1934-1939: To the Second Russo-Japanese War


The German Civil War has an impact beyond just Germany itself. It is seen as shaking up the international political order and creating a climate for great change over the next few years.


The final toll of the German Civil War is believed to be somewhere between 50,000 to 75,000 lives. Another 60,000 Germans, mostly Nazis and Communists, are interned in temporary prison camps around the country, their release being staggered out over the next decade.

The size of the German armed forces has nearly tripled in just the space of a couple of years. There has also been an integration of German police forces with the Army to create a national security force to protect and monitor the country from within and without. This new force is also used to re-establish many elements of the German economy, guarding railroads, shipyards and factories. Thousands of workers are even conscripted into the armed forces to rebuild infrastructure and to fight unemployment. A handful of business leaders decry this as socialist, but most are happy to see security for their investments.

There are some sporadic terrorist acts committed by Nazi-Communist elements, the worst and most frequent of these coming in early 1935. By the next year, these bombings and murders dwindle away to an occasional symbolic act done by a desperate diehard. This is not the end of political conflict within Germany, however. Throughout the Civil War, the German Government Coalition holds together with little or no internal conflict as all the different parties within the Coalition believe that their own interests are served by the survival of the Coalition.

After the Civil War ends, though, cracks appear as many wonder why the Emergency Act is still in place even at the end of 1935. As well, some political groups call for new elections to re-establish proper democratic governance. They are a minority, however, as many Germans feel that the experiment with democracy is over and a firm hand is needed to restore the German nation.

The one faction of the Coalition that starts to make the most noise about change is the Social Democratic Party. Despite the fact that many of the measures taken by the government meet with the approval of SD leadership, the Social Democrats are worried about the growing authoritarianism of the Coalition, the rising power of the still-expanding military and the resistance to the return of democracy. They are also worried about the increasingly right-wing nature of the Coalition.

All this comes to a head after the death of President Von Hindenburg in early 1936. On April 9th, leading SD cabinet ministers and government members resign en masse, saying that it is time to give a voice back to the German people and restore the Republic. These resignations are accompanied by strategic strikes in many labor sectors, and peaceful demonstrations in cities, including Berlin. At first, there is no response from the Coalition. However, on the 11th, an order comes down from the Coalition and the military demanding that the strikes and demonstrations end by midnight, April 12th. Some in the SD believe that they have made their point and should rejoin the Coalition, but a more substantial group continues with the protest. A number of Communist groups even come out of hiding and join the movement, calling for a common front against the Coalition.

Just after midnight on the 13th, the last vestiges of the Weimar Republic and German democracy are destroyed as the armed forces move against demonstrators and strikers. Pitched street battles break out overnight and into the morning, with some observers worried that civil war is back, but by the next night the back of the protest movement is broken.

On April 14th, the Coalition declares the Social Democratic Party illegal and moves against it. Many members are arrested and sent to the same camps that house Nazis and Communists.

The German Government Coalition takes on a non-political characteristic, with no real political parties making it up. A group within the Coalition is task-forced to create a new Constitution to replace the Emergency Act. In October 1936, the Emergency Act is ended and the New German Republic is proclaimed, also known as the Berlin Republic. The former cabinets of the Reichstag are replaced by a governing Council, on which sits military leaders, former politicians and even some business and labor leaders. Within the Council, a President is elected as a figurehead, but all power ultimately resides with the Council and the military.

Both the Coalition and Council face two large issues during the thirties in Germany: the economy and foreign relations.

The impact of the Depression is worsened by the Civil War, and unemployment reaches almost fifty percent in 1934. It is believed that maybe twenty percent of the deaths in the Civil War were due to starvation and malnutrition. Luckily for the German government, there is no direction to go but up. The firm hand offered by the enlarged armed forces allows the growth of confidence in the economy and the government. Conscription of workers and programs of social relief alleviate some of the worst social problems. Some observers call it "fascism and communism without the political elements", but it offers the German people results.

As well, the general world economy begins to improve in mid-thirties. There is a steady period of slow economic growth from 1934 to 1937. This is nowhere near the level of growth experienced in the twenties or before the First World War, but it does improve conditions generally. Germany lags behind this, being isolated politically by the Civil War and the still-lingering effects of the Great War.

In terms of foreign relations, the German Government is forced to tackle many different fronts. A decision is made within the government to reach out to the French and British, as people fear the extremism of both fascism and communism in Italy and the USSR. As well, it is hoped that some economic help and development can be offered by such an alignment.

There are mixed results from this initiative. Negotiations with the French and British produce revisions to the Treaty of Versailles, with reparation payments being reduced and scheduled to end by 1945. A withdrawal schedule is put into place for French and Belgian forces in the Rhineland, with the last withdrawal coming on February 16th, 1936. The Germany government agrees to leave the Rhineland demilitarized until 1942.

Despite these successes, though, the Germans cannot overcome the suspicion and mistrust of the Allies. The French continue to maintain an alliance with the Baltic League against both Russia and Germany, and the British are often seen as being covertly in league with Mussolini's emerging empire and influence. On the economic front, the British and French have imitated the autarkic nature of fascism and communism by concentrating on the economics of their empires, setting up trade and development agreements with their colonies. Germany remains isolated economically and politically.

Attempts to settle with the Italians and Austrians come to naught as neither side can overcome its antipathy for the other. The Germans want the Italians out of Austria and the Italians want a promise for Austrian independence. The border between Austria and Germany remains heavily armed and fortified for the next fifteen years.

Lastly, in the east, the Germans negotiate with Poland for the removal of Polish troops from East Prussia. The Poles are eager to withdraw, but they ask for a steep price. They want German recognition of the Polish Corridor, with a renunciation of any future claims, and they wish to annex Danzig. Initially, the German Government refuses this, and negotiations are put on hold. However, the French attach the Polish demands to their negotiations with the Germans, and eventually the Germans are forced to capitulate. Polish troops leave East Prussia by June 1936, and Danzig is annexed to Poland in January of that year.

Other Nations and World Events:


Stalin sees the intervention of the USSR in the German Civil War as a complete disaster. He blames 'rightist' and Trotskyite elements within the Soviet Union for this, believing that Communist doctrine has been pushed too far in the "World Revolution" direction. He also fears the development of the Baltic League and the emergence of the Fascist Bloc in Europe, feeling that capitalist encirclement of the USSR has actually been aided by the intervention.

(Stalin's paranoia is fuelled by Trotsky’s public criticism. From exile in France and Norway, Trotsky states that Stalin has blown a golden opportunity to plant Communism in Central Europe. He maintains that the German Civil War would have been the "Second Revolution, the first in a wave". He popularizes this romantic view until his assassination in 1938.)

In 1935-1936, a series of purges sweep the USSR. Leading figures in the government, including many prominent in the original 1917 Revolution, are arrested and put through show trials before they are executed. The military is also targeted, as Stalin believes it is not sufficiently prepared to defend both the nation and the Revolution. Officers and members of the top echelon are on the chopping and execution block in these purges.

The final element of the purges attacks the general populace of the USSR. Quotas are sent out to different regions of the USSR, projecting numbers of 'counter-revolutionaries' that will be arrested and executed. Community Party functionaries dutifully attempt to match the numbers on the list, as hundreds of thousands are rounded up. A good number of them wind up in the gulags, while many others are simply shot and killed. The eventual toll is estimated to be between half a million to a million.

Stalin adheres steadfastly to a much more conservative foreign policy for the rest of his reign, not wanting to provoke any action from his neighbors to the west. The Comintern loses much of its influence throughout the Communist parties of Europe, with many of these parties starting to follow their own course. However, Stalin's hopes for stability are dashed by events on his eastern frontier.


Benito Mussolini is seen as one of the winners of the German Civil War. The popularity of Nazism outside Germany disappears and Italian Fascism becomes the model for a number of radical groups across Europe.

In addition to gaining Austria as a client state, Mussolini improves his relations with France and Great Britain as the Allies start to see Mussolini and his growing power as a counterbalance to both Communist Russia and a chaotic Germany. Fascist parties in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania gain greater influence with the monarchies in those countries and an unofficial Fascist bloc emerges, which is gradually created in fact through a series of economic and military treaties over the next decade. The Salazar regime in Portugal also moves closer to Italy, especially after the defeat of Franco in Spain. Mussolini changes his economic theories, expanding the idea of autarky to include other fascist nations.

In the spring of 1936, Italy invades Ethiopia, something long planned by Mussolini as revenge for Italy's defeat back in 1896. The war goes quickly for Italy, with victory coming within five months. An official protest is lodged in the League of Nations over the invasion, but neither France nor Britain want to impose sanctions on Italy. Some elements of public opinion, especially on the left, are outraged, but little comes of it. Ethiopia is soon integrated into the Italian East African Empire, and Mussolini counts another triumph.

Later, in 1938, Mussolini uses the opportunity of the Second Russo-Japanese War to invade Albania, turning that country into a protectorate of Italy. Mussolini also uses the opportunity provided by the war to create a co-operation pact with the Baltic League, a united front of countries from Italy in the south to Finland in the north that create an anti-communist line defending Europe.


Contentious elections in both 1933 and 1936 fail to produce a majority government. There are attempts to create a Communist-Socialist Popular Front, but these fail, as there has been much discord between these two movements in the aftermath of the German Civil War. Long negotiations ensue between many centrist and moderate-left parties to create a workable coalition. Eventually, there are enough votes from liberal, socialist and separatist nationalist parties to form a majority, with the communists and conservatives on the outside.

In response to the new coalition, political instability and violence grows. Both conservatives and communists clash with one another, with victims on both sides and within the government. The government attempts to follow a middle course of slower reform rather than radical change. This fails to appease some on the right and in early 1937, a rebellion is launched in Spanish Morocco, lead by General Francisco Franco. It takes control of the colony, but in a series of battles fails to reach the Spanish mainland.

At the same time, Communist cells begin guerrilla actions across the country. The armed conflict created by the extremists on both sides manages to strengthen the centrist tendencies and empower the government. Many are appalled at the thought of becoming another Germany and being embroiled in a similarly destructive civil war. France and Britain lend economic and political support, calling on both sides to end the conflict and return to the political process. Mussolini debates throwing his weight behind Franco, but decides to concentrate on his own empire and the USSR.

Throughout 1937, the Spanish government manages to battle off both the Communists and the Franco forces, establishing control over the mainland and invading Spanish Morocco in August. Some elements of the right decide to negotiate with the government and peace is reached in December, just a week before Christmas. Franco and a number of his followers go into exile in Italy.

In the next election in 1938, the governing coalition manages to stick together and maintain a majority. It implements a new program of reform, albeit one much slower than that done by the first Republican government earlier in the decade. Some of this is reversed after elections in 1941 when the right returns to power and the Communist Party virtually disappears off the electoral map, but a good deal of the reforms remain in place and Spanish society slowly changes. Spain remains politically volatile for the next few elections, but it manages to retain its democracy and cultivate an economic and political relationship with the Allies, effectively creating a Western European bloc with Britain and France.


In October of 1934, at the battles of Yudu, the climax of the Chinese Civil War is reached as Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang Nationalists repel an attempt by the Communist First Red Army to break out from the encirclement of Jiangxi. Tens of thousands of Communists forces are captured and killed, with only 2000 escaping. Over the next couple of months, similar battles take place throughout the province as Communists armies attempt to escape and head west. Very few of them get away and the Communist fighting force that is left after this series of battles is less than 50,000. Some Communist soldiers defect to the Nationalists while many others simply disappear, escaping into the countryside and returning to normal life. Under a plan devised by such leaders of the Communist Party as Mao Zedong, the Communists head north and to west, getting away from the urban areas of China and Chiang's forces to the rural Shaanxi province. However, this long trek over mountains and swamps drains what limited resources the movement has left, as they are also forced to fight warlords and Nationalist forces along the way. The depleted Communist force is virtually wiped out over the next year, with less than 3000 members and soldiers making it into Shaanxi. Many of its leaders are also killed or captured, including Zedong.

The remnants of the Communist movement attempt to re-establish themselves, and they do some have moderate successes, especially after their leadership takes a doctrinal line closer to that of Stalin and Moscow offers some aid. They capture Xian and establish it as their base in the province.

However, with the elimination of the Communists, Chiang begins to consolidate his rule in China. He pushes his armies through the south and pulls in many of the warlords. The only thing that initially keeps him from making a final push on the Communists is his fear of the Japanese in the north. However, events in Japan and the USSR create a dramatic turn in Sino-Japanese relations.


For a number of years, since the assassination of Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi in 1930, there has been an internal political struggle within Japan, with the forces of militarism and the right pushing Japan in the direction of military adventurism and expansion. There are attempted coup d'etats, the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria, and the creeping attempt to take over China itself, from the short Shanghai Incident war to the subversion of northern Chinese provinces. To many observers, it looks as a coming war between China and Japan is almost certain.

However, there are growing factions within the Japanese government that see it as far more advantageous for Japan to go in a different direction. One faction is the weakening anti-militarist faction, which believes that the attempt to create a wider Japanese empire will stretch the nation beyond its capacity. Another group is influenced by the diplomatic isolation Japan is facing now that it has lost its traditional ally of the British and faces too many potential enemies on its borders in China, Russia and America. Some people believe that the militarist faction bears too many similarities to Fascism or even Nazism in Europe.

The more important group, however, is within the military itself. Many in the Japanese army see the growing power of the USSR as their greatest threat. They have watched that nation grow in industrial and military capacity since the mid-twenties, and now, after the loss of face in the German Civil War, believe that the time might be right to pre-empt the growth of Soviet power. As well, the growing power of Chiang in China leads some analysts to believe that China may not be as easy a target as first believed. Attempts to bully the Chinese into signing treaties allowing the Japanese wide privileges within China itself fail, as Chiang's government basically dares the Japanese to invade.

Despite the provocative antics of elements of the military, Japanese policy does not move forward in a definite direction until early 1937, when a series of incidents on the Manchurian-Mongolian border spills over into war.



Frustrated at the inability to provoke a war between China and Japan, many adventurists within the Japanese military turn in a different direction: toward the USSR. The isolation of the Soviet Union and the perceived weakness of Stalin's rule after his problems in Europe present a tempting target. Much as with the Mukden Incident with China, officers within the Japanese Army commence a campaign to create the impression that the Soviet Union is making armed incursions on the Manchurian-Mongolian border, in the Khalkhin Gol area. Throughout April and May of 1937, dressed in Mongolian and Soviet uniforms, they attack Japanese Army forces, causing a small number of casualties and deaths. The Japanese respond by attacking Mongolian and Soviet troops and the incidents escalate into the summer.

After a series of back-and-forth battles, the Japanese react to all this by sending in an air attack on Mongolian and Soviet positions. As a result of this and earlier escalations, both sides move larger numbers of forces into the area. Smaller skirmishes continue, with casualty figures climbing higher. The Soviets decide to lay back and wait, while the Japanese build up a two-pronged attack plan meant to encircle and drive out the Soviets.

The Japanese strike in late June and July and at first are successful on the northern prong of their attack, gaining ground and moving behind the Soviets. The southern wing of the attack, though, is easily beaten back by a Soviet counterattack, which subsequently turns on the other side of the Japanese forces, trapping them. The encircled Japanese forces fight fiercely to free themselves while yet another offensive from the south attempts to rescue them. It cannot, though, and nearly every trapped Japanese soldier is killed in the ensuing battle, fighting to the death in an act that shocks many in the Japanese public back home.

At first, it appears as if the battles of 1937 might peter out and bring the conflict to an end. However, two different decisions made on both sides push the war forward. On the Soviet side, a decision is made to hit the Japanese and knock them further back in Mongolia before they can regroup and go on the offensive again. On the Japanese side, the military decides to engage the Soviets on a different front, by Lake Khasan, near the Korean-Soviet border.

In the last battles of 1937, the Soviets are triumphant in their attack, driving the Japanese forces out of the disputed border area. They advance about forty to fifty km into Manchurian territory, using the advantage offered by their superior tank forces. On the other side of Manchuria, the Japanese have limited success, moving about ten km into Soviet territory and inflicting hundreds of casualties.

As the winter settles in and active conflict slows, there are two responses throughout the rest of the world. On the one hand, there are extensive negotiations, led mostly by the Americans, to attempt to bring the two sides to peace. On the other hand, many nations, including the Baltic League, Italy and Germany, begin to sell weapons to the Japanese in an attempt to quickly build up the Japanese forces. Attempts at peace fail and the next stage of the war is reached when a deadline imposed by the Soviets for January 31st, 1938, comes and goes without any settlement.


On February 1st, Soviet forces take an action that is small in military effectiveness, but large in symbolism. Soviet bombers bomb cities on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the city of Sapporo taking the worst of the damage. There are some isolated cases of panic in other Japanese cities before authorities are able to restore order. Soviet planes attempt several more of these raids during the early part of the year, but the superior Japanese Air Force gradually wears them down and takes control of the skies.

The first major battle of the year occurs on Sakhalin Island as both sides attempt to seize the entirety of the island. The Soviets wind up on the losing end, and they manage to hold out until June, but Japanese naval superiority isolates them. They eventually surrender, giving the Japanese full control of the island.

On the naval front, the Japanese score a resounding success, destroying much of the Soviet Pacific Fleet and bombarding Soviet naval facilities and coastal cities. Stalin considers sending some more of his Navy to the east, but fears another Tsushima-style defeat. The naval bombardment of cities, combined with the Soviet bomber raids, means that both sides begin to see high numbers of civilian casualties to match the military losses.

The main theatres of the war, however, are on the two sides of Manchuria.

In the East, where the Soviets hold an advantage, they take the offensive on both a western and a southern front. In the west, they push toward Harbin and Shenyang, hoping to capture as much of Manchuria as possible and dispossess the Japanese of their puppet state. In the south, they push toward China, hoping to co-ordinate with a number of Communist Chinese guerrilla forces who are moving to the north to link up. Chinese Communists are also slipping north into Mongolia and Manchuria to join their Russian comrades in battle.

It is at this point that Japan and China start to reverse the animosity and conflict that has muddied their relationship the last few years. They collaborate militarily against both the Chinese Communists and the Soviets and a dialogue opens between the two countries.

On the Western side of Manchuria, the Japanese are the victors. Vladivostok is captured in July and the Japanese slowly go north, reaching the city of Khabarovsk by September. They also make two landings on the Kamchatka peninsula, seizing isolated outposts and towns and setting up footholds there. Soviet attempts to move forces west to meet this threat are stymied as Japanese troops conduct raids on the Trans-Siberian Railway and bottle up Soviet lines of supply and movement.

The climatic battle of both 1938 and the war occurs in Central Manchuria in late August. Soviet forces have been on a massive offensive for much of the summer and are less than 100 km from Harbin. However, they are overextended and have pushed too far. At the same time, in the south, Chinese Nationalist forces have cut off any aid from Chinese Communists and a combined Nationalist-Japanese army has cut off the southern front for the Soviet troops there. Japanese forces move in from both the north and the south and encircle advancing Soviet forces in Manchuria. In the battle of Daqing, the Soviets suffer a horrible defeat, losing the better part of nearly 150,000 men, some of whom are killed, but many more are taken prisoner.

In September and October, the Japanese chase the Russians back out of Manchuria into Mongolia, but decided not to push forward past the border. A stalemate and de facto ceasefire settles in over the winter as negotiations begin once more.


There is not much actual fighting in the last year of the war. The Soviets launch an offensive in the west to oust the Japanese there, but it does not succeed, breaking down into stalemate. In Kamchatka they destroy the Japanese footholds there, but are easily defeated in an attempt to land in the Chishima Islands. The Mongolia-Manchurian frontier is quiet, with only small-scale border battles taking place. For the most part, these battles are mere posturing for the final peace settlement.

A final settlement comes in May in the treaty of Nomonhan. It is basically recognition of the status quo. Japanese receives the Soviet province of Primorye (The Russian Maritime Province) and territory up to the city of Khabarovsk. They also receive the Soviet half of Sakhalin and the awarding of about two hundred sq km of territory on the Mongolian-Manchurian border to Manchukuo, settling the old border dispute that had caused the war. The Treaty is recognized more as a ceasefire agreement than a final settlement of outstanding issues, as both sides continue to arm and ready to fight one another.

A final tally of the war is horrendous to many, reminding them of figures from the First World War. The best estimates are around 80,000 dead on the Soviet side, with another 90,000 taken prisoner. The Japanese have suffered close to 100,000 dead, with only about 3000 prisoners lost to the Soviets. Total civilian deaths on both sides are estimated at around 4000.

Part III: The Long Peace (Mid-Century)