Review of 1939: Countdown to War by Richard Overy
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Two considerations motivated my decision to review Richard Overy’s 1939: Countdown to War: 1) His objective consideration of many of the central aspects of the origins of World War II and 2) his explicit examination and evaluation of Patrick J. Buchanan’s central arguments in his Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War. Though Overy clings to some fibers of the “Good War” fabric and fails to summarize Buchanan’s actual concerns and argument, Overy’s 1939: Countdown to War signals the decline of the prevailing historical narrative. In due time, the view that World War II was not only unnecessary but in hindsight undesirable will have become common opinion.
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“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.