Jonathan Yardley

Review of Richard Overy's "1939: Countdown to War"

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 12, 2010


Countdown to War

By Richard Overy

Viking. 159 pp. $25.95

This exceptionally lucid, concise and authoritative book (which publishes at the end of September) tells the story of "the extraordinary ten days of drama that separated the conclusion of the German-Soviet [non-aggression] pact early in the morning of 24 August [1939] and the late afternoon of 3 September when France joined Britain in declaring war on Germany." Richard Overy continues:

"The final outbreak of war was sealed by decisions taken under the immense strain of knowing that Europe risked being plunged once again into a conflict that many feared would mean the eclipse of European civilization. In the end, resolving the crisis fell to the lot of a handful of men compelled, whether they liked it or not, to act out a drama that involved the lives of millions of ordinary Europeans."

Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter in England and author, co-author or editor of more than two dozen books dealing in various ways with World War II, has long argued that the root causes of the war were deeper and more complex than is commonly acknowledged. Here, however, he is less concerned with underlying causes than with the brutal pressures that came to bear on the leaders of the future antagonists as they maneuvered to protect their own interests on the one hand and to stave off continent-wide warfare on the other. "The outbreak of war," he writes, "now seems a natural consequence of the international crisis provoked principally by Hitler's Germany. What follows is intended to show that nothing in history is inevitable."

By late August 1939 the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia had been completed, and Hitler had gotten his hands on parts of that woebegone country that he regarded as central to "establishing German 'living space' and uniting all ethnic Germans in the east with the new Reich." There is little reason to believe that at this point he wanted to attack Britain and France with the aim of conquering them. "Hitler's ambition for conquest in the East was consistent with much German geopolitical fantasy going back decades," Overy writes, "and Hitler was as absorbed as any provincial central European German nationalist might be with the idea of carving out from Eastern Europe a larger and more savage version of the Habsburg Empire, armed with a new model of economic exploitation (the so-called 'large area economy') and nourished on dreams of a racial utopia."

That all of this was essentially insane is obvious, but it was limited in scope. Hitler "is scarcely a reliable witness in his own defence," Overy writes, but "the evidence of the last weeks before the outbreak of war shows him again and again repeating to those around him in the political and military elite that he wanted to localize the conflict." As he turned his attention to Poland, he persisted in that illusion, or delusion. It infuriated him that after World War I "the victorious Allied powers decided to create an independent Polish state and to grant it a land corridor to the sea through former German territory, with the prospect of using the German city of Danzig as a major port for the Polish import/export trade." He completely rejected Danzig's status as a "Free City" and demanded its return to Germany. Though Britain and France had declared themselves in full support of Poland, prepared to go to war in its defense, Hitler believed that these were mere paper promises -- a belief reinforced by the Munich agreement of 1938 by which Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, authorized the breakup of Czechoslovakia -- and that he could seize not merely Danzig but all of Poland without British or French armed resistance.

He was emboldened in this conviction by his bellicose foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Hitler "believed Ribbentrop's many assurances that Britain would not fight, because he wanted to believe them." This is one of the broad themes of "1939": that as the crisis grew ever more urgent, each party to it withdrew into a "narrow mental box" that "contained its own moral universe." Germany's leaders "almost certainly convinced themselves that the war against Poland was entirely justified on moral terms, however criminal the actual plans for war." By the same token, "on the British and French side the search for a justification that had an immediate meaning was found in the concept of honour. . . . It had a simplicity that cut through all the other arguments surrounding the justification or otherwise for launching war, and narrowed the moral outlook of the democracies to a single word." Like the American leaders of 2003, impelled by the self-created illusion that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction, the leaders of 1939 went to war as much on the wings of fantasy as out of political, military or diplomatic necessity.

On the question of leadership, Overy believes that history has been unkind to Chamberlain, who "is often painted as a man who searched for any way of evading conflict in 1939, but though he always thought peace preferable to war, he had few illusions about Hitler by the beginning of 1939," regarding him as "the blackest devil he had ever met." Later, after all Chamberlain's efforts to achieve a negotiated peace had failed and Britain had declared war on September 3, Overy writes:

"Against all his better instincts and expectations, Chamberlain found himself compelled to declare a war he had not wanted. Though history has generally found Chamberlain wanting in courage, the final step of making a declaration whose implications were profound and far-reaching was certainly a courageous act. No less courageous, though often overlooked, was the declaration of war made later on the same day by [French Prime Minister Édouard] Daladier, whose moral rejection of war had been as powerful as Chamberlain's but who also came to recognize the futility of avoiding a direct confrontation with Hitler's Germany. Democratic leaders had none of the simplicity enjoyed by dictators in choosing war."

It didn't help that every party to this confrontation was in a state of near-total exhaustion, Chamberlain perhaps most visibly but also Hitler and Daladier and many of their foremost lieutenants: "Insufficient account is taken in all the final days of the drama of the extraordinary toll imposed on those at the very centre of events that tumbled over each other in bewildering profusion in the course of just a week." Not surprisingly, "the narrowing of vision generated by the conditions of crisis provoked a growing irrationality in which the wider picture or the longer causes of the confrontation were abandoned in favour of a restricted 'mental box' in which decisions now had to be made."

As to the issue of the war's inevitability, this is perhaps a trifle more ambiguous than Overy would have us believe. To be sure it certainly was far from inevitable that war should begin in early September 1939. Obviously it wouldn't have been easy, but a peaceful settlement to the Polish problem could have been negotiated and enforced, though of course this would have denied Hitler a second opportunity to flex his military muscle and would have left him as eager as ever to put his war machine through the bloody practice run he believed it needed. It is difficult to imagine, though, that sooner or later some incident or controversy would not have set the great powers of Europe at each other's throats once again. Too much had been left unresolved by World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, too many grievances and resentments and enmities lingered. War itself surely was inevitable, though the date and place on which it would commence were not.

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