How far back can the causes of World War 2 be traced?

At Church on Sunday, our minister made a point which I hadn’t considered before. And as a historian maybe I should have done.

It being the season of Advent, she was talking about the coming of Jesus into the world. And she said that each of the four gospels started their narrative at a different point in time.

Mark’s gospel starts the story at the time of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. This event marks the beginning of his ministry, but is in fact only three years (at the outside) from the time of the crucifixion.

Matthew’s gospel takes the story back to Abraham.

Luke’s gospel starts with events just prior to Jesus’ birth, but in chapter 4 traces the story back through Jesus’ genealogy to Adam.

John’s gospel goes straight for the jugular and begins with the words, “In the Beginning”. He’s talking about the beginning, not just of mankind, or of the Hebrew race, or of Jesus’ ministry. He’s talking about creation itself.

Now, here is a classic issue for historians. I’m not talking about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth – that’s one more for theologians. I’m taking about the whole issue of causation. How far back do you trace the causes of historical events or episodes?

Take World War 2, for instance.

The causes of World War 2 ….

For many Americans, what caused this titanic struggle was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. This is of course correct, up to a point. But why then did the USA then throw most of its war effort into Europe for the next four years?

A stricken US battleship at Pearl Harbour (NARA 195617)

For many of us Brits, it’s the German invasion of Poland in 1939 which caused the war. Which also is true, up to a point. But why did the invasion of a country with which we had no treaty obligations draw us into a war?

This points to the next, probably most common, understanding of why World War 2 occurred, which was the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. His bullying of neighbouring European countries had become too much for Britain to stomach and at some point a red line had to be crossed – and Poland was that red line.

But Nazi Germany didn’t appear out of nowhere. And on the ace of it this does nothing to explain Pearl Harbour. So we come to the next most common explanation for World War 2, which is the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and Great Depression of the 1930s. This affected most countries of the world, and hit both Japan and Germany hard. In these countries, misery for many made their societies to the populist solution of militarism. But why did other countries not turn militaristic?

And so we go back, to the unfinished business of World War 1; to the very nature of the industrial capitalism itself, which transformed many countries from the mid-19th century onwards; to the economic and political rivalries this created; to the democratic forms of government it promoted, robust in some countries (USA, Britain), hardly more than facades in others (Germany, Japan); to the nationalism that arose with it; to the technologically advanced methods of warfare which had their own dynamic, and so on. Perhaps the very nature of modern (i.e post 18th century) Western society made World War 2 inevitable. And of course this society arose from Medieval European society, which itself arose from …, well, you get my drift.

…and the Industrial Revolution

Spinning Jenny, in Museum of Early Industrialization, Wuppertal, Germnay (photo: Markus Schweiß)

Another case in point is the Industrial Revolution. Some accounts start with the innovations in the textile industry taking place in 18th century Britain (Hargreave’s Spinning Jenny, Kay’s Flying Shuttle etc); others trace the origins right back to the 14th century, when the Black Death swept Europe and created more purchasing power for the poorer sections of society who survived – thus more demand for goods, more incentive to produce more goods etc etc.

I find the whole business of causation in history fascinating. It’s immensely complicated, and a lot of the time feels almost like a branch of chaos theory. Simple explanations almost never suffice. Which probably explains why simple solutions usually cause more problems than they solve.

By Peter Britton