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What Caused The Two World Wars?

When the major powers become involved in armed conflict, whether Operation Restore Hope or Operation Desert Storm, these conflicts are presented as a temporary measure, necessary to restore 'peace.' Each time political leaders expect support for their wars it is always with the subtly implied promise that all will be well eventually. It was the same in the nineteenth century as it is now. Yet, at the start of this century, they never requested working class support for another hundred years of 'temporary' conflicts that have since caused so much destruction. For who would possibly have supported Operation Twentieth Century?

The twentieth century has been the era of truly world wars that have been the most destructive unnatural events this planet has ever seen. But were they, and the dozens of conflicts that have followed, necessary? The socialist answer is no, not even the Second World War, a war above all others allegedly fought to bring lasting peace and democracy to the world but which left death, tyranny and fresh antagonisms in its wake.

The Economic Causes of World War II

The basic cause of modern war is the international rivalries inseparable from capitalism and the capitalist class's domination of the world's resources. World War Two was no exception.

The particular background to this, the most destructive war ever, was the formation of the German-Italian-Japanese alliance in the 1930s and their concerted effort to expand at the expense of weaker neighbours and the older colonial powers, notably Britain, France and Holland. Italy and Germany had long before 1914 entered into the colonial scramble but they developed late and found all the best territories, strategic positions and trade routes already dominated by the 'older and fatter' bandits. The line-up before 1914 was, on the one side, the 'Triple Alliance' of Germany, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and arrayed against their expansionist ambitions the 'Triple Entente' of Britain, France and Russia.

The First and Second world wars were directly linked in that the settlement imposed on the defeated states after the former succeeded in deepening the antagonisms which led to the latter. The background to the First World War was the clash in the Balkans. Germany aimed to move through the Balkans across the Dardanelles and onwards, taking in the Middle East with its oil resources and strategic importance. It was given dramatic expression in the planned Berlin-Baghdad railway. Such a thrust meant cutting off Russia from its Balkan proteges and an outlet to the Mediterranean, and meant severing the British Empire life-line through the Suez Canal to India and beyond. France with its African interests was as vitally concerned as Britain to stop this German dream of world power.

When the war came in 1914 Italy deserted the Triple Alliance while Turkey joined it. Part of the Allied bribe to Italy was the secret promise of a rich share in the spoils of victory—a promise which Italy claimed was never kept. Later on, in the early 1920s, with Germany prostrate and Russia weakened by the civil war and Allied intervention, Europe was dominated by France and the French system of alliances with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, a system aimed both against the revival of Germany and against Russia. The British Government, following its traditional European balance of power policy, saw the need—in the interest of British capitalism—of helping Germany recover to offset French preponderance. A new factor, however, came into being after the world slump which followed on from the Wall Street Crash of 1929: the coming to power in Germany of the Hitler dictatorship.

The slump led in 1931 to a major breakdown in the system of international payments. Production fell in country after country and trade plummeted. Gold became concentrated in the hands of the dominant capitalists in the USA, Britain, France and the countries associated with them. These states also had a monopoly of access to most of the sources and raw materials in the world. The world thus became divided into two groups; those countries which had the gold and raw materials and those which lacked them. Germany, Japan and Italy were in the second group and in a bid to solve the problems this presented, the governing parties organised on an aggressive totalitarian basis and resorted to policies which challenged the other, dominant group.

To get gold and currencies to buy essential raw materials the totalitarian states tried 'dumping', i.e. selling their products below cost. In their trade with other countries they used devices which avoided gold, such as barter and bilateral trade agreements and credits which had to be used to buy their goods. All these devices tended to tie their trading partners to them and thus take them out of the world market.

This decline in the use of gold threatened the financial centres of London and New York. London was also threatened as the centre of dealings in raw materials. Pursuing these aggressive economic policies Germany had considerable success in Southern Europe and Latin America, while Japan made headway in the markets of Southern Asia. In 1931 Japan used armed force in Manchuria to set up a trading monopoly there. In the past the imperialist powers had decided on an open door policy for trade with China as none of them was strong enough to exclude all the others. Now Japan was trying to do just this, a policy which inevitably led to conflict with America and Britain. Italy similarly used force to get an overseas market in Abyssinia in 1935.

By way of response, the dominant powers decided on a determined campaign to regain the markets lost to the totalitarian countries. German, Japanese and Italian goods were boycotted. Credits were offered to the countries of Southern Europe to win them away from dependence on Germany. The more successful these policies were the more desperate became the economic position of German capitalism. Without the funds to give credits, force appeared to be the only way. Hence the annexation of Austria in 1938, the breaking up of Czechoslovakia in 1939.

At this point the conflict of economic interests was coming to a head. Germany was trying to keep its gains in Southern Europe by all means, including force, and Britain and France were using credits to undermine German influence. There was no backing down on either side. War would break out as soon as Britain and France decided to resist force with force. This was delayed as long as possible, particularly because of the vague anti-war feelings of British and French workers; but in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland the Second World War began. In a few years Russia and the USA were drawn in also. It was a war which blazed over all Europe and Asia and parts of Africa. It was a war fought between rival groups of capitalist states over markets, trade routes and sources of raw materials. It was not about democracy or fascism.

Nothing illustrated this more than the resultant carve-up between the victorious capitalist states in 1945 which left the totalitarian regimes in Spain and Portugal intact while delivering half of Europe into the hands of Stalin and Russian imperialism.