Tuesday 6 December 2022

Was the Second World War inevitable, once Hitler came to power?


I have just read for the third time AJP Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War and I highly recommend it. It was, however, published in 1961 and so is very out of date. We know much more now.

He wrote:

"Danzig was the most justified of German grievances: a city of an exclusively German population which manifestly wished to return to the Reich and which Hitler himself restrained only with difficulty. The solution too seemed peculiarly easy. Halifax never wearied of suggesting that Danzig should return to German sovereignty, with safeguards for Polish trade.

"Hitler wanted this also. The destruction of Poland had been no part of his original project. On the contrary, he had wished to solve the question of Danzig so that Germany and Poland could remain on good terms. Was Polish obstinacy then the only thing, which stood between Europe and a peaceful outcome? By no means. Previously Danzig might have been settled without implying any upheaval in international relations. Now it had become a symbol of Polish independence and, with the Anglo-Polish alliance, of British independence as well. Hitler no longer wished merely to fulfill German national aspirations or to satisfy the inhabitants of Danzig. He aimed to show that he had imposed his will on the British and on the Poles. All parties aimed at a settlement by negotiations, but only after victory in a war of nerves.

"...Many however believe that Hitler was a modern Attila, loving destruction for its own sake and therefore bent on war without thought of policy. There is no arguing with such dogmas. Hitler was an extraordinary man; and they may well be true. But his policy is capable of rational explanations; and it is on this policy is built. The escape into irrationality is no doubt easier. The blame for war can be put on Hitler's Nihilism instead of on the faults and failures of European statesmen - faults and failures which their public shared. However, human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness."

The view of Hitler as a nihilist bent on war is now the standard view, as it was when Taylor wrote his very shocking book. It may be accurate, but war against whom?

A good place to see a summary of recent historical judgements is the site of Lawrence Rees, who made the really wonderful TV programme The Nazis: A Warning from History.

He interviewed many famous historians about the war and on this page discusses why it broke out. 

He quotes Sir Richard Evans 

“We know now through documentation that has become available over the last few years that he intended there to be a general European war really absolutely from the outset. He’s telling people in private in 1932, 1933, when he’s coming to power, that he’s going to have a general war.”

Sir Ian Kershaw and Adam Tooze agree.

Hitler did want a big war, but he certainly didn’t want war with England. Every historian accepts that. 

He wanted a war with the USSR. 

A greater historian than Evans, Maurice Cowling, said the clever thing to have done was to have arranged things so that the British Empire stayed out of his war with Stalin. Had France done the same very much suffering could have been saved.

Instead England and France fumbled their way into the war that Baldwin and Chamberlain had intended to avoid.

Lawrence Rees quotes Adam Tooze saying Hitler went to war

“because he’s convinced, in my view, that the world Jewish conspiracy has taken on a whole new ominous character, and this starts in the summer of 1938, I think, fundamentally with the Evian Conference in which America becomes involved in European affairs around the issue of the organised emigration of eastern European Jews”.

So by 1939 Hitler had come to believe that “the real centre of the world Jewish conspiracy is Washington and Wall Street and Hollywood, and that, of course, fundamentally shifts your assessment of the strategic picture, because behind Britain and France, as in the First World War, ultimately stands the force, the full force, of the American armaments economy.

This is very interesting. It ties in with what Chamberlain said to the US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, according to what he told James Forrestal, US Secretary of the Navy on December 27th, 1945 as recorded in Forrestal's diary. The two played golf that day.

'I asked him [Kennedy] about his conversations with Roosevelt and Neville Chamberlain from 1938 on. He said Chamberlain's position in 1938 was that England had nothing with which to fight and that she could not risk going to war with Hitler. Kennedy's view: that Hitler would have fought Russia without any later conflict with England if it had not been for Bullitt's [William C. Bullitt, then ambassador to France] urging Roosevelt in the summer of 1939 that the Germans must be faced down about Poland; neither the French nor the British would have made Poland a case of war if it had not been for the constant needling from Washington. Bullitt, he said, kept telling Roosevelt that the Germans wouldn't fight, Kennedy that they would, and that they would overrun Europe. Chamberlain, he says, stated that America and world Jews had forced England into the war. In his telephone conversation with Roosevelt in the summer of 1939 the President kept telling him to put some iron up Chamberlain's backside. Kennedy's response always was that putting iron up his backside did no good unless the British had some iron with which to fight, and they did not. . . .'
Yet it still seems clear to me that clever diplomacy by Poland and England could have meant Germany going to war with Soviet Russia and not with Poland, England and France. 

Poland, in fact, had the chance to go to war with Communist Russia as Germany’s ally. Poland declined, not from sympathy for Russia but from refusal to make the small concessions for which Hitler asked over Danzig and the Polish Corridor. 

The Polish Foreign Minister Beck thought that Poland was powerful enough to defy Germany and Russia. This is an incomprehensible delusion, as Taylor points out.

England then gave her guarantee to Poland and Germany prepared for war against Poland, a war in which Hitler did not expect England and France to join.

Had Germany and Russia fought it out, while England armed to the teeth and stayed out, as Lloyd George wanted, and had France done the same, would Germany or the Russians have won?

Nobody can say. It depends on how the two sides fought. It depends on the decisions of Stalin and Hitler. 

It might well have been the Russians.

But either way would have been better than what did happen. The British Empire might have survived for decades. Japan would not have attacked it. France might not have fallen. Half of Europe might have remained at peace.

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