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4.6 out of 5 stars
The Road to War: The Origins of World War II
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on 9 May 2011
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.
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on 24 February 2001
This book, written by one of today's most reputed historians of WW2, focuses on the years immediately preceding the war. Each chapter is devoted to one of the future belligerants and describes how they perceived the approaching crisis, what their objectives were, and what choices they faced. This approach is very successful in showing how each nation saw the situation at that time, as opposed as we see it today.
Although all sections are stimulating, a few are especially worth mentioning. The section on Germany makes it clear that a "readjustment" of Germany's post-WW1 eastern frontiers was inevitable and that indeed western powers themselves recognized it as inevitable. The section on Poland is very interesting and iconoclastic, balancing today's popular image of Poland as a helpless victim (which indeed she became AFTER its defeat in 1939) with a well-documented picture of an arrogant, racist state that western European states in the 30s generally despised. The chapter on England highlights the key importance that the English attributed to the Empire, and shows how Great Britain tried to defend this anachronistic creation against the revisionist powers, even in the face of its own economic decline.
The book is valuable both for its convincing general arguments and for its analysis of specific issues. At the general level, the picture of the 30s that emerges is that of a world constrained by a geopolitical straitjacked that was growing increasingly inadequate. The author argues that Britain and France, who were (and clearly perceived themselved to be) the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo, tried as long as possible to defend it against appeasing the revisionist powers while preparing for the worst with rearmament. The appeasement phase bought them time mostly at the expense of countries outside their direct sphere of influence, which they abandoned to Germany and Russia. However, Britain and France finally became convinced that the Axis powers were after a more radical reshaping of the international order. This, almost by definition, implied sacrificing parts of the English and French empires themselves; this Britain and France were not willing to do, so when they got ready they declared war. The rest is known.
This book makes its case very convincingly, and clearly states (the Introduction is fantastic) that the "fairy tale" version of WW2, where Britain and France are the white knights that go to war to save Europe's freedom, is ludicrous. They declared war, as every power in the history of the world has always done, in order to defend their own interests. They cared about Poland as much as they had cared about SChekoslovakia - something that the events both in september 1939 and in 1945 made abundantly clear.
The book is also full of delightful smaller issues, like: antisemitism in pre-war Poland (I did not know that it was the Poles, not the Germans, who first wanted to deport Jews to Madagascar, and this well before the war); the way racism affected the international relations between the US/England and Japan; and the almost universal belief, in Germany as in France as in England as in Italy as in Japan, that no great power could survive without some sort of Lebensraun (very interesting in light of how all these countries prospered after the war even after the colonial empires collapsed).
This is a wonderful book. It is dense with concepts and provocative thoughts. After you read it, you will want to get back to it time after time.
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on 3 April 2016
I have to agree with the bulk of the other reviews that this is a first class and enjoyable effort in establishing all the factors that led to war in 1939, more keenly how each of the main players reacted to and saw their position without an 'exit strategy'.... So many defining moments and so many convoluted yet disastrous paths led by countries such as Japan, Italy and of course Germany. It could all have been so different is the feeling you get, sometimes it only takes a few key decisions, or change of characters to think that much of the ensuing bloodshed could have been avoided. This is a great insight into how it all tied together to force the world into a second catastrophe within 20 or so years.
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on 1 September 2013
I have been an avid reader of WW2 books for some time now and am also interested in the interwar years. This book has filled many of the gaps in my knowledge.
It is broken down into country chapters which makes it easy to follow. It is clearly argued, logical and consistent in its approach. It can be read rather than studied.
For those looking to understand the situation within the major players prior the WW2, this is an excellent place to start.
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on 2 January 2015
An excellent account of the run up to WW2, given by virtue of looking at the origins of the conflict as seen through the eyes of the nations themselves. I particularly found the analysis of Hitler and Germany quite logical; as presented here, there would seem to have been a method in Hitler's madness. Overall, an intriguing read and well worth getting.
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on 1 September 2017
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on 24 October 2016
Quick dispatch, item exactly as described.
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on 21 April 2014
Well structured and decisive conclusions on why the great powers, particularly Britain, went to war. Also the comparative strengths and weaknesses well explained.
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on 2 August 2015
Very easy to read and well-written.
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on 6 November 2015
worth reading
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