What follows are excerpts from 1939: Countdown to War by Richard Overy:
Why did a general European war break out in September 1939? There was much talk in the days of crisis about the lessons of the outbreak of war in 1914. It was widely assumed in the West that the muddled diplomacy that produced war twenty-five years before would not be responsible for explaining war in 1939. In his letter to Hitler on 22 August 1939, Chamberlain insisted that he did not want to repeat 1914, when "the great catastrophe would have been avoided " if the British government had made its position clearer. In telling Hitler plainly that Britain would fight for Poland, he continued, he wanted to avoid any "tragic misunderstanding." In a wartime note on British foreign policy, Lord Halifax argued that he thought Hitler might have been deterred "if, as we had failed to do in 1914, we made it unmistakably clear that the particular acts of aggression which he was believed to have in mind, would result in general war." When Hitler attacked Poland, Britain and France duly honored their pledge to defend Poland's independence and war resulted.
Although in simple terms this explains exactly why war broke out, the reality was far more complex. Even the hope that no one would be able to compare 1914 with 1939 came under critical scrutiny later in the war, when the British historian Sir Llewellyn Woodward was invited to begin to write and official survey of British foreign policy before the outbreak of war. Woodward wrote to Halifax in 1943 asking him to check thoroughly an early proof of what he had written. After the experience of the post mortem on 1914, wrote Woodward, he felt sure that "the Germans will again apply their pedantic literalism to every scrap of evidence about the origins of this war. Hence we ought to have no gaps for the German type of 'higher critic.'". Halifax replied that he had been worried throughout the final days of the crisis that Hitler might produce "specious terms," which would look reasonable enough but which the Poles would have to reject. In those circumstances, continued Halifax, British support for the Poles might have looked like the notorious German "blank check" given to Austria in 1914, and international opinion would think it was Britain that "had precipitated war." Luckily, concluded Halifax, Hitler invaded Poland and the dilemma never arose.
If Hitler was responsible for war in 1939, this still begs the larger question of what kind of war he wanted. Few historians now accept that Hitler had any plan or blueprint for world conquest, in which Poland was a stepping stone to some distant German world empire. Indeed recent research has suggested that there were almost no plans for what to do with a conquered Poland and that the vision of a new German empire in central and eastern Europe had to be improvised almost from scratch. The key difficulty is to determine whether Hitler wanted a local war against Poland in 1939, as he always insisted, or whether he decided at some point in 1939 to turn on the West instead, and have a general European war.
There is an argument to be made that Hitler was pressed into accepting war with Britain and France because of the growing costs of rearmament, the difficulty of meeting the trade requirements to fuel further military build-up and a realization that Germany's temporary lead in armaments might soon evaporate. "Hitler's decision to unleash a general European war," as one historian has recently put it, was a case of "better sooner than later." Behind the decision to launch a general war, it has been claimed, lay larger ambitions for a contest for world power with the United States, which Hitler saw as the instrument of a world Jewish conspiracy. These arguments privilege the West too much. Hitler's ambition for conquest in the East was consistent with much Germany geopolitical fantasy going back decades, and Hitler was as absorbed as any provincial central European German nationalist might be with the idea of carving out from Eastern Europe a larger and more savage version of the Habsburg Empire, armed with a new model of economic exploitation (the so-called "large area economy") and nourished on dreams of a racial utopia. Hitler wanted the war with Poland to flesh out the central European empire and open the way for the eventual confrontation with Stalin's Soviet Union.
The second problem with the argument that Hitler wanted general war is the nature of the evidence. In his testamentary conversations recorded by Martin Bormann in the last weeks of the Second World War, Hitler complained that "it is untrue, that I or anyone else in Germany wanted to have the [general] war in the year 1939." Although Hitler is scarcely a reliable witness in his own defense, the evidence of the last weeks before the outbreak of war shows him again and again repeating to those around him in the political and military elite that he wanted to localize the conflict. His favorite architect and party colleague, Albert Speer, wrote in his memoirs that Hitler "stuck unswervingly to his opinion that the West was too feeble, too worn out, and too decadent to begin the war seriously." Speer thought that Hitler for some time after 3 September was still not fully aware "that he had irrevocably unleashed a world war."
There was a high element of risk, as Hitler himself recognized, but by August 1939 he had persuaded himself that Poland was an enemy that deserved to be conquered and punished, and he failed to understand what business it was of Britain and France to become involved. This view he shared with a great many in the German population, who could see the sense of a war to settle the outstanding issues with the Poles, whose state was regarded as an illegitimate offspring of the despised Versailles settlement, but could see no sense in a war with the West. Even this more limited ambition had an essential irrationality, since the "free hand in the east" that Hitler wanted was a chimera. The invasion of Poland brought Germany face to face with a rapidly arming colossus whose communist leaders had no intention of permitting a free hand to Hitler or anyone else. Hitler's decision for war with Poland was taken not because he wanted to fight the West -- which he could have done simply by declaring war -- but because of his conviction that in a battle of wills between the two sides, his would prevail and the west would recoil. As Nicholas von Below described it in his memoirs, Hitler took the risk while "in the depths of his being hoping against hope that Britain would step back from the brink."
More to come. . . .