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 not succeed even in this. His policy toward Great Britain and France is not much easier to define. At one time he asked only that they should leave him alone. At another, when things were running unexpectedly well for him, he was ready to plunder their Empires or even to eliminate them entirely.

There has however always been one loophole for the blueprint enthusiasts. Whatever Hitler’s opportunism in the West, he knew what he was doing in the East. There he wanted Lebensraum and, with it, the destruction of Soviet Communism. He often said so himself, if only for the benefit of Western audiences, and no doubt it was a pious, or in this case an impious, aspiration. It was far from being a plan. Hitler’s prewar policy did not accord with it, and even his wartime plans were not much better. Before the war, he took advantages as they were offered without observing a blueprint or timetable. His invasion of Soviet Russia was designed as a stroke with which to bring the war against Great Britain to an end, and no decisions had been made how to treat the conquered territory. Some of Hitler’s henchmen tried to win the favor of the conquered peoples; some exterminated them. Some wanted to exploit the resources of the Ukraine; some wanted to settle it with Germans. It was all a muddle, and Hitler’s Russian policy was a consequence of invasion, not its cause.

OCCASIONALLY, a book enables us to escape from this sterile debate and to understand how things really happened before the war. Enlightenment of this kind is provided by the voluminous papers and records that Józef Lipski left. Lipski was Polish ambassador in Berlin from 1933 until the outbreak of war. He was, as diplomats go, a skilled observer and certainly a self-confident one. His book tells the story of a policy that failed: Lipski recognized this when he tried to resign at the moment of failure in March 1939. The policy was that of reconciliation, or even partnership, between Poland and Germany—a repeat performance in the East of the partnership between Germany and Italy in the West, which in the long run proved equally ruinous.


In January 1934 Poland and Germany agreed on a declaration of mutual nonaggression. This was the first breach in the isolation which Germany had encountered from the time when Hitler came to power. Both parties believed that they had gained from the agreement and indeed overrated it. The Poles supposed that they had disrupted the former friendship between Soviet Russia and the Reichswehr. The Germans supposed that they had nullified the Franco-Polish alliance. Though both beliefs were true within limits, neither option was closed for good. Ironically enough, the arrangement could have lasted only if the Franco-Soviet pact, which was made in answer to it, had been taken seriously by either of its signatories. This was not the case, and the fault lay mainly with the French. They abandoned their former system and then did not operate the new one. No military talks took place under the pact, and successive French governments, especially when under Socialist leadership, tried to escape from it. They were encouraged in this by the British, whose main object at this time was not to bring Soviet Russia into European affairs.

NEVERTHELESS friendship between Poland and Germany brought rewards to both while it lasted. Hitler told Lipski that he was interested in overseas colonies, not in eastern expansion, and this was as true or as false as the remarks of an opposite nature which he made to the colonial Powers. He also said:

In his meditations he had come to the conclusion that Germany, if you consider the last centuries, lost millions of people in wars, and the best ones too, reaching no goal and remaining in practically the same spot. By contrast, England lost very few people. Instead of spilling blood, England dominated the world. The best human element, lost in Germany for nothing, remained in England and contributed to the realization of its great world policy.

This, too, was not altogether a sham. There is good evidence that Hitler meant to make great gains without fighting a great war.

The Czech crisis of 1938 brought the friendship to its highest point, and again both parties gained from it. Soviet intervention was the one factor which might have turned the balance against Germany, and Poland barred the way against it. Lipski told Hitler: “Poland considers Soviet intervention in European affairs as intolerable,” and Hitler warmly agreed that Poland was “an outstanding factor safeguarding Europe against Russia.” Poland received her reward. She carried off Teschen from Czechoslovakia after an ultimatum, which President Benes evoked as the decisive argument against resisting Germany. In fact throughout the crisis Poland was much more useful to Germany than was Mussolini, the ostensible associate in the Axis.

The Germans imagined that Poland was now committed. Goering told Lipski: “Now probably Poland also will draw consequences from the changed situation and change its alliance with France for an alliance with Germany.” The only obstacle was Danzig, a city with an indisputably German population, nearly all of which wanted to join Hitler’s Reich. It is difficult to believe that Hitler wanted a conflict with Poland. On the contrary, he wanted to get Danzig out of the way so as to make their friendship stronger, and perhaps to compensate Poland with the Ukraine. The Poles had too many Ukrainians already. Besides, they still intended to maintain their independence against all comers. When the Germans increased their pressure over Danzig, the Poles increased their resistance. Beck, the Polish foreign minister, told his associates:

It is wiser to go forward to meet the enemy than to wait for him at home.

The enemy is a troublesome element, since it seems that he is losing the measure of thinking and acting. He might recover that measure once he encounters determined opposition, which hitherto he has not met with. The mighty have been humble to him, and the weak have capitulated in advance, even at the cost of honour. The Germans are marching all across Europe with nine divisions; with such strength Poland would not be overcome. Hitler and his associates know this, so that the question of a political contest with us will not be like the others.

…We have arrived at this difficult moment in our politics with all the cards in our hand. This does not speak badly for us.

Hitler was to be first defied and then humiliated. He would be brought to his senses, and Poland would be greater than before. Here was the decision which led to the outbreak of the Second World War. Someone, no doubt, had to bring Hitler down, but the Poles paid a high price for doing so. They deliberately challenged Hitler, when they had, to use Beck’s metaphor, transferred all the cards from their hand to his.


SOVIET RUSSIA was the other Power in Eastern Europe which aimed to pursue a skillful, though unscrupulous. policy, and was brought to disaster by it. Western historians exaggerate Soviet faults as much as they condone Polish ones. This is only to be expected in the era of the cold war, which historians are still loyally fighting when most sensible people have forgotten about it. Mistaken or not, the Soviet government had little choice in the policy that it followed. It distrusted Hitler and wished to encourage resistance against him. But Soviet Russia could contribute little or nothing to this resistance. Quite apart from the weakness of the Soviet army Poland stood in the way, and as well, Great Britain and France never showed the slightest desire for Soviet assistance on any effective scale. The Western Powers wanted Hitler to be stopped without Soviet intervention, and this is what the countries of Eastern Europe, especially Poland, wanted also. The Soviet government suspected that they also wanted a German conquest of Russia, but this was not a wish, only a lesser evil.

The situation in pre-war Europe was harsh. The only hope of destroying Hitler lay in a war between Germany and Soviet Russia, and this war could not be arranged in the existing circumstances. Of course it would have been possible for the French to take the Franco-Soviet pact seriously and even for the British perhaps to have made an effective Anglo-Soviet alliance. The price would have been Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and the Western Powers have made enough yelping about this, even after a war when Soviet Russia rescued them all—at great cost to herself—from imminent destruction. It is inconceivable that they would have paid this price voluntarily, nor would the Russians have gone to war unless they had to.

There is nothing new to be discovered about Soviet policy. Mr. McSherry’s book repeats what everyone learned years ago from the German documents. Here again is a “cold war” twist. The Germans are believed when they record what the Russians said to them. They are not regarded as good witnesses when they were talking to Englishmen or Americans. Mr. McSherry confesses that the historian has to rely on public utterances by Soviet leaders and adds the engaging sentence: “One of the problems of students of Soviet diplomacy is that its spokesmen quite frequently speak the plain, unvarnished truth.” This is a disturbing thought. Could it be said of the statesmen of any other country? There is of course a simple explanation. Soviet policy is more straightforward than most. Its sole aim was and is the security of the Soviet Union. This was its guiding principle before the war and remains its guiding principle now. If this elementary principle were grasped by others, there would be a great deal less commotion in the world.

Mr. McSherry implies that Stalin was peculiarly stupid to have been taken in by Hitler. But this was a universal fate—Beck, Chamberlain, Lloyd George, even Churchill at one moment. Was Hitler peculiarly successful in deception? Or did he imagine that he was being sincere at each stage? Perhaps he was over-whelmed by the ease and extent of his triumphs. He leaned against a door, hoping that it would open, and the entire house fell down. Not surprisingly, this went to his head.

This Issue

June 6, 1968