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New Crises 1929-1942

This map is part of a series of 19 animated maps showing the history of Europe and nations, 1918-1942.

After the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing economic crisis in the United States, the Great Depression hit Europe in the early 1930s. Economic crises, rising unemployment and political instability led to harsh criticism of democratic regimes. This criticism had already led to the rise of authoritarian parties during the previous decade and was now spreading to Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Austria, Greece and Spain.

Some of these authoritarian regimes were transformed into totalitarian regimes: examples include Fascism in Italy during the late 1930s, Nazism in Germany, and Communism in the USSR where Stalin gathered all power into his own hands towards the end of the 1920s.

Although they were aware that these changes needed to be challenged, democratic nations, such as the United Kingdom and France, were increasingly on the defensive.

The new dictators took advantage of the international difficulties to take the initiative. Hitler was the first to put his programme into action: the Treaty of Versailles was to be revised, all Germans were to be gathered into a single state, and the next step was to give his country “living space” by moving into Slav territory to the East.

1934 saw a first, unsuccessful, attempt to unify Germany and Austria.  Hitler reintroduced military service and, in March 1936, moved his armed forces into the Rhineland, a move which France did nothing to stop.

In the same year, Italy annexed Ethiopia, but the League of Nations’ decision to adopt sanctions against Italy only led to Mussolini developing closer relations with Germany.

The Spanish Civil War gave the two dictators another opportunity for rapprochement as they rallied to support Franco’s nationalists.

In March 1938, Hitler succeeded in proclaiming the Anschluss. He then called for integration of Sudetenland, where Germans lived within Czechoslovakia’s borders. In September, Italy, Germany, France and England met for the Munich conference, but France and England decided not to challenge Hitler in order to avoid a new war and thus abandoned Czechoslovakia to its fate.

In March 1939, Germany entered Prague.

In April, Italy invaded Albania.

In August, the German and Russian governments signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact for mutual non-aggression. This treaty laid down the principles by which the two countries would share out Eastern Europe: Western Poland for Germany, Finland, the Baltic countries and Eastern Poland for the USSR.    

Hitler’s attack on Poland on 1 September led the United Kingdom and France to declare war on Germany, and Europe was suddenly plunged into a second world war.  

For the first few months, known as the ‘phony war’, all remained quiet until Hitler decided to attack Western Europe in May 1940. The German Army marched into the Netherlands, Belgium and France but, because of strong resistance by the Royal Air Force, was unable to carry out his plans to invade Great Britain.

In April 1941, Germany moved into Greece and Yugoslavia to help its Italian ally, blocked by local resistance, and then launched an attack on the USSR in June.

In 1942, Germany had established control over most of continental Europe: some countries were occupied, others were regarded as satellite states or allies. In January of that year, the Nazis held the Wansee Conference during which they decided to launch the “final solution”: deportation and genocide of Jews in the extermination camps.

The Nazis’ objectives were to impose their conception of a world based on racist principles and to triumph over democracy and communism: it was this that gave the war a strong ideological dimension.