Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler; drawing by David Levine

When war broke out between Great Britain and Germany in September 1939, Hitler received the news with dismay. News reached him as he sat in the Reichskanzlei and his interpreter recorded that Hitler “sat absolutely silent and unmoving. After an interval he turned to Ribbentrop, who had remained standing frozen at the window. ‘What now?’ Hitler asked the foreign minister, with a furious glare, as if to say that Ribbentrop had misled him as to the probable reaction of the British.”

This is not a picture that squares altogether easily with the verdicts reached at Nuremberg. Nor does it square very easily with the pattern that Gerhard Weinberg has laid down in his new book, which amounts to a restatement of the indictment at the Nuremberg trials. In his pages, Hitler appears as a racially minded maniac, hell-bent on war for its own sake: war to take over Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and then the Western powers, inpreparation for a great war to conquer Russia as well. There was to be an “Aryan” grossdeutsch empire, secure for all time. Hitler was in a hurry to create it. He would indeed have liked to have his war in September 1938, but was forced into compromise by the British on that occasion. Now, a year later, he would have his war with Poland, come what may. The British, despairing of compromise, decided to let him have it. Good for them, is the very nearly spoken conclusion.

Gerhard Weinberg has aimed at constructing a new synthesis of the origins of the Second World War. It is right that this should be attempted—though the same purpose might have been achieved by translation of the excellent first volume of a new West German series, Germany and the Second World War, where Manfred Messerschmidt and Wilhelm Deist do a distinguished job on the diplomatic and military aspects of their subject.1 Their great merit is to place the diplomatic exchanges in a context of military and economic reality. They also write with clarity and economy.

Professor Weinberg’s best friends would not argue that he does as much. He has read thoroughly the diplomatic sources, and there are occasions when he presents a difficult issue quite well—for instance, the affair of the Hossbach memorandum in November 1937, when Hitler treated his generals to a lengthy disquisition on his ultimate aims. But in general this large book is distinguished by scholarly overkill—pages and pages on relatively minor matters, in which the Acçáo Integralista Brasileira, or Menemencioglu, secretary-general of the Turkish foreign ministry, or the Romanian Young Liberals, or Lithuanian appeasers figure. There is even a footnote recording what a Canadian thought about the Polish view of Slovakia. There is a disproportionate amount about Italy; there is disproportionately little about the Soviet Union, a subject with which Weinberg appears to be unfamiliar, to judge from his remark that Stalin’s only “personal interest” in arms policy related to a battleship being constructed for him in America.

This author knows his diplomatic documents very thoroughly and is not inclined to let the reader forget it. The result, as he harries opponents unmercifully through text and footnotes, while at the same time attempting to narrate the affairs of the Powers, great and small, is a very confusing book; and these confusions are not much lessened by Weinberg’s saying, about an important aspect of the pre-Munich crisis, that he will not discuss it because he has already written an article about it. It is also confusing that the crenelations of the narrative are interrupted by polemics against unnamed opponents whose positions are not delineated.

The chief of these opponents is no doubt A.J.P. Taylor, whose Origins of the Second World War, when it came out two decades ago, caused a storm. Weinberg can barely bring himself to mention this book, let alone expound what it argued, but the fact is that his own work can only be understood if it is set in the context of Taylor’s. For Taylor, Hitler was not the King Kong figure whom Weinberg pictures; he was, rather, a ruthless gambler who seized the utmost from circumstances that he did not necessarily create himself, and even from simple accidents. He screwed up tension and then sat back to see what would come his way. He improvised. Thus it was in March 1938, when he took over Austria; thus again when he seized the German-speaking districts of Bohemia in September 1938 (together with the Czechoslovak defense system); and he was trying a similar feat a year later, when the Western powers decided to call his bluff over Poland.

An essential part of Taylor’s argument is that the Peace Treaties of 1919-1920 were bedeviled by weaknesses and even contradictions. Weinberg ignores this. To read him, you might imagine that Austria wished to be independent, that Hitler had to occupy it against its will. The reality is much more complex. Austria, when it was created in 1918-1919, was a fiction which the victorious Allies created to prevent the Austrians from joining Germany as they gave every sign of wishing to do. The only German-language deputy in the old Habsburg parliament who voted against union with Germany at the end of the First World War was a bishop who was concerned that the new German Republic would be too anti-clerical. By the mid-1930s, the affairs of Austria had passed into inextricable confusion. Clerical conservatives, relying on Mussolini’s patronage, ran a minority regime in defiance both of the Socialists and the local Nazis, who were increasingly dazzled by the power and prosperity of Hitler’s Reich.


These Nazis were full of plots. The government, unable to control them, appealed to Hitler—whose help they anyway needed in economic matters. Hitler wanted an “evolutionary” solution in Austria—to have a Nazi or Nazi-dominated government that would be his satellite. He remarked to visiting Austrian sympathizers in 1936 that he was against outright annexation: it had taken fifty years for Bavaria to become integrated with Germany, and it would take one hundred and fifty for Austria.

Weinberg makes out that Hitler had a long-term plan to invade and annex Austria. But the evidence shows that in March 1938 Hitler was provoked by the Austrian government’s doings; the Austrian chiefs tried to renege on their agreement with him. On the spur of the moment, he decided on a display of force to turn Austria into a German satellite. The display of force was so much arranged at the last moment that, when German troops did cross the border, they had to obtain gasoline by buying it from the garages of the country they were “invading.” Only when Hitler perceived the extent of the enthusiasm for union with Germany that existed in Austria—vast, cheering crowds, such as Linz and Vienna had never seen—did he proclaim the union of the two countries. Weinberg, not appreciating the fragility of Austria as measured by her own people’s loyalty, and Hitler’s reliance on improvisation, presents a muddled picture.

There is a similar weakness when it comes to the crisis over Czechoslovakia in spring and summer 1938. In Taylor’s view, Hitler was indeed set on destroying Czechoslovakia. It was the only democracy left in that area; it was firmly anti-German; and Bohemia had valuable industry. But Hitler had no clear idea how to go ahead, and on April 21, for instance, he explicitly said he did not intend to invade the country unless unforeseen circumstances arose. Of course he worked on the leaders of the large German (and largely Nazi) minority in Bohemia. But a plan of action occurred to him only in response to two things: first, the challenge that came when the Czechs, alleging. German preparations against them, mobilized on May 21; the second, the apparent willingness of the British to let the Czechs go, in the hope of buying Hitler’s cooperation in maintaining European peace. The first provoked him into declaring that he wished to deal with the country by October 1, and the second let him suppose he would get away with it provided he out-bluffed the British.

Circumstances worked in his favor. Czechoslovakia contained a large German minority, which viewed the Czechs much as Ulstermen viewed (and view) the Irish. There was also a large Slovak population, much of which voted for the nationalist party which aimed at Slovak independence. There were Hungarians and Poles in the state as well. In the event, Hitler did screw up the tension, and in due course was offered the German parts of Bohemia by the British and French, who were desperately anxious to avoid war. Weinberg argues that Hitler really meant war and allowed himself to be led away from it only because his allies (Italians and others) would not follow him, and because he had been trapped by the British into negotiations which he would rather have avoided.

The evidence is contradictory. On the one side, Hitler did talk ferociously to his generals; on the other, he told his senior foreign ministry official, in mid-September, that he would accept a plebiscite, occupy the Germanic areas, and deal with the rest of Czechoslovakia later. Taylor, like Manfred Messerschmidt (who has the advantage of knowing the military side), believes that Hitler was bluffing. Weinberg, by contrast, argues that he meant war from the spring of 1938 onward, and that this would have become clear if the Allies had not anticipated his immediate wishes. Weinberg can even confidently assert that “we now know that what would have happened would have been a clear revelation of Germany’s true aims.”


When it comes to the Polish crisis a year later, Weinberg’s arguments are much the same: Hitler was determined to have his war with Poland and contemptuous of any offer of compromise or negotiation. Hitler’s terms to Poland of August 30-31, which even the British ambassador saw as mild, are waved aside; and Taylor’s argument that the war broke out because the British had been caught in a thicket of contradictions is treated with a silence that is no doubt meant to be contemptuous. But the argument has a great deal of force.

An elementary question, if we are dealing with the politics of aggression, concerns armaments. We were all brought up to think that Hitler’s Germany bristled with arms. This turned out not to be the case. He said he armed Germany, but when the true figures turned up after the war, they were much lower than anyone had supposed. True, Germany won vast military triumphs in 1939, 1940, and 1941. But detailed study of the campaigns shows that these triumphs were won by ingenuity, not superior force. To put it very briefly, the Germans won because they knew how to combine aircraft, infantry, and tanks in a way their enemies could not imitate. Wilhelm Deist’s carefully established figures are unmistakable in their portent; and they have been recently supplemented, for the German air force, by an original and important work by Richard Overy2 which shows that the German air force was actually even inferior to the British, French, and Polish air forces put together.

This comes of course as something of a conundrum. We know that Hitler intended to fight a great war (his own date being 1944); we know that he won victories by Blitzkrieg methods—short, sharp stabs by tanks and aircraft; we know that Nazi Germany manufactured fewer armaments than was thought at the time. Weinberg, like other writers, asserts that Hitler planned his economy on the expectation of Blitzkriege—i.e., just enough tanks and aircraft for a short war. The trouble with this statement is that there is absolutely no evidence for it. Far from wanting an economy geared to Blitzkriege, Hitler kept telling people that he wanted “unrestricted use of all arms-resources” (to military leaders in May 1939) and that war would see “a bottomless pit” of military requirements.

In summer 1936 he instructed Goering to militarize the economy so as to face aggressive war in eight years’ time. Goering went ahead—with plans that would mature in about eight years’ time, and that were in a state of woeful disarray when war actually did break out in September 1939. When the British declared war on him, Hitler was dependent on Russia and Romania for most of the essentials; had it not been for the pact with Stalin, he would have had only enough gasoline for the defeat of Poland, and essential metals perhaps not even for that.

Richard Overy’s work, which is a synthesis of technical, economic, and political factors, goes deeper than this, for it shows just what the economic consequences were of the fundamental cleavage in the Nazi state between an ideology that praised “the small man” and the nationalistic war-prattling that needed big industry. The Nazi economy simply did not work very well when it came to planning for war. The industrialists disliked the whole idea and would much rather have concentrated on market goods. They covertly defied Goering’s instructions, and had friends in high places to support them. In these circumstances, the Nazis got considerably less value for their money than did the British government when it came to an arms drive. In 1940 the Germans spent $6 billion on weapons, and the British $3.5 billion; and yet the British even then produced 50 percent more aircraft, 100 percent more trucks, and almost as many tanks.

It is misleading, therefore, for Weinberg to argue that Hitler was arming for Blitzkriege. Rather, he fought Blitzkriege because he had to—that was all that his level of armaments could stand. He gambled on victory over Poland, over France in 1940, and over Russia in 1941, because his actual military strength made any attack a gamble. Can we not agree that he was also gambling in foreign affairs in 1938 and 1939—improvising, hoping for something to turn up, as Taylor suggested he did? Why he should have gambled in this way is another matter, which the (surprisingly scanty) sources do not reveal. The British historian T.W. Mason asserts that he drove for war because he needed an empire to silence the rebellious working classes—a thesis whose credibility is not improved by ceaseless repetition, without evidence to support it.3 Weinberg would probably say only that he wished for war because he was a very bad man. Hitler and Ribbentrop denied that they wanted war with the West at all, and if Taylor is right (and Weinberg does not convince me that he is wrong) then they may even have been trying to get out of the war with Poland once they saw it meant war with the West as well.

‘It is odd that nowadays German historians themselves become indignant at the suggestion that Hitler might have been bluffing over the Polish issue. Gone are the days when German historians had their passports removed if they said that their country had behaved aggressively in this century. Andreas Hillgruber, a senior German historian with an authoritative volume on Hitler’s strategy to his credit, has written a short and useful, if unexciting, survey of this question. He is inclined to be charitable toward the chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, before and during the First World War; but he emphatically agrees with what the British said then and later, that Germany was next to impossible to handle—though he is less forthright in saying why.

But even Hillgruber can say, with regret, that Hitler’s war-guilt in September 1939 has been “insufficiently revealed.” He even hints that Hitler was trying for a last-minute accommodation with the British, when he offered Poland terms that were “seemingly liberal”—a matter that Weinberg characteristically dismisses out of hand. Chamberlain himself was quite near to making another “Munich”; but his hand was forced by a revolt in the House of Commons. We owe an analysis of this revolt to the fertile pen of Maurice Cowling.4 He has shown how deeply divided the governing Conservatives were, in matters of foreign affairs and of much else. There was a danger that the party would split; that Sir John Simon would head a revolt to overthrow Chamberlain, while Churchill waited in the wings, offering the kind of outright nationalist response that many Conservatives saw as the answer to the Empire’s difficulties.

To keep his party together, Chamberlain could only compete with his rivals in foreign policy. The result was that British foreign policy became confused and hectic; that the country went to war at a time when it had no fixed arrangements with the Americans, when Stalin was actively collaborating with Hitler, and when the Far East was in confusion. The worst thing of all, as Chamberlain ruefully told Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador, was that Great Britain could do nothing to save the Poles. They had to suffer first Hitler and then Stalin. It was not an outcome to be proud of.

This Issue

April 30, 1981