What was the most important cause of the Second World War? Obviously there was the Treaty of Versailles which played a significant part; the War Guilt Clause, Reparations, Disarmament and territorial clauses, etc. But, what about Hitler's actions? The failure of appeasement and the failure of the League of Nations?

  • Soliciting theories that are a matter of opinion. Mar 5, 2015 at 20:04
  • Yeah, I have to agree with @Tyler and vote to close as it stands. Does WWII have a single most important cause? Do we mean proximate cause or ultimate cause? Do we mean "Why did Germany invade Poland" or do we mean "How did that invasion escalate into a world war?" And so on.
    – two sheds
    Mar 5, 2015 at 20:25

5 Answers 5


The most important cause of WW2 (as of WW1) was imperialism.

By that, I mean a specific development of capitalism that features concentration of capital which has enough influence in state affairs to dictate expansionist policies in its favour.

As a result, nations struggle to expand their spheres of interest, i.e. access to markets and resources, which will lead to war as soon as there are no ‘free’ markets left (cf Boxer war – unity amongst European powers to open a fresh market) and opposing power blocs have formed (various European crises in the early 20th century did not result in a war because involved great powers were not sure enough their allies would support them in a war, power blocs were not formed).

Not surprisingly it was Germany who stroke first to challenge its rivals (1914) – after all, France and Britain had established their colonial empires long before Germany was united and became Europe’s strongest industrial power, however with limited access to markets and resources compared to UK and F. However, WWI failed to resolve the tensions. Germany was beaten, but after the economic crises in the early 20th century her economy still proved to be superior in comparison to her direct competitors. Furthermore, due to the revolutions, Germany was also not occupied or disarmed. So it is no surprise, that with the economic power base and imperialist ambitions still in place, German imperialism would surface again to challenge the unprivileged position in the international system imposed by the Versailles treaty.

In my eyes it is wrong to reduce Germany’s war ambitions to revanchism due to Versailles. After all, the other main challenger of the status quo, Japan, was never disadvantaged in any comparable way. Japan started the war due to imperialist motives – to conquer China and Oceania for their resources and manpower.

Neither the treaty of Versailles nor the failure of the League of Nations are causes for the Second Word war. These events are just consequences of imperialistic brinkmanship.

Suggested reading: Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War

  • 4
    I'm not comfortable with the blithe linking of capitalism to imperialism. I think you should be more explicit here. On the other hand, this is a short answer to a book length topic.
    – MCW
    Dec 20, 2013 at 12:44
  • 1
    It's also a very strange definition of imperialism, that most significantly lacks a requirement of anything imperial. Dec 22, 2013 at 16:44
  • 2
    Imperialism has nothing to do with capitalism. Ask Ancient Persia and Rome.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 5, 2015 at 21:18
  • 1
    This answer seems extremely vague and ideologically motivated. If nothing else, by defining "imperialism" as a form of "capitalism", it buys into soviet post-war propaganda and simultaneously defines away any possibility of Soviet - or generally communist - aggression or imperialism. As a citizen of a country formerly subject to Soviet imperialism, I resent that implication.
    – Mike L.
    Mar 6, 2015 at 12:09
  • 2
    1) It puzzles me why comments only focus on the second paragraph of my answer. 2) I agree that other economic systems also feature imperialism. The main cause of the constant wars of Rome was in my opinion the necessity of aquiring new lands and slaves resulting from their economic system. Thus, also for Rome, it is important to understand the dynamics of why their economic system leads to imperialism, and consequently, wars. Same applies to WWII and capitalism.
    – mzuba
    Mar 10, 2015 at 11:57

I think the cause was the same as of the WW I: German militarism and expansionism. Since Kaiser Wilhelm gained power in Germany, it has been pursuing an aggressive foreign policy (e.g. the Morocco crisis) and launched an arms race with Great Britain. It resulted in one world war, which did not prove conclusively to Germans that militarism doesn't work, so they launched another one 21 years later.

Read the book "Dreadnought" by R.K. Massie. It describes the German sentiments in great detail. You'll see that Hitler's rhetoric was nothing new in German politics, at least qualitatively. (except for the genocide part, but even that just barely) He was more rabid than, say, Bulow, but the substance was the same.

  • So what you are saying is WW2 was caused by expansionism and nationalism (just like WW1) right? Good answer. +1
    – Russell
    Apr 2, 2012 at 4:15

I'd argue that the biggest reason the war began is that other nations did not do enough, if anything, to prevent it. The Allies of course were not ready economically or militarily for conflict, until they finally took action after Poland. The League of Nations, while a good idea on paper, was also ineffectual against Germany in Europe and Italy in Africa.

Surely the Allies/LN could have seen what was happening and where events would lead. There were attempts by insiders to warn outside powers of what was coming, but to no avail. Hitler's rise to power in Germany could not have been missed. It seems like the Allies were just really, really hoping that nothing bad would happen.

  • IMO, by the time Hitler was on the way to power there was nothing anybody could have done. Dec 22, 2013 at 16:46

the Nazi-Soviet pact because if Stalin hadn't made the pact with Hitler Germany would have had to face a war on two fronts(Britain and France from the west and Russia and Poland from the east)


Yes, I agree with all of your reasons, but I'd say that the Treaty of Versailles was the biggest cause. If you listen to Hitlers speeches, they are all about how evil the other nations are for making Germany this weak. (along with some racist statements) I've heard it argued that Hitler just wanted power and used public opinion to his advantage, but I'd argue that he truly believed in what he said because even when the Nazi party was being destroyed by larger parties, he stayed with the Nazis. Hope that helped.

  • The problem with this explanation is that the rhetoric "Other nations want to keep Germany weak and prevent it from reaching its "place under the sun"" was common in Germany long before WW I, say nothing about the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler was singing a tune the Germans were used to since Kaiser Wilhelm.
    – quant_dev
    Apr 2, 2012 at 2:22
  • Really? I never knew that, I'd better brush up on my pre WW2 history again.
    – Russell
    Apr 2, 2012 at 3:57
  • Maybe they really were trying to keep the Germans weak, and the rape at Versailles would then be just yet another tool to achieve that end.
    – user202
    Apr 2, 2012 at 9:02
  • 1
    Not really. Great Britain encouraged German colonialism in the XIXth century, for example. German overseas trade has been protected then by the British Navy. German economy has been growing at an astonishing pace, and by the beginning of the XXth century it was anything but weak. In steel production they overshot Britain by a large margin. It was not a problem for Britain. It only started feeling threatened by Germany when the latter started developing a navy capable of defeating RN and supporting a successful invasion (the converse was never true because the UK lacked an Army big enough).
    – quant_dev
    Apr 2, 2012 at 10:06
  • So what you're saying is that Germany got too strong and Britain needed to make it weaker.
    – user202
    Apr 6, 2012 at 0:06

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.