What sorts of things, forces and circumstances lead to World War I? What did many expect would happen in World War I? What did they get instead? How does one define fascism? What in particular about it did millions of Europeans find appealing after the war? What did they get instead? How did Japan see itself and the world after World War I? What exactly did it desire that brought it to make war against the US and its allies? Between 1945 and 2000, what happened to the decimated nations destroyed by World War II? How and why did this happen? 

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There is a wealth of widely-published and easily-available material on the causes, course and outcome of World War I. Within the last few years, in fact, two very good studies have been published and are available in book stores and libraries. The first of these books is The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (HarperCollins, 2013). The second recent study that has been well-received and that warrants review is Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Random House, 2013). Both of these meritorious studies provide copious detail on the causes and consequences of that horrific conflagration, the legacy of which contributed substantially to the world war that followed it. A third recent history that could be consulted is Max Hasting’s Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Random House, 2013). These are only among the most recently published discussions of the causes and consequences of World War I. As noted, there are hundreds more such studies, in addition to the myriad articles published over the years in scholarly journals such as Journal of Contemporary History, Historical Journal, Journal of Military History, and others. Finally, students today enjoy an advantage not available to earlier generations: the Internet. Simply by conducting searches of key phrases, such as, “causes of World War I,” or “Japanese foreign policy, 1900-1945,” copious additional sources of information can be made readily available. Any competent research librarian can help students to conduct searches of relevant databases for useful material. As the student’s assigned reading material was not specified, recommendations such as these will have to substitute for whatever sources were intended to be referenced in the question.

The causes of World War I were many, and included what is often referred to as the traditional European tendency to predicate foreign policy decisions on “balance of power” considerations. At the time that war broke out, following the June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the throne that sat atop the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the “great nations of Europe” had subtly and not-so-subtly maneuvered for power and privilege amongst each other for many years. A complex web of alliances, sometimes secretly conducted, and conflicts over imperial ambitions had established the foundation for the major conflagration that was sparked by the archduke’s assassination. Conflicts over territories within Europe as well as over colonial ambitions had made certain the frictions that would be ignited by the murder of such an important figure as the heir to the throne of one of the continent’s most powerful empires. In addition, Czar Nicholas II’s efforts at diplomatically maneuvering within this tangled web of relationships added an important and major element to the scenario taking shape. The czar’s efforts at cementing cordial relationships with the great powers of Western Europe was, he hoped, the key to protecting the Russian Empire from encroachment by the Austro-Hungarians, who found common cause, as well as kindred spirits, in the German nation ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Further complicating matters was the ultimately-successful struggle by socialist and Marxist revolutionaries to overthrow the Russian monarchy—an effort inspired in no small part by the currently (circa 1914) exiled Vladimir Ilyich Ullyanov, aka Lenin, whose presence in the West was unsettling to his various hosts and threatening to the czar’s tottering regime. Lenin’s return to Russia in a sealed train in April 1917—the form of transportation a condition of his ability to cross German territory en route to Sweden and, eventually, Russia, so fearful were German authorities of Lenin’s potential influence on Germany’s workers—was symbolically important because of his stature among revolutionary movements and because of his committed opposition to Russian participation in World War I, a position very much at variance with that of the czar, whose alliances with Britain and France pitted his country against the Austro-Hungarian/German/Italian alliance. To Lenin, the war was the natural outcome of capitalist economies competing for resources and markets. The success of the movement of which he was one of the most important leaders resulted in Russia’s withdrawal from the war under the most inauspicious of circumstances, namely, the sacrifice of territory.

Mistrust among the many nations of Europe, and Asia, and the potential for misunderstandings and miscalculations provided the atmosphere in which the seeds of war were able to take root. The alliances, seemingly logical in-and-of-themselves, ensured that the war that would occur would encapsulate the whole of the continent. Competition for territory, especially in the Balkans (the site of the archduke’s assassination), but also in Africa and the Middle East, was exacerbated by heightened nationalist sentiments among virtually all of the major actors in Europe—a situation greatly exacerbated by the race for military supremacy that characterized perceptions and misperceptions within Europe’s capitals. 

What did many expect would happen in the war? These were, as noted, the major powers of Europe. All were imbued with a sense of ethnic superiority and a firm belief in the righteousness of their respective causes. Nationalism can be a potent force when exploited by autocratic leaders. Each sought to expand and to capture and exploit resource-rich territories beyond their, and even the continent’s borders. They wanted the material wealth that colonialism could provide, and they wanted to survive. What did they get instead? The end of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman (read: Turkish) Empires, which allowed for the fundamental restructuring of the international order. New nations, such as Czechoslovakia, emerged out of the rubble of the war, and the victorious powers, mainly, the British and French, carved up the Middle East into fiefdoms the borders of which are being seriously threatened today. In this regard, the student should “google” “Sykes-Picot agreement,” named for the English and French diplomats who literally drew up the borders of today’s Middle East, leaving unresolved the issue of Zionist ambitions to reestablish a Jewish homeland in current-day Israel and the West Bank. In short, to the victors went the spoils.

Out of the seeds of Germany’s humiliation courtesy of the conditions imposed on it by the British and French during the peace negotiations at Versailles, was the emergence of the most pernicious form of extreme nationalism and socialism labeled as “fascism.” The fascist movement was spearheaded by Italy’s Benito Mussolini, whose national socialist movement was inspirational to an Austrian-born veteran of the brutal trench warfare that characterized World War I, Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s National Socialist movement, the Nazis, exploited economic turmoil in the defeated German nation and the case of national mental despondency that had gripped the German people. By identifying parties that he argued were responsible for the German people’s plight, mainly Jews, Bolsheviks, and Western capitalists. While Germany was succeeding in rebuilding its economy, Hitler perceived that the German people were anxious for a powerful leader who could reinstall their sense of greatness and, even, omnipotence. The Nazis powerful propaganda machine succeeded in influencing millions of Germans, and Austrians, mobilizing the former for the struggle at regaining its position of influence in Europe.

Japan, in the meantime, was seized by its own form of national socialism. Imperial Japan, so-named for its voracious territorial ambitions and thirst for foreign sources of raw materials needed to power its economy, matched German militarism, and brutality, man-for-man, and the alliance these two nations, along with Fascist Italy, formed threatened the entire world. Japan saw itself as ethnically superior to all other races and nationalities, and deserving of the territorial spoils its rapidly growing army and navy would secure. Its most daunting potential obstacle in the vast Asia-Pacific region, however, was the growing power of the somewhat befuddled colossus across the ocean: the United States, which, following the Spanish-American War, had colonized the Philippine Islands. Only the United States Navy could threaten Japanese territorial ambitions, and the attack on U.S. naval installations in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was the result. Japan calculated, badly, that it could sufficiently weaken the United States’ capacity to project military force across the Pacific Ocean. The survival of the U.S. Navy’s formidable fleet of aircraft carriers, however, would prove instrumental to Imperial Japan’s undoing.

What happened to the decimated nations of World War II? The United States, under the aegis of the so-called Marshall Plan, provided the funding, and the military protection, necessary for Western Europe—that part of the continent not liberated from Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union—to rebuilt itself out of the ruins of the most devastating conflict in human history. Similarly, under U.S. military occupation, Japan was rebuilt as a constitutional democracy that would, under U.S. military protection, become one of the most powerful economies in the world. Germany, of course, was divided among the four victorious powers: the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union (France was hardly a “victorious power”; in fact, it was considered as such only as a gesture of magnanimity on the part of the U.S. and Britain). West Germany because an economic powerhouse and a lynchpin of the Free World. East Germany, under Soviet control, became a suffocating, totalitarian dictatorship that would be a lynchpin of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact until Eastern European masses had finally had enough and began to tear down the vestiges of communist dictatorship.

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