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When did WWII really begin?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: July 19, 2012 
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My brother in law says World War II started in Europe around 1917. I say around 1935. Who is closer? When did the USA officially enter World War II in Europe?

Vernon Garrison

? ? ?

Hindsight is 20-20, which is why historical dilettantes of various stripes have numerous opinions as to when World War II "really" began—even amid World War I, during which the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, which is probably what your brother in law is referring to. Others say that the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, finalized in 1919, assured that an aggrieved Germany would inevitably resume the "War to End All Wars." Some say the first act of World War II was Japan's 1931 invasion of Manchuria in blatant defiance of the League of Nations, while similar claims are made of Italy's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Some might cite 1936 for Adolf Hitler's risky but successful occupation of the Rhineland combined with the Spanish Civil War, while others might bring up Japan's 1937 invasion of China. Notwithstanding all such claims, the official date for the start of World War II remains September 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. As for the United States' official involvement in the European war, while President Franklin D. Roosevelt had long been seeking a way to override American isolationist sentiment to go to war against Hitler, he saved FDR the trouble when, after some days of consideration, he decided to honor his alliance commitment to Japan and declare war on the United States on December 11, 1941—after which the U.S. Congress promptly reciprocated.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group

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27 Responses to “When did WWII really begin?”

  1. 1
    Grunter Robertson says:

    With all due respect if you dont roughly know the answer to that question then maybe History is not the right subject for you or your brother-in-law.

    • 1.1
      Rob McGregor says:

      Mr. Robinson, with all due respect… I now know why my students will not ask an intelligent question, because they know that someone like you will deliver such an ignorant answer.

      We do not know the details Vernon and his brother in-law were discussing to pass such a harsh judgement on their intelligence. The dates that Vernon and his brother in-law are discussing happen to be dates that many historians have discussed as viable dates to the start of WWII. Anyone with internet access can obtain the official start date of WWII, but the other dates mentioned in the answer would take some research, and thinking to process the idea of the possibility that other dates may be the "real" dates that started the war. Most all of these nations were involved in WWII to some compacity so whose to say that Hitler's act was the official act that started the entire war? Hitler's actions just stood out above all the other's to catch the eyes of the world. Remember, it took the taking down of two nations, Japan and Germany, to end the war officially, which means the invasions undertaken by Japan could just as well have been the start dates of WWII.

      That being said, Mr. Robertson please take a break from your smug knowledge of history, and commit your time to a few critical thinking courses. This new way of thinking for you may aid you in being less judgemental of someone's intelligence, and more helpful in coming to an intelligent conclusion to an intelligent person seeking more knowledge.

      • 1.1.1
        Whale says:

        Rob McGregor, if you think 1917 is a respectable answer for when WW2 started, then you certainly shouldn't be teaching ANYBODY! WW1 went from 1914-1918, WW2 started on Sept 1, 1939 and went until August 15, 1945 when the Emperor of Japan announced his surrender on the radio(and Sept 2, 1945 as the official date of surrender).

        Coddling idiots who claim that WW2 started before the end of WW1 ended doesn't help them, giving them the absolute facts does, you should try that in your classrooms.


    • 1.2
      Lary Bird says:

      well i think if you dot know you should link things that show opinion

    • 1.3
      Ean Guralnick says:

      The article states that there is debate about WWII. As an 8th grader with teachers teaching high school lessons and qualities I have learned that confusion can be common and if some things are unclear than you can research deep into the topic for clarification on the object of confusion. This article shows that debate is in process about it's start but the start of WWII is still 9/1/1939 as of right now.

  2. 2
    Robert Kapanjie says:

    By the terms of the Tripartite Treaty Hitler was not obligated to join the war. It was a defensive pact meaning the signatories would join if the other was attack. Japan of course was the aggressor. When Germany declared war Winston Churchill breathed a sigh of relief knowing now that England and the empire would prevail.
    Yes September 1 1939 is the date that history indicated is the start of W W 2 , but, not wishing to knit pick I think that September 3 is the correct date for that is when England and France declared war on Germany. Even when Hitler invaded Poland he thought that the allies would back off from conflict as they have on every previous occasion.–the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia.

  3. 3
    Larry C says:

    Kapanjie has food for thought. In fact the only thing that England did on Sept. 3 was make a declaration. It took Hitler's action in the following year to really get the war going. After the war Albert Speer, Hitler's logistics & supply minister, said that Germany had badly miscalculated Poland's resistance. When Germany finally defeated Poland (with Stalin's help) 46 days later, Germany had only 13 days of ammunition left for its soldiers, armour and planes.

    According to Speer, had England and France hit Germany from the west within the first two weeks (Stalin had waited to be certain that Poland could be defeated and England would not come into the battle), by day 25, the Germans would have run out of ammo and the German soldiers, wherever they were would have been, would have been surrendering by the thousands.

    Procrastination and probably not giving a care about Poland, (as was the case with Czechoslovakia) caused a loss of opportunity to end the war in Europe within the first month. The result was millions of lives needlessly lost.
    There are times that one must go to war at the first opportunity to end the tragedy quickly!

  4. 4
    Robert Kapanjie says:

    Larry C raises some interesting speculation upon which I might add some further thoughts.
    1. If France and Britain had attacked Germany from the west and Germany had run out of ammunition on day 25 as Herr Speer claims , I think it likely that since Germany and Russia were allies at the time ( Sept 1939 )that the Soviets would have supported Germany with necessary munitions until Germany could replenish itself.
    2. I'm not sure Russia's procrastination in invading Poland until day 17 was to be certain Poland would be defeated. Rather at the time Russia was occupied in the east fighting the Japanese.After the battle of the Khalkhin-Gol a cease fire was not declared until 9/16, the next day Russia invaded Poland. It is never a good idea to fight a two front war.
    3. The allies appeasement in handing over the Sudetenland was probably one of the greatest missed opportunities to prevent W W 2. The German general staff was vehemently opposed to starting a war with Czechoslovakia. There was a conspiracy among the generals that when war was declared that Hitler was to be arrested and forced to resign by the military. As it was, the Munich agreement prevented war and hence there was no arrest and the rest is history. I personally dislike what if speculation but it can be an interesting exercise.

  5. 5
    jacob says:

    it started in 1900s

  6. 6
    Cari says:

    Wow you all are something! Though WW2 began in 1939, many believe that Hitler's actions were initiated by 1918's Treaty of Versailles. The treaty ended WWI but caused Germany to take complete blame for WW1 leading Germany to go through a very tough economic time. Hitler came along and promised the people of Germany better living conditions if they followed his lead. So yes, actions were taken in 1939 but those actions were boiling up since 1918.

    I guess both answers are correct in a way.

  7. 7
    Robert Kapanjie says:

    It can also be argued that W W 2 began in 1914 and that this whole 30 year period was one of conflict puncuated by cease fires and truces—a second thirty year war in world history.

  8. 8
    Genius says:

    All of you are wrong! It started on September 1, 1939!

  9. 9
    Robert Kapanjie says:

    it can be argued that in a larger sense, the whole period of 1870 to 1989 was a quadripartite war, one war fueling the next. First the Franco Prussian conflict, then WW1, WW2, and finally the cold war ending with the Berlin wall. Are now in the midst of another war and not know it ? I think only time will tell.

    • 9.1
      Larry C. says:

      Robert K has some very intreresting and valuable comments, including the one to my previous comment. If the Russians open up more and provide more information, Roberts last comment may turn out to be the most correct. I especially give value to Robert's last comment.

  10. 10
    Naomi Nagler says:

    Whale, your not the all knowing person here. Rob McGregor didn't say that 1917 was the start of the war. He said that \The dates that Vernon and his brother in-law are discussing happen to be dates that many historians have discussed as viable dates to the start of WWII.\ That means that some people would consider it the start of WW2. But if you think about it, WW2 started on different dates for all countries. 1931 was the official start of the war for Japan who invaded Manchuria. 1935 was the official start of the war for Italy who invaded Ethiopia. September 1, 1939 was the official start date of the war for Germany who invaded Poland. And December 7, 1941 was the date that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor bring the United States into the war. If you think about it, there is no \OFFICIAL\ start date of the war. It started on different dates, in different years, for all countries. So you should really do your homework before insulting and correcting a college professor.

    • 10.1
      Larry C says:

      I grant that you are effectively correct about the start dates of WWII. Your arguments on that point are valid.

      I disagree with your statement of not correcting a college professor. Just because someone is a professor does not automatically make him (her) correct. I have run into more than one "history professor" that knows effectively nothing about the history of eastern Europe. In fact I have talked with a few American "history professors" teaching at USA universities that know little of Canadian history. Many well-read persons have a better overall knowledge of history than some "professors".

  11. 11
    chris says:

    It wasn't a world war untill 1941 after that date most of the world was at war mostly forced by the United States and the conflicts molded in to one threw the entry of the United States. Untill that point it was a series of individual conflicts.

  12. 12
    Lary Bird says:

    well if it's in the 1900s what part of the 1900s durrrrrrr thats what is to kNOw

  13. 13
    Rowdy says:

    Life feeds on life.
    War is the norm.
    …What time on September 1rst?
    It seems that a definitive answer would depend on a general consensus and a set of deliberate criteria in regards to countless subjective experiences…No easy task, but rest assured we have always been at war, so the question is a prison, a coffin for the answer. History is alive!
    It's not about beginnings and endings…

  14. 14
    Robert Kapanjie says:


    It's hard for me to understand what you are saying. Do you mean we are always at war—with ourselves?? There is a certain grain of truth in that !

  15. 15
    Rowdy says:

    Like…Call of the Wild….
    Amongst ourselves, against beast, against nature.
    We have always been in competition for resources…
    Eat or be eaten…
    Each battle ' fueling the next '.
    What day? What time?
    Answers to such questions can provide a meaningful basis for future discussion…
    So that two individuals can have a discussion and remain within the agreed upon frame of reference.
    However, that's it.
    They can't offer insight on how the events have shaped the lives of the individuals involved…
    So, arguing about which date some event took place is not History…
    I feel it's more about gaining an understanding of one's own place in the world and why things are the way they are, in the present.

  16. 16
    Max Witt says:

    When World War One began, the small micro nation of Andorra declared war on the Central Powers. It was somehow forgotten during the peace process and didn't come to peace with Germany until 1960. World War Two included the war between the USSR and Japan, which never officially ended. Therefore, World War One and World War Two overlapped by 21 years (with many of the same combatant countries), therefore they should be considered one war, therefore World War Two started on July 28th, 1914.

  17. 17
    Jim Mitchell says:

    Please get it right, England never declared war on Germany, Britain did, or do you really think that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, not to mention a lot of men from the Irish Republic sat back and let the English get on with it, basic errors like using the word English in the wrong context, do not add credibility to anybodies arguments!

  18. 18
    Jack Hitchcock says:

    Bro, Its 1939. You got it closer, you win.

  19. 19
    Will says:

    How can WWII start when it remained a regional one in Europe and separately, Asia. There cannot be a World War without the Americas involved. Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941 made it a World War.

  20. 20
    Jane says:

    Mr. Guttman, I have no idea whatsoever what your last sentence means. You keep saying 'he' without clarifying 'who'….it's terribly confusing.

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