World War II: Before the War


The years leading up to the declaration of war between the Axis and Allied powers in 1939 were tumultuous times for people across the globe. The Great Depression had started a decade before, leaving much of the world unemployed and desperate. Nationalism was sweeping through Germany, and it chafed against the punitive measures of the Versailles Treaty that had ended World War I. China and the Empire of Japan had been at war since Japanese troops invaded Manchuria in 1931. Germany, Italy, and Japan were testing the newly founded League of Nations with multiple invasions and occupations of nearby countries, and felt emboldened when they encountered no meaningful consequences. The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, becoming a rehearsal of sorts for the upcoming World War -- Germany and Italy supported the nationalist rebels led by General Francisco Franco, and some 40,000 foreign nationals traveled to Spain to fight in what they saw as the larger war against fascism. In the last few pre-war years, Nazi Germany blazed the path to conflict -- rearming, signing a non-aggression treaty with the USSR, annexing Austria, and invading Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, the United States passed several Neutrality Acts, trying to avoid foreign entanglements as it reeled from the Depression and the Dust Bowl years. Below is a glimpse of just some of these events leading up to World War II. (This entry is Part 1 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II)
Read more
Hints: View this page full screen. Skip to the next and previous photo by typing j/k or ←/→.

Most Recent

  • Pete Oxford / bioGraphic

    Whale Sharks as Good Luck Charms

    Fishermen in Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua, Indonesia, have long believed that whale sharks bring good luck.

  • Franck Fife / AFP / Getty

    Scenes From the 2017 Silk Way Rally

    For the past two weeks, rally racers from 35 countries drove 5,965 miles (9,600 kilometers) from Moscow, Russia, to Xi'an, China.

  • Oli Scarff / AFP / Getty

    Photos of the Week: 7/15–7/21

    Highland games in Scotland, a diving jaguar in France, wildfires in California and western Canada, a wax Donald Trump, and much more.

  • Adam Pretty / Getty

    Scenes From the 2017 World Aquatics Championships

    Hundreds of athletes from 186 nations are gathered in Budapest, Hungary to compete in 75 events across six disciplines in the 17th FINA World Championships.

Join the Discussion