A panoramic evocation of Europe on the eve of WW II that is at once elegaic and incisive. Drawing on memoirs, archival material, and other sources, Smith (When the Cheering Stopped; Lee and Grant, 1984; etc.) offers a kaleidoscopic but coherent narrative of the circumstances leading up to the fateful summer of 1939. Less than a generation after the greatest slaughter in history, almost no one--save Hitler--wanted another war. Overtaken by events and Hitler's ambitions for Nazi Germany, however, few doubted its inevitability. In the meantime, Smith recounts, British P.M. Neville Chamberlain vainly strove for peace at any price; haunted by the death of a beloved cousin in WW I, he acceded to the partitioning of Czechoslovakia, ""a far-off country of which we know little."" Enervated France, which had failed to react when Berlin sent troops into the ""demilitarized"" Rhineland, endorsed the UK's appeasement--and hunkered down behind its Magi-not Line. And Poland, whose geography and Danzig corridor made it a prize for aggressors to East as well as West, struggled unavailingly to escape a bitter destiny, while Stalin plotted profitably in his Kremlin aerie. On August 21, 1939--just two days after an Anglo-French mission quit Moscow without result--he agreed to a Nonaggression Pact with secret protocols that cleared the way for Hitler to invade Poland during good post-harvest weather. On September 3, two days after the initial incursion, London and Paris declared war, and the global village marched into a nuclear age. Smith provides a vivid chancellory-level account of WW II's coming, brimful of vignettes that illuminate a resigned citizenry's stake in the imminent clash and telling half-remembered details that loom large in retrospect. Pop history of a high order.