to sign the Munich Agreement in 1938 was widely criticized, as it allowed Hitler to continue his aggressive policies without facing any consequences and it ultimately failed to prevent the outbreak of war.

In contrast, Winston Churchill, who would later become Prime Minister of Britain during the war, warned against appeasement and advocated for a stronger stance against Germany. Churchill believed that Hitler could not be trusted, and that war was inevitable if the other European powers did not take a firm stand.

Hitler signing the Munich Agreement on 30th Srptember 1938. Mussolini can be seen in the background, just behind him.

Public domain

The 1938 Munich Agreement: A ‘Peace for Our Time’ Facade – Brewminate: A Bold Blend of News and Ideas

First Vienna Award

The First Vienna Award was a decision made by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, without the involvement of Czechoslovakia, on the 2nd November 1938.

The agreement determined the transfer of the Southern Slovak territories of Carpatho-Ukraine to Hungary.

The decision was made after demands from Hungary for autonomy were denied, and Slovakia declared independence from Czechoslovakia.

The decision was made in a meeting between Hitler and the Hungarian Prime Minister Kálmán Darányi, where they decided to grant Hungary their territorial claims. The move was part of Hitler's efforts to destabilize Eastern Europe and ultimately paved the way for the German occupation of Czechoslovakia the following year.

The Vienna Award further highlighted the inability of the international community to intervene in the aggressive territorial expansion of Nazi Germany and its allies.

Territorial expansion of Hungary 1938–1941. First Vienna Award highlighted in violet.

User:Jxxy - Wikimedia Commons


Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, was a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria on the 10th and 11th November 1938.

The violence was sparked by the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a young Jewish man. Nazi officials used the incident as a pretext for organizing a coordinated attack on Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues.

The violence was carried out by SA paramilitary forces and ordinary Germans, resulting in widespread destruction and the deaths of dozens of Jews.

The event marked a turning point in the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, with many Jews seeking to flee the country in the aftermath.

A synagogue in Hanover, Germany, set ablaze during the Kristallnacht pogrom of 9th - 10th of November 1938

Public domain

How to explain the ‘timid' reaction of American Jewish leaders to Kristallnacht? | The Times of Israel

The fall of Czechoslovakia

On 15th March 1939, Adolf Hitler's German troops entered Czechoslovakia, effectively ending its independence. This action was in violation of the Munich Agreement, which had been signed six months earlier, guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia.

The invasion was met with little resistance and was swift and largely bloodless, as the country's military had been disarmed following the Munich Agreement. The move was a part of Hitler's expansionist policy to create a larger German empire, and it set the stage for further aggression in Europe.

The move was met with condemnation from the international community, but it did not lead to military intervention. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was a clear sign that Hitler could not be appeased and was willing to use force to achieve his goals.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia was a precursor to the outbreak of the Second World War, which began just a few months later.

Sudeten German Freikorps, enjoying food and flowers given to them by locals after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia.

World War II in Pictures: Invasion of Czechoslovakia (

The Pact of Steel

The Pact of Steel was a military alliance signed on May 22, 1939, between Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

The treaty strengthened the existing Rome-Berlin Axis alliance between the two countries and provided for mutual assistance in the event of war.

The pact was a significant development in the lead-up to the Second World War and was a clear signal of the aggressive intentions of Germany and Italy.

The alliance represented a challenge to the balance of power in Europe and served as a precursor to the Tripartite Pact, which added Japan to the alliance in 1940.

The Pact of Steel ultimately proved to be a liability for Italy, as its commitment to the alliance contributed to the country's defeat in the Second World War.

This military alliance ultimately led to Italy's entry into the Second World War on the side of Germany in 1940. However, the partnership was marked by tensions and disagreements, particularly over Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which Italy did not support.

Hitler and Mussolini in 1938. The signing of the Pact of Steel formalised the bond between Italy and Germany, creating a military alliance and increase the likelihood of a European War breaking out once more.

The Most Iconic Photographs of All Time - LIFE

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non-aggression treaty signed on August 23, 1939, between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

The pact was named after the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

The agreement contained a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, with the Soviet Union gaining control over the Baltic states, Finland, and parts of Romania and Poland.

The pact provided Hitler with a free hand to invade Poland, triggering the start of the Second World War. The pact also enabled the Soviet Union to expand its borders and influence in Eastern Europe before the eventual Nazi invasion in 1941.

Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov meets with Hitler during negotiations over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: Soviets and Nazis, 1939-1941 – Brewminate: A Bold Blend of News and Ideas

War is declared

The Invasion of Poland in 1939 marked the beginning of the Second World War in Europe. On the 1st of September 1939, German troops crossed the Polish border, and within weeks, Poland was overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union. The invasion was preceded by months of tension and failed negotiations between Poland and Germany.

The pretext for the invasion was an alleged Polish attack on a German radio station near the border. However, the invasion was part of Hitler's ambition to create a larger German empire and eliminate perceived enemies. The invasion of Poland was met with international condemnation, and Britain and France declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939.

The invasion of Poland set the stage for years of conflict and atrocities that would claim millions of lives.

The start of the Second World War is announced in San Diego Union (two days late due to delays in news travelling across the Atlantic.)

September 3, 1939: World War II begins - The San Diego Union-Tribune (

Further reading