This review is based on the paperback edition of 2009.
Overy's book about the state of our world before the outbreak of the Second World War is only one of many such works written by English-speaking authors. For the amateur historian it is somewhat surprising to note that the questions dealt with by these authors are apparently so complicated that even today, 70 years on, scores of Anglo-Saxon historians can still find new aspects to write about, whereas the Germans seem to be happy in the belief that WW2 was all Hitler's (i.e. their own) fault.
There is a glaring contradiction in both of these attitudes: the Germans should, after all, be opposed to have all the blame put at their feet and should try to argue their case, whereas the erstwhile allies should endeavour to perpetuate the Nuremberg accusations - but the state of the matter is quite the opposite. What might be be the reasons for this?
Could it be that, in an effort not to lose their trust in a reasonably equitable world spirit the Germans feel that they must accept the horrible things that were done to them (the destruction of their towns and cities with the loss of half a million lives, the expropriation and expulsion of twelve million of their countrymen and the death of another million in the process) as proper punishment for their own misdeeds?
And do Anglo-Saxon historians - and some politicians - look ever more closely into the causes of this European catastrophe because they believe that the guilt placed on the Germans was so great as to crush the spirit of a whole nation and thereby cause a major breach in the very centre of Europe, which may yet lead to the complete collapse of Europe as we know it?
Overy's very sober analysis of the economic and political situation obtaining in the major states in the 1930s can help us to see the past more clearly and prevent us from falling from one extreme into another, like Götz in Jean-Paul Sartre's play "The Devil and the Good Lord". Götz had to learn that his courageous intention to throw his former evil self overboard and to act solely according to the high principles of morality would eventually result in the same misdeeds as before.
The book itself is not the description of a chaotic mass of details but the analysis of the individual situations the major states found themselves in prior to WW2. The author singles out seven such countries and describes them in so many chapters - Germany, Great-Britain, France, Italy, the Soviet Union, Japan and the USA - but not Poland, surprisingly. Such a differentiated treatment yields interesting insights into the historical and political aims of the lands involved which would otherwise escape the reader.
Thus Overy tells us that the foreign policies of the two, initially, major actors, Britain and Germany, were not as different as all that. Both players, Chamberlain and Hitler, employed a strategy of bluffing in the negotiations as best they could, up to the point of giving in, if necessary, in order to gain time to rearm their country for a war that seemed more and more likely.
The objectives, too, were of the same imperialistic nature - Great Britain trying to hold together its disparate parts, its "Lebensraum" (Overy), while the Reich tried to shuffle off the restrictions placed on it at Versailles. A strong state in the centre of Europe being unacceptable to Britain, war became inevitable.
The author presents clearly the changes in foreign policy in the two countries after the Munich agreement of late 1938: the average Briton prepared for another war because a containment of the Reich could not be achieved in any other way, whereas large parts of the German population could not but admire Hitler's bloodless victories and conclude that his was the best policy.
Even Hitler's internal actions did not cause much of a stir in London: the British people was not to get the impression that they were going to war for Jewish interests, and the communists were considered to be dangerous on the other side of the Channel as well.
By 1938, Germany's expenses for rearmament came to 17% of the country's revenue, British rearmament in the same year amounted to one quarter of her income (p. 132), this figure doubled the following year. In Britain, between 1936 and 1940, expenses for armaments went up by a factor of 15 - whereas in the Reich they increased only fivefold: such a pace could not be sustained by Britain for much longer, the moment of the clash was predetermined.
Overy concedes that Hitler's expectation to resolve the Polish crisis in the same bloodless and successful manner as before was understandable, but he faults him for not having recognized the British change of policy after Munich. On the other hand, he states on p. 137 that Britain did not go to war in 1939 to save Poland but to save the "international system" from which Britian profited more than any other nation - but that too, turned out to be an illusion.