Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics






The Montreal Review, March 2010



A review of A.J. P. Taylor's book "The Origins of The Second World War" (Penguin Books, 1991, 357 pp.)


The sources of conflict are always hidden in a mist of old crimes and injustices, unhealed wounds of damaged dignity, sufferings and traumas that could reveal even the worst criminal as a victim of unhappy circumstances and past abuses. The evil of war and conflict is always simple in its outer manifestations and mystically obscure in its inner motives. A.J. P. Taylor's masterpiece "The Origins of the Second World War," despite its great insights, cannot give us the full answer of the question "Why did Europe slide in a second sanguinary war after the nightmares of the First World War?"

Taylor's observations and conclusions are noteworthy, and many historians still passionately accept or reject them. His book on the origins of the Second World War is perhaps the most popular reading on the subject, yet his interpretation cannot be seen as the final truth about the causes of the bloodiest war in human history. Taylor's fascinating narrative is in some respects right, in others -- wrong, and surely, it does not give the complete picture of the interwar period. It is only a fragment of a bigger canvas that is still waiting for complete revelation.

Taylor's most popular conclusion in "The Origins of The Second World War" is that Hitler had no real plan for German expansion. He argues that we should not mistake plans with intentions and fantasies. According to Taylor, Hitler hoped to achieve Eastern expansion not through a great war, but through quick, well targeted offenses or, if it were possible, without a war at all. Hitler also did not expect that France would capitulate from its position of Great Power so easily. He neither had a clear vision how in reality the conquered Ukraine and Poland would be populated with Germans nor was able to militarize Germany faster than the other Great Powers during the 1930s. Hitler also had no plan how he would pull Germany out of the economic depression. His most significant political quality was the ability to wait, or the strong nerves. He was a perfect opportunist in both the domestic and foreign politics. At home, Hitler used the opportunities that Von Papen and the other conservatives gave him to take over the power, his politics was one of a constant improvisation -- he exploited with predator's patience his political opponets' intrigues, having no clear strategy how he would actually escape their control. The same approach he applied to foreign policy. He tortured, psychologically, France and Britain inciting fears and hopes and so confusing them for his true ambitions; in fact, the confused French and British policy worked better for Germany's foreign expansion than Hitler's own offensive actions. He waited patiently for political victories delivered on a plate by his own enemies through their mistakes.

When in 1961"The Origins of The Second World War" was published, most of the above mentioned observations were novelty. Taylor's book produced a kind of a shock in the general understanding of the origin of the Second World War mainly with the argument that Hitler was not the only culprit for the war. Yet, Taylor's view was not so unconventional; he believed that, after all, the Treaty of Versailles was the real reason for the conflict. The harsh clauses of the treaty did not subdue Germany completely. Moreover, Germany, with or without the treaty, was still the greatest power on the continent (pp. 47-48). "The Germans," observes Taylor, "had this measureless advantage that they could undermine the system of security against them merely by doing nothing." (p. 52) The truth of this obesrvation explains the success of Hitler's opportunistic policy. Everything in Europe worked in favour for a German politician who had an opportunistic talent, patience, and iron will. The tragedy was that when this politician appeared, it was Hitler--a person with a distorted vision for future, moved by lunatic and messianic theories and ambitions. If on Hitler's place there were an intelligent, sensitive person with a rational judgement for the future of Germany, less obsessed by the will to power, the Second World War perhaps would not have had happened. Unfortunately, the big opportunists are not among the best-intended people; German leaders, with a character combining pragmatism, opportunistic talent and good intentions, were practically impossible to emerge in the turbulent years after the First World War.

The Versailles Treaty had one serious flaw -- none of the winners and vanquished genuinely believed that this was a fair settlement. (See the essay "The Treaty of Versailles: Peace without Justice") The defeated nations felt humiliation and looked at themselves as victims of a robbery; the winners - Britain, France, the U.S, and Italy - had their own doubts about the rightness of their decisions. The common feeling, admited or not, was that the Allies punished Germany above measure. But the French, concerned with their future security, wanted the Germans on their knees. Meanwhile, the British were not able to disregard the wishes of their continental ally France, nor to ignore the anti-German public opinion at home immediately after the war; on the other hand, the Americans retired in their traditional isolationism and did nothing notable to improve the political situation in Europe.

In the years after Versailles, the Allies followed a chaotic foreign policy, pursuing their own interests and goals. But as Taylor observes "there was no deliberate rejection of the wartime partnership. Events pulled the allies apart; and none of them strove hard enough to avert the process" (p.55). After the war Britain felt secure and did not consider Germany as a real danger; France had the opposite feelings, her obsession with the lack of security increased. While Britain was trying to support German recovery, France did everthing in her power to prevent it. The French believed that the First World War had been caused by conscious aggression, while the British tended to think that it had happened by mistake (p. 65).

Under the pressure of France, the size of the German reparations was not settled immediately after the war. It was an error. The actual profit from the reparations was insignificant for the Allies, and the reparations had no such a bad effect on German economy as it seems at first sight. The money coming from Germany was used by the Allies to pay off the American wartime debts, not for recovery of their economies, while Germany, at the same time, was receiving generous loans from the U.S. But the constant quarrels over the reparation issue, the inability of a fair deal to be reached, was a constant source of tension. It created a bitter psychological environment in Germany that was impeding the improvement of the relationships between the Powers for years and that was fuelling the anti-western radicalism among Germans. The Germans believed that the reparations were the main cause of their economic troubles. "By an easy transaction reparations became the sole cause of German poverty, says Taylor. The businessman in difficulties; the underpaid schoolteacher; the unemployed worker, all blamed their troubles on reparations. The cry of a hungry child was a cry against reparations... The great inflation of 1923 was attributed to reparations; so was the great depression of 1932..." (p. 73). The sense of injustice evolved from reparations to all other clauses of Versailles Treaty. At the end all economic troubles, all problems of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s were explained with the punishing clauses of Versailles.

But it is a myth, argues Taylor, that the economic troubles of Germany were due only to external causes. The economic difficulties between the wars were due to defects in German domestic policy itself. (p.75)

According to Taylor, in the 1920s, Germany had one of its greatest politicians in the person of Gustav Stresemann. Stresemann knew that his country needs a peaceful Europe for its recovery, and the recovery would make the German state strong enough to revisit the Versailles' clauses. In the mid-1920s Stresemann, MacDonald and the French foreign minister Briand succeeded for a time being to pacify Europeans and normalize the antagonisms between the Great Powers. With the Treaty of Locarno, for first time after 1917, all sides seemed satisfied. Locarno gave Europe a sip of hope. It was the greatest and only triumph of the policy of "appeasement." Unfortunately, this triumph turned out more an illusion than reality. The true peace was impossible with a suspicious and insecure France and an unhappy Germany.

Hitler destroyed the political order of Locarno ten year later with the reoccupation of the Rhineland. As I said earlier, the dictator came to power in Germany thanks to the intrigues of the conservative political powers. Different factors helped the growth of popularity of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, but Von Papen and Hindenburg made the crucial mistake to appoint Hitler as a Chancellor with the naive intention to use him temporarily until the conservatives gain enough political power and become able to govern alone. Nobody expected that Hitler would have the potential to begin "revolutionary changes" either at home or abroad. (p. 97) Taylor argues that Hitler became a Furer gradually and the most radical or "revolutionary" political change that he made was the transformation of the German political system from democracy to dictatorship. In his foreign policy, accrding to Taylor, Hitler was not a "revolutionary." In foreign affairs, he simply continued the policy of his predecessors: freeing Germany from the post-war restrictions, restoring its army and recovering its normal status of a great continental power. (p.97)

As it has been said, in foreign policy, Hitler acted according to the circumstances - without a plan or a grand design. His mind operated under the simple truths of the ordinary German man, and his will produced actions according to these simple "truths". Taylor says that Hitler had "a powerful, but uninstructed intellect." His foreign policy reflected the spirit of the conversations that could be heard after the war in any Austrian cafe or German beer house (p. 98). In his foreign policy outlook there was only one element of systematic thinking, and it was not original: his vision was specifically "continental." His ambitions were restricted to Europe, to be more precise, to Eastern Europe. He wanted the East back into the German sphere of influence -- Austria, Poland, Ukraine, the spoils from Brest-Litovsk. According to Taylor, the Eastern expansion was the primary goal of Hitler's foreign policy, if not the only one. A "terrifying literalism" was the driving force of his political actions and intentions (p. 100). Hitler put in motion the "street" politics, he was accomplishing the confused dreams of the ordinary German, and he was doing this with patience and strong nerves, acting step by step, waiting for his opponents' mistakes. "Perhaps," Taylor writes,"this waiting was not at first conscious or deliberate. The greatest masters of statecraft are those who do not know what they are doing." (p.100)

Hitler realized the weakness of his opponents when he abandoned in 1933 the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva. This action was left without consequences and he would continue to test and use the patience of the Western powers until the debacle of the Second World War. But this first act of independent action without any consecuence gave him an assurance that he is free to bluff and check the will of the Allies every time when the occasion permits.

According to Taylor Hitler's first success in foreign policy was the Non-Aggression pact with Poland in 1934. This agreement gave him security to outmanoeuvre France and Britain in the future. Hitler spelled out very carefully the failure of the League of Nations to resolve the problem with the Italian aggression in Abyssinia. It showed him that the international community had no prestige to intervene in cases of violation of collective international obligations. Thus, in 1935, he reoccupied the Rhineland. In return, the French practically did nothing, nor did Britain, Poland or anybody else. The reoccupation of Rhineland, says Taylor, annuled the Versailles system. Germany was free to rearm, and the international system returned to the familiar anarchy of the pre-war years. Yet, says Taylor, international anarchy makes war possible, but it does not make war certain (136). In 1935, there was still scepticism that Germany would cause war; indeed the Europeans apprehended a possible conflict in the Mediterranean between France and Italy. "Wars, when they come, says Taylor, are always different from the war that is expected. Victory goes to the side that has made the fewest mistakes, not to the one that has guessed right" (p. 151). In the pre- Second World War period, Hitler is the side that made fewest mistakes.

After the reoccupation of Rhineland, there was no serious incentive for rearmament in France and Britain. The general reasons for this were three - Englishmen and Frenchmen still did not believe that the policy of "appeasement" was a failure, they did not want a new war, and the economic troubles prevented any plans for military expenditures. Germany started some militarization, but it was not as sizable as people usually think. The popular opinion is that Germany was the only country (except Soviet Russia) that enjoyed full employment after 1935 and this was due to the rearmament. In reality, the economic success was due to Hitler's unorthodox approach to the economy that enabled the government to spent money in public projects despite the Depression. Indeed that was a typical expression of autocratic state capitalism that for a particular period is very effective in facilitating the vitality of economy through measures such as central control on industries and active state manipulation of prices and investments.

Yet, according to Taylor, the watershed between the two world wars was extended over precisely two years. "The post-war period ended when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland on 7 March 1936, the pre-war began when she annexed Austria on 13 March 1938."

Taylor insists that the pre-war period began without a plan. According to him, the popular "Hossbach memorandum," that was recovered for the goals of the Nuremberg trials, and serves as main evidence for Hitler's foreign policy strategy, was nothing but a documented conference meeting at the Chancellery in 1937, on which Hitler was hoping to convince his conservative ministers (among them only Goering was a Nazi) to support his programme of increased armaments against the financial scruples of Minister of Economy Schacht.

The "Hossbach memorandum" was not a real blueprint for action. The Austrian Anschluss in March 1938 came, against the expressed goals in the memorandum, before the "planned" destruction of Czechoslovakia. The politics of Hitler toward Austria had been no different from the traditional German evolutionary approach of awaiting the Austrian Germans to merge with the ethnic mainland without active outside support. But the circumstances permitted an earlier German invasion. After the Anschluss "geography and politics automatically put Czechoslovakia on the agenda" (p. 190), not the points in the memorandum.

Czechoslovakia was a central-European country, composed of national minorities and encircled with unfriendly neighbours (except Romania). The destruction of Czech state was easy - its allies France and Soviet Russia had no courage to defend it, Britain was convinced that the risk from its destruction was lesser comparing with the possibility of second great war. Hitler occupied the Sudeten land, where the German minority lived, with the blessing of Britain and France at Munich. The last station of this unbroken order of narrow but highly effective steps was the free city of Danzig and the Polish Corridor that had been dividing Germany from Eastern Prussia. Danzig marks the real beginning of the Second World War according to the Taylor's interpretation.

After all, what summary can we produce based on Taylor's book? What were the origins of the Second World War?

First, the granule of the future discord had been sowed at Versailles. The Treaty that aimed to create a secure post world war order turned complete failure. It was drawn up without the consent of the defeated nations, it was not a collective agreement, and indeed, it was a compromise with the French fears and the public opinion in the winning states. The Versailles system was incredibly and unduly harming the greatest nation in Europe, Germany, and with this, it was producing constant cankers of instability. During the interwar years, every European politician knew that Versailles was a mistake, but no one was sure how to correct this mistake without endangering the others or loosing his country's international status.

Second, the French and the British had different conceptions about post-war world order. France was engaged in actions that were supposed to assure its security, but she was never satisfied; Britain cared about its tranquility and preferred peace. France was obsessed with security issues, but she was not able to resist the German threat without the support of Britain; on the other side, Britain knew that Germany had the right to seek justice and sincerely believed that once her demands were satisfied she would be pacified. Britain looked at France as the main obstacle against German recovery and consequently as the main disturber of peace. It was unthinkable Britain to support France militarily instead to smooth every reason for open conflict.

Third, during the interwar period, Germany experienced a number of political and economic woes and for all of them, justifiably or not, Versailles was the alleged reason. The radicalization of German society produced the extremist Nazi movement and made the Nazi regime possible. The political environment in Germany and abroad soon or later would produce a rude, cold-blooded politician who would cut up the Gordian knot of the Versailles system. This politician was Hitler. He was a lunatic, who believed that whatever goal man has reached is due to his originality and brutality (Gordon W. Prange, ed. Hitler's Words, Washington, D.C., 1944, p.8). He was a person devoid of doubts, his criminal actions had a "granite foundation" in his anti-Semitic philosophy, and he was free of moral constraints. Such a person cannot be intelligent enough to create a plan for world dominance, he can only expose the defects of international system. Taylor's opinion is exactly this: Hitler was a by-product of a corrupted world, and the responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War, should not be put only on one shoulders as it already happened in 1917.  


Related articles:

The Treaty of Versailles: Peace without Justice

"To what extend the Treaty of Versailles is a cause for the Second World War?"


First World War and Versailles - The Lessons

The Peace that led to War



Submissions Guide
Letters to the Editor
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry
Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about us | contact us