When World War I came to a close and the Versailles Peace Treaty was signed, a spirit of hope and opportunity settled over the European continent. Peace was at hand and the nations of Europe could turn to the tasks of economic and political recovery. Germany elected a liberal democracy a whole slew of democracies developed in Eastern Europe. Liberalism seemed to be the order of the day.
However, economic instability in the United States led to the crash of the New York Stock Exchange, setting in motion a domino effect that left the entire international economic and financial system in shambles. American loans dried up, reparations payments stopped, German industry collapsed, and unemployment increased tenfold throughout the world. The Great Depression had arrived.
Where the Depression brought a change of governing party in the United States and Britain, the economic downturn undermined fledgling democracies throughout Europe. In Italy, Benito Mussolini led a fascist coup d'etat; in Germany, Adolf Hitler assumed emergency dictatorial powers; in France, parliamentary democracy was gone.
Inspired by a demented notion of German racial superiority, Hitler embarked on an expansionist program that would take him into Eastern Europe and Russia for Lebensraum, or "living space". The western powers, weakened by the Great Depression and unwilling to risk another war chose to follow a policy of appeasement: they generally gave in to Hitler's demands hoping to satiate his drive for expansion. It did not work. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, beginning World War II.
Hitler used the new blitzkrieg, or "lightning war", method to crush opposition in Poland, the Low Countries, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and France within two years. By 1941, Hitler was in command of the Continent. His next step: the Soviet Union. In June 1941, Hitler invaded Poland. He would not...