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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.”1 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.2

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.3

It is the great merit of Donald Cameron Watt’s study of the immediate causes of the war that it is inspired by precisely this kind of determination. “I have attempted,” he writes in his preface,

to tell the story of how the Second World War began from the direct evidence left by those whose actions (and inactions) played a part in that beginning. I have used not only the official records but, where possible, the private papers, letters, and diaries, the reminiscences, published and unpublished, of the political and professional makers of policy and their advisers in all the countries involved.

The last phrase is not an idle boast. If Watt is necessarily preoccupied for much of the time with the actions of the major players in his drama, he never forgets the supporting roles of the Greeks and the Turks, the Romanians and the Bulgars, the Yugoslavs and the Finns, the Hungarians and the Czechs, Slovaks, and Ruthenians, the Scandinavians and the Swiss, and the Belgians and the Dutch. Their “actions, their dilemmas, their fits of courage and caution,” he writes, were important since they

added to the uncertainty, the confusion and the breakdown of power and resolution which opened the way for Hitler’s attack on Poland. They command the narrator’s attention as much as do Roosevelt and Stalin.

In telling their story and that of those representatives of the greater powers who were charged with the responsibility for guiding the fortunes of their countries in the greatest crisis of their times, Watt has little patience with the stereotypes of the older historiography. He rejects with asperity, for example, the idea that Neville Chamberlain had a secret passion for the Germans and finds no substance in the notion that Franklin Roosevelt would have played a major part in the events of 1938 and 1939 if he had not been prevented from doing so by the strength of isolationism. He is quick to correct the false judgments of history and, to take only one example, writes a generous defense of Sir Robert Craigie, whose skill and patience prevented the crisis caused by the Japanese blockade of the British concession in Tientsin in northern China in the spring of 1939 from becoming a serious distraction as the danger of war in Europe came closer, but who was, for his pains, stigmatized as an appeaser and given no recognition by his countrymen.

Watt is never uncertain or mealy-mouthed in his judgments, which greatly adds to the interest and readability of his book. There will doubtless be readers who will wonder how one would go about proving his statement that Molotov was “one of the most inexorably stupid men to hold the foreign ministership of any major power in this century,” but the doubters would probably admit that, even if exaggerated, the remark suggests a perhaps underestimated cause of the obliquities of Soviet policy in the late 1930s.

Even Watt’s asides are as instructive as they are apt to be devastating, like his comment on the complacency of Mussolini and Ciano during the visit of Chamberlain and Lord Halifax to Rome in January 1939, vaunting themselves as leaders of a young and vigorous Fascist movement and sneering at the tired decrepitude of their visitors. In fact, Watt remarks, both of the Englishmen possessed a very considerable physical stamina, whereas

Mussolini and Ciano (once the daring young airman) were both, by now, chubby chairbound urbanites, fit only for the sports of the boudoir (if fit for any at all), and then only in regimented moderation.

There is an intimation here of the deterioration of their political gifts as well, which is corroborated in the subsequent diplomatic record.

Not unnaturally, it is the figure of Adolf Hitler that dominates this book. At the very outset, Watt makes it clear that “contrary to what some historians are now beginning to argue, whether from an instinctive bent towards apologetics, or in an attempt at an inhuman detachment or from an exaggerated respect for the role of accident in history, the Second World War was willed to happen” by Hitler and his accomplices, and at the end of his account he comes back to the point by writing:

What is so extraordinary in the events which led up to the outbreak of the Second World War is that Hitler’s will for war was able to overcome the reluctance with which virtually everybody else approached it. Hitler willed, desired, lusted after war; though not war with France and Britain, at least not in 1939. No one else wanted it, though Mussolini came periously close to talking himself into it. In every country the military advisers anticipated defeat, and the economic advisers expected ruin and bankruptcy.

Neither the warnings of the soldiers and the bankers, nor the desperate efforts of the Western powers to devise an effective system of deterrence had the slightest effect upon Hitler. He wanted war and that was what he got, although not the kind of war he had expected.

The Führer’s intentions were by no means clear in September 1938, in the wake of Munich, least of all to Neville Chamberlain. The British prime minister stood at that time at the height of his reputation, with a solid majority in Parliament and strong support in the press and the country, much of which considered any criticism of the prime minister to be unpatriotic. At Watt’s preparatory school, the headmaster informed his charges that they should not believe those who told them that Mr. Chamberlain had done something wrong at Munich. On the contrary,

He had been sent by God to preserve the peace of the world. What he had done was noble and Christian and [they] were never to forget that.

Chamberlain himself had no doubts that the policy that had led to Munich was the correct one. As early as 1934 a committee of military advisers and civil servants had named the already rearming Germany as the main threat to British security and pointed to 1939 as the year of greatest danger. British rearmament had begun two years later, although by 1937 it was becoming clear that its costs were threatening the possibility of full recovery from the slump of 1931. It was by then also apparent that the possibility of conflict with Japan and Italy was very real and that the country did not possess the forces to protect its interests in three divided areas at the same time. To reduce the possibility of conflict and, if possible, to turn one of the potential antagonists into a friend or an associate seemed only logical, and this was the justification for the appeasement policy. If Chamberlain is to be faulted, it is less because he adopted it than because he pursued it with an arrogant contempt for anyone who doubted its success or suggested that an all-out attempt to build up the defenses of collective security against aggression might be a better course for Britain to follow, for it would avoid the moral dilemma of having to seek peace at the expense of the freedom of small nations—which is what appeasement entailed, as the fate of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 showed all too plainly.

Chamberlain was, Watt writes, “relentless, sanguine, a most efficient dispatcher of business, impelled always to act and to decide and never afraid of taking an unwelcome or unpopular decision.” Not that the decision not to fight over Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland be turned over to Germany was unpopular. The chiefs of staff had warned categorically that war in 1938 would entail the gravest risk of British defeat; the Dominions were lukewarm and, in some cases, actively hostile to the prospect of war; and the rapture of the crowds who met Chamberlain at Croydon on his return from what, after all, was a capitulation to Hitler at Munich was evidence of broad popular support.

It is not clear that Chamberlain was as euphoric about what he had accomplished as some historians have professed or that he was at all confident that the Anglo-German agreement that he had persuaded Hitler to sign on the morning after the conference had really secured “peace in our time.” In the weeks that followed, he alternated between states of cautious optimism, based upon his feeling that the Sudeten crisis had brought the possibility of war home to the Germans in a way that had frightened them and that this and Germany’s current economic troubles would tend to restrain new adventurism, and admissions of the darkest gloom, saying in one letter that he

  1. 1

    Philippe de Commynes, Mémoires, edited by Joseph Calmette, 3 vols. (Paris, 1924), Vol. II, p. 211.

  2. 2

    Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. 89.

  3. 3

    David Dilks, ” ‘We Must Hope for the Best and Prepare for the Worst’: The Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and Hitler’s Germany, 1937–1939,” The Raleigh Lecture on History, Proceedings of the British Academy, LXXIII (1987), p. 351.

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