A chill sense of war was in the air throughout Europe and East Asia in the mid-1930s. Never had the world as a whole been so agitated and anxious. Everyone feared a resurgence of war, yet most refused to think about the possibility. But denial would not make it go away. Strife increased through the 1920s and 1930s, so that by 1936 war already raged on two continents and threatened elsewhere. An uneasy and faltering peace threatened to collapse in Europe. Even the so-called “Pacific” Ocean roiled with suppressed tension.
The Russians had withdrawn from the Great War in 1917 while in the throes of two revolutions, stomping all vestiges of one of Europe’s legendary absolute monarchies into the frozen mud of the steppes. Since then, the Russian people had suffered a short but bitter counter-revolutionary war at the hands of western powers, and emerged as the Soviet Union, which felt isolated and fearful of foreigners. Then came the disruptions of industrialization and the madness of Stalinist totalitarianism, making the Russians even more afraid of each other.
Massive China was a cauldron of competing warlords who fought with each other for supremacy when they were not fighting the insurgent communists or the intruding Japanese. Japan had decided her future lay in the conquest of China, but she had taken on more than she could handle.
The United States would not countenance the bloodbath in China, and so cut off Japan from badly needed oil and steel exports. In the minds of many of her leaders, Japan’s only “escape route” from the China quagmire would be yet more war, to capture other lands for the rubber and oil resources she desperately needed.
But Japan had fallen into turmoil of its own, with political factions – aligned toward liberal democracy, communism, fascism, and even Navy versus Army cliques – vying for power. Assassination had become a political tool, and the military was on the verge of using a constitutional loophole to seize de facto control of the government.
And then there was Europe…
Socialism was nothing new to the countries of Europe. But the Bolshevik revolution in Russia had given Marxism and Leninism a spark of life worldwide, and ironically contributed to a resurgence of socialism as a moderate alternative to “extremist” communism. In the early 1920s, Benito Mussolini had introduced a nationalistic form of populist socialism into Italy, calling it “fascism” in honor of the glories of ancient Rome. Into this tinderbox was tossed the economic crisis of the late ‘20s. The onset of the worldwide Great Depression enflamed and empowered each of these non-traditional ideologies, which stood against the conservative monarchies and liberal democracies across the continent.
Fascism of one shade or another took hold in Portugal, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and elsewhere.
Even the more liberal governments began adopting authoritarian tendencies to combat rising socialist and communist movements in their countries. But it was in Germany where fascism fused with ardent racism to form the nationalist-socialist Nazi party of Adolf Hitler, whose gains in the Weimar Republic elections emboldened him to demand appointment as Chancellor by President Hindenburg. The emergency powers previously employed by Depression-era governments to stabilize the foundering German economy were just what Hitler needed to seize total control over the German Reichstag and impose a dictatorship.
As members of the British Commonwealth, Australia and New Zealand also felt the coming of war. They remained resentful over their stinging losses in the Great War of 1914-1918, but this looming conflict was more personal, brewing closer to their shores. In similar manner, colonial lands throughout South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa also sensed a rise in tension.
Virtually every scrap of land in those regions was subject to the dominance of a European power. Persia and Ethiopia were key standouts. The independence of Ethiopia tempted Mussolini into the first of several ventures of imperialist aggrandizement, but his armies were stunned when they failed to win the rapid victory they expected.
Only North and South America remained havens of self-absorptive ignorance. Busy with their own economic troubles, they enforced a distrustful disregard for anything beyond their shores. Most Americans in the United States were convinced they had pulled the Europeans’ chestnuts out of the fire in 1917-18, and had then been rudely slapped welcome with loan defaults which worsened their experience of the Great Depression. As such, they swore it would be a frigid day in Hell before they again involved themselves in a European war.
It is into this turbid environment that you are placed.
You have the opportunity to craft a better world through artful diplomacy or violent initiative. One way or another, you are likely to end up at war despite your best efforts, and so you would be wise to steady yourself and prepare – a clash between “Hearts of Iron” awaits!
“The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned upon us. Hitler knows he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all of Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
– Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister 1940-45
(spoken June 18, 1940, just after the collapse of France)