Sunday, December 26, 2010
Rethinking The Origins of World War II: A Critique of A.G.P. Taylor’s Argument
“It is very hard to remember that events now long in the past were once in the future”(231).
In The Origins of the Second World War, A.J.P. Taylor presents an alternative response to conventional historical analysis about what started the war. The conventional historical wisdom is succinctly summarized by the author “This explanation was: Hitler. He planned the second World war. His will alone caused it” (Taylor 11). According to Taylor, the suicide of Hitler and the historical certainty of Nuremberg saved everyone from doing more serious thinking. Taylor presents a world war that occurred by an accidental timetable and considerable blunder by Great Britain and France. He shifts examination from simply blaming Hitler to the complex background of why France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Taylor’s book is a perhaps courageous, certainly uncomfortable attempt to separate Hitler’s monstrosity from his rational behavior as an international actor: Historians have a duty, according to Taylor: “They have to state the truth as they see it without worrying whether this shocks or confirms existing prejudices”(xi). To do this, things get murkier before they can become clearer. During the events before the war, Hitler pursued a bluffing strategy, while events in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland played into Hitler’s hands without active intervention on his part. Taylor rejects the idea that Hitler had a clear timetable and expansionist plan for war. This argument fails by an axiom that Taylor himself provides in Hitler’s lament that he never got a war with Czechoslovakia: “Occasionally he grumbled at being denied a war against Czechoslovakia. But men must be judged by what they do, not by what they say afterwards”(192). The limitations of the Hossbach Memorandum do not show an expansionist plan for war in plan, but Hitler’s own actions reveal one in clear and incremental practice.
However uncomfortable it is to read, Taylor’s book is adept at revealing the many blunders of Great Britain and France. France was pursuing a defensive military policy at odds with its search for alliances and a hope that Great Britain would guarantee security. For its own part, Britain attempted to avoid war, humiliation, and remain a great power, all at the same time. The actions of both nations made war more likely. Taylor’s thesis begins with the well-developed assertion that the second world war grew out of the first. This is not unique to Taylor. World War II represents a failure to solve “the German problem” from World War I: in defeat, Germany is still the greatest power in Europe, or would soon be again. Versailles would have to be more lenient, or harsher, or truly enforceable. As it was, Germans had both grievances and a sense of moral wrong that needed to be rectified. Germans could blame everything on the treaty. However, this moral sentiment was not only in Germany. Many in Great Britain agreed. The British followed an active policy of conciliation, dangling before the Germans the same countries that caused the war. Hitler would get significant help in revising his frontiers. The British and even the French at times felt that it was “better Hitler than Stalin”(112).
The background to World War II in the Treaty of Versailles doesn’t necessarily separate Taylor from other historians. His Chapter 7 “Anschluss: the End of Austria” provides the effective separation. The thesis is simple enough: Hitler didn’t really have a plan. He had only a vague vision, a “piece-meal plan” for Lebensraum (xx). Hitler didn’t have the military strength to seriously consider the expansionist policy that would lead inevitably to war; the Germans didn’t want war any more than the French or British people. The Hossbach Memorandum of November 1937 is the non-smoking gun for Taylor. There were no specific countries mentioned, and certainly no battle plans were introduced to ministers and generals who were highly skeptical of Hitler. He wouldn’t have dared tip his hand to those assembled. Taylor is clear that the Nuremberg trials are not the basis for the serious study of history.
Taylor presents Hitler as a reasonable and talented international actor, a flexible and patient gambler who is trying to expand his territory without war. The causes of World War II are a mixture of bluff and blunder. Taylor reexamines the role of Neville Chamberlain and his attempt to meet German grievances without war. To Chamberlain, “Hitlerism” was a fairly understandable reaction to the unfair treatment at Versailles. According to Taylor, Chamberlain wanted to give to Hitler all of the flash points that caused the war: Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. If Danzig had come first, Poland would have been a different story. Had Czechoslovakia been the last domino, the beginning of the war would have been far different because it had the most formidable army. Chamberlain’s strategy was the “better Hitler than Stalin” approach to keep a bulwark against Bolshevism. Germany would become the power it was destined to be, while Great Britain could do its best to freeze its power and prestige the way it was in 1919. Protecting France was less important than these considerations in Chamberlain’s negotiations.
Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland with their respective leaders Schuschnigg, Benes, and Beck all attempted to rally international support against Hitler. But all, perhaps unwittingly, took actions that escalated crises, rather than defusing them. Their behavior reflected widespread fear of Hitler’s expansionist plans. Hossbach didn’t mean that Hitler didn’t have plans; they just weren’t written down that day. Taylor effectively shows how the actions of others played into Hitler’s hands. The Austrian Nazis acted independent of Hitler, and the gradual absorption of Austria, which Hitler anticipated, happened virtually overnight. Taylor highlights the effect on Hitler: “He had got away with murder…His self-confidence was increased, and with it the contempt for the statesmen of other countries”(149). The visual of German troops in Austria dented the moral cause of Hitler. But still Chamberlain persisted in his conciliation. Even after this, Chamberlain was willing to dangle Czechoslovakia in negotiation. With friends like Daladier and Chamberlain, did Czechoslovakia really need any enemies? France was barely able to defend itself. Daladier and Chamberlain had little moral courage as Hitler ostensibly came to the aid of the Sudetan people: “Both feared war rather than defeat”(179). The bluffing of Hitler and the blunder of Britian and France worked perfectly together: “Hitler could get his way by threatening war, without needing to count on victory”(179). The Munich Conference of 1938 has been used politically as a rubric for international affairs ever since: that free people can never compromise with dictators. But we would be fighting wars all the time if we followed the allegedly obvious political wisdom of Munich. Taylor reluctantly admits that Hitler was disappointed at not getting a war with Czechoslovakia. Yet this is precisely where Taylor’s argument becomes contradictory. He fails to fully observe and evaluate Hitler’s actions.
While the bluffing and blunder are effectively presented by Taylor, it must be emphasized that Hitler is bluffing about world war, while Great Britain and France are blundering about how to keep peace. Their increasing humiliation made the gamble over Poland a gamble over war. The Anglo-Poland Alliance backed everyone into a corner. Hitler knew this. This is not merely bluffing, but playing your hand: “He aimed to show that he had imposed his will on the British and the Poles. They, on their side, had to deny him that demonstration”(216). At this point, the Hossbach Memorandum is irrelevant. Hitler’s negotiation with the Russians showed that he was preparing for war in western Europe. Why would Hitler declare war against Russia after signing a non-aggression pact? Why would he declare war on the United States? Taylor asserts that we must judge men by their actions, but the historian conveniently stops judging Hitler even before war with Poland. He closes his case. Taylor also gets in his own way with his almost flippant disregard for war atrocities and even the Holocaust: “This is a story without heroes; and perhaps even without villains”(17). There are just a few tepid references to Hitler’s “wickedness,” but, on balance, Hitler is a rational actor: “In principle and doctrine, Hitler was no more wicked and unscrupulous than many other contemporary statesmen”(71). There is no examination of Hitler’s actions at home in Germany. Taylor takes the time to mock Mussolini’s fascism, but he doesn’t seriously examine Hitler’s own call for German glory. When war finally came for Hitler, it was grandly expansionist. It was about world domination, not merely Lebensraum. Most disturbingly, Taylor seems to be saying that Hitler did what just about any German leader would do. Even A.J.P. Taylor seems unconvinced at the end of his book: “Hitler may have projected a great war all along…”(278)
Works Cited List
1. Taylor, A.G.P. The Origins of the Second World War. New York and London: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1962.