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Everybody knows about World War II, thanks to Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg, and maybe even your U.S. History teacher. Guy with a silly moustache makes speeches with a lot of hand gestures, tries to take over the world, and kills millions of Jewish people and other "undesirables" before the good guys finally stop him. There's also a bunch of fighting on islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Seriously, you can't turn on the History Channel without seeing a documentary about it.
Or a show about deep-sea fishermen.
Still, let's recap: Germany had never recovered from their crushing defeat in WWI, which left them economically shattered, disarmed, and humiliated. Hitler was a genius in stoking the country's resentment and vowing to restore Germany's previous glory. With its platform of anti-Semitic, anti-Slav, anti-everyone-who-wasn't-an-Aryan-German-nationalist, the National Socialist (Nazi) party gradually gained more seats in the German government and developed a world-class propaganda machine.
After finally obtaining dictatorial power in 1934, Hitler and his party passed a number of laws restricting life for the Jews of Germany, because Hitler blamed Germany's defeat in WWI on the Jews—and got everyone to believe that. Nazis believed that anyone who wasn't white, straight, German, or subservient to the fatherland were untermenschen: sub-humans.
The Nazi regime was a fascist state. Fascism is a political philosophy that promotes the idea that everyone should devote everything they have to the glorious and powerful nation, which is usually embodied in a single authoritarian leader. It helps if that leader can drum up an "us against the world" sentiment among the people to unify them against perceived threats to their sovereignty and awesomeness.
You can't let just anyone be part of the nation, though, and the Nazi regime decided who was in and who was out. Aryans, the "master race," were in. Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, gays, people with disabilities, Slavic peoples, political opponents, and other untermenschen were definitely out.
With those charming guiding principles, Hitler decided that Germany would expand its borders and become the empire it deserved to be. He got the ball rolling in March of 1938 by marching into Austria and annexing it to Germany. Next up would be Poland.
In Italy, Benito Mussolini had already established a fascist totalitarian dictatorship of his own, kind of a role model for the young Hitler. But Mussolini knew that Italy wasn't ready for war in 1939 and tried to convince Hitler to delay the invasion of Poland, which he knew would lead to the outbreak of a major European conflict. He finally entered the war as one of Germany's allies in 1940, by which point he'd seen Hitler's military successes and decided that the war was winnable.
Wrong, but anyway.
Japan got in on the action, too. Japan was angry with the U.S. and the Soviet Union for threatening their plan to occupy parts of China and other Asian nations, including British and Dutch colonies, to help themselves to their natural resources. Hitler and his Reich were totally willing to let Japan invade some countries in return for their alliance.
From the beginning, Nazi Germany's biggest opponent was Great Britain. This was back when Britain still had a hefty empire and strong alliances with other European countries. The U.S. was in isolationist mode and was too focused on getting their act together during the Great Depression to want to get involved in another European war.
Seriously, hadn't those Europeans learned anything?
So Great Britain was floating out there in the north Atlantic, looking over at Germany throughout the 1930s and thinking: "uh oh." Germany was building up its army, passing anti-Jewish laws left and right, and eyeing the Sudetenland, a largely German-populated region of Czechoslovakia. The Brits weren't exactly eager to get into a big ol' war either, so the government tried to avoid thinking about the German threat.
It's hard to over-emphasize how much World War I made some countries totally lose their appetite to fight again. The war began with an assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a Serb nationalist. Manageable, right? But a network of alliances and treaties drew in most of the countries of Europe, and what started out as an Austria-Hungary vs. Serbia conflict eventually escalated into a bloody war that tore Europe to pieces, with very little to show for it in the end. Except for 15,000,000 dead.
So yeah, nobody wanted a repeat performance.
British prime minister Neville Chamberlain became (in)famous for his policy of "appeasement," where he basically caved in to German demands to avoid worse things later. This included things like giving away part of Czechoslovakia without Czechoslovakia's permission (source).
Which, in retrospect, was a colossal mistake.
Around the time that Hitler was accumulating power in Germany, Winston Churchill, who'd had a significant a political and military career already, spent much of the 1930s trying to tell people "we need to talk about Germany…no, seriously, can't you see what they're doing?" Unfortunately for the rest of the free world, nobody was listening (source).
In March of 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in total violation of the Munich Pact that he and Chamberlain had signed. When Hitler invaded Poland in September of that year, Neville Chamberlain and company declared war on Germany. A month earlier, Britain had signed a pact with Poland for mutual assistance in the event that one or the other was attacked by another country. Hmmm, who could they've been thinking of?
The invasion of Poland was followed quickly by the German takeover of Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Things were looking worse and worse for Neville Chamberlain.
Chamberlain hung on as prime minister until May 10, 1940, when the surprise German attack on the Netherlands was the last straw. He told King George VI, "I'm outties—war is clearly not my strong point," and suggested his foreign secretary ("Secretary of State," in American) Lord Halifax for the job. Halifax turned it down, and the next obvious choice was the First Lord of the Admiralty: Winston Churchill.
Churchill took on the office of prime minister raring to go and ready to fight the Germans pretty much everywhere necessary. Three days after getting the job, he stood up in front of Parliament for the first time as prime minister, partly to go through the motions of having his administration approved, but also to give his assessment of the situation.
That, scholars, was what is now referred to as the "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat" speech.
Great Britain would continue to be the leader of the Allied front against Nazi Germany. Within a year and a half, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. jumped in on Britain's side, after they were each attacked by one of the Axis Powers. The period between Churchill becoming prime minister and the formation of the Allied Powers (1940-1941) is often referred to as Britain's "finest hour source" or the "darkest hour source"—depending on how you look at it.
When Churchill gave his speech, Britain's biggest battles lay ahead. The new PM knew he was staring down an enemy who was well-equipped, well-defended, and totally ruthless. It would take another year before the U.S. entered the war, a year when Churchill begged FDR for arms and money. But for now, this tiny island nation was all that stood between civilization and…well, Shmoop doesn't even want to think about it.