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In Germany, nobody wants to know …
on 14 July 2015
The reviewer who has read the book in the English Penguin edition of 1991 was surprised to note that while the book was translated into German soon after its first British edition some 50 years ago the Germans never seem to have given it much attention, in spite of the fact that what the author has to say about Germany is much more positive than historiography in general and German historiography in particular would have it.
By now, the book is some fifty years old and one wonders whether it is still an interesting read. In a foreword ("Second Thoughts") to the 1991 edition, the author takes up this question and does not significantly alter his views; on the subject of the 'Austrian Anschluss' of early 1938 (p. 8), he says: "the Austrian crisis was launched by Schuschnigg, not by Hitler" he muses about the German occupation of the Czech lands a year later (p. 9) and says that for many years he had been under the impression that Hacha, the president of Czechoslovakia had been ordered by Hitler to come to Berlin, whereas the files available at Prague document that the trip was undertaken at Hacha's initiative who was wondering what to do in the face of the obvious break-up of the country once Slovakia had claimed independence and unrest was brewing among the Hungarian and other minorities.
Taylor also raises the question why Hitler, if he did have the intention to secure living space in the East should go to war against Britain and France and discards the idea that Hitler was nothing but a power-hungry maniac. He rather considers Hitler to have been a politician who, whenever new situations arose, would rely on his instincts to profit from a given constellation.
The author is also sceptical as to the thesis that Hitler went out of his way to make war; he underlines the fact that the often-quoted "Hossbach-Protokoll" is a very weak basis for such a view and, materially speaking, a highly questionable document. Far from depicting Hitler as an angel of peace and judging him very harshly in his foreword, he does say that "in international affairs there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was a German".
The main portion of the book is devoted to the various phases of the inter-war period and describes the fate of the Treaty of Versailles and its long agony over the decade following its signature; he reviews the various stages of its demise, the conferences and agreements that could not prevent the Treaty from becoming a worthless piece of paper on account of its inherent contradictions and tensions which affected the signatories in various ways (including the former Allies among themselves). Here, Taylor shows that once Hitler had been brought into the Reich government, he toed the line of his predecessors as far Germany's foreign policy was concerned while, internally, turning the country itself upside down.
According to Taylor, Hitler never wanted a war in the West, his primary aim was a return in the East to the status after the peace of Brest-Litovsk, the treaty which the victorious Central Powers had concluded with the nascent Soviet Union in 1917/18; for Taylor, anything beyond that is speculation. To reach his goal, Hitler employed two means, words and patience, and, for years, was succesful in his efforts.
The mid-1930s caused profound changes on the continent of Europe, the consequences of which the author - while not going so far as to make the British say "rather Hitler than Baldwin" - expresses as "rather Hitler than Stalin". He does, however, identify a feeling of "rather Hitler than Léon Blum" among the bourgeois (and catholic) French in the face of the successes of the "Front populaire" in 1936. Everybody knows that what happened in Spain was even more dramatic and menacing, since the Soviet Union, in this case, became involved in Western Europe for the first time.
The penultimate of the many crises of the 1930s affected Czechoslovakia, and here, too, the author does not identify any evil machinations by the Germans: the German chancellor simply made use of a situation in which that country, a shaky and articifial construct of Versailles, was bound to end up in, once the calls for the independence of its constituent ethnicities (not only the Sudeten Germans) had become louder and louder after the events in Austria.
The Munich conference attempted to consolidate what was left, but the country fell apart under its own weight over the following months, not least, because the Polish military invasion into and annexation of the Teschen area - without any reaction in the West - had shown that the country as such meant nothing to its erstwhile creators.
What Taylor does not mention in this connection (but which is mentioned in the memoirs, "Dernier Rapport", of Jozef Beck, the last Polish foreign minister) is that once the Sudeten lands had been tranferred to Germany, Poland approached the Reich on the subject of the Oderberg/Bohumin rail hub which was now German, asking for traffic rights. Hitler not only gave Poland such an authorization but ceded the whole region to Poland retaining only such traffic rights for Germany against payment of a fee.
Taylor's assessment of the British guarantee for Poland, given in early 1939 when the question of Danzig and the Polish Corridor became acute, is devastating: London gave Poland the unrestricted right to push Britain (and France) into a war with Germany (but not with the Soviet Union!) in the ludicrous expectation that Hitler would thus be more cautious than Chamberlain himself and that Stalin, too, would accept obvious disadvantages. Chamberlain had gone so far in this guarantee as to involve France as well, without ever consulting Paris - France had to follow suit, whether she wanted to or not.
Everything else now followed automatically: Poland refused any concessions and began harrassing her German minority, Hitler could hardly go back with respect to Danzig, and Europe slid into an abyss. The constellations became so absurd that Taylor is able to state that Hitler's diplomatic initiative launched on 29 August should have been launched the day before if war was to be avoided. On 1st September 1939 Europe crumbled, never really being able to reshape itself. Poland went under in three weeks of fighting although Taylor makes a point of saying (p. 267) that the state of Germany's armaments in 1939 proved that Hitler did not want a major war, if any war at all.
In view of such unorthodox opinions it is not surprising that Taylor, in post-war Germany, was regarded as a non-entity, for if influential circles in Germany had accepted his theses, the policy of the Allies after the war would have become unacceptable - be it the Nuremberg trials, the eradication of Prussia or the expropriation and expulsion of 12 Million Germans from their rightful lands. It is much easier for today's Germans to accomodate themselves to the status quo than to ask questions.