Overy (History/Univ. of Exeter; The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars, 2009, etc.) limns the annus horribilis in which World War II broke out in Europe.
By the author’s account, the war was inevitable. Europe had nearly disintegrated into chaos, marked by “economic crisis, the rise of authoritarian dictatorships, deep ideological divisions, nationalist rivalries, and the collapse of the effort of the League of Nations to preserve peace.” All of these elements virtually guaranteed conflict, though the so-called Polish question was the single great catalyst. After World War I, the Allies had both created an independent Polish state and carved access to the Baltic Sea for it out of German territory, another sure way to cause strife, especially since Germany never recognized many of the provisions even before Hitler’s time. Yet it was Hitler who added the missing ingredient of revanchism, while his erstwhile treaty partner Joseph Stalin labored diligently to secure Soviet neutrality in the hope of winning some measure of control over Eastern Europe. As Overy writes, the Soviets were masterful in playing the Western Allies against Germany to gain concessions from both sides. Neither Germany nor Russia “regarded Poland as a permanent political fixture,” so dividing it up was troublesome to neither party and indeed was “an acceptable outcome to both sides.” The author gives Neville Chamberlain a slight rehabilitation, noting that by 1939 he had no illusions about Hitler or his intentions, and adding that very few ordinary Europeans actually wanted war. Yet in the end war was the only possible result of a great chess game in which Hitler played an Italian card even as Italy scrambled to maintain neutrality on its own, betting as well that England and France would not rescue Poland. That they did, the author concludes, was “not to save Poland from a cruel occupation but to save [them] from the dangers of a disintegrating world.”
Inevitable? Perhaps not, but the events of 1939 made the war “hard to avoid.” Lucid and to the point, as is Overy’s custom—of much value to students of the political dimensions of WWII.