Causes of WW2

Causes of WW2 - Richard Overy

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Signposts: Returning to War: This Month Marks the 70th Anniversaryof the
Outbreak of the Second World War. Richard Overy Examines Recent Analyses of
How Europe Became Embroiled in Major Conflict Just Two Decades after the Trauma
of the Great War and We Look at Events and Broadcasts Commemorating
September 1939
Overy, Richard, History Today 2009
There is no particular reason to mark the passing of 70 years but so enduring has been the fascination
in Britain with the last truly global conflict that no opportunity is ever lost to revisit familiar stories. In
the final anniversary week, through to September 3rd, BBCTelevision plans to broadcast short
programmes of Home Front experiences. The outbreak of war is not quite the Blitz, but fears of
bombing, the feebleness of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Hitler's unappeasable territorial
appetites, the stories of evacuation and the return of Churchill to high office are all the stuff of our
collective imagination about 1939.
It is almost 50 years since the Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor tried to challenge some of the popular
assumptions about why war broke out. In his Origins of the Second World War(Hamish Hamilton,
1961), Taylor argued that Hitler was doing little more than Bismarck had done in trying to create a
strong German state, that German rearmament had been a sham and that the outbreak of war had to
be explained by looking at British and French motives, rather than seeing the war simply as 'Hitler's
war'. The book provoked a storm of protest, but it has remained in print and has been widely read up
to the 21st century, sitting uncomfortably side by side with the dominant view that war was caused
by Hitler.
Taylor's work did at least force historians to revisit German motives and policy in the1930s in order
to challenge the view that the Third Reich was in some sense misunderstood. The effort resulted in
two very different approaches. The first argued that Hitler had some kind of blueprint for aggression
which led inevitably to war and the desire for imperial conquest. Most historians now reject the idea
that there was ever a clear programme beyond the evidence that Hitler's hatred of 'Jewish
Bolshevism' made a clash with the Soviet Union unavoidable. But the idea of creating a European New
Order, with Germany at its core, has recently been explored again in Mark Mazower's Hitler's
Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (Allen Lane, 2008). Mazower shows that there was little
forethought about what empire meant or how difficult it was going to be to organise, but it is clear
that Taylor's view of Hitler as a populist Bismarck is quite unconvincing. Recent studies of the awful
impact of German rule in Czechoslovakia and Poland, most notably Alexander Rossino's Hitler Strikes
Poland (Kansas University Press, 2003) illustrate just how different were National Socialist intentions
from those of the Prussian governing classes of the German Second Empire.
The second approach in explaining Hitler's decision for war suggests that it was the consequence of
his failure to square the circle of relative economic weakness and heavy military spending. The more
Germany rearmed, the more dangerous the looming economic crisis. Hence the urgent need for a
major war to establish German power before economic crisis or social protest rendered the effort
futile. This argument has recently been forcefully restated by Adam Tooze in The Wages of
Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Allen Lane, 2006), where he argues that
Hitler opted for war in1939 to avoid serious pressures on the balance of payments and raw material
supplies and in order to strike before Western rearmament overtook German remilitarisation. War

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West, rather than a limited imperial war against Poland, is on this account seen as central
to Hitler's ambition. Economics rather than ideology or diplomatic opportunism was the driving factor
for choosing war in 1939, but the choice was entirely Hitler's.
All this suggests that the Taylor view has failed to survive the test of time. Yet one important thing
Taylor did was to ask why Britain and France declared war in 1939.…read more


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