The World Since 1914
Part 3—1935-1940 The League of Nations Staggers to Its Death
THE League of Nations was a sickly child from its very birth. Historian H. Gatzke says its first meeting in 1920 was “less a world confederation of nations than it was a conference of major European powers pursuing national interests, intent upon making the League serve their own political purposes.” Until nationalistic thinking could be eradicated, the child’s life would be in constant danger.
During the early 1930’s, many of the League’s members were plainly dissatisfied. Italy, for example, felt it was not getting its fair share of the world’s raw materials and that it was being denied access to world markets and investment possibilities. So in 1935, in pursuit of national interests, it invaded Ethiopia. Japan, with similar grievances, moved into China in 1937. In both cases the League was powerless to intervene.
Clearly, the League, not yet 20 years old, was not the strapping, healthy teenager its supporters wanted it to be. Its terminal illness was causing concern as early as 1936 when, according to historian Hermann Graml, “the atmosphere [at the League’s headquarters] in Geneva was like that at a funeral.” No wonder, faced as the League was with the audacious behavior of Italy and Japan, not to mention that of a man named Adolf.
“Hitler’s Favorite Subject”
Yes, Germany, too, was dissatisfied. It was struggling hard to regain a position of European leadership. General Hans von Seeckt, head of the German armed forces in the 1920’s, ‘held that a renewed ascent of Germany was unthinkable without a new war,’ says a German textbook; nor did Hitler rule out the possible need of military action. That is why, according to a German military history research organization, “all the regime’s important measures [between 1933 and 1939] served, either directly or indirectly, the purposes of rearmament.”
As Hitler saw it, “the German ‘masses’ were composed of 85 million people forming a unified ‘racial nucleus.’ Hitler’s pseudo-Darwinistic approach required that this ‘racial nucleus’ conquer its ‘territory.’” So as Gerhard Schulz, professor of modern history at the University of Tübingen, explains: “The violent conquest of new territory was Hitler’s favorite subject.”
Actually the League of Nations helped Hitler decide where to begin. At the end of World War I, the Saarland, a region between France and Germany, tossed back and forth between them for centuries, was placed under the administration of the League of Nations. But a provision was made whereby Saar citizens would later decide by vote whether to stay under League control or to become part of either France or Germany. A plebiscite was scheduled for 1935.
At that time Hitler was very popular. Young students were sometimes given dictation, being told to write, for example: “As Jesus liberated mankind from sin and hell, so Hitler saved the German nation from ruin. Jesus and Hitler were persecuted, but whereas Jesus was crucified, Hitler was elevated to the chancellorship. . . . Jesus built for the heavens, Hitler for the German earth.”
Far from displaying Christian neutrality, religious leaders became actively involved in plebiscite politics. Predominately Catholic, Saar inhabitants took to heart what their bishops told them: “As German Catholics, we are obligated to support the greatness, the prosperity, and the peace of our fatherland.” And the Catholic trade unions warned: “He who is unfaithful to his fatherland will not be faithful to his God.”
Of course, not everyone agreed. A renowned author of the time, Heinrich Mann, warned: “If you vote for Hitler, you will prolong his life and will share responsibility for his misdeeds . . . , even for the war that he makes inevitable.” But such warning voices were few. This led journalist Kurt Tucholsky to write that the Saar had been “deserted by England, by France, by the League of Nations, by international labor unions, and by the pope.”
Given these circumstances, Hitler’s victory in the plebiscite was a foregone conclusion. An overwhelming 90.8 percent voted for becoming part of the new German Reich.
After this first major foreign policy victory, Hitler was encouraged to press on. The League of Nations, already on its deathbed, was too weak to interfere when, in violation of the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. In 1938 no one prevented him from occupying Austria or later that year from annexing the predominately German-populated Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia, preliminary to invading the rest of the country in 1939. There were loud protests, to be sure, but nothing more.
Dress Rehearsals—For What?
Up until then, Hitler’s war of aggression had proceeded without bloodshed. Not so the above-mentioned conflicts in which Italy and Japan had become involved. “Fascistic Italy’s attack on Ethiopia,” says the Italian reference work L’uomo e il tempo, “was prepared down to the minutest detail and was executed with a tremendous expenditure of material and with the support of an enormous propaganda apparatus.” That war began in 1935, and the occupation of Ethiopia was completed in 1936. The world was shocked to hear about bombing raids and the use of poison gas.
In Asia, Japanese militarists had become so powerful that when China was charged with trying to bomb a South Manchurian Railway train in 1931, Japan was able to seize upon this as an excuse to move troops into Manchuria. In 1937 they advanced into China proper, capturing large sections of land, including the cities of Shanghai, Peking, Nanking, Hankow, and Canton.
Meanwhile, in Europe the Spanish civil war had broken out in 1936. Hitler and Mussolini saw in this an opportunity to try out their newest weapons and methods of warfare. Like the wars in Manchuria, China, and Ethiopia, it served as a dress rehearsal for something larger in the future. According to one authority, more than half a million persons were killed in the Spanish conflict. No wonder it caught world attention. And if the dress rehearsal merited headlines, what about the main performance that was yet to come?
Lightning Strikes in Europe
The democracies, observing developments on the world stage, were concerned. Great Britain introduced military conscription. Then in August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union caught the world by surprise by signing a nonaggression pact. In reality it was a secret agreement to divide Poland between them. Gambling that once again the Western democracies would not intervene, Hitler moved his troops into Poland at 4:45 a.m. on September 1, 1939.
But this time he was mistaken. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. On September 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east, and by the end of the month, for all practical purposes, the Polish question was settled. World War II had begun, launched by a swift military campaign worthy of the German expression Blitzkrieg, meaning “lightning war.” In the glow of victory, Hitler offered to make peace with the Western powers. “Whether he was serious about this,” writes German historian Walther Hofer, “is a question that cannot be answered with any certainty.”
The first few war years were characterized by surprise attacks, carried out lightning fast and with destructive results. The Soviets quickly forced Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into allowing Soviet troops to be stationed on their soil. Finland, when asked to do the same, refused and was invaded by the Soviets on November 30, 1939. Finland sued for peace under Soviet terms the following March.
In the meantime, however, Britain and France had contemplated going through neutral Norway to help Finland. But when Finland sued for peace, the Allies, no longer having any pretext for doing so, postponed those plans. Preliminary to a later landing, they started mining Norwegian waters on April 8, 1940. The next day, while the Norwegians were preoccupied with protesting this mine-laying operation, the Germans unexpectedly landed troops in both Norway and Denmark. Less than a week later, British troops landed in Norway, but after several victories, they were forced to withdraw because of unsettling reports from the south.
For months the question there had been: When and where will Germany make its move against France? Time elapsed with most military action confined to naval battles. On land all was quiet. Some journalists began speaking of a “phony war,” no longer a blitzkrieg, but rather a sitzkrieg, meaning literally a “sit-down war.”
However, there was nothing phony about the sudden attack by the Germans on May 10, 1940. Bypassing the Maginot Line, the defense line that guarded France at its border with Germany, they struck through the Low Countries, sped through Belgium, and reached the French border on May 12. By May 14 the Netherlands had fallen. Then sweeping down through northern France, German troops trapped thousands of British, French, and Belgian soldiers with the English Channel at their backs. Far from being a sitzkrieg, this was full-scale blitzkrieg!
On May 26, at Dunkirk, France, one of the most spectacular rescue operations in the history of warfare began. For ten days naval vessels, and hundreds of civilian boats, ferried some 340,000 troops across the English Channel to safety in Britain. But not everyone escaped. Within three weeks the Germans took over one million prisoners.
On June 10, Italy declared war on Great Britain and France. Then four days later, Paris fell to the Germans. Before the month was out, a Franco-German armistice had been signed. Britain now stood alone. As Hofer describes it: “At a blitzkrieg tempo that even he himself had not thought possible, Hitler had become master over Western Europe.”
Contrary to what Hitler expected, the British did not sue for peace. So on July 16, he ordered plans for “Operation Sea Lion,” an invasion of the British Isles. Britain braced itself for the lightning that was due to strike again.
And Now What?
For years Jehovah’s Witnesses had publicly been foretelling the demise of the League of Nations.* Now the lightninglike outbreak of World War II had ended its agonizing struggle for life. A long overdue funeral could be held. The body could be laid to rest in the abyss of which Revelation 17:7-11 speaks and on the basis of which scripture the Witnesses had foretold its failure.
But after death, now what? Would the war possibly lead to something bigger, perhaps to “the war of the great day of God the Almighty” called Armageddon? (Compare Revelation 6:4; 16:14, 16.) Although eager to see how the war would further develop, Jehovah’s Witnesses were determined not to get personally involved. They would maintain Christian neutrality, even though this would subject them—in both totalitarian and democratic countries—to bans, imprisonment, court action, and mob violence. Although numbering fewer than a hundred thousand in that war year of 1940, they pushed forward in spreading the message of real hope, the message of God’s established Kingdom.
And hope is exactly what “Nations in Anguish, Driven by Fear,” needed. This is the title of our next installment, Part 4, in this series, “The World Since 1914.”
For example, The Watchtower of April 1, 1922, page 108, said: “Satan . . . now attempts to establish a universal empire under an arrangement designated a league of nations or association of nations. . . . This alliance is an unholy one and will be dashed to pieces shortly.”
[Box on page 21]
Other Items That Made the News
1935—Over 200,000 persons killed in China in flooding along the
1936—The Queen Mary ocean liner crosses the Atlantic in record
time of 95 hours, 57 minutes
Hitler infuriated when black American Jesse Owens wins four
gold medals at Berlin Olympic Games
1937—DuPont patents a new product known as Nylon
After trans-Atlantic flight, German dirigible Hindenburg
catches fire during mooring in New Jersey, killing 36
1938—Vatican recognizes Franco regime as official Spanish
Scientists Hahn and Strassmann discover that neutrons can be
used to split uranium
So-called Kristallnacht (Crystal night) when Jewish shops in
Germany are plundered and destroyed
1939—Tens of thousands killed in Turkey earthquake
Development of first airplane jet engine and construction of
1940—British make use of newly developed radar in air war
[Map on page 20]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
European expansion of the Axis powers up till 1940
Axis Nations and Conquests
[Pictures on page 18]
War sounded the death knell of the League
U.S. National Archives photo
U.S. Army photo