The teaser of a recent article posed the question "Why did the Second World War happen?", adding, "Could more intelligent diplomacy on Britain’s part have saved Europe from a devastating war?" The article's author then stated:
"Back in the 1970s, when I was at school, my history teachers were in thrall to AJP Taylor and his Origins of the Second World War (Hamish Hamilton, 1961). They taught that the answer to the question “Why did the Second World War happen?” was to be found to a large extent in the story of the incompetence of successive British governments in the 1930s; and, more particularly, in the stupidity of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Munich conference in 1938 when he agreed that Adolf Hitler could annex part of Czechoslovakia – the German speaking Sudetenland. The German leader in the 1930s, we were told, following the Taylor line, was a politician “much like any other” and the war had been completely preventable had not near idiots been running Britain."
I've read Taylor's book, and I'm not sure this paragraph is an accurate representation of his thesis. It was certainly not what I took away from the book. Rather, as I recall, Hitler had long term objectives, but in the short term, the leaders of other nations often handed him opportunities that he took full advantage of. In his opening chapter, Taylor wrote:
"Contemporary history, in the strict sense, records events while they are still hot, judging them from the moment as assuming a ready sympathy in the reader. . . . But there comes a time when the historian can stand back and review events that were once contemporary with the detachment that he would show if he were writing of the Investiture conflict or the English civil war. At least, he can try."
When Taylor was writing, it had been more than twenty years since the war began, and fifteen years since it had ended. The great figures had left the scene and of the national leaders, only Churchill still lived -- though a general who became a national leader, de Gaulle, was having a second inning. "The Second World War had ceased to by 'today' and has become 'yesterday'. Now had come the time for the historian to step back and review with detachment.
Taylor then notes a difference in how historians have treated the First and Second World Wars. With the Great War, "There was relatively little interest in the war itself. The dispute over grand strategy between Westerners and Easterners was regarded as a private war between Lloyd George and the generals, which the academic historian passed by." The official British military history of the war did not appear until 1948, but there was no attempt at an official civil history except for the Ministry of Munitions. "Hardly anyone examined the attempts at a negotiated peace. No one studied the development of war aims." It was only contemporary to when Taylor was writing that a detailed study of such a decisive topic as the policy of Woodrow Wilson was released. Instead, the great focus of those historians examining the First World War was on how that war began. Some writers focused on the events of July 1914, while others went back to the Moroccan crisis of 1905 or even the diplomacy of Bismarck. Nonetheless, all agreed that this was the consuming field of interest for the Great War.
"With the Second World War," writes Taylor, "it has been almost the opposite. The great subject of interest for reader and writer alike, has been the war itself. Not merely the campaigns, though these have been described again and again. The politics of the war have also been examined, particularly the relations of the Great allies. It would be difficult to count the books on the French armistice of 1940, or on the meetings of the Big Three at Teheran and Yalta. The 'Polish question' in relation to the Second World War means the dispute between Soviet Russia and the Western Powers with which the war ended, not the German demands on Poland with which it began. The origins of the war excite comparatively little interest. It is generally felt that, while new details may emerge, there is nothing of general significance to find out. We already know the answers, and do not need to ask further questions."
Several historians published books on the origins of World War II soon after the war was over, and all expressed views which they had held while the war was underway, or possibly even before it had really begun. According to Taylor, "Twenty years after the outbreak of the First World War, very few people would have accepted without modification the explanations for it given in August 1914. Twenty years and more after the outbreak of the Second World War nearly everyone accepts the explanations which were given in September 1939."
It is possible, though unlikely, that World War II has "a simple and final explanation which was obvious to everyone at the time and which will never be changed by later information or research." It is doubtful that historians in 2039 will look at the events preceding the outbreak of war in exactly the same way as those of 1939. Therefore, the present day historian should seek to anticipate the judgements of the future rather than repeat those of the past.
"The First World War seemed to present few problems on the military side," writes Taylor, but this is no more true than the idea that the origins of the Second World War are unbelievably simple. Nonetheless, "Most people regarded the [Great War] as a slogging-match, much like a nineteenth-century prize fight, which went on until one combination fell down from exhaustion. Only when men's minds were sharpened by experience of the Second World War did they begin to debate seriously whether the first war could have been ended earlier by a superior strategy or a superior policy. Besides, it was generally assumed after the First World War that there would never be another; therefore study of the last war seemed to provide no lessons for the present. On the other hand, the great problem which had caused the war still lay at the center of international affairs when the war ended. This great problem was Germany.
"The Allies might claim that the war had been brought about by German aggression; the Germans might answer that it had been caused by their refusal to grant Germany her rightful place as a Great Power. In either case, it was the place of Germany which was in dispute. There remained other problems than Germany in the world from Soviet Russia to the Far East. But it was reasonable to assume that these would be manageable and that there would be a peaceful world if only the German people were reconciled to their former enemies. Hence the study of the war-origins had an urgent and practical importance. If the peoples of the Allied countries could be convinced of the falsity of German "war-guilt," they would relax the punitive clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, and accept the German people as victims, like themselves, of a natural cataclysm."
It was therefore necessary for British and American historians, and even French historians to some extent, to show that the allied government were a good deal guiltier and the German government more innocent than the peace-makers of 1919 had supposed. But there was no such fuel for the origins of the Second World War following its completion. Germany had ceased to be a great power or a central problem in world affairs almost before the war was over. The new problem was Soviet Russia and men wanted to know about the mistakes that had been made in dealing with Russia during the war instead of about the mistakes made in dealing with Germany before is outbreak.
"The origins of the Second World War had little attraction when men were already studying the origins of the Third. There might still have been some kick in the subject if there had remained great areas of doubt and question. But an explanation existed which satisfied everybody and seemed exhaust all dispute. This explanation was: Hitler. He planned the Second World War. His will alone caused it. This explanation obviously satisfied the "resisters" from Churchill to Namier. They had given it all along, were already giving it before the war broke out. They could say: 'We told you so. There was no alternative to resisting Hitler from the first hour.' The explanation also satisfied the 'appeasers.' They could claim that appeasement was a wise, and would have been a successful, policy if it had not been for the unpredictable fact that Germany was in the grip of a madman.
"Most of all, this explanation satisfied the Germans, except for a few unrepentant Nazis. After the First World War, the Germans tried to shift the guilt from themselves to the Allies, or to make out that non one was guilty. It was a simpler operation to shift the guilt from the Germans to Hitler. He was safely dead. Hitler may have done a great deal of harm to Germany while he was alive. But he made up for it by his final sacrifice in the Bunker. No amount of posthumous guilt could injure him. The blame for everything -- the Second World War, the concentration camps, the gas-chambers -- could be loaded on to his uncomplaining shoulders. With Hitler guilty, every other German could claim innocence; and the Germans, previously the most strenuous opponents of war guilt, no became its firmest advocates. Some Germans managed to to give Hitler's wickedness a peculiarly effective twist. Since he was obviously a monster of wickedness, he ought to have been resolutely resisted. Hence any guilt left over after Hitler had been condemned could be passed on to the French for failing to expel him from the Rhineland in 1936 or on to Chamberlain for flinching in September 1938.
"Everyone was happily agreed on the cause of the Second World War. What need then of 'revisionism'?"
Yet, even as the article which prompted this post points out: "we mustn’t completely run away with the idea that Hitler was the only reason the war happened."
Taylor sought to examine the events from the Treaty of Versailles to the German invasion of Poland. Yes, Hitler had a grand design, with long term objectives, and a fair appraisal of his book Mein Kampf would have suggested that a future war was a strong possibility. Yet, at the same time, there was no detailed, step-by-step, map to war. Hitler would menace his neighbors and, under this pressure, their leaders would present Hitler with opportunities which he would take advantage of. Hitler was not operating in a vacuum, there were other men making choices and mistakes.
Could a war have been avoided? Perhaps not. Could a war on the scale of the one that resulted have been avoided? That, at least, is a different question.
Taylor, A. J. P., (1961). The Origins of the Second World War. New York: Fawcett World Library.