Sunday 27 June 2021

Why war in 1939?

Bad history means a bad future.

Mistakes about the past cause mistakes in the present, but all societies need historical myths and these are always based on mistakes.

I was interviewed for Queens', Cambridge by Professor Richard Overy who gave me my scholarship when I was 17, but when I went up to my dismay he had moved and been replaced by a specialist in mediaeval Burgundian numismatics.

I normally do not have the patience to watch videos but, on a whim, I googled him yesterday. I came across an interesting lecture he gave the summer before last about why the Second World War broke out. By the way, I can recommend his account of what happened in his book 'The Dictators'.

He is a very good historian who makes the points, still not widely enough understood by the public, that Hitler did not want war with England and France or world domination. 

He did not care about overthrowing Jewish Bolshevism either. He cared about establishing a large colonial empire, but not Bismarck's colonial empire, scraps of territory in Africa and the Pacific which were confiscated during the First World War. Instead he wanted an empire in Eastern Europe, where Slavs in conquered territories lived as helots or were starved to death. 

Hitler believed England and France were powerful because of the size of their empires, even though our so-called White Dominions were by 1935 independent countries and the British Empire cost much more money than it brought in.

Professor Overy says near the beginning of his lecture that Hitler in late 1938 did not expect war with Poland. 

He expected Poland to become a German satellite, like Slovakia or Romania, but the Poles "very sensibly" did not want that.

But was it so very sensible of them? 

Being allies of Hitler might have been the lesser of two great evils. 

I have quoted before A.J.P. Taylor's question.

"In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six and a half million Poles were killed. Which was better – to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?"
Actually Taylor was not accurate and more Czechoslovakians died. The net says 345,000, of whom 277,000 were Jews. But Taylor's question still has pith.

6 and a half million Poles died in the war, they lost the eastern half of their territory and ended up ruled by Stalin and his Russian Communist successors until 1989.

Clearly Hitler made a huge mistake invading Poland, as things turned out in the end. Did the Poles do so by not making a deal with him?

Hitler's mistake is comparable to Saddam's in deciding the night before the invasion of Kuwait to take not a small piece of territory but the whole country. Both men were gamblers who bet the wrong way. They lost and their countries lost with them.

The famous British journalist Peter Hitchens thinks that England and France made a mistake in going to war with Hitler over Poland that is comparable to George W Bush's and Tony Blair's in invading Iraq in 2003. 

They certainly were gamblers who bet the house on a losing horse, though it was other countries that lost badly as a result of their mistake. 

Historian Maurice Cowling thought going to war in 1939 was a mistake and so I am sure does another great historian, John Charmley, whose book on why Britain went to war seems to me the last word on the subject. 

At the end of the lecture Professor Overy addresses parallels between 1939 and 2019 and says the days of wars for territorial expansion in Europe are over. 

He doesn't say why. My guess is that future European wars will be terrorist campaigns and ethnic insurgencies waged by non state actors. 

He mentions parallels between Hitler and Vladimir Putin but I wish he had talked about how false parallels between 1938 and later events have misled politicians over and over again: from Suez in 1956 to the Vietnamese war and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He might have talked too about how myths of the Second World War have coloured politics throughout the Western world, but not beyond the West, with mostly bad consequences.

I wrote these words 9 years back. The ideas seemed new to me then but seem almost a cliché now.

The whole history of the post-war period until this moment is a meditation on the Second World War and Nazism. This is the reason for the European Union and the euro. It was also the reason for the Cold War and America's engagement with the wider world. Cold warriors viewed Communist Russia as the equivalent of Nazi Germany, overlooking the distinction that Russia unlike Germany was a satiated power and not given to military adventures within Europe. It was much of the reason why Stalin forced Communism on Eastern Europe in the first place. It is the reason why talk of races and racial superiority and the psychology of nations became profoundly unfashionable and why the colonial empires were dissolved. It is the reason for an unprecedented migration of brown-skinned people to make their homes in the formerly white countries where they will presently form the majority. It is even the reason, by extension, why discriminating on the grounds of sex, religion, sexuality, even age are no longer permitted by law. By further extension it is part of the reason why hierarchy can only be publicly justified by meritocratic arguments, why traditions are considered oppressive and the masculine and martial virtues such as patriotism and love of battle are no longer considered virtues at all.


  1. Professor Overy like most historians in England was strongly for Remain, is a fan of the EU and sounds like a globalist. These were his words the day of the Brexit referendum result. They remind me that historians very rarely make good political journalists (Robert Tombs, who taught me, is the one triumphant exception) and that liberalism (by which I do not mean the American word for left-wing ideas but simple liberalism) makes for thin history - unlike conservatism or Marxism.

    "There was a fashion some time ago for historians to write about the ‘decline of Britain’. The response was usually to argue, rightly, that decline seemed rather a premature judgment. Now with the referendum result confirmed in favour of leaving the European Union, decline will be firmly back on the agenda.

    "For 43 years Britain has been part of an ever-expanding European-wide experiment in which European states turned their backs on half-a-century of warfare, racism and ideological division that crippled Europe’s economy and scarred more than two generations of Europeans. Whatever the economic pros and cons, the political and philosophical arguments for collaborating in common rather than as competing nations has history on its side. What will Britain gain by recovering its ‘independence’? What traditions and values have been eroded by membership? How has a sense of ‘British’ identity been lost?

    "Britain for decades has been a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community, made richer than ever by close links with Europe and the free flow of Union populations. The identity that the Brexiters want is an illusion, a sentimental attachment to an idealised old-fashioned Britishness that bears no reality to the Britain of today. Instead, leaving will enfeeble the economy, promote social and racial conflict, encourage the breakup of the United Kingdom, and leave Britain as a lone ranger in a world of dangers. It will be no ‘splendid isolation’ this time."

    1. The views of three other historians here.

  2. R.R. Reno says in his book Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West:
    "The violence that traumatized the West between 1914 and 1945 evoked a powerful, American-led response that was anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist. These anti imperatives define the postwar era."

  3. Paul Gottfried in The Managerial President says something similar about American historians.
    "All the major conflicts into which our leaders thrust us from the Civil War on, with the possible exception of Vietnam, are seen as morally desirable actions. … The U.S. is a land of morally driven, energetic presidents who have made us into the envy and dread of the world."
    For such people Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are their heroes. Presidents who spend little and keep out of wars are ignored. Anyone for Calvin Coolidge?

    1. I believe Thomas Sowell is a big fan of Coolidge, and lauded his policies from an economist's point of view.

    2. When Ronald Reagan became president the joke was that his hero was Calvin Coolidge and Nancy Reagan's was Calvin Klein. That joke was very funny then but not so much so now because liking Coolidge is no longer absurd - and that is perhaps Reagan's greatest achievement. All those people like Salisbury, Baldwin, Chamberlain, the Republican presidents after Lincoln and before Hoover look good now - Hoover was in many ways a New Dealer but he had the wit to see that England and France should have avoided war with Hitler, as he said in his posthumous book. I wrote bout his book here.

  4. Too bad Josef Issonarievich Djugashvili is not around to tell us how well an alliance with Hitler could work out.

    1. You have the air of putting forward a killer argument but you are not.

      You and others seem to think Poland somehow would have relied on Hitler's word after letting him annex Danzig. This is not how life works.

      Actually Hitler could of course have annexed Danzig without permission. I wonder what would have happened if he had. Chamberlain did not guarantee Danzig.

      Stalin's deal with Hitler bought him time, I suppose, but Bolshevik Russia was always Hitler's target. Poland was not.

      There is a theory by Suvarov and others that Stalin intended to attack Germany in 1941 had Germany not attacked Russia first. My dismissive reaction on reading about it was to think it extremely unlikely but I should not make such judgements unless I have studied the arguments. Suvarov has found evidence that Stalin announced that a new offensive was coming on May 5 1941. What did that mean? I note that the idea that Stalin meant to attack Hitler is argued by Sean McMeekin in his "Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II", that came out in April of this year, and Jean Lopez in "Barbarossa 1941. La Guerre absolue" (2019).

    2. Mussolini as an ally did Hitler more harm than his enemies. Because Italy lacked an effective fighting force, resources Hitler needed on the Russian front were diverted in order to rescue Italy in Greece and North Africa. Hitler made these mistakes out of loyalty to Mussolini. He thought Antonescu a better ally and he was right. he preferred Beck too until the latter refused to make a deal over Danzig and the Polish Corridor.