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READ: Thirty Years of Continuous War

What’s worse than having another world war only 20 years after the first one? How about 30 years of continuous war. Continuity and causation show how the global damage was not limited to battlefields.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How, according to the author, was nationalism an important thread connecting the two world wars?
  2. How were empires and colonialism continuities connecting the two world wars?
  3. How did the treatment of Germany following the First World War help lead to the Second World War?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Do you agree with the author’s assertion that we should treat the period 1914-1945 as a “continuous war”? Why or why not?
  2. What is the usefulness of breaking out of the normal view of World War I and World War II as two separate wars? How does viewing them as one war help us to understand this period better? How does it limit us?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Thirty Years of Continuous War

Photo shows a caravan of people walking together, hauling belongings on wagons, next to a destroyed building and piles of rubble.
By Whitney Howarth
What's worse than having another world war only 20 years after the first one? How about 30 years of continuous war? Continuity and causation show how the global damage was not limited to battlefields.

One long war?

"The Great War" was fought from 1914 to 1919. But when another major conflict happened from 1939 to 1945, the two events became known as the First World War and the Second World War. As with book titles, this sounds less like separate wars and more like two parts of the same story. Indeed, many historians argue it was all one long continuous war. Are they right? One way to find out if two events are continuous is to look for continuities—the themes and situations that connect them.
Aggressive nationalism and competitive colonial ambitions for empire drove Europeans and Asians to war in the beginning of the twentieth century. When the fighting ended in 1919, those ambitions did not, and nationalism had gotten even worse. The result was widespread violence until the second war ended in 1945. Let's explore the continuities of nationalism, empire, and colonialism of this deadly period in history, along with the causation that links them.

Continuity: Nationalism

We'll start with nationalism, one of the most important continuities of the First and Second World Wars due to its growth and prevalence in both conflicts.
In June of 1914, a young Bosnian Serb opposing the Austro-Hungarian Empire assassinated a key political figure in Sarajevo. This initiated a series of events that led political leaders in Vienna and Berlin to strengthen diplomatic alliances in preparation for war. The assassination may have been a surprise, but everyone's desire to fight was not. Several decades of conflict had already created a hostile atmosphere between European leaders. On top of this, Europeans had big plans beyond Europe where they sought resources and markets to build wealth through imperialism.
The major European states responded quickly to the assassination, believing the war would be short and inexpensive. It was neither, and it snowballed into possibly the bloodiest conflict up to that point in world history. Worse still, at the "end" of the war in 1919, the same territorial disputes, diplomatic misunderstandings, and national tensions still remained. The biggest difference was that now 17 million people were dead, another 20 million wounded, and the continent was more unstable. Then came part two, from 1939 to 1945, when the devastation killed millions more, and on an even more global scale.
Between the two wars, an important new actor entered the story: Adolf Hitler. About a decade after the 1919 peace treaty, most Germans were hungry, humiliated, and furious at the harsh terms of treaty. It was no secret that the new rules had been designed to punish Germany. The high cost of reparationsstart superscript, 1, end superscript and the cruel efforts to crush the Germans' military, industry, and spirit, were timed perfectly for a charismatic force like Hitler and his Nazi party. The Nazis drew on deep wells of antisemitism and nationalism in Germany (and Europe more broadly), but the nationalism that had been fostered by German politicians in 1914 was nothing compared to this new and zealous desire to prove Germany's superiority on the world stage.
Many Germans felt an identity beyond the boundaries on the map. European nationalists spoke of ethnic unification and manipulated patriotic sentiments among German speakers in other regions who felt oppressed by larger powers.
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler demanded a German lebensraum, meaning "living space" and German national pride. Twenty years or more before, France, Germany, Russia, and other powers had also had national pride and land as war goals. Some might argue that the Nazi nationalism of the 1930s was more brutal, racist, antisemitic and destructive than the national goals of the states that fought in the First World War. But weren't both also ideas tied to a vision of the world where the nation was supreme above all other forms of statehood or identity?
A grand castle is mostly destroyed, with many areas burned and turned to rubble.
Devastation in France at the end of the First World War, 1919. Public domain.

Continuity: Empire and colonialism

A second continuity between the two wars was the importance of empire. This was true for many who served in battle. In both 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, European Empires recruited millions of soldiers, globally, to fight for their states on battlegrounds across four continents. Tens of millions of non-Europeans fought for their European colonizers and sacrificed their lives in this long war. Millions of survivors were impacted by the political and economic upheaval caused by the slaughter.
Soldiers weren't the only people affected. Civilians around the world also participated in the long war, motivated by empire, alliances, and nationalism. As industrial, military, and colonial rivalries spread across the globe, so did a dangerous hunger for empire. Nations made choices that cast them in central roles of the most catastrophic drama of human aggression in history.
One example—of many—is Japan. The Japanese state had a very small empire when it joined forces with the Entente Powers against Germany and Austria-Hungary during the First World War. As a result, Japan expanded its sphere of influence over China. It also captured the German colonies in Asia and took control of many Pacific sea lanes (trade routes). Its empire was expanding, but the Japanese economy still hungered for more.
4 troops sit, kneeling, in an open field, holding rifles and a Japanese flag.
Japanese troops invade Manchuria, China, in 1931, to gain access to land and raw materials. Public domain.
In the 1930s, nationalist politics in Japan were turning increasingly toward militarism, totalitarianism, and expansion. A shortage of raw materials in Japan pushed industrialists to demand expansion into new markets, where they could also acquire needed materials. To broaden its economic sphere of influence, Japan invaded and occupied China. The Chinese were treated as conquered colonial subjects. The massacres that followed resulted in the slaughter of 400,000 Chinese people and the rape of tens of thousands of women. Japanese aggression mirrored the nationalist aggression of Germans in the European theater. These two states, on either side of the planet, would soon realize they had a greater chance of securing their goals if they joined forces. But first a little more background on those European forces.
One could argue that the German and Italian states during this period were trying to expand their empires. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, declared to his people that he was going to rebuild the Roman Empire for a new Italy. Under his leadership, Italy invaded Albania, Libya, Ethiopia, and, finally, Greece in this attempt to build an empire. Germany under Nazi rule also looked a lot like a nation trying to build an empire, mainly in Eastern Europe. In both cases, most conquered people were treated like colonial subjects. Only the few who were accepted as "ethnically" German or Italian were incorporated as citizens.
Japanese aggression in China was so similar that in 1940 they joined forces with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy by signing a pact. In December of 1941, Japan bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The idea was to keep the American military as far as possible from Southeast Asia, where Japan saw its future empire. The United States' response to Japanese aggression was its entry into the Second World War, already three years under way in Europe. Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy declared war on the United States, merging the European and Pacific conflicts into one.

Causation: German moves

It is also possible to argue that the way the First World War ended and the events of the years immediately following (1919-1928) led to the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party in Germany. Scholars who make this argument focus particularly on the treatment of the German people at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Within the first weeks of the First World War, Germany's enemies had seized many of its colonies in Africa and the Pacific. After its defeat in 1919, Germany lost the rest of its colonial possessions, territory they considered to be actually part of Germany itself. Now combine those losses with the humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles, the result of the 1919 conference. Heavy reparations, dismantled industries, and severe disarmament in the wake of such defeat meant Germany could never reach world-power status. This was done on purpose. Some of the victors of the First World War, especially the French government, wanted to punish Germany for its role in starting the war and permanently weaken the nation so it could never be aggressive again. This plan backfired.
A cartoon depicts a man, wearing a collar that reads “Germany”, being crushed under a sac that reads “Reparations 55,000,000,000 dollars”
An American political cartoon suggesting that reparations would be impossible for Germany to pay back. By New York World, public domain.
This solution, while reasonable to some, ultimately had dangerous consequences for humanity. Holding the German people collectively guilty for their leaders' choices in the First World War left their citizens dejected and humiliated. It paved the way for an authoritarian state. To end their feelings of helplessness, many were in favor of state regulation of all aspects of society, and even the militarization of civilian life. But seeking such order under the direction of a strong fascist state did more than rebuild national strength. It created a monstrous degree of nationalism fueled by exclusion and intolerance.
Hitler and his Nazi party were able to come to power partly because they harnessed the desperation and vulnerability of German citizens who had been wounded as a nation after 1919. People were also eager to find someone to blame for those wounds and losses. Charismatic leaders could gain power by channeling the existing, widespread prejudice and hatred against Jews, communists, and other groups. Such fearmongering spoke to the hearts of a once proud and powerful nation. They longed for lost days of glory, and imagined a future even more spectacular than before. Yet, neither Germany nor Japan achieved their nationalist dream, as they were defeated together in war. As a result, the combined cost of German and Japanese aggression in the second phase of this 30-year conflict (1939-1945) resulted in unprecedented loss of life globally.


The continuities between the First World War and the Second World War suggest that the unsatisfying conclusion of the first conflict may have contributed to the second. Remember that the Second World War was even deadlier than the first. There were more deaths in combat, in state sponsored extermination campaigns, in soaring death rates of civilians due to disease and famine. We can ask ourselves if the end of the First World War was a missed opportunity to create a longer-lasting peace. We can wonder whether the year 1919 was when we were supposed to learn to deal more effectively with militarism, nationalism, and empire-building. But when we assess historical questions like this, we must be careful. Larger questions loom, such as: Were these continuities a result of the mistakes made by the people who negotiated the end of the First World War? Or were they a result of deeper issues that were not so easily resolved?
Fun fact: Fascist is capitalized when referring to the actual National Fascist Party that Mussolini led. Hitler was also a fascist, but there the word is lowercase because it refers to his style of leadership, not the name of his political party. In a fascist state, as Hitler's Germany would become, strict economic and civic laws can be enacted without a democratic process.
Author bio
Whitney Howarth, is an Associate Professor of History at Plymouth State University where she specializes in modern world history and the history of India. Dr. Howarth has taught world history at the college level since 1999 and was, for nearly a decade, a research fellow at Northeastern’s World History Center, where she assisted in the research, design and creation of professional development programs for high school world history teachers, hosted seminars by top world historical scholars, and produced multi-media publications (1995-2004).

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