Roger Moorhouse: How Hitler’s diplomatic miscalculation led to WW2

The invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 is often considered to be the result of a western error, Chamberlain and the Allies’ failed appeasement policy. But, says historian Roger Moorhouse, at the root of the conflict was the diplomatic risk-taking of Adolf Hitler…

Adolf Hitler watches German troops march in central Poland

The invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war in 1939 is often considered to have been a failure of appeasement; the Allied policy – personified by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – of seeking to compromise on German territorial demands so as avoid conflict.

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Seen from a narrowly western perspective, this interpretation makes sense. Chamberlain set himself the task of containing Germany, and of avoiding war, and by definition he failed in that endeavour.

Chamberlain’s effort was flawed, certainly; it was the wrong approach for the wrong opponent. For one thing, he was appealing to Hitler’s reason, treating the German dictator as a rational actor, when in reality he was anything but. However, it was not only western failings that caused the slide to war in 1939.

Germany under Hitler not only refused to be satisfied by western concessions, it viewed those concessions themselves as a sign of terminal weakness. Hitler held his enemies in contempt. The British and French, he said, were “worms”; the Poles, meanwhile, were doubly damned – by their Slavic ‘inferiority’ and by their principled resistance to German bullying. Bent on territorial expansion, and on smashing the Versailles treaty, Hitler was determined never to be satisfied.

Chamberlain’s last effort to contain Hitler – reversing the policy of appeasement – was to issue a guarantee to Poland in the spring of 1939, in the hope that the threat of confrontation would succeed where concession had failed. Hitler, however, was merely enraged, and began looking for ways of undermining and isolating Poland, with a view to detaching that unhappy country from its international alliances.

It was in this process that the idea of collaboration with Stalin’s Soviet Union came to the fore. Though Nazi Germany and the USSR had been verbally sparring for years, damning one another as the very Devil incarnate, both sides recognised a realpolitik opportunity when they saw it.

For Germany, having Stalin ‘onside’ as a partner would effectively prevent the British and French from achieving any practical result in their efforts to aid Poland. Having boxed himself in, diplomatically, Hitler saw Stalin as his way out.

For Stalin, meanwhile, an arrangement with Hitler was an attractive proposition: not only did the outbreak of conflict in Europe promise to speed the engine of history, but also Hitler was willing to offer him [Stalin] the return of all the lands lost in the Russian collapse that had followed the end of the First World War.

To sweeten the deal, an expansive trade agreement was concluded between the two, pledging to exchange Soviet raw materials for German technology and knowhow. With that, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed on 23 August 1939.

Hitler expected his western opponents to cave, but they did not. An Anglo-Polish Military Agreement reiterated the guarantee of the previous spring and reaffirmed Allied determination.

Convinced that the British and French would not seriously go to war for Poland, Hitler gave a last throw of the dice, authorising SS ‘false flag’ operations – such as at Gleiwitz – which would cast Poland as the aggressor, and Germany as the innocent party. With that, he launched his invasion, confident that the western powers would back down and abandon their Polish ally. He was astonished when – on the morning of 3 September 1939 – they did not. With that miscalculation, World War Two in Europe began.

In the September 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine, historian Roger Moorhouse tells the story of the 1939 invasion of Poland, a campaign that set a murderous template for the six-year conflict that was to follow.

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Roger Moorhouse’s new book, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 (Bodley Head), is on sale now. He will be discussing the invasion of Poland at both of our History Weekends this autumn: historyextra.com/events