Sunday, April 03, 2011

Richard Overy - 1939 Countdown to War

The processes that led to the start of the Second World War are ones that have been examined and debated enormously. The battle lines in this debate were set out even before the war ended - Richard Overy points out that the historian Sir Llewellyn Woodward was asked to write an "official survey of British foreign policy before the outbreak of war" later on in the conflict. Woodward seems to have been keen that the British version of events won through.

But what exactly was the British version of events was has been open to question. The Prime Minister of the time, Neville Chamberlain has gone down in recent interpretation as a weak willed politician. Desperate to avoid peace and unwilling to confront Hitler.

In this short, accessible work, Richard Overy argues that Chamberlain and a wider layer of people around him had a much clearer and more subtle analysis of the situation. Chamberlain he argues may have wanted to avoid war, but was in the end committed to a position that meant that Germany's attack on Poland would inevitably trigger war. Chamberlain didn't enter this situation blindfold, but he and those around him clearly thought Hitler would avoid conflict in the face of Britain and France's determined support for Poland.

In turn, Hitler clearly did not believe that Britain and France would honour their commitment. Overy quotes Hitler's chief press officer noting that it was "plain to see how stunned he [Hitler] was". He supports the view that Hitler really had no idea of the scale of what was being unleashed. Certainly elements of the German high-command were surprised by the declaration of war. But they also clearly thought that it meant practically nothing, and that full scale war would be avoided after a short period.

So what was the motivating force for Hitler's decision to attack Poland. This was no whim. Plans were laid in detail and a strategy involving the destruction of the Polish leadership, it's Jewish population and those forces opposed to Fascism were organised well in advance. The basis for the Race War in Eastern Europe was begun with the first shots. Overy argues that Hitler wanted a short "local" war, that would cement his position as a military leader, and "open the way for the eventual confrontation with Stalin's Soviet Union".

Overy argues against those who portray Hitler as always having a desire for world domination. His position is more plausible. It stems from some of the central ideological tenets of Nazism - the need to eradicate the "sub-human" peoples of the East, to challenge "Bolshevism" and to create "living-space" for the German people. War with the western countries would not have been on Hitler's mind. His surprise is understandable.

But this book lacks some of this analysis. In fact Overy almost has a mechanical explanation of events. So in the opening chapter he writes;

"Above all it was Poland's intransigent refusal to make any concessions to its powerful German neighbour that made war almost certain".

What concessions could Poland have realistically made that would have contained or prevented the basis for Hitler's rise to power? Events in Czechoslovakia had already shown that giving into small demands from the Nazis had only resulted in greater ones. And would it be right for Poland to given into the Imperialistic ambitions of their more "powerful German neighbour", couched in the language of racism as they were?

The author himself argues this later when he explains that Hitler's planned war "would destroy the Polish state" and had "an agenda drawn not from diplomacy or military strategy, but from the racial priorities of the regime". Giving into this sort of bully would hardly lead to peace.

Despite the major irritation I feel at the blame being laid for war and the feet of Poland, this is a useful and interesting book that clarifies a fast moving and complicated moment of history. Neville Chamberlain comes across as having a more rounded and complex analysis of events than he is usually portrayed with, and this in itself is more useful to understanding the beginnings of the war.

Related Reviews

Overy - Russia's War

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