1939: Countdown to War

October 8, 2009

Dealing with history constantly raises the question of perspective. In his magnificent How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, Donald Cameron Watt states that the cataloguers of the Library of Congress dated the beginning of the Second World War to 7 December 1941. Not only Europeans tend to disagree. Yet, unlike the discussion about the outbreak of war in 1914, there has been no serious controversy regarding the origins of the conflict that started in September 1939 with the German attack on Poland. Notwithstanding the customary formulation that "war broke out", it seems noteworthy that this war did not come like an unexpected thunderstorm. Rather than imagining some mysterious outbreak, we should remind ourselves that this conflict was, in fact, started quite deliberately. No anonymous forces were at work, but politicians, escorted by their supporters. We know who they were; we know what they did. But more importantly, we have to understand why they chose their course of action.

Seventy years on, Richard Overy, in his new book, looks at the ultimate pinnacle period, the ten days from 24 August to 3 September 1939, starting with Hitler's order to attack Poland in the wake of his baffling agreement with Stalin, ending with Britain and France eventually entering the conflict. Overy puts his reader in the centre of a theatre with distinct stages. He focuses on London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and other prominent centres. His perspective is the immediate observation of the key actors. We are presented with detailed descriptions about the actions of Hitler and his entourage, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, Edouard Daladier and Georges Bonnet, Mussolini and Galeazzo Ciano, plus their generals and diplomats.

The book's narrative thus is a story of the men at the top: observing, calculating, acting. But within the meticulous narrative on these men, one longs to read more about the baggage they carried: about their ideologies and mental maps, about the influence of economy and geography, of armaments and power projections, about their view of long-term strategies and short-term opportunities, about the structures and traditions in which they were (or felt) bound.

Overy repeatedly evokes the impression that for the British leadership the war crisis was rather a nuisance: the King had to give up shooting grouse; Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War, was woken up at 7.20am by a telephone call telling him that the "Germans were over". Not only did he feel disturbed "to be awakened in this way", but to spoil his morning completely, his barber had not arrived and the Minister had to shave himself.

In Berlin, the British Embassy staff preferred to talk about dogs rather than war, while back in London, Sir Henry Channon was "watching his servants frantically hanging blackout curtains". Servants, of course. A Reuters telegram for the Prime Minister on 1 September read Hitler saying "eye have no other choice", as if the staff had lost their ability to spell properly. As a first-rate historian, Overy adds atmosphere through such anecdotes. But there was more at stake than the lifestyle of the ruling classes.

The confrontation that peaked in those days is inextricably linked to previous years of experience with Nazi policy as well as centuries of ingrained foreign-policy tradition. After years of wishful thinking that Hitler might be a rational politician with whom one could strike a peace-keeping deal, even most arch-appeasers understood that once again the country had to put all its weight against the danger of one power dominating the European continent, which would ultimately threaten Britain and all it stood for.

There should be no doubt that domination was Hitler's aim. This war was no momentary miscalculation, but a consequence of his political logic. Certainly he would have preferred British agreement for further expansion. Assuming racial kinship, he was prepared to share the world - on his conditions. Hitler's feeling of time pressure, and his aspiration to establish in his lifetime as much of his envisaged racial hegemony as possible, had shaped Germany's life for the previous six years and directed its international policy of brinkmanship. The subjugation of Poland was just another step. If this required war, so be it. Better now that the German forces still commanded headway. Moreover, the war gave rise to chances to accelerate the pace towards racial utopia, particularly through ethnic cleansing and mass executions of alleged enemies. Significantly, the decree that launched the euthanasia programme through which more than 70,000 Germans were murdered was backdated to 1 September 1939.

This war had started years earlier. It was destined to be fought on several fronts all over Europe from then on. Overy's account of the pivotal days when the struggle for domination changed its form into what was to become a global military conflict reminds us that in watching the detail of the moment we must keep the big picture in mind.

1939: Countdown to War

By Richard Overy. Allen Lane, 176pp, £12.99. ISBN 9781846142642. Published August 2009

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