MORE THAN 40 YEARS after Germany's armies marched into Vienna and Prague, the period, the people and the events that caused the Second World War still exert a powerful fascination. The present volume, together with the preceding one (published in 1970) and the one in preparation, will go far to satisfy this curiosity and sitll most of the arguments. Based on meticulous examination of a staggering amount of material from all the major European and the United States archives and an almost equal volume of secondary literature, Professor Gerhard Weinberg explores the European political conditions and diplomatic developments that led to the outbreak of the war.

The book is uncompromisingly antirevisionist: the author believes that "the idea that the historian can see better by walking on his hands instead of on his feet has the charm of novelty, but is apt to lead to misconceptions." He rejects the view that either Germany or Japan were driven by others to go to war and focuses instead, quite rightly, on Germany and Hitler to evaluate the German chancellor's intent and responsibility. More than any other author, Weinberg stresses the importance of the memories of the First World War in shaping the views and decisions of statesmen, politicians and ordinary men.

These memories extended beyond recollections of hardships and casualties to influence such matters as the beliefs that pre-1914 British-French-Belgian staff talks had contributed to the outbreak of the war (hence Belgium's strict neutrality in 1938-39) and that Britain's reluctance to announce that she intended to come to the aid of France and Belgium had convinced German statesmen that Britain would remain neutral in any coming war. (This latter incident, according to Weinberg, influenced Chamberlain to warn Hitler repeatedly in 1939 that Britain would stand by her pledge to come to the aid of Poland.) In neither instance did the lesson of World War II either improve the Allies' position or prevent the outbreak of World War II.

The author has a remarkable and unerring instinct for sifting through a mass of evidence, most of it conflicting and misleading, to reach a thoughtful and convincing interpretation. This is particularly true in the case of Hitler's decision to invade and annex Austria and to go to war with Poland. Equally impressive is Weinberg's knowledge and mastery of the pertinent sources and the secondary literature. His use of Richard Sorge's hitherto little-known reports from Tokyo and Rudolf von Scheliha's from London (both were Soviet agents) will alter any assessment of Soviet policy in 1938-39.

As to specific problems, Weinberg places greater emphasis than others on the importance, for British-German diplomacy, of the return of some pre-1914 German colonies. The British government, taking German demands for colonies seriously, attempted, through long and involved negotiations, to satisfy these demands in return for German acknowledgement of the status quo (with minor revisions) in Central Europe. It took British (and French) statesmen almost two years to realize that Hitler's demands for colonies -- like his assertions of a desire for peaceful settlements, in general -- were a smokescreen and that in truth he could not and would not be deflected from his final aim: control of Central Europe and conquest of the east. Although Weinberg never mentions the word appeasement, he makes a good though indirect case that the policy pursued was, in fact, not dishonorable. In view of the volume of literature on appeasement, the topic might have been dealt with directly, if only in a footnote. British and German economic policies before 1938 are also not covered, which, in view of the author's meticulous attention to diplomatic, political, and military matters, seems a curious oversight.

Weinberg does not believe that Britain and France consciously tried to direct Hitler's drive to the east (the thesis of the "Free Hand in the East") by allowing him to annex Austria and the Sudetenland; and he views the Munich crisis in 1938 as a diplomatic victory for the allies, inasmuch as they forced Hitler to abandon his plans for war with Czechoslavakia. Hitler's backing down, however, had far-reaching consequences during the 1939 Polish crisis. "The insistence that he would under no circumstances be cheated out of a war against Poland in 1939 cannot be understood in any way other than as a determination not to repeat the 1938 experience." Britain's stubborn adherence to her obligations to Poland in 1939, on the other hand, can only be explained by her shame over Munich, and by her disillusionment over Hitler's destruction of Czechoslavakia and the takeover of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939.

The Soviet Union's role in these events and the failure of Russia and the Allies to form an anti-Hitler coalition has been one of the major historical problems of the pre-World War II period. In retrospect it seems odd that the "natural" allies of the Second World War were, in fact, on opposing sides from the time Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 (and after he had concluded a treaty with Stalin) to June 1941 when he invaded the Soviet Union. British and French military experts in 1938-39, however, believed that the Soviet Union would defend herself vigorously, but that she had no offensive capabilities beyond her borders because of the 1937 purges and her poor transporation and communication system.

In early 1939, as the possibility of war with Germany became increasingly real, Chamberlain and Daladier, the leaders of Britain and France, became convinced that it would be impossible for their countries to stay out of such a war Stalin on the other hand, believed that the Soviet Union would not only be able to stay out, but would have the option of entering such a war at a time of her own choosing. Stalin feared and expected a German invasion and wanted to postpone it as long as possible. Forced to choose between allying himself with a strong and well-armed Germany and the weak and poorly prepared Western allies, the Russian dictator chose Germany, which could offer him Russian territories lost after the First World War. All the Allies could offer was the opportunity to fight Germany, and this without the aid and consent of Poland and Romania, whose territories Russian armies would have to cross to fight the Germans. There is little doubt that in making this choice, Stalin anticipated a long and exhausting war between Germany and the West, which would have put Russia in a much better position to cope with whatever condtions prevailed at the end of such a war.

That Stalin's decision removed Hitler's last hesitation about war with Poland is equally clear. Weinberg is quite emphatic about, and presents convincing evidence to show, Hitler's determination to go to war with Poland and, if need be, with the Western powers at the same time. His goal was living space in Eastern Europe beyond the German borders of 1914. According to Weinberg, Hitler's original plan, after the destruction of Czechoslovakia, was to defeat Britain and France to secure his rear before turning east. To achieve this, Poland and Hungary had to become German satellites that would not interfere in a war with the West.

Hungary fell in line, but Poland refused. Thus, Hitler had to defeat Poland first, before turning west.

Weinberg's skill in marshalling the pertinent facts and analyzing conflicting data is admirable, and his summary and conclusion are sound and sensible. This beautifully written study will, when completed, stand for a long time as the definitive work on Hitler's foreign policy and the origins of the Second World War.