Does history repeat itself? A parody. [Read part one here.]
The Second World War that broke out in September 1939 was not the result of a criminal conspiracy by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. The war trials held in Nuremberg in October 1946, which saw the conviction of prominent members of the political, military and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, hid the victors’ share of the blame for the war, let German-speakers across Europe avoid any responsibility, and created a situation whereby the new West Germany was rehabilitated as a respectable Cold War ally against the Soviet Union (USSR).
Typical Leader, Typical Policy
Hitler was not the demoniacal figure of popular imagination but, in the history of foreign affairs, a typical German leader. Under Hitler, Germany’s foreign policy did not differ from that of the Stresemann’s Weimar Republic or the Kaiser’s Germany before it. As a nationalist, Hitler was no better or worse than Neville Chamberlain or Édouard Daladier. He merely wished to make Germany a strong and respected power in Europe, but did not want or plan war. The outbreak of war in 1939 was an unfortunate accident caused by mistakes on all sides.
Hitler was a simple opportunist, with few strong beliefs other than the pursuit of power and a hatred of Jews. His foreign policy was one of seizing chances as they offered themselves. His anti-Semitism was not unique: millions of people around the world were just as ferociously anti-Semitic as Hitler, and there was no reason to single him out for sharing their beliefs.
The basic problem with Europe between the First and Second World Wars was a flawed Treaty of Versailles, which was sufficiently onerous to ensure that the overwhelming majority of Germans would always hate it, but insufficiently onerous in that it failed to destroy Germany’s potential to be a great power once more.
After a generation, Germany’s latent power that Versailles could not destroy inevitably reasserted itself against an international regime that Germans regarded as unjust, and thus had every interest in destroying. Though the Second World War was not inevitable and the Treaty was nowhere near as harsh as contemporaries like John Maynard Keynes argued in his 1919 The Economic Consequences of the Peace, what he regarded as a Carthaginian Peace made the war more likely than not.
After the resignation of Austria’s Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg on March 11, 1938, Nazi sympathisers supported by Germany annexed Austria quickly in the Anschluss, using the protection of ethnic Germans’ right to national self-determination and the referendum result as justification. The same happened in the Sudetenland. As in Austria, it was not clear whether the protests of German-speaking Sudetans were instigated by Germany. Again, Britain and France did little, both because they simply could not project their military power quickly enough to react to the pace of events, nor were they willing to.
I am speaking to you from the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
German-speakers in Danzig, inspired by their Austrian brethren, began agitating for independence. British and French military promises to Poland were ignored by the Danzig German-speakers in their nationalist fervour for reunification with the fatherland, nor did the German government and its armed forces see them by this late stage as anything other than empty gestures. Hitler had tried to deescalate the crisis, though noted commentators pointed out that national sentiments and cultural and linguistic sensitivities were too strong for him to control.
Western Wavering and Prevarication
After the annexation of Austria, British Prime Minister Chamberlain resisted calls to put industry on a war footing, convinced that such an action would persuade Hitler that his counterpart had decided to discard diplomacy.
Despite Hitler’s relative quietness as Germany absorbed Austria, Chamberlain made trips to Paris and Rome hoping to incite the French and Italians to side more strongly with him, while also attempting to relaunch negotiations, to which Germany agreed to be held during April 1938 in Munich. However, public revulsion over the Kristalnacht against Jewish communities in Germany during these negotiations made any attempt at a rapprochement with Hitler unacceptable.
This was followed soon after by Germany intervening in the eastern provinces of Czechoslovakia to quell the violence that had broken out between pro- and anti-German Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia, including Prague. The British prime minister wondered publicly whether this move into eastern Czechoslovakia was “the end of an old adventure, or the beginning of a new.”
Chamberlain then reasserted the interlocking series of defense pacts with France and Poland, as a means of deterring Hitler from war. Chamberlain informed an approving House of Commons of British and French guarantees that they would lend Poland all possible aid, in the event of any action that threatened Warsaw’s independence. He went as far as to double the size of the Territorial Army.
The British government even accepted an offer of negotiations with the Soviet Union. Chamberlain’s Cabinet, despite many urging the further use of diplomacy, distrusted the USSR on ideological grounds. Talks with Moscow, therefore, dragged on and eventually foundered on August 14.
A week after the failure of these talks, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which publicly committed the countries to non-aggression toward each other. A secret element to their agreement divided up Poland in the event of war. Chamberlain had dismissed rumors of such a deal, and belittled the significance of the publicly-announced pact, stating that it in no way affected British obligations toward Poland. To this end, on August 23, Chamberlain had Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden deliver a letter to Hitler telling him that Britain was fully prepared to live up to its obligations to Poland. Hitler instructed his generals to prepare for an assault on Warsaw, telling them: “Our enemies are small worms. I saw them at Munich.”
In the early hours of September 1, 1939, Germany marched into Poland.
On the third day of the German campaign, the BBC relayed live at 11:15am these words of the British prime minister: “I am speaking to you from the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.