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Western Front3rd September 1939

Britain and France declare war

German bombers en route to Poland
German bombers en route to Poland

On 3 September 1939 the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that unless Germany agreed to withdraw their recent aggression against Poland, ‘a state of war would exist between the two countries.’ To no one’s surprise, Germany carried on the invasion of their neighbour, and so the Second World War began.

This was not just a potentially disastrous turn of events for Great Britain, but a deep personal humiliation for Neville Chamberlain. The previous year at the Munich Conference he had staked everything on reaching some kind of rapprochement with Adolf Hitler. As a result of this failure, Chamberlain has often since been cast as one of the ‘guilty men’ responsible for the conflict. But was he really so to blame? After all, wasn’t the Second World War essentially someone else’s fault? Someone called Adolf Hitler? 

‘Hitler’s beliefs are absolutely paramount as a causal factor in the Second World War,’ Richard Evans, the new Regius Professor at Cambridge told me. ‘We know now through documentation that has become available over the last few years that he intended there to be a general European war really absolutely from the outset. He’s telling people in private in 1932, 1933, when he’s coming to power, that he’s going to have a general war.’

It’s a sentiment with which Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, the world expert on Adolf Hitler, emphatically agrees: ‘The German expansion, as Hitler repeatedly said, could only come about through the sword, people weren’t going to give you this land back willy-nilly, so you had to take it. And that, therefore, was the underlying cause of the beginning of the Second World War in Europe.’

It’s largely thanks to fresh research into the economic history of the Nazi state that we can now say without equivocation that this was Hitler’s war. Indeed, the scale of the German armament build up during the 1930s, ordered directly by the German Fuehrer, almost defies belief. By 1938, for example, the Nazis were planning for the German air force to be larger than any previous air fleet in the world – larger even than the eventual size of the American air force at the end of World War Two.

The Nazi armament expansion plans would, according to the acclaimed economic historian Professor Adam Tooze, ‘have consumed in terms of annual spending something like a third of German gross domestic product in peacetime, before the war had even started, whereas normal military expenditure would be something like two, three, four per cent of GDP. So this is tenfold what NATO, for instance, was demanding of its members in the 1970s and 1980s.’

Hitler, according to Tooze, believed that, ‘War is essential to the health of the German nation and that Germany needs to break out of the encirclement that it’s in. So the idea that the Nazis could have somehow just extended the prosperity of the 1930s into some sort of peaceful VW future of modernity and satisfaction – well, it’s just not on the cards for Hitler’s regime. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding that many people succumb to, but it’s really not what’s on Hitler’s mind at all.’

Instead, what was on Hitler’s mind was struggle – an epic racial struggle. ‘He isn’t a statesman in the normal sense of the word,’ says Tooze, ‘making straightforwardly rational calculations, assuming always that there will be a high probability of ultimate success. This is a man for whom politics is drama, a tragic drama that may not have a happy end. And so he is willing to take risks that he thinks are inescapable even if the odds are very highly stacked against Germany.’

But, of course, as Professor Richard Overy emphasises, we mustn’t completely run away with the idea that Hitler was the only reason the war happened. The underlying, long term, cause of the conflict was a settlement at the end of the First World War which left Germans deeply aggrieved, both at the loss of their territory and the massive reparations the Allies demanded. This, as Overy makes clear ‘distorted the international order’ and in turn was a crucial factor in making Hitler’s subsequent electoral success possible.

‘The important thing,’ says Overy, ‘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 Britain and France, and in Britain in particular, both the elite but quite a large part, I think, of the [general] 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.’

By the late 1930s Hitler was careful to hide one issue – his desire for a war of conquest in Eastern Europe which would seize the rich agricultural land of Ukraine as part of a new German ‘Empire’ – behind another – the recovery of German territory lost as a result of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War One. There was clear public support in Germany for the second aim, but much less so for the first.

Indeed, many in the British establishment in the 1930s felt that somehow Germany had been treated ‘badly’ at the end of the First World War – but these same people would have been appalled at the notion that what Hitler really wanted was not the German speaking regions of Eastern Europe to be incorporated once more into the Reich, but instead to create a massive Eastern Empire based on slavery that stretched all the way to the Urals.

And the moment at which the British realized Hitler had been misleading them was in March 1939 when the Germans invaded the remaining Czech lands – territory that had not been given to them as a result of the Munich agreement the year before. The entry of the Nazis into Prague demonstrated to the British, says Richard Evans, that Hitler ‘did not just want to incorporate ethnic Germans into the Reich or to right the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles - he was actually going for something much bigger.’

Shortly after the German takeover of the Czech lands, Neville Chamberlain offered a guarantee to the Polish that if they fell victim to German aggression then the British would, as he put it, ‘inevitably be drawn’ into the subsequent ‘conflagration’.

And the reason that the British chose to make a stand over Poland, was, it appears, just because they thought that this country was next on Hitler’s wish list. ‘It’s simply a strategic evaluation,’ says Professor Anita Pra┼╝mowska, who teaches at the LSE, ‘this realisation that the balance of power in Europe is tipping dangerously against British interests and it could be dangerous - you’ve got to do something about it.’

According to Professor Pra┼╝mowska, the British decision to offer a guarantee to the Poles had no ‘ideological’ dimension – it was straightforward, pragmatic politics. ‘Far from this being a carefully calculated policy, it is a policy where Chamberlain, with a very weak Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, finally says lets do something. It’s very badly thought out, because war is declared knowing full well you’re not going to defend Poland… So indeed it is not a fight for Poland, it is actually an attempt to indicate to Germany the unacceptability of her behaviour.’            

One can still argue backwards and forwards, of course, about the relative competence of Chamberlain at Munich and subsequently over the question of the Polish guarantee. Maybe, if the British and French had ‘stood up’ to the Nazis earlier then events might well have been different. But, ultimately, all of this debate still comes back to Hitler, because he was the key driver of events. And the truth is that he was driven not by rational argument but by fervent ideological belief. As Tooze says, he went to war ‘because he’s convinced, in my view, that the world Jewish conspiracy has taken on a whole new ominous character, and this starts in the summer of 1938, I think, fundamentally with the Evian Conference in which America becomes involved in European affairs around the issue of the organised emigration of Eastern European Jews.’

So by 1939 Hitler had come to believe that ‘the real centre of the world Jewish conspiracy is Washington and Wall Street and Hollywood, and that, of course, fundamentally shifts your assessment of the strategic picture, because behind Britain and France, as in World War One, ultimately stands the force, the full force, of the American armaments economy. And so with that in mind the balance of force in Europe in 1939 looks extremely ominous, because British rearmament is beginning with real intensity from the beginning of 1939, the Germans understand this, and so even though the situation is bad in the autumn of 1939 they quite rightly predict that it’ll become worse in 1940, ’41, ’42, and this is because they’ve come face to face again with the limitations of their own economy.’

Furthermore, Hitler goes to war not knowing ‘how this struggle is going to end.’ On this interpretation Hitler stands revealed as one of the least ‘normal and predictable’ politicians in world history. Indeed, on the contrary, he was someone who knew that the odds were stacked against his own country – and yet still wanted war. Someone prepared to gamble the future lives of millions of his people on the chance that the Germans could win a swift, decisive war. Someone who believed with all his heart in a deeply pessimistic view of the human spirit. ‘The earth continues to go around,’ he once said, ‘whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man.’

And whilst all this is a million miles from A.J.P. Taylor’s assessment that Hitler was a politician the West could have dealt with, it is certainly true that the German leader would have preferred to have his war of European conquest without the involvement of the British in the fight. ‘What a terrible disaster the war was for both our countries!’ a former SS officer once said to me, just before I filmed an interview with him for the documentary series I made twelve years ago, 'The Nazis: A Warning From History'. ‘As a result of us fighting together you [the British] lost your Empire and our country was beaten and divided. If only we had been partners we could have ruled the world together!’

Such a ‘partnership’ was a fantasy, of course. Not only could Britain never have stood by and seen Hitler enslave mainland Europe, but it was obvious by the spring of 1939 that the Nazis could not be trusted to keep to any agreement they signed. As Hermann Goering said after the war, treaties between states were ‘so much toilet paper’.

So Hitler emerges, surely without question now, as the person most responsible for the war. And the fact that such a dark figure – ideologically driven to the point of taking foolhardy risks – exercised such control in 1939 over the destiny of both Germany and the rest of Europe must, even now, seventy years later, be a warning for us all.