Part II: Who and what was responsible for the two world wars in the 20th century?
The imperialist powers of the world, in their pursuit to expand their spheres of control through re-division of the world, were responsible for the two world wars of the 20th century.
By the beginning of the 20th century, capitalism had reached its last and final stage, that of imperialism. The leading capitalist powers of the world had divided up all the continents into their respective colonies and spheres of influence. Further expansion was only possible through wars to seize territories from one another. The law of uneven economic and political development of capitalist states ensured that wars for redivision of the world amongst capitalist states became inevitable. Capitalism had entered the period of its general crisis.
The First World War that raged from 1914 to 1919 was an inter-imperialist war arising from the struggle over markets, territories, resources and spheres of influence. The efforts of rising imperialist powers like Germany to expand and acquire colonies was resisted by the old imperialist powers like Britain and France.
For several years in preparation for war, the contending imperialist powers steadily armed themselves and entered into alliances. This ensured that when war broke out in Europe, a large number of states and their respective colonies on different continents were drawn into the war. On one side were Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and the US which joined only in 1917. On the other side were Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman (Turkish) empire.
The outcome of World War I
Germany and its allies were defeated in the War. The War resulted in unprecedented devastation, including about 40 million military and civilian dead and wounded.
A punitive settlement was imposed at the Treaty of Versailles by the victorious powers on Germany. Germany not only had to make huge payments as compensation, but was deprived of territory and all its colonies.
The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were broken up and smaller states were formed, under the slogan of the self-determination of nations which was proclaimed at Versailles. But the principle of self-determination was not applied to the Western colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America – in fact, to the great majority of countries in the world. Despite the huge number of soldiers and resources of India that were drafted into the War by Britain, the British government refused to concede the demand for self-government of Indian people after the War.
Nevertheless, despite their victory in war, the old imperialist powers like Britain and France were weakened. US imperialism, which suffered much fewer losses, emerged relatively stronger.
The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917
In the midst of World War I, an event of world-historic importance took place. On November 7, 1917, the working class of Russia, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party led by V.I. Lenin, and in alliance with the peasantry and other toiling people, overthrew the rule of the exploiting classes and established the world’s first socialist state. While the social-democratic and labour parties of the leading capitalist countries of Britain, France, Germany and other countries took the sides of their own bourgeoisie during the War, the Bolshevik Party led the Russian working class in a revolutionary civil war against its own bourgeoisie. The Russian working class used the crisis of the exploiters to breach the reactionary front and carry out the first proletarian revolution in history.
The struggle of mankind for liberation from all forms of exploitation and oppression entered a new phase.
The new state of the dictatorship of the proletariat pulled Russia out of the War into which the former tsarist rulers had plunged it. It publicly exposed the deals that Britain, France, the US and other powers had made to divide up the territories of the others at the end of the War. It extended the revolution to all the oppressed nations and nationalities within the former tsarist empire, leading to the formation of the Soviet Union. It assisted the founding of a new revolutionary association of communist and workers parties from around the world, known as the Third International or Comintern. All this hastened the end of the War.
Intensification of the general crisis of capitalism between the two World Wars and the rise of fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany and militarism in Japan
World War I and the rise of the Soviet Union and the Comintern intensified the general crisis of capitalism.
The capitalist economic crisis of 1929, resulting in the Great Depression, greatly increased the suffering and discontent of the working class and people in the capitalist countries and colonies. There was a great increase in the struggles of the working class and oppressed people in countries all over the globe.
This was accompanied by a sharpening of the contradictions among the different imperialist powers, which once again began to militarise and conclude alliances and deals amongst themselves in preparation for another war.
The post-World War I settlement had also given rise to grievances among certain states.
Germany had faced the most difficult conditions as a result of having lost the War. The anger of the German people over their suffering and humiliation was utilized by the Nazi party led by Adolf Hitler to come to power under the slogan of avenging Germany’s humiliation and recovering its lost greatness. The Nazis propagated an intensely racist, militarist and anti-communist ideology. Assisted by the big bourgeoisie of many countries, including Britain and the US, the Nazis built up a formidable military-industrial machine in Germany.
In Italy, a similarly fascist and chauvinist force under Mussolini had earlier been able to rise to power on the sentiment that Italy had not been given its due despite having been on the winning side in World War I. Similarly, in Japan, which had also been an ally of the victorious powers in that War, there was support for militarist forces who resented that the established Western powers were preventing Japan from gaining strength by acquiring territories and resources.
These developments rapidly led to the tearing up of treaties and of the post-WWI ‘peace’. In 1931, the Japanese army took over Manchuria on the mainland of East Asia and made inroads into North China. In 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia in North Africa. In 1936, Italy and Germany combined to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, leading to the defeat of the republican forces there and the installation of the fascist rule of Franco. In the same year, Italy, Germany and Japan formed an alliance known as the Axis. In 1938 Germany made its first move to expand in Europe, occupying neighbouring Austria. It then made clear its intentions of expanding further into Czechoslovakia and Poland. In April 1939 Italy invaded Albania; a few months later, it invaded and added Libya to its possessions in North Africa. Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939. Britain and France which had a mutual defence treaty with Poland, declared war with Germany.