Making Way for Hitler

How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938–1939

by Donald Cameron Watt
Pantheon, 736 pp., $29.95

Chamberlain and Roosevelt: British Foreign Policy and the United States, 1937–1940

by William R. Rock
Ohio State University Press, 330 pp., $30.00

Der Eisbrecher: Hitler in Stalins Kalkül

by Viktor Suworow
Klett-Cotta Verlag, 461 pp., DM38

During the first decades after the end of the most terrible war of our century, historians who searched for an explanation of its coming often came close to adopting the one that the fifteenth-century soldier-diplomat Philippe de Commynes found to describe the reasons for the unprecedented violence that followed the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France in 1494. Commynes attributed it to “the bestiality of some princes and the inadequacy of others, who have intelligence and experience enough but use them badly.” In the same way, his modern successors divided the blame for the coming of the Second World War between Hitler’s inhumanity and the weaknesses and mistakes of his antagonists, and every book on the crimes of the German Führer that came from the presses was matched by one about British appeasement or French defeatism or American isolationism.

Sir Winston Churchill set the tone with a high-buskined passage in the first volume of his great history of the war, in which he described the prewar years as a shameful period in his country’s past,

a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness, which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even so far as they have unfolded, are absolutely beyond comparison in human experience.

With less rhetorical elaboration, the same note was struck by many others.

There was much truth in these early works, but also a good deal of exaggeration and criticism of decisions without proper weighing of the attendant circumstances, and they are no longer as persuasive as they once seemed. Of the older literature on appeasement, David Dilks has written recently:

There was a time, not long ago, when the affairs of the 1930s looked so simple. Recession and unemployment could have been avoided, or rapidly put right by deficit financing; Germany’s grievances should have been assuaged before the victors disarmed; German rearmament should have been prevented; the Führer’s own plans should have been apparent to anyone who cared to scan Mein Kampf; Roosevelt’s hand proffered across the Atlantic would have been there for the taking if only matters had been managed differently in 1938; Hitler was bluffing at Munich or, if not, would have been overthrown by his opponents within Germany; the effective help of Russia was available. Indeed, whole books were written about British policy toward Germany as if the Far East, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean had not existed. To put it kindly, all these assumptions are open to question, and some demonstrably mistaken. Others will bear fresh reflection in the light of fuller evidence and lengthening perspectives. It is time for us to look at the 1930s with a stronger determination to understand why ministers behaved as they did, and to realize that almost everyone was an appeaser somewhere.

It is the great merit of Donald Cameron …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.