Far-Away Countries

Diplomat in Berlin 1933-39: Papers and Memoirs of Józef Lipski, Ambassador of Poland

edited by Waclaw Jedrzewicz
Columbia University, 679 pp., $17.50

Stalin, Hitler, and Europe 1933-39 Volume I, The Origins of World War II

by James E. McSherry
World, 308 pp., $10.00

The years before the Second World War continue to provide difficulties for historians. There is an enormous amount of available material in erratic proportions—sometimes excessively rich on less important subjects and sometimes tantalizingly small. There is also an assembly of accepted beliefs which are often treated as sacred and immune from dispute. For much of the time evidence and belief do not tie in together, and attempts to treat the period historically still cause trouble. Things are said to be better than they were seven years ago when I published The Origins of the Second World War, and I am sometimes surprised to notice that my views, once so frowned on, threaten to become a new orthodoxy. For instance, Alan Bullock, who was once certain that Hitler had precisely defined plans, is now equally sure that he had not. The old legends survive fully only in American universities, perhaps because it is too much trouble for professors to change their lecture notes or maybe because a stretch in the State Department—now a common experience for professors—leaves an incorrigible conformism behind.

The original problem was to take a scholarly view without seeming to take an immoral one. In wartime each side claims a moral superiority over the other, and the historian who merely records the moral feelings of his own side without explicitly endorsing them appears next door to a traitor. More than this, anyone who lived through the Hitler years outside Germany can never discard the feeling that Hitler was the most wicked man and the Nazi system the most wicked political order in the human record. Maybe posterity will take a different view, and I observe that the younger generation are already puzzled by it. They think we are grizzled warmongers. But even if it were eternally true, it has little relevance for foreign affairs. Germans were no more wicked in aspiring to dominate Europe, or even the world, than others were in resolving to stop them. The Germans were in a sense less wicked. For their domination of Europe was achieved with little physical destruction and comparatively few casualties, whereas the effort to resist them produced general devastation. However these moral speculations have no relevance for the historical observer.

The lesser problem, though also for the historian the more interesting, was whether Hitler had the clearly defined plans for world-domination that were once attributed to him. Morality came in even here, for in some queer way Hitler appeared less wicked if he were merely on the make like other rulers instead of working to a blueprint. This, too, seems an irrelevance, and Hitler’s intentions are, I hope, becoming a matter of aloof historical enquiry. Approached in this spirit, they threaten to disappear. Hitler’s American policy, for instance, has provided the theme for a number of scholars recently, and they have all returned much the same verdict: Hitler had no American policy. He meant to leave the United States alone, so far as he meant anything, but he did…

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