The World Makes Concessions
Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy made their alliance formal in 1936 with the Rome-Berlin Axis. Meanwhile, the Empire of Japan aligned with Germany against Communism, and Italy followed suit. In 1938, Hitler invaded Austria, annexing it to his Third Reich. Not satisfied, he went after the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, demanding its annexation. The Treaty of Versailles had formed Czechoslovakia at the conclusion of World War I. France and Britain, based on the terms of a treaty, should have defended the Sudetenland, but to pacify Hitler and avoid conflict they didn't oppose his aggression. In fact, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to Britain in 1938 with Hitler's signature on the Munich Pact, guaranteeing what Chamberlain called “peace in our time.”
Proving he couldn't be trusted, one year later Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by a portion of Lithuania. During this same period, Mussolini took Albania. The Treaty of Versailles had given part of German territory to Poland, an area known as the Polish Corridor. When Germany rolled tanks into the Polish Corridor with massive force on September 1, 1939, France and Britain could no longer watch from the sidelines. They'd had enough. World War II had erupted.
While Germany declared war on the world, the Spanish Civil War erupted. Factions, one led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, struggled from 1936 to 1939. Hitler and Mussolini aided Franco as if they were practicing for larger conflicts to come. Again, countries including the United States remained neutral, though Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin provided military aid to Franco's opposition in Spain.
What British and French leaders didn't know, unfortunately, was that within a few years, nearly every European country would be brought to its knees by Nazi Germany. The Germans invited the Soviets into Poland from the east early that September, and by September 6, the Polish government fled Warsaw. Dividing Poland between Germany and Russia made it look as if there were an alliance between the two countries. Indeed, the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a nonaggression pact in 1939. However, Hitler had long desired to conquer European Russia. The pact simply bought him some time.
France Digs In
The French held fast to the Maginot Line, a series of strong fortifications built in the 1930s along the Franco-German frontier to ensure that Germans stayed on their side. The line ran from Switzerland to the Belgium-Luxem-borg border and into the south of France. At one end lay the Ardennes Forest.
Putting their trust in Germany that this line would be honored, the French had not crossed it either. Believing Hitler's army would attack through Belgium over the open plains, France and Britain mobilized to meet the German troops east of Brussels. Germany, however, chose to invade France through the dense forests of the Ardennes, cutting off the British and French armies in Belgium. Hitler's strategy was to push through the Ardennes toward Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk. The British, aiding their French allies, had to escape across the English Channel to avoid capture. But unlike the French, who gave in to German terms, the British vowed to fight on. Chamberlain, who had led Great Britain into its war effort, was forced to resign in May 1940. Sir Winston Churchill succeeded him and proved to be one of President Roosevelt's closest confidants during the crises ahead.
Having escaped to London across the Channel, General Charles de Gaulle put together a Free French government in exile while Jean Moulin held together the Resistance movement within France. The Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or secret state police) arrested Moulin in 1943. Torture by his German captors led to his death.
Europe in Distress
The British had already taken a pounding and France was now occupied. At the beginning of the war, the Royal Air Force in Great Britain was besieged by German air attacks as Hitler attempted to control British airspace for his planned invasion. Terrified Londoners had crowded into underground subways for protection from the nightly bombing. Hitler later abandoned his invasion plans, but torpedoed supply ships, attempting to starve the island nation into surrender. At this juncture, FDR did everything in his power to help the beleaguered British. He lent them fifty or sixty destroyers for their own protection, even though the United States (at the time) was maintaining its position of neutrality.
As if the Western European conflicts weren't enough, Hitler had his eye on expanding into western Russia, as well as Yugoslavia. Leningrad proved to be a stronghold, however. Its people would not surrender, despite a three-year blockage.
In the African Colonies
War also raged throughout Africa, but it was fought mostly by Italy, Germany, and Britain, along with a few American forces. When Allied forces made their way onto the Mediterranean shores of Morocco and Algeria, they hoped to cut off German lines. But the landings were politically tricky because under terms of the French-German armistice, the North African French colonies were now in the hands of the Vichy French government (a puppet government while the Free French worked in the Resistance). Defending the colonies would have poised them against Allied soldiers. But as hoped, the Allies met with only slight resistance coming ashore.