To what extent can the outbreak of World War II be attributed to the personalities of the leaders involved?
The personalities of the Great Powers in the years preceding the Second World War directly influenced events that led to conflict. While systemic failures took place in the international system, such as the failure of Collective Security best exemplified by the League of Nation’s ineffectiveness in preventing conflict, which led to conflict, it was the personalities of world leaders that took the Great Powers to war. Hitler, following a deranged ideology of racial superiority and anti-Semitism, led Germany to slowly dismantle the punitive measures of the Versailles Treaty which ended the First World War, then rearmed, and eventually sought territorial expansion at the expense of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Finally, his personal ambitions for lebensraum (living space) in the East led to the invasion of Poland, and the greater European conflict in 1939. Hitler moved beyond realist international theories of maximizing power, it was his undoubted oratorical excellence, coupled with a diabolic plan of a single, armed, militant state, marching to war against lesser races, conquering and subjugating nations and people. Many nations go to war, but unbridled aggression, a fascination with struggle and dominance, racism and the holocaust are uniquely the product of Hitler’s Germany.
Mussolini, bandwagoning with the hegemonic Germany to form the Axis pact, used his Charisma and forceful personal leadership to drag Italy into the Second World War by attacking France in 1940. Already losing his popular grip forged in the 20s, it took the single party state and its terror apparatus, dreamed up by Mussolini and his black shirts to force Italy into an unpopular conflict in 1940.
Other leaders led their nations into the Second World War as well. FDR’s oil embargo on the Japanese, though in response to Japanese aggressiveness and atrocities committed in building the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, was a determining factor in the Japanese military hierarchy’s decision to invade the oil rich Dutch East Indies while simultaneously attacking the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii territory. FDR’s forceful policy pushed the Japanese to make desperate decisions leading to war. Interestingly, the Japanese were not led by one personality bent on conquest, despite the vilification of Emperor Hirohito and General Tojo at the time, but by a collaborative group of military leaders.
Finally, Stalin, always paranoid and Machiavellian, was willing to sign the Pact of Steel in 1939, carving up Poland with Germany, the ideological counterbalance to communism. This pragmatic move, inspired Hitler to dismantle Poland, leading to the declarations of war by Great Britain and France.
Personal decisions by leaders had an enormous effect on Germany, the UK, the USSR, and the US in the beginning of the Second World War. My question is this: With greater media coverage of world events, the internet and free flowing information around the world, are leaders now more limited in their ability to manipulate populations to their own decisions? Have vibrant democracies in the west made the risk of conflict based on personality less likely?