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Is 1937 or 1939 the True Start to World War Two?

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Question 1

Is 1937 or 1939 the true start of World War Two? Why?

Jack Paton

The true starting date of World War Two has been a highly contested argument that has been debated ever since the war finished in 1945.  The two main contentious dates are when the Sino-Japanese war began on the 7th of July 1937 and when Germany invaded Poland on the 1st of September 1939.[1]  This essay will argue that World War Two began when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and not in 1937 or any other date that may be identified as the start of the war.  As it is impossible to determine what constitutes a world war without a definition, this essay will analyse and interpret the guidelines for a world war to occur.  Once the guidelines for a world war have been established, this essay will examine the conflicts that were present from 1937 through to 1939.  By examining the conflicts and abiding by the guidelines for a world war, finally, this essay will display that World War Two truly started on the 1st of September 1939.  

Before it is possible to determine what constitutes a world war, it must be defined what the term ‘war’ entails.  As described by the Oxford Dictionary, war is ‘A state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country’.[2]  This definition is particularly important when investigating certain aspects of conflict that occur during 1937 through to 1939.  Extending on from war, world war is explained as ‘… a war involving many or most of the world's most powerful and populous countries. World wars span multiple countries on multiple continents, with battles fought in multiple theatres.’[3]  The most ‘powerful and populous countries’ at the time were; the British Empire, China, USSR, USA, Japanese Empire, French Empire, Germany and the Italian Empire.[4]

Before examining the Sino-Japanese war, it is important to analyse the other conflicts that were present in the period around 1937 which influence the view of individuals to believe World War 2 started then.  One considerable sized conflict was the Abyssinian Crisis of 1935 and 1936.  This involved the Italians invading Abyssinia in October 1935 and eventually overrunning the capital, Addis Ababa, in the May of 1936.[5]  The League of Nations widely condemned this action and attempted to impose sanctions on Italy, however, they never really affected Italy which caused the authority of the League of Nations to collapse.[6]  Another war that occurred throughout this period was the Spanish Civil War.  From 1936 through to 1939, Spain was divided into the Nationalists, supported by Germany and Italy, and the Republicans, supported by the Soviet Union.[7]  However, the most considerable sized war that took place within this period was the Sino-Japanese war which began on the night of the 7-8th of July 1937 and continued through until the end of World War Two in 1945.[8]  As this essay is only concerned with the dates surrounding when World War Two began, it will only focus on the start of this conflict.  The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and had ongoing conflict with the Chinese since then.[9]  The conflict that ensued in 1937 was an escalation of violence that resulted in a bloody war between the two major powers, in which for this reason, people believe World War Two began with the start of this war.

As stated previously, a World War is constituted by a war that is fought across multiple continents and involves ‘most [of the] powerful and populous countries.’[10]  Out of the major powers, China, the USSR, Japanese Empire, Germany and the Italian Empire were all involved in some form of conflict.  However, the USSR and Germany weren’t fighting in wars that were directly linked to their country but were more in a supporting role in conflicts such as the Spanish Civil war.  Taking this into account, only three out of the eight of the world’s major powers were involved in wars in 1937 or before.  This figure cannot be deemed as ‘many or most’ of the major powers which is necessary to be classified as a world war.[11]  The second determining factor is based upon the locality of where the wars are fought and the multitude of theatres in which they occur.  The wars did span across multiple continents in multiple countries, however, there were only several minor theatres that were taking place at the same time.  This figure is significantly smaller in comparison to 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Germany.[12]

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