RICHARD EVANS: Hitler’s beliefs are absolutely paramount as a causal factor in the Second World War. Without Hitler there might have been a war, it would have taken longer and it would have happened later. I think large parts of the military elite in Germany were in favour of another war to try and regain what they’d lost, they thought unfairly and unjustly, in the First World War; but it was Hitler who really drove the process on. Indeed he drove it on so fast that some members of the military elite decided to try and unseat him in 1938 because they thought that they simply weren’t ready. So I think a war may well have happened in the 1940s when the military thought they were ready, but that it happened when it did was really Hitler’s doing. We know now through documentation that has become available over the last few years that he intended there to be a general European war absolutely from the outset; he’s telling people in private in 1932 and 1933, when he’s coming to power, that he’s going to have a general war.
LAURENCE REES: If what you’re saying is true then there’s very little that anybody else could have done about this - it was always going to happen?
RICHARD EVANS: There was a lot of deception involved on Hitler’s part, for example, he began rearmament right at the outset when he came to power in 1933, but he wanted it to be disguised as other things - bombers disguised as cargo planes, tanks reported as being heavy lorries, this kind of thing. He wanted to do that until he rearmed to the extent that the German forces were strong enough to impose some kind of deterrent to the other powers and he also said repeatedly that he wanted peace. The famous joke went that he wanted a piece of Poland and a piece of Czechoslovakia but initially, whatever conquest he made it was going to be the last one, and all he wanted to do, he said, was to make good what he regarded as the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.
So he wanted to get back the German territories that had been taken away, to incorporate Austria (and after all Austria had wanted to join with Germany in the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918/19), to remove restrictions on German armaments and there’s sufficient guilt in the British and French political elites, governments and political class about the Treaty of Versailles, which they too felt had been too harsh to allow him the room for manoeuvre to do this. It was only really when in March 1939 Hitler ordered the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia after bits of it had been lopped off in the Munich Agreement the previous September, that people in Britain were finally convinced that he did not just want to incorporate ethnic Germans into the Reich or to right the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles, but that he was actually going for something much bigger and that’s really the turning point.
LAURENCE REES: Is it right to suppose that Hitler at Munich in 1938 actually felt cheated - that he actually expected and was happy for the war to happen then?
RICHARD EVANS: Hitler did want a war in September 1938. He was preparing the invasion - he had previously said 'we will smash Czechoslovakia to pieces, there’ll be nothing left,' so he felt really cheated of his victory and he resented having to make peace and do a deal, and he overcame this as quickly as he could a few months later by invading the rest of Czechoslovakia and breaking the Munich Agreement.
- Hitler’s Personality
- The Nazi Soviet Pact
- The Invasion of Poland
- The Final Solution
- Homosexuality in the Third Reich
- Racial Experimentation
- The Defeat of the Nazis
- The Catholic Response
- Turning point of WW2
- Most consequential decision of WW2
- Why Study History and WW2