Why did the Second World War happen?

Could more intelligent diplomacy on Britain's part have saved Europe from a devastating war? Laurence Rees examines the evidence

A portrait of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler

Back in the 1970s, when I was at school, my history teachers were in thrall to AJP Taylor and his Origins of the Second World War (Hamish Hamilton, 1961). They taught that the answer to the question “Why did the Second World War happen?” was to be found to a large extent in the story of the incompetence of successive British governments in the 1930s; and, more particularly, in the stupidity of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Munich conference in 1938 when he agreed that Adolf Hitler could annex part of Czechoslovakia – the German speaking Sudetenland. The German leader in the 1930s, we were told, following the Taylor line, was a politician “much like any other” and the war had been completely preventable had not near idiots been running Britain.

Now, over 70 years after the war began, the prevailing wisdom could not be more different – something that was confirmed to me by a series of interviews I filmed with leading historians for a multimedia website on the Second World War. Because the key figure in this history, of course, is not Chamberlain but Adolf Hitler.

Hitler’s war

“Hitler’s beliefs are absolutely paramount as a causal factor in the Second World War,” Richard Evans, the new Regius professor at Cambridge told me. “We know now through documentation that has become available over the last few years that he intended there to be a general European war really absolutely from the outset. He’s telling people in private in 1932, 1933, when he’s coming to power, that he’s going to have a general war.”

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