Ferguson on the Origins of World War II

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 312-314:

For obvious reasons, we tend to think of the years from 1933 to 1939 in terms of the origins of the Second World War. The question we customarily ask is whether or not the Western powers could have done more to avert the war – whether or not the policy of appeasement towards Germany and Japan was a disastrous blunder. Yet this may be to reverse the order of events. Appeasement did not lead to war. It was war that led to appeasement. For the war did not begin, as we tend to think, in Poland in 1939. It began in Asia in 1937, if not in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria. It began in Africa in 1935, when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. It began in Western Europe in 1936, when Germany and Italy began helping Franco win the Spanish Civil War. It began in Eastern Europe in April 1939, with the Italian invasion of Albania. Contrary to the myth propagated by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that he and his confederates were its only begetter, Hitler was a latecomer to the war. He achieved his foreign policy objectives prior to September 1939 without firing a shot. Nor was it his intention to start a world war at that date. The war that broke out then between Germany, France and Britain was nearly as much the fault of the Western powers, and indeed of Poland, as of Hitler, as A. J. P. Taylor contended forty-five years ago in The Origins of the Second World War.

Yet Taylor’s argument was at best only half-right. He was right about the Western powers: the pusillanimity of the French statesmen, who were defeated in their hearts before a shot had been fired; the hypocrisy of the Americans, with their highfaluting rhetoric and low commercial motives; above all, the muddle-headedness of the British. The British said they wanted to uphold the authority of the League of Nations and the rights of small and weak nations; but when push came to shove in Manchuria, Abyssinia and Czechoslovakia, imperial self-interest trumped collective security. They fretted about arms limitation, as though an equality of military capability would suffice to avoid war; but while a military balance might secure the British Isles, it offered no effective security for either Britain’s continental allies or her Asian possessions. With withering irony, Taylor called the Munich agreement a ‘triumph for British policy [and] … for all that was best and most enlightened in British life’. In reality, war with Germany was averted at the price of an unfulfillable guarantee to the rump Czechoslovakia. If handing the Sudetenland to Hitler in 1938 had been the right decision, why then did the British not hand him Danzig, to which he had in any case a stronger claim, in 1939? The answer was that by then they had given another militarily worthless guarantee, to the Poles. Having done so, they failed to grasp what Churchill saw at once: that without a ‘grand alliance’ with the Soviet Union, Britain and France might find themselves facing Germany alone. As an indictment of British diplomacy, Taylor’s has stood up remarkably well to subsequent scholarship – though it must be said that he offers few clues as to why Britain’s statesmen were so incompetent.

Where Taylor erred profoundly was when he sought to liken Hitler’s foreign policy to ‘that of his predecessors, of the professional diplomats at the foreign ministry, and indeed of virtually all Germans’, and when he argued that the Second World War was ‘a repeat performance of the First’. Nothing could be more remote from the truth. Bismarck had striven mightily to prevent the creation of a Greater Germany encompassing Austria. Yet this was one of Hitler’s stated objectives, albeit one that he had inherited from the Weimar Republic. Bismarck’s principal nightmare had been one of coalitions between the other great powers directed against Germany. Hitler quite deliberately created such an encircling coalition when he invaded the Soviet Union before Britain had been defeated. Not even the Kaiser had been so rash; indeed, he had hoped he could avoid war with Britain. Bismarck had used colonial policy as a tool to maintain the balance of power in Europe; the Kaiser had craved colonies. Hitler was uninterested in overseas acquisitions even as bargaining counters. Throughout the 1920s Germany was consistently hostile to Poland and friendly to the Soviet Union. Hitler reversed these positions within little more than a year of coming to power. It is true, as Taylor contended, that Hitler improvised his way through the diplomatic crises of the mid-1930s with a combination of intuition and luck. He admitted that he was a gambler with a low aversion to risk (‘All my life I have played va banque’). But what was he gambling to win? This is not a difficult question to answer, because he answered it repeatedly. He was not content, like Stresemann or Brüning, merely to dismantle the Versailles Treaty – a task that the Depression had half-done for him even before he became Chancellor. Nor was his ambition to restore Germany to her position in 1914. It is not even correct, as the German historian Fritz Fischer suggested, that Hitler’s aims were similar to those of Germany’s leaders during the First World War, namely to carve out an East European sphere of influence at the expense of Russia.

Hitler’s goal was different. Simply stated, it was to enlarge the German Reich so that it embraced as far as possible the entire German Volk and in the process to annihilate what he saw as the principal threats to its existence, namely the Jews and Soviet Communism (which to Hitler were one and the same). Like Japan’s proponents of territorial expansion, he sought living space in the belief that Germany required more territory because of her over-endowment with people and her under-endowment with strategic raw materials.


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Filed under Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, nationalism, Poland, U.S., USSR, war

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