The Origins of the Second World War by A J P Taylor: a Military Times Classic

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Continuing our review of military classics, Military Times looks at A J P Taylor’s controversial publication on the causes of the Second World War.

For a book about events a quarter of a century in the past, the storm raised by the publication of A J P Taylor’s book on the causes of the Second World War was spectacular. Perhaps, though, it was not surprising. Hundreds of millions of the war’s victims were still alive – the mutilated, the bereaved, the displaced – and here, it seemed, was a leading British historian exonerating the monster everyone blamed for six years of unprecedented slaughter. Adolf Hitler did not mean to start a world war: that was the message. It was really just a gigantic cock-up. Taylor was no stranger to controversy.

Born in 1906, he was a blunt, straight-talking northerner in the radical, nonconformist tradition. A brilliant scholar who had been ensconced at Magdalen in Oxford since 1936, he had established himself as the master of 19th and 20th century diplomatic history with a series of studies famous not only for their detail and insight, but also for wit and literary panache. TV audiences were to be astonished by his ability to talk straight into the camera for half an hour without the aid of notes.

It was partly his profound understanding of realpolitik that made him so iconoclastic. His ‘second thoughts’ foreword, written for the 1963 edition of The
Origins of the Second World War, was characteristically unapologetic. The idea that Hitler was aiming at total world domination, and that it was his evil ambition that had caused the war, was, quite simply, nonsense. Powers will be Powers, he wrote (the capitals are his). His point was that great powers behave as they do irrespective of whether they are ruled by Nazi race-fanatics, Stalinist bureaucrats, or parliamentarians like Winston Churchill. What matters are the interests of the great power in question, and the opportunities presented by its interactions with other great powers, both friends and enemies.

Origins of the Second World War

Let us be clear: Taylor was an anti-fascist who hated Hitler and everything he stood for (unlike many members of the British Establishment prior to 1939). But he was also an historian committed to the truth, and it seemed obvious to him that however monstrous Hitler’s domestic policies, this was irrelevant to an understanding of German foreign policy between 1933 and 1939. Hitler, he argued, acted in the tradition of Bismarck (the creator of modern Germany) and Bethmann-Hollweg (the German Chancellor during the First World War). Hitler the Führer was a murderous racist; but Hitler the world statesman was just a nationalist. Taylor wrote: In international affairs, there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was German; and, having Germany’s great-power interests at uppermost, the one thing he did not plan was the great war often attributed to him.
The problem, Taylor argued, was not Hitler, but Germany.

The ‘German Question’ dominated Europe between 1866 and 1945. Once united, the German-speaking heart of Europe became an industrial colossus and a geopolitical powerhouse. How to contain German energy and preserve ‘the balance of power’ (for which read ‘the interests of the other powers’) became the central issue of diplomacy and war.

What, then, caused the war? If not Hitler’s megalomania and a succession of threats, aggressions, and annexations, what instead? The war of 1939, says Taylor, far from being welcome, was less wanted by nearly everybody than almost any war in history.

In fact, the whole thing was concocted, unwittingly by all concerned, in a diplomatic fog. In Taylor’s world of international relations, the powers engage in a complex interplay of ambition and suspicion, ignorance and misunderstanding, ill-judged moves and unintended consequences.

To rebuild German power after the military defeat of 1918 and the economic crisis of 1929, Hitler needed to dominate Central and Eastern Europe. So he pushed repeatedly against the limits of international tolerance. He had no long-term plan. He was a foreign-policy opportunist. But his impulse was expansionist because German territory had been hacked away at Versailles, and German industry needed raw materials as the economy boomed in the mid to late 1930s.

Taylor is scathing about the incompetence of British and French statesmen. They first backed Czechoslovakia, then told her to surrender. They encouraged the Poles to resist, considering them militarily formidable, but cold-shouldered the Russians, whom they regarded as aggressive but weak: in every case, the opposite of the truth. It was precisely Russia’s desire for peace – and the refusal of the British and the French to offer an alliance that would guarantee her security – that lead to the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact.

A Franco-Russian alliance underwritten by British guarantees to the French was perfectly possible in 1939. The failure to achieve this was one of the greatest diplomatic disasters in world history. It led directly to the fall of Poland, the fall of France, and Britain having to fight alone for a year. Only Hitler’s attack on Russia in June 1941 would make good the damage. Only then, in a sense, would the Second World War truly begin. Until that moment, there was a war in Europe and the Mediterranean, mainly between Britain and Germany.

The outbreak of war revealed further miscalculations. The British and the French had encouraged Polish resistance partly because they anticipated a slow war of trenches and attrition, like the last. In fact, Poland collapsed in three weeks, France in six, and Britain survived only because Hitler could not get his panzers across the Channel. The Nazi conquests were so vast, the economic resources won so great, that it would then take the greatest war in human history to bring down Hitler’s European empire.

Wars are much like road accidents, explains Taylor. They have a general cause and particular causes at the same time. Every road accident is caused, in the last resort, by the invention of the internal combustion engine and by men’s desire to get from one place to another. But a motorist, charged with dangerous driving, would be ill-advised if he pleaded the existence of motor-cars as his sole defence.
Taylor’s point is that the Second World War was, in some sense, caused by the ‘international anarchy’ of a world divided between great powers; but it was also, in another sense, caused by the uncertainties, misjudgements, and cock-ups of statesmen in the late 1930s.

But it was not, in Taylor’s controversial view, caused by one man’s plan for global domination. This was – and is – a legend fostered by wartime propaganda.

Further information

A J P Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War is published by
Penguin Books, price £10.99

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