1939: Countdown to War
New York: Viking, 2010
For all the rhetoric of honour, the reality of war in 1939 was not to save Poland from a cruel occupation but to save Britain and France from the dangers of a disintegrating world.
So ends 1939: Countdown to War, by historian, Richard Overy. The concluding sentence provides a revealing insight into Overy’s book. He has delivered a history that is far from a rehash of the established Allied historical narrative on the origins and outcomes of World War II. In the final chapter, Overy summarizes the fatal blow to this narrative. As Overy argues, most historians now agree that Adolf Hitler was not intent on territorial gains to “turn on the West” and to “dominate the world” (Overy 124):
Few historians now accept that Hitler had any plan or blueprint for world conquest, in which Poland was a stepping stone to some distant German world empire. Indeed, recent research has suggested that there were almost no plans for what to do with a conquered Poland and that the vision of a new German empire in central and eastern Europe had to be improvised almost from scratch.
US popular opinion, goaded by neoconservative rhetoric and Allied court historians, still has it that Poland was a step toward a final goal of world domination. In reality, it was a stepping stone in a limited Eurasian policy:
Hitler wanted the war with Poland to flesh out the central European empire and open the way for the eventual confrontation with Stalin’s Soviet Union.
What Hitler sought was a German land empire extending through Eastern Europe and into the refuse of a defunct USSR. Nowhere in this vision was there space for “world domination,” apart from wartime rhetoric.
This limited Eastern European and Eurasian vision was transformed into a World War. How did this come about, especially in the harried, final days of August 1939, when emotions were exacerbated and diplomatic strains were at their peak? After Hitler had declared Protectorates in Bohemia and Moravia, Britain shifted from Chamberlain’s “appeasement” policy toward one of gradual confrontation. Pressure mounted on Chamberlain to confront Germany, which came to a head in March 1939.
British newspapers began to reflect a changing mood in British public opinion. Jews, working both in British media and through diplomatic leverage, funneled and fueled this pro-war sentiment. Winston Churchill, at the time only a member of Parliament, raised his voice even higher in favor of military confrontation. The perception that Hitler “had to be stopped” was pervasive and uncertainty proliferated in spite of the transparency of Hitler’s actual, underlying long-term foreign policy goals.
In the context to misinformation about Hitler’s real goals, official unwillingness to correct it, media flare-ups over German actions, signals from America, pressure from the British and world Jewish communities, and pro-war sentiment in Parliament, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave Poland an unsolicited war guarantee on 31 March, 1939. It held that if the “territorial integrity” and “independence” of Poland was threatened, Britain would come to the aid of Poland.
The guarantee, also given by France, was signed as a bilateral agreement, but in practical terms, it was a unilateral agreement, and it had not even been requested. Poland, sandwiched between the Soviet Union and the German Reich, was now given the power to determine whether a war would be started that might involve not only Germany and Poland, but also Britain, France, and the USSR. But most perilously, Poland now had the power to determine the future of Europe.
1939: Countdown to War takes us through the final week before the German occupation of Poland on 1 September and the Anglo-French declaration of war that followed two days after. Overy does a masterful job of describing the turmoil and agony on the part of Britain and its government, of wanting to avoid spawning a successor to the “Great War” and the inevitable misery that it would produce. It animated British political thinking and policy all through the final days of August 1939.
The historical context of the war guarantee to Poland is vital for grasping the broader claims of Overy, and for relating his views to revisionist claims.
The British war guarantee was given at a time when the British Empire was ill-prepared for a major conflict. The British government was painfully aware of its actual inability to save Poland. As German forces were fast-burrowing into Poland, Britain dropped millions of leaflets over Germany, imploring it to withdraw. Frenchmen, facing off against their German enemy, refused to “fire the first shot.” Until Hitler invaded France, the war earned the rightful nickname: The Twilight War.
In the final analysis, while Overy is right to claim that the war guarantee was a desperate attempt to maintain the rule of law in a crumbling, fragile world, Hitler had made his long-term foreign policy goals completely clear. These did not envision destabilizing the West, or the global positions of Britain, France, the United States, and the West in general. Hitler’s goals, relative to those of the Kaiser before him, were nonthreatening to the West and remarkably modest in scale and impact.
First, from Hitler’s writings in Mein Kampf, he had made it clear that he sought living space in a defunct USSR while solidifying an alliance with Britain and Italy. Second, several diplomatic overtures and discussions in the 1930s further reinforced the primacy of this basic vision. If any doubt had remained, Ribbentrop’s discussion with Churchill in 1937 should have dispelled them: Hitler had no quarrel with the British Empire or the West, and envisioned only a limited conflict with the USSR.
Hitler gave concrete expression to this basic vision by avoiding the retaking of lands lost by Germany in the West, prior to Britain’s declaration of war. Hitler did not try to retake Alsace-Lorraine, which had been given to France. Hitler also rejected any notion of regaining Eupen and Malmedy, which had been handed over to Belgium. And Hitler did not seek to regain Northern Schleswig from Denmark. Only after Britain and France declared war did Hitler retake any of these territories.
Overy’s claim that Britain and France acted from fear of permanent instability and a collapse of rule of law lacks credibility. Any politician that had a basic grasp of Hitler’s stated foreign policy goals would not have been surprised, for example, by his march into Prague. Every action that Hitler took in Europe from 1933 to 1939, including establishing Protectorates in non-German lands, was consistent with a long-term vision that threatened the USSR, but not Western and global stability.
Overy’s summary of and response to Patrick J. Buchanan’s arguments in Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War and spread out over several articles, books, and interviews is at best insufficient and at worst completely wanting. The manner in which he summarizes Buchanan’s argument is important. He starts with this:
The fight against Hitler can be seen to have been, as the American politician Patrick Buchanan recently described it, an ‘unnecessary war’. According to Buchanan, the war cost the British their empire and created the conditions of fifty years of Cold War and Communist domination of Eastern Europe.
Before detailing the particular angle of Buchanan’s argument that Overy addresses, namely the war guarantee given to Poland by the British government, it is first important to emphasize how hollow Overy’s summary of Buchanan’s views of the consequences of the war is. Buchanan, very early on in his book, openly laments that
All about us we can see clearly now that the West is passing away. In a single century, all the great houses of continental Europe fell. All the empires that ruled the world have vanished. Not one European nation, save Muslim Albania, has a birthrate that will enable it to survive through the century. As a share of world population, peoples of European ancestry have been shrinking for three generations. The character of every Western nation is being irremediably altered as each undergoes an unresisted invasion from the third World. We are slowly disappearing from the Earth.
Buchanan is not simply lamenting the decline of the British Empire or Europe’s place in world affairs, nor is he merely bemoaning the passing away of Western culture, tradition, social institutions, or even “the West” itself. Buchanan is talking about the decline and death of an entire race of people. World War II involved far more than simply the Stalinization of Eastern Europe, fifty years of Cold War, and postwar existential trauma. World War II may be the last gasp of the white race.
We can hardly expect Overy, an established, successful historian, to frame his observations using categories such as this. After all, even Michael Shermer verges on condescending when summarizing Buchanan’s views. In an essay titled “The New Revisionism,” Shermer manages to quote Buchanan, as above, without once addressing the fundamental fact that people of white European descent are dying out. Shermer and Overy invoke Buchanan without addressing his essential concern.
Having failed to appreciate Buchanan’s actual views of the consequences of World War II, Overy proceeds to his rebuttal of Buchanan’s arguments against the war. Buchanan, Overy observes, focuses his attention on the British war guarantee. Noting this, Overy proceeds to observe that, according to Buchanan, “The greatest mistake was the guarantee to Poland, which made a war inevitable.” Paraphrasing Buchanan, Overy remarks that it “unleashed the greatest war in all of history.”
Overy then goes on to attack what he has cast as Buchanan’s view:
This is a view that takes almost no account of the circumstances of the time. Britain and France did not opt for war in 1939 because they wanted to unleash Armageddon. Indeed, everything about British and French efforts first to appease, then to deter, Germany was intended to avoid instigating a second Great War in Europe. Deterrence in the end failed, but the obverse of every strategy to deter is the willingness to use force.
Overy has presented a false dichotomy. The obverse of a failed strategy of deterrence may indeed be the willingness to use force, but these two options are themselves one side of a larger dichotomy, the other side of which is the unwillingness to become involved in a situation in which neither deterrence nor force will ultimately work. And this is the argument that Buchanan makes, and which Overy fails to observe. The obverse of failure in deterrence and in war is to remain uninvolved.
And as Buchanan argues, from every vantage point, the “willingness to use force” ultimately failed, just as surely as deterrence failed. Poland’s sovereignty was not regained, as Poland wound up under Stalinist control and Soviet domination that lasted almost half a century. Further, as Buchanan has argued, Britain knew that it could not save Poland by force. Knowing this, it should not have given that war guarantee, and told Poland in March 1939 that it was not in a position to save it.
Buchanan never implies that Britain and France went to war to “unleash Armageddon.” Buchanan does not argue that Britain could have foreseen the collapse of Empire, and that on the basis of this, should have withheld the war guarantee. Buchanan agrees with Overy that “Britain and France did not choose war by giving a ‘war guarantee’.” But this is not the point. Buchanan’s argument is that, knowing war would be as futile as deterrence, Britain should have remained neutral.
Buchanan is actually advancing a very practical argument. In fact, it may be so practical that its simplicity is a cause of its obscurity: We should stay out of issues that are not our affairs. The British Empire might have wanted Germany to refrain from moving eastward at the expense of the USSR, but in the end, deterrence and war were not the only options available to Britain. A third option, remaining uninvolved, was also available to Britain, and Buchanan argues it should have chosen it.
However, deterrence, war, and neutrality were not the only options available to Britain in 1939. A fourth option, concealed beneath an historical animosity to fascism, was an Anglo-German alliance. This alliance was a foundational pillar of Hitler’s overriding world vision. Hitler was prepared to not only recognize the British Empire, but to use German resources to preserve it. Reinvigorated through German support, European world hegemony would have averted its decline, and endured.
Therefore, Britain’s choices in 1939 were not as bleak as Overy and most historians imply. The collapsing world that Overy asserts Britain was terrified of losing was, at root, the economic and material basis of Western hegemony. Hitler was prepared to recognize it, and through an alliance, actively uphold it. At the very least, Britain should have remained out of the German-Polish conflict. At most, an alliance with Germany, directed against the USSR, would have united Europe in a great endeavor.
Apart from his failure to convey Buchanan’s actual argument and concerns, Overy is also afflicted with a common malaise: He insists on clinging to the fibers of the fabric of the “Good War” myth. And he fails to understand that normative conclusions in an argument against a British war guarantee are more than lessons for leaders in the past. They are also lessons for us, today. People of European descent are dying out, and we need a novel view of the past to light a path to the future.
Because Overy does not mention or even acknowledge the fundamental crisis that confronts people of European descent, his historical analysis, while going further than others, remains limited, avoiding a paramount issue.
If we do not alter our perspectives on the past, we cannot reorient ourselves to the realities of the present. If we refuse to recognize that World War II was about larger issues than simply the fate of Western Empires, then we will simply reinforce existing moral narratives. People of European descent will continue their slow decline, and they will eventually disappear from the Earth. How we evaluate the past is reflected in how we judge present realities, and weigh our prospects for the future.
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