The causes of World War Two are varied, but some factors are more important than others. Here, Seth Eislund explains that fascism was the primary factor that led to World War Two. He considers Mussolini’s fascist Italy, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and Horthy’s fascistic Hungary.
Seth has previously written an article on whether the Nazis achieved their domestic aims – here.
From November 1918 to September 1939, Europe existed in a fragile state of peace known as the interwar period. Political frustration and economic woes plagued European countries, especially Germany and Hungary, both of which endured a crippling defeat at the hands of the Allies. Germany and Hungary lost large swathes of territory to the Allies and faced grave economic depression and inflation. Even Italy, which had been on the winning side at the end of the First World War, endured “an inconclusive but costly victory.”[i]Hoping to return their countries to greatness, many Italians, Germans, and Hungarians eagerly adopted an ideology called “fascism,” which was promulgated by a former syndicalist named Benito Mussolini. Fascism emphasized expansionism, extreme nationalism, anti-Marxism, and anti-liberalism.[ii]Ultimately, due to its nationalist, expansionist, and warlike tendencies, fascism was the primary factor that shattered the fragile peace of the interwar period and incited the Second World War.
Benito Mussolini’s fascism promoted a love of warfare, nationalism, and expansionism, values which were implemented in Italian foreign policy and helped instigate World War II. In 1932, Mussolini wrote that fascism “believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace… War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it.”[iii]Mussolini stated that fascism was inherently violent, and that violence unleashed peak human potential. Peace, on the other hand, neutered human potential and was therefore detrimental to humanity as a whole. Thus, in Mussolini’s worldview, war was a moral good that must be constantly waged to further human progress. Mussolini linked this line of reasoning with imperialist rhetoric, saying that “the expansion of a nation… is an essential manifestation of vitality.”[iv]To Mussolini, fascism was centered around a “nation,” or a “people,” which needed to expand their territory through any means necessary. Unsurprisingly, Mussolini’s fascism saw the Italian people as destined to expand throughout the world. These expansionist and nationalist motives explain why he invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and ultimately sided with Hitler in his conquest of Europe. Hence, Italian fascism aimed to foment conflict, and, as such, it exacerbated the tensions that ignited World War II.
Similar to Italian fascism, German Nazism combined a policy of nationalism, expansionism, and racism that aimed to start another war on European soil. Like Mussolini’s fascism, Adolf Hitler’s Nazism was a nationalist and expansionist ideology. Nazism claimed that Germans needed to conquer new territory and supplant the people who lived there. This was because Germans were members of the Aryan race, which was superior to all other races.[v]Days before he invaded Poland, Hitler articulated his desire to obtain more “living space,” or lebensraum, for the German people. He emphasized that war was necessary to obtain land for the survival of the Aryan race, and only by exterminating the Poles “shall [Germans] gain the living space which [they] need.”[vi]Hitler’s words show that the invasion of Poland, and consequently World War II, were inextricably linked to his Nazism. Waging war enabled the Aryan race to take the land it so desperately needed, purge “inferior races,” and achieve hegemony over the world.
Hungarian Fascistic Ideology
While not as fascist as Italy or Germany, Hungary adopted a fascistic ideology that contributed to the outbreak of World War II. Suffering tremendous territorial losses following World War I, Hungary became “barely one-third of its prewar size.”[vii]Consequently, many Hungarians were enraged at the punitive peace imposed upon them by the Allies, vowing to restore Hungary’s territorial and political status. Fascistic ideas gained traction, and under the auspices of Admiral Miklós Horthy and Captain Gyula Gömbös, Hungary became increasingly authoritarian during the interwar period. Gömbös allied Hungary with Italy and Nazi Germany, since he wanted to restore the territory Hungary lost after 1918.[viii]As a result, Hungary participated in the German annexation of Czechoslovakia by annexing regions with Hungarian nationals, which drew international outrage and panic.[ix]Ultimately, by abetting Germany’s dissolution of Czechoslovakia for its own gain, Hungary helped destabilize the already fragile peace in Europe and initiate World War II.
Fascism was primarily responsible for causing the Second World War, as its emphasis on nationalism, expansionism, and warfare escalated tensions in interwar Europe. Mussolini’s fascism saw war as a moral good and proclaimed that the Italian people needed to expand their territory, which led Italy to invade Ethiopia in 1935. Similarly, Nazism viewed Germans as members of the “master race” which needed “living space” to survive, a belief that led Adolf Hitler to invade Poland in 1939 and start World War II. Lastly, Hungary aligned itself with Italy and Nazi Germany, annexing parts of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Therefore, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and fascistic Hungary plunged the continent into the most devastating war in history.
What do you think was the primary cause for World War Two? Let us know below.
[i]Robert O. Paxton and Julie Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 5th ed (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth - Cengage Learning, 2012), 180.
[ii]Paxton and Hessler, 179.
[iii]Benito Mussolini, “Benito Mussolini: What is Fascism, 1932,” Internet Modern History Sourcebook, edited by Paul Halsall (New York, NY: Fordham University, 2019), accessed May 5, 2019, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/mussolini-fascism.asp.
[v]Paxton and Hessler, 284.
[vi]Louis P. Lochner, What About Germany?(New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1942), 1-4.
[vii]Paxton and Hessler, 191.
[viii]Paxton and Hessler, 302.
[ix]Paxton and Hessler, 345.
Lochner, Louis P. What About Germany?New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1942.
Mussolini, Benito. “Benito Mussolini: What is Fascism, 1932.” Internet Modern History Sourcebook, edited by Paul Halsall. New York, NY: Fordham University, 2019. Accessed May 5, 2019. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/mussolini-fascism.asp.
Paxton, Robert O., and Julie Hessler. Europe in the Twentieth Century. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth - Cengage Learning, 2012.