In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section World War II Origins

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Legacies of World War I
  • Economic Crises
  • Ideology
  • Expansionist Empires
  • Status Quo Empires
  • The Soviet Empire
  • Neutral States and the States between
  • Armaments, Intelligence, and Economic Warfare
  • The Crisis in East Asia
  • Fascist Imperialism in Africa and the Middle East
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Expanding War in East Asia, 1937–1941
  • European Crises and War, 1938–1939
  • Global Crisis, 1940
  • Global War, 1941

Military History World War II Origins
Joseph A. Maiolo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0219


The study of the origins of World War II has produced an astounding wealth of literature. No one scholar can hope to master it all. This predicament has been magnified by the fact that historians now question the orthodox periodization, geographic scope, and causes of the war. According to the conventional view, the war arose in Europe as a struggle between democracies and dictatorships. The path to war began in January 1933 with the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. In the years that followed, the German dictator Adolf Hitler, abetted by his Italian counterpart Benito Mussolini and gullible French and British politicians, toppled the post-1919 peace settlement. World War II began in September 1939 when Hitler ordered the German army to destroy Poland, after which Britain and France declared war on Germany. France fell to the German army in May-June 1940 and Italy joined the war. In June 1941 Hitler expanded the war with a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. Six months later the war expanded once again when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States. Although Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo had signed the Tripartite (Axis) Pact in September 1940, Japan’s war in China and the Pacific had its own distinct causes. In contrast to the conventional view of the war’s origins, historians now interpret World War II as the last and most destructive stage a particularly brutal era of great power imperialism and intensifying ideological conflict across and within national frontiers. Most historians now see the two world wars and the “interwar” years as constituting one great convulsion of political violence, another Thirty Years’ War (1914–1945). From this perspective, the Sino-Japanese wars of the 1930s are no longer regarded as sideshows to the main events in Europe, but rather manifestations of the general crisis of global order that caused World War II.

General Overviews

Bell 2007 and Iriye 1987 are classic survey texts that can be read as complementary explanations for the coming of World War II. Overy 2021 is a masterful and readable synthesis of the war. The first four chapters and the conclusion provide readers with a comprehensive explanation of the origins of the war. Wheatcroft and Overy 2009 surveys the war’s origins from the perspective of each great power. Steiner 2011 offers a compelling diplomatic history of the European origins of the war, and Salerno 2002 provides a Mediterranean focus. Maiolo 2010 takes a systemic perspective on the war’s origins by analyzing the role of armaments competition. Paine 2012 and Traverso 2016 place the wars in Asia and Europe in a broad chronological framework that departs from the conventionally accepted chronology. Mitter 2013 synthesizes the latest research on the origins of the Sino-Japanese War and is essential reading.

  • Bell, P. M. H. The Origins of the Second World War in Europe. 3d ed. London: Routledge, 2007.

    A concise survey that emphasizes the British and French shift from appeasement to resistance in 1939 as the key factor in the outbreak of war that year.

  • Iriye, Akira. The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific. London: Routledge, 1987.

    Examines the clash between Chinese nationalism and Japanese imperialism in the context of competitive alliance building.

  • Maiolo, Joseph A. Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War 1931–1941. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

    Uncovers how arms competition shaped the strategies of the major powers and determined the timing and escalation of the conflict.

  • Mitter, Rana. China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival. London: Penguin, 2013.

    An up-to-date study of China’s road to war with a focus on the politics of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Wang Jingwei.

  • Overy, Richard. Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931–1945. London: Allen Lane, 2021.

    As the subtitle suggest, Overy’s reframing of the chronology and scope of the war places the most weight causal weight on imperialism.

  • Paine, S. C. M. The Wars for Asia, 1911–1949. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139105835

    Argues that the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1935), the Chinese Civil War, and the US-Japan war were a single struggle for China’s political future.

  • Salerno, Reynolds M. Vital Crossroads: Mediterranean Origins of the Second World War, 1935–1940. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.

    Places the focus on the Mediterranean to cast fresh light on British, French, Italian, and German diplomacy and naval competition.

  • Steiner, Zara. The Triumph of the Dark European International History 1933–1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A comprehensive statement of the conventional history of the European war’s origins.

  • Traverso, Enzo. Fire and Blood: The European Civil War. London: Verso, 2016.

    Reframes the two world wars as one increasingly lethal thirty-year civil war.

  • Wheatcroft, Andrew, and Richard Overy. The Road to War: The Origins of World War II. New York: Vintage, 2009.

    Though superseded by Overy 2021, this volume remains a useful introduction to the topic that describes each national road to war from the 1920s.

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