The Gambler

The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Starting World War II, 1937-1939

by Gerhard L. Weinberg
University of Chicago Press, 728 pp., $44.00

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…

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