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View series: The second World War, 1939-1945

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Moving towards War

This map is part of a series of 15 animated maps showing the history of The second World War, 1939-1945.

With Europe experiencing economic difficulties during the 1930s, totalitarian regimes came to power in Germany and Italy, while democratic countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, were also in a fragile position.

In international relations, the dictatorships took the initiative. After becoming German Chancellor in 1933, Hitler wasted no time putting his plans into practice: revising the Treaty of Versailles, regrouping German populations in a single state, and then establishing a “breathing space” to the East, regardless of the impact on Slavic peoples.

In 1934, a first attempt to bring Germany and Austria under a single regime failed, but Hitler managed to re-establish military service and then remilitarised the Rhineland in March 1936, without any reaction from France.

That same year, Italy annexed Ethiopia. Sanctions against Italy, ordered by the League of Nations, prompted Mussolini to align Italy with Germany.

The Spanish Civil War provided an opportunity for these two dictatorships to combine their efforts and provide support for Franco’s nationalist forces.

In March 1938, Hitler succeeded in creating the Anschluss and then claimed that the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland were Germans. In September, the Munich conference, attended by Italy, Germany, France and England, saw the democratic countries give way to Hitler in order to avoid war, thereby abandoning Czechoslovakia to its fate.

In March 1939, the German army arrived in Prague

In April, Italy invaded Albania.

In August, the German and Russian governments signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, which also provided for the division of eastern Europe: the western areas of Poland for Germany and Finland, the Baltic countries and eastern Poland for the USSR.

Hitler’s attack on Poland on 1 September toppled Europe into war.

In Asia, Japan was also experiencing serious economic difficulties and was searching for raw materials and foreign markets for its industrial products.

On 31 September, Japan imposed a protectorate on the Chinese province of Manchuria, and gradually spread its control over China’s northern provinces.

In 1937, this strategy was accelerated, as gradually all the ‘useful’ areas of China were brought under Japanese domination, resulting in industrial and economic exactions and massacres of civilians in Nanking and elsewhere.

But the territory was immense, and Chinese communists and nationalists soon joined forces in a short-lived effort to resist the common enemy.

When war broke out in Europe, Japan was already engaged in a long and difficult conflict and American diplomats began to take a harder line in criticizing the Japanese government’s actions in China.