1939: Countdown to War

David Stafford looks at a book on the last days of peace in Europe before the outbreak of the Second World War

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Reviewed by: David Stafford
Author: Richard Overy
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £12.99

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The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 is usually presented as inevitable, especially after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on 24 August with its secret protocol dividing Poland and the Baltic states into spheres of influence. Indeed, later that same day, Hitler ordered the attack on Poland that happened during the early hours of 1 September and which was followed two days later by the British and French declarations of war. The storm that had been gathering throughout the dark decade of the 1930s had finally broken.

Richard Overy’s intent in this short book is to show that war was far from inevitable, that during the last days of peace the principal actors could all have made different choices, and that nothing about this final diplomatic crisis of the 1930s was scripted in advance. Poland had been placed firmly in the eye of the storm in March 1939 when Hitler ordered his army to plan for an invasion and PM Neville Chamberlain announced a guarantee of Polish independence in the House of Commons. Although this placed both sides on a collision course, neither side actually wanted war with the other.

Of course, Hitler was desperate for war with Poland itself and in planning for it he also made preparations to eliminate the racial ‘undesirables’ his armies would conquer in their march to the east. But he was convinced that the western powers would not go to war over this and would give way. Their appeasement over Czechoslovakia the year before encouraged him. “Our enemies are tiny little worms. I saw them at Munich,” he dismissively told his commanders in a conference. But he was proved wrong on 3 September. On hearing the news that he was at war with Britain and France, he turned to Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and asked, stunned, “what now?” He had never, argues Overy, wanted a general war.

On their part, the British and French believed strenuously that by this time standing firm they would deter Hitler from war, and did everything by way of diplomacy to make this clear. Overy is at pains to demonstrate that this did not imply they were preparing for another act of appeasement, which has often been suggested by critics who cite the two day delay in actually declaring war following the attack on Poland as crucial evidence. Yet this, he shows, was caused mostly by the need to co-ordinate British and French mobilisation plans. Ironically, they stood firm over Poland because they, too, hoped to avoid a general war.

It’s all tightly and convincingly argued. Overy is an excellent historian, well-versed in the period. But his approach is austere and he struggles to paint a scene. Rather than describe the flight of Ribbentrop to Moscow, for example, the dramatic event that precipitates the crisis, he merely tells us that it is already “well-known”. He also has the habit of introducing characters assuming that we know who they are – a common academic failing. This is
a book best read for those already familiar with the story.  

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Dr David Stafford is projects director at the Centre for the Study of Two World Wars, University of Edinburgh