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Western FrontAugust 1939

The Road to War

What was the road to war?
An examination of the reasons for the conflict – from the settlement at the end of the First World War to the infamous Munich Agreement in September 1938.

Video Transcript

Commentary: These were the scenes in Vienna on the 15th March 1938. The Nazis had just occupied Austria – Hitler’s country of birth. For the German Fuehrer, this was a triumphant homecoming. 

Adolf Hitler (in Vienna, 15th March 1938): Germans. Men and women. I proclaim that these old eastern lands of the German people will from now on be the youngest bastion of the German nation and thereby of the German Reich.

Professor Richard Evans: Hitler said repeatedly that he wanted peace. As the famous joke went, you know, a piece of Poland, a piece of Czechoslovakia. But initially it was: ‘I want peace.’ Whatever conquest he made this is going to be the last one. All he wanted to do, he said, was to make good what he regarded as the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles. So get back the German territory that had been taken away. To incorporate Austria, which after all Austria had wanted to join in with Germany in the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918 to ’19. 

Commentary: Once Austria entered the German Reich, Hitler turned his attention to neighbouring Czechoslovakia. He demanded that the Sudetenland, the German-speaking area of the country, fall under his rule. At the Munich Conference in September 1938, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, agreed that Hitler could have the Sudetenland as long as now there would be peace.

Wartime archive narration: And in Britain a happy Chamberlain came back declaring he had achieved peace. Peace in our time. One of the most tragic and ironic scenes in all history. 

Neville Chamberlain (30th September 1938): This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler. And here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. ‘We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.’

Commentary: But less than six months later, in March 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of the rest of the Czech lands – territory he said to Chamberlain at Munich the Germans did not want.

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: The march into Prague was the instant where it became recognisable that Hitler was not interested just in a greater Germany of ethnic Germans, but his ambitions were imperialist ones, which stretched who knows where.

Neville Chamberlain (in Birmingham, 17th March 1939): If an attempt were made...

Commentary: In the face of Hitler’s broken promises, Chamberlain stated that the British would not stand by if the Germans moved on the next country they were threatening – Poland.

Neville Chamberlain (in Birmingham, 17th March 1939): ...why then that would inevitably start a general conflagration in which this country would be involved.

Professor Anita Prażmowska: It simply is a strategic evaluation. This realisation that the balance of power in Europe is tipping dangerously against British interests, because British and French interests are viewed then jointly and it could be dangerous, you’ve got to do something about it. Far from this being a carefully calculated policy it is a policy which Chamberlain, with a very weak foreign secretary, Halifax, sort of finally says let’s do something. But it’s very badly thought out because war is declared knowing full well you’re not going to defend Poland. They knew that because of course they had staff talks with the Poles where they told the Poles nothing’s going to happen and they also had, more importantly, staff talks with the French where they knew full well that neither the British nor the French would do anything were Germany to attack east.

Wartime archive narration: But what about the Russians? The lights began to burn all night in Moscow.

Commentary: After the British guarantee to the Poles, Hitler felt he had to do a deal with his ideological enemy the Soviet Union. So Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, flew to Moscow in August 1939 to sign a non-aggression pact. It was a treaty of convenience. The Soviets wanted to stay out of any war, and Hitler didn’t want to fight on two fronts.

Wartime archive narration: It was too fantastic to make any sense.

Commentary: But still a pact with the Soviets and a war against the British was not the outcome Hitler had always desired. He had wanted to fight for an empire in eastern Europe, and hoped Britain – at worst – would remain neutral and not get involved. Hitler, though, was always prepared to take an immense gamble. Always ready, as he once said, to go for broke.

Professor Adam Tooze: He isn’t a statesman in the normal sense of the word, 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 - 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. And I don’t think one can overestimate how highly the odds appeared to be stacked against Germany in the autumn of 1939.

Professor Norbert Frei: We found out, as historians in the last twenty or thirty years, there are actually good reasons to say that Germany wasn’t particularly well-prepared for a long, enduring war. Both militarily and economically.

Laurence Rees: And so what’s extraordinary is Hitler, then, will go into this war without, as the Americans would say, an exit strategy. 

Professor Norbert Frei: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean there was no exit strategy. There was the will to go for war.

Wartime archive narration: War. Precisely at dawn on September 1st. Without warning the German Wehrmacht rolled over the Polish border.

Commentary: Two days after the Nazis invaded Poland, the British and French declared war on Germany. But neither of them felt able to do anything to prevent swift German success on Polish soil. The Second World War had begun. It would end nearly six years later, after more than fifty million people had lost their lives.