on 1 July 2011
Richard Overy is the author of a number of books dealing with the Second World War and, in particular, with the events leading up to it. He belongs to a group of historians who attempt to deal objectively with this delicate subject and refuse to underpin - with arguments ex post - the thesis that it was all Germany's fault, an attitude which, earlier on, poisoned the political atmosphere after the end of the Great War of 1914.
Overy takes us back to 1918 and then sketches out the later developments, covering such topics as the League of Nations and its gradual demise as well as the political events of the inter-war years and the various international agreements, some of which clearly violated the results of Versailles.
For the 1930s he splits the actors on the world stage into three large categories: the aging empires (Britain and France), the have-nots (the German Reich in particular) and the (as yet) unengaged powers (the USA and the Soviet Union). The political ideas en vogue in each group were rooted in different ages and could hardly be reconciled without conflict.
The old empires followed their centuries-old aims of enlarging their domain or at least keeping it from shrinking, without being aware of the fact that the ground on which their empires were founded had become ever more brittle.
The have-nots attempted to build up similar structures, at times on the basis of long-forgotten political entities or philosophies, and those on the sidelines often did not know in which direction the should move - if at all - or where to seek allies.
Against this backdrop, the author rejects the comfortable and widely accepted thesis that the Second World War was intentionally prepared and begun by the German Reich. He also casts overboard the assertion that certain politicians, like Chamberlain, were incompetent and had not recognized the signs of the time. For Overy, appeasement had always been an essential element of British foreign policy, not only with respect to Hitler's rise - it had always been a tool used in imperial politics.
Seen in this light, the racism exhibited by Hitler and his followers - often used as an argument - did not raise any eye-brows in London or Paris. The "Western World" of the early 20th century was in total agreement as to the superiority of the white race and its culture.
The aversion which the empires felt with respect to Germany, and which prompted them to prepare themselves for war in the 1930s, Overy tells us, was grounded in traditional power politics, but the efforts thus required could not be sustained indefinitely. If war was to come, the empires wished for it to come sooner, not later, with 1939/40 being the optimum moment, whereas Hitler realized that he could not face major enemies, such as Britain or France, much before the mid-1940s.
This prompted Hitler to keep applying his policy of "a step at a time", bluffing his way along, but avoiding any serious military actions. Matters became critical, however, when one of the bastions conceived at Versailles, Czechoslovakia, broke up on account of its internal tensions, shedding the Sudetenlands first and then losing Slovakia (something which Hitler obviously welcomed).
For some reason, Overy does not deal with these events in great detail. He does not mention, for example, that the first strike against Prague after the Munich agreement came from Poland which, in October of 1938, grabbed the Teschen industrial area, without creating any stir among the western powers - something which obviously encouraged Hitler to continue as before.
The author does not mention, either, the significant fact that, in early March of 1939, when the country was falling apart, the Czech president Hacha travelled to Berlin on his own initiative and not because Hitler had ordered him to come. Once again, Hitler improvised and bullied Hacha into accepting the status of a German Protectorate for what was left of his country, i.e. the regions of Bohemia and Moravia. Hacha remained at the post of titular head of the Protectorate until the end of the war and his rump state came out of the war essentially unscathed.
The dispappearance of Czechoslovakia, Overy tells us, was interpreted in entirely different ways on both sides. For the western powers, it was a tipping point, whereas Hitler viewed it as being proof of the loss of interest in Eastern Europe by the western powers. In a way, both interpretations were correct, but the outcome was disastrous for all concerned, because Hitler had failed to realize that while Prague and later Warsaw were, indeed, of no material value for Paris or London, they were, for these nations, a perfectly good old imperial reason for going to war.
Britain, in particular, realized that she would be unable to win a war in Europe on her own and so aimed to maintain a "Sitzkrieg" until more allies could be brought into play; the American presidential elections in November of 1940 being a crucial element in this phase of the game.
Overy labels Hitler's view of the situation as being entirely reasonable under the circumstances, albeit influenced by a fair amount of wishful thinking.
Thus, German illusions, the empires' fears, and Polish pig-headedness came together to create a devastating tsunami which engulfed the European continent and revealed, on its withdrawal, an entirely different political landscape.
Summing it all up, Overy states on p. 95: "The cause of the Second World War was not just Hitler. The war was brought about by the interplay between specific factors..." and continues, on p. 98 by saying: "Britain and France were determined to defend their status as great powers ... Rather than face the reality of declining power, which had caused the crisis in the first place, they chose a strategy of deterrence and containment, and finally war itself".