Germany’s Role in World War I and World War II: Causes and Consequences

In this contemporary drawing by Heinrich Zille, the German soldiers bound westwards to France and those bound eastwards to Russia smilingly salute each other.

On the surface, unified Germany today – to a large degree – resembles Germany after World War I, as a liberal, democratic republic. Yet this is but a mere reflection atop political waters that have run turbulent, and deep, whose currents often churned in conflicting pools of political intent and impact.

Germany’s journey, specifically from the period before World War I to the close of World War II reveals significant transformations that occurred during the voyage to the democratic republic it became. By comparing and contrasting Germany’s involvement in World War I and World War II, in terms of the political, economic, and moral/social forces involved, it becomes clearest that the crises of Germany’s involvement in these two wars wielded reverberating impacts not only upon people under German rule, but also upon international waters in the manner in which Germany and the rest of the world would define itself, its objectives, and its foes. As this analysis reveals, it is in the watershed years between these two great wars that one can best comprehend how the causes and outcome of the first great war set the course for the second great war.

Following WWI, Germany energized a revolution that attempted a Democratic Republic amidst a political, economic, and moral template of conflict and pluralism that failed. That failure fractured into anarchy and totalitarianism that witnessed the rise of Adolph Hitler’s third Reich and precipitated Germany’s expansionism as not an act of self-defense but as a fascist act of liberation through dictatorship. While Germany was handed democracy once more by Allies following World War II, by 1945 not one revolutionary hand rose up too bring the country out of the ashes this time. It is paradoxical that in both cases, German expansionism precipitated war, yet for different reasons and with very different outcomes. In both word wars, the conflicts began and ended in Berlin, Germany’s capital, indicating Germany’s pivotal century, combined with the Balkan War of 1912, and Russia’s war with Japan that destabilized southern and eastern Europe provided overarching, external motives for international engagement in a “preventive war” as well.Economic Consequences of Peace, to be three times Germany’s ability to pay. Historian Norman Davies explains:

“The reparations plan… sought to make Germany pay the entire costs of the war, so that allied governments could then pay off their war debts. But the plan proved unworkable, for the sums involved could not be properly calculated; Germany refused full payment.”

There is little doubt that Hitler’s rise to power was facilitated by these tumultuous watershed years between World War I and World War II. More than anything, the resentments of the masses that festered during these watershed years needed a target and a means; the motive was already supplied. The masses of Germany, without a true history of democratic experience, blaming the monarchy for their economic and political plight, more than anything needed a sense of pride to restore their own social and moral bankruptcy, and to provide them with a vision for the future. Nothing supplied it better at the moment, it seemed, than to seek retribution from those the masses believed had caused their downfall. As historians Prior and Wilson explain, by the elections of 1930, Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party provided both the means and the target, for the party was “bent on reversing the military verdict of 1918 which the Nazis attributed to the stab in the back of the army by Jews, democrats and communists.”

Similar devastation occurred throughout Europe. All told, it is estimated that 40 million people died in this conflict, compared to 10 million casualties overall in World War I, and infrastructure damage was also much more intense from WWII because of these total war or “absolute war” practices.

As this analysis has revealed, it is these watershed years between the two great wars that coalesced into significantly deleterious political, economic, and social/moral forces for Germany. Specifically, these failures reverberated after WWI as the inability of the monarchy or the Weimar Republic to recover both from its rebuff from the West in the form of the Treaty of Versailles, or from its inexperience as a liberal democracy that had overthrown the monarchy. The punitive reparations of the Treaty of Versailles, its own instability and inability to enforce the peace it negotiated to end the first Great War, and the pressures these conditions placed upon Germany to embrace non-Western, non-democratic solutions to its economic and political turmoil reaped a high price for Germany and the world. For these failures paved the road for Hitler’s fascist movement to capitalize upon the fears and resentments of the German people and rally them to his doctrine of race/world supremacy. In sum, as this analysis has illustrated, one can best comprehend the causes and impact of World War II by understanding the impacts of WWI during the watershed years between these two great conflicts.


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