Dr. Joshua Zimmerman on the Start of World War II

The invasion of Poland by Germany
“Wojskowa Agencja Fotograficzna” – Image printed in the 1960s from Polish Archive negative, now in Marek Tuszyński’s collection of WWII prints. Available from Wikimedia Commons.

The 80th anniversary of the start of WWII is an appropriate time to contemplate the significance of what it has taught us about the tragic consequences of appeasement.

The origins of World War II can be traced back not so much to Adolph Hitler’s coming to power in January 1933 but in the response of the Western democracies. When Nazi Germany began a rearmament program as early as 1934, the Western democracies had the right under the terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty to militarily intervene. But they chose to confine their protests to diplomatic measures. Hitler deduced, accurately, that the Western democracies were unwilling to use force, which indeed they did not do as Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in March 1938 and then devoured Czechoslovakia in September 1938-March 1939.

By then, of course, it was too late to oppose Germany. On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler sent 1.8 million troops into Poland, then the largest land invasion in human history. The same army that was 100,000 strong in 1933 and had no ability to act aggressively toward its neighbors was 20 times larger by the eve of WWII. We are left with the question of why the world stood idly by while Nazi Germany prepared quite openly for war.

Long before the rise of Nazi Germany, Edmond Burke widely wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Dr. Joshua Zimmerman
Associate Professor of History
Eli and Diana Zborowski Professorial Chair in Holocaust Studies and East European Jewish History