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Causes of WW2

LAURENCE REES: So why did the Second World War happen?

RICHARD OVERY: There is no simple answer to the question why the Second World War happened. There are short term explanations, there are long term explanations, but I think that the explanation most people reach; that without Hitler there would never have been a war is, I think, a vast over-simplification. The war happened principally because of the consequences of the First World War that distorted the international order. It created all kinds of problems for the international economy and basically marked the point where all those areas of the world that Europe had tried to dominate for the previous century were waking up and saying, what is Europe doing to us?

This created a whole series of different dis-equilibriums. I mean, you could find them in Asia, you could find them in Africa and the Middle East and it also meant that the United States, which was a relatively new power, had to think about where it fitted and what it was going to do. All of this fed into a whole series of crises in the 1920s and the 1930s and Hitler, it seems to me, is part of that pattern but he’s not the only part of that pattern. The problems of Italian imperialism in the Mediterranean and Africa, the problems with Japanese imperialism and the ambitions of the Soviet Union to - at some point - come out from behind their communist rampart and try and encourage the birth of communism elsewhere, all of these are very destabilising elements.

I think we need to put the question the other way round really. It’s clear that Hitler wants to overturn Versailles, it’s not very clear what he’s going to do then because the free hand in the East just doesn’t exist because the Soviet Union’s there. The big question we need to ask is why do Britain and France declare war? That is what makes the Second World War, not Hitler’s invasion of Poland which he might have got away with, settled with Stalin, and then some different war might have emerged in the 1940’s.

The important thing, it seems to me, is identifying why Britain and France go to war. And I think there are a complex set of answers there. I think partly the answer is genuinely that in Britain and France, and in Britain in particular, both the elite, but also quite a large part of the population, saw themselves as having some kind of responsibility. Not only the responsibilities as the sort of 'masters of empire' but responsibility for maintaining the stability of the world order and a world order which, despite their imperialism, represented Western values. Hitler was identified, I think, quite early on, as the principal challenge to that view, and throughout the 1930s he was demonised more and more until by 1939 the British eventually had come to realise that, of all the different threats they confronted, those from Hitler and National Socialism were the most profound and violent. By the late 1930s they’d made their mind up that saving civilisation as well as saving their empires was, of course, what they needed to do and they chose Poland as the site.

Hitler didn’t choose Poland as the site and he didn’t want to fight the Western powers in September 1939. He wanted to fight them, if he had to fight them at all, later on. But the British and French chose that as their site, and nobody else did. The Soviet Union didn’t get involved and America didn’t get involved. But the choice that Britain and France made turned this into a global war. People often say it was a European war, and then later a global war, but of course it is a global war. The French Empire, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada and India- it’s a global war. It’s fought in every ocean. By the time Mussolini joins later on it’s already been a war which had an impact world-wide.

I think Britain and France had no idea where it was going to go. They took the risk because they felt that the scales of war and peace were so great that they had to make a stand at some point. But what the consequences were going to be, of course, they were uncertain. The consequences were disastrous. What they did was to unfold a world crisis that in the end sucked everybody in and created this thing we now call the Second World War. So, yes, Hitler invades Poland and this is clearly the cause of war as far as Britain and France are concerned, but explaining it simply in these terms seems to me to be entirely misleading and is to avoid all the bigger questions which the crises of the 1920s and the 1930s open up.

LAURENCE REES: But isn’t there a straightforward chain of causation - crucially involving the actions of Adolf Hitler - which leads to war?

RICHARD OVERY: Well, I think the argument that Munich through Prague to whatever is a great oversimplification; Britain and France were prepared to go to war in September 1938, people often forget that. On the morning of September 28th Britain and France had reached the point where there was no alternative. If Hitler sent troops into Czechoslovakia they were committed to obstruct him. So it wasn’t a question of giving up and then deciding to obstruct. Even before the occupation of Prague, Britain and France had begun Staff conversations. Chamberlain had given an open commitment to the French in February of 1939, and most of the military planning and intelligence assessments argued that 1939 was the time that Britain and France would have to go to war. So it didn’t really matter what Hitler did in 1939; they were going to try and find some point at which they could stop him. Now, they wanted to deter him and they thought that if they deterred him he might even be overthrown, but if they didn’t deter him they were still bent on the idea of obstructing him by force.

Now it’s certainly the case that if Hitler had said after Munich that that really is my last demand, then of course history would have taken a very different turn. But I think that the seizing of the corridor in Danzig is something that he could have done within terms of what other states were doing in the 1930s, and the British and French might have been able to live with that. After 1945 they lived for 40 years with the Soviet domination of the whole of Eastern Europe so there’s nothing about Eastern Europe that mattered particularly. I think it was about the British and French perception of where they stand. And that seems to me still to be critical.

LAURENCE REES: Perhaps it’s a kind of virility thing?

RICHARD OVERY: No. I think we always think of Hitler as being the ideology in the equation and Britain and France as being the pragmatists and so on. I think it’s actually the other way round. I think that Hitler’s foreign policy in 1938 and 1939 is opportunistic and pragmatic. He tries to get what he thinks he can get. I think that it’s the British and French who in the end reach for some kind of ideological explanation. They develop in 1939 some ideal view of Western values and Western civilization and Hitler clearly violates them all. If there’s any chance of the Western world surviving all these many shocks that she’d suffered in the previous 20 years then they’ve got to make the stand. The language shifts in 1939, and you might think it’s self-serving or rhetorical, but I don’t think it is entirely rhetorical. I think there is quite a strong idealistic core to what happens in France and Britain in 1939.

LAURENCE REES: But, of course, we know now that Hitler’s whole rearmament package meant that the German economy would have collapsed without massive expansion. And pressing for that massive expansion would inevitably lead to war. 

RICHARD OVERY: Well, I think the view of economic crisis in Germany is enormously exaggerated. It was an extraordinary economy with a very high proportion devoted to military spending, but everything we know about German economic forward planning and military planning suggests that it was designed to be completed and to peak in the 1940’s between 1943-44. After that I think there’s no doubt that Hitler does see Germany as destined to have this confrontation with the Soviet Union.

By the first Cold War the Soviet Union might have been a harder nut to crack, it’s hard to tell, but most of this extraordinary military expansion in Germany is based on the idea that you’re going to carve out this big area and then you’re going to have huge economic resources. Then you can turn round to Britain and America and say: 'here I am'. And that might well have prevented Britain and America from doing anything very much about it.

I don’t argue, of course, that at some point Hitler wanted to wage a war. He did want to wage a war, and despite the fact that there’s been much recent argument that his long term aim is this vision of the clash of continents and so on - 'Jewified America' - I’m not convinced by that. I think that Hitler is a Central European and he’s focused on carving out this Eastern European empire and defeating Bolshevism which represents a very real threat.

The British think it’s a threat and the French government think it’s a threat. Hitler’s not the only one who thinks this is a problem but he’s the one who’s in the position, he thinks, to do something about it. So a major war breaking out in the late 1930s is not inevitable, it’s made inevitable by the fact that this is the ground for battle that the British and the French choose.