- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

1939: COUNTDOWN TO WAR
By Richard Overy
Viking, $25.95, 159 pages

The events that led to the beginning of World War II in Europe in September 1939 are among the best-known stories in modern history. They occurred more than 70 years ago and appear to belong to a world as far removed from our own as ancient Rome and classical Greece. What benefit can there be for 21st-century readers to wade through this endlessly rehashed territory yet again? When the author is Richard Overy, the benefits and relevance are very great indeed.

Mr. Overy has displayed in books such as “The Battle” (about the Battle of Britain), “Russia’s War” and “Why the Allies Won” an unequaled mastery of analysis and synthesis, ranging over enormous masses of material. Once again, he does not disappoint.

Adolf Hitler was so determined to crush Poland physically in 1939 that it is easy to forget that he did not expect Britain and France to interfere.

This is not to repeat Pat Buchanan’s oft-reiterated fantasy that the entire war could have been avoided if Britain and France had not gone to Poland’s defense in 1939. As Gerhard Weinberg documented so extensively in his classic “A World at Arms,” Hitler’s naval and development programs left no doubt that he was always planning to crush Britain in a war that would start only in 1943, and eventually smash the United States in a war he would launch before the end of the 1940s.

Here, Mr. Overy proves in convincing detail, Hitler never dreamed that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier would take the plunge and honor their commitment to Poland in September 1939. The British and the French had sat back passively for so long, and swallowed one shameless aggression after another, that the Nazi fuhrer unleashed. Hitler was therefore being entirely rational and consistent in expecting that they would back down once again.

Indeed, Chamberlain and Daladier themselves were clearly taken by surprise by their own plunge. Once they declared war, they had no idea what to do next.

The entire combat strength of the Nazi Wehrmacht was fully engaged in pulverizing Poland, and the British military contribution to the western front was nonexistent in September 1939. But the French army could have smashed through Germany’s virtually unmanned defenses if the French high command had possessed the nerve, the energy and the brains to do it. They lacked all of those qualities.

History, as Soren Kierkegaard famously said, is lived forward, but it is written backward. Mr. Overy does a masterful job of showing how the outbreak of war in 1939 and the course that war took in its first months were vastly different from anything Hitler or the Allies, in their very different ways, expected.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland was hugely popular among the German people. But his failure to prevent it from expanding into a full world war against Britain, France and their empires was not welcomed by the German people at all. They had lost too many dead in World War I - just over 20 years earlier - to contemplate with anything other than dread the prospect of another round of hostilities against the same enemies.

Mr. Overy keeps a tight focus in this short but authoritative work. For a broader picture and a useful complement, the reader is advised to revisit Gene Smith’s masterpiece “The Dark Summer” which re-creates the social and political worlds of the British and Polish ruling circles with confidence and depth. Mr. Smith also goes into wonderful depth on German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s fateful visit to Moscow to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact that made war inevitable.

Such caveats are minor, however. Mr. Overy has produced another concise, focused and polished jewel of historical narrative and analysis. The events of more than 70 years ago that he documents also have an eerie, unsettling relevance to our early 21st-century world.

A war that appears inevitable in retrospect nevertheless startled all its participants, most of all the Nazi aggressors, by breaking out. Chamberlain, Halifax and their colleagues certainly miscalculated dramatically, but Hitler and his team did, too. Policies of aggression, boldness and brinkmanship always crash and burn if practiced for too long.

Martin Sieff, chief global analyst for the Globalist, is the author of “Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship Between the United States, China and India” (Cato, 2010).

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