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

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

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.

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