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About this book

No issue in modern history has been more intensively studied, or subject to wider interpretation, than the origins of the Second World War. A conflict involving three - arguably four - major aggressor Powers, operating simultaneously but largely separately on two continents, inevitably raises complex theories and debates. Each participating power has its own history, and each one must take account of various influences upon the behaviour of its soldiers and statesmen.
His wide-ranging collection of original essays, each by an international expert in their field, covers all aspects of the subject and highlights the controversy that continues to characterise current thinking on the origins of the war. Going beyond the usual Eurocentric approach, Part I examines the roles of all seven of the Great Powers (including Japan and the USA), as well as the parts played by several of the lesser Powers, such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and China. Part II contains chapters which explore key themes that cannot be fully understood within the context of any single country. These themes include the role of ideology, propaganda, intelligence, armaments, economics, diplomacy, the neutral states, peace movements, and the social science approach to war.
Written in clear, jargon-free prose, together these essays provide a comprehensive single-volume text for students and teachers, and are essential reading for all with an interest in the debates surrounding the causes of World War Two.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Debate Continues

Introduction: The Debate Continues

Why continue to study the origins of the Second World War? Few of us today (and fewer with each passing year) have direct experience of the war. For sheer horror, it is the First World War that retains the greater fascination among students of the twentieth century, while the Cold War offers the only recent experience of global conflict. Yet with the events of 1989–91 even the Cold War has ended,1 and arguably none of the three global conflicts of the twentieth century has much relevance to contemporary security problems. Today’s security nightmare has become global terrorists operating outside the nation-state system and armed with weapons of mass destruction. As E. H. Carr observes in What is History?, the present determines what each generation finds most significant in the past.2 Perhaps therefore interest in the Second World War will fade, and popular and scholarly attention will turn instead to the Crusades (1095–1291) and the pre-national forms of order and conflict in the medieval world.
Robert Boyce, Joseph A. Maiolo

The Responsibility of the Powers


The Revisionist Powers

1. Nazi Germany

In January 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power with the firm belief that radical changes both at home and internationally were urgently needed in order to enable him to pursue his supreme goal of mastery of Europe through a war of conquest and expansion. Yet, neither politically nor militarily, economically or socially, did Germany offer the necessary preconditions to fulfil Hitler’s goal and fight a successful war. Thus, Hitler set out to undertake a radical transformation of Germany. In this endeavour he was willingly assisted by the conservatives who had brought him to power and were now participating in government. With regard to foreign policy, leading non-Nazi members of the regime willingly deceived themselves into believing that the radical changes they assisted and, at times, actively encouraged Hitler to implement were intended simply to regain great power status for Germany and to undo the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. They preferred not to confront the possibility that Hitler firmly intended to achieve a much more fundamental transformation of Europe.
Christian Leitz

2. Fascist Italy

Among English-speaking historians, the interpretation of Mussolini’s foreign policy first developed three-quarters of a century ago by the distinguished anti-Fascist historian Gaetano Salvemini has exercised a powerful influence. His depiction of a Mussolini operating without plan or principle was taken up and expanded by the doyen of English historians of Liberal and Fascist Italy, Denis Mack Smith. For Mack Smith, Mussolini’s distinguishing features were an urge to power, lust for conquest and a quest for prestige. The key element — and instrument — in this policy was propaganda, and its key deficiency was a military machine whose strengths the Duce repeatedly exaggerated and whose weaknesses he continually ignored, despite carrying personal responsibility for all three service ministries from 1933. The whole Fascist edifice was a dream built on bluff, and the bluff was called in September 1939 when Mussolini was ‘shocked to find that the Germans expected him to fight’.1 The notion that Fascism — both at home and abroad — was nothing more than a hollow politica del bluff is one which has attracted numerous other scholars, Italian as well as English.
John Gooch

3. Imperial Japan

In November 1948 the conclusion of the International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo handed down to future generations a clear and unequivocal judgement on Japan’s responsibility for the Asian half of the Second World War. The Tribunal declared that the evidence it had heard proved that the 25 defendants at the trial, who were referred to as a ‘criminal and militaristic clique’, had conspired from 1928 to 1945 to wage ‘aggressive war’ against Japan’s neighbours. They were therefore guilty of crimes against peace, as well as, in a number of cases, crimes against humanity.1 As a result of this judgement seven of the defendants, including the former prime minister, General Hideki Tōjō, and the former prime minister and foreign minister, Kōki Hirota, were executed. The other defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from life imprisonment to seven years.
Antony Best

The Great Enigma

4. Soviet Russia and the Spanish Problem

Was not the war of 1939–45 avoidable? When historians look at the diplomacy of the 1930s that failed to forestall the outbreak of war in 1939, they tend to ignore core elements of continuity with the 1920s. They deal with the earlier period only for an explanation of Germany’s relations with the democracies; Britain, in particular. This makes sense. Hostilities were, after all, started against Poland by Hitler’s Germany. And was it not London that declared war on Berlin in September 1939? But when one searches for explanations as to why Hitler was not stopped short of war, it no longer suffices merely to focus on British appeasement of Germany or French weakness, or relations between the powers of western and central Europe, or, indeed, on the causes of American isolationism. Although resolutely and consistently shut out of all serious negotiations by the British government and although militarily incapable of launching an offensive against Germany even before Stalin’s terror struck the Red Army, the Soviet Union has also to be taken into account; the nature of its relations with the democracies, as well as with Hitler’s Germany. And those relations were forged in the 1920s and their nature was incontestably one of barely suppressed hostility; a peace in name only. Moreover, not only was Moscow still seen on all sides as the citadel of revolution in the 1920s, it was also seen as such well into the 1930s; not least because of the Spanish Civil War. For although the Russians might not have been able alone to counterbalance the might of German arms, the consequences of marginalising them into fearful and hostile isolation cost Europe dearly, as the events that unfolded from August 1939 dramatically attested.
Jonathan Haslam

The Status Quo Powers

5. France

The fall of France in June 1940 brought the end of its status as an undisputed Great Power. The international system that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War was vastly changed as the great European empires were progressively dismantled and France, Britain and Germany were relegated to the status of middle-ranking powers. These events have cast a long shadow over historical interpretations of French foreign policy between the wars. The traditional view has tended to understand this policy within a larger narrative of decline and fall. According to this approach, the leadership and institutions of the French Third Republic were in the terminal phase of a long decline. Thus France’s failure to respond to the German remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, its unwillingness to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, and its refusal to stand up to Hitler during the crises of 1938, were all the short-sighted policies of a ‘decadent’ nation on the verge of collapse.1 More recently, a number of historians have challenged this approach. They have placed greater emphasis upon the extraordinarily difficult political, economic and strategic position that confronted France in the 1930s and constrained its freedom of action. In the circumstances, they argue, French national leaders responded with reasonable policies.2
Peter Jackson

6. Britain

On 9 May 1940 three men, Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax met to decide who was to become the next prime minister of Great Britain. At that moment Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht was poised to invade France and the Low Countries and win one of the most spectacular victories in the twentieth century. Churchill himself, after long years in the wilderness, had only become a member of the government on the outbreak of war in September 1939. In the period before the war he had waged a long and lonely struggle against the government’s policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany. On the other hand Neville Chamberlain had resigned as prime minister, having just received a stinging rebuke in a vote of no-confidence in the House of Commons two days earlier.1 Chamberlain had clearly believed that Britain could reach an accommodation with Nazi Germany that would meet Adolf Hitler’s goals, while avoiding another great European conflict. In that effort Halifax had been the prime minister’s steadfast supporter. How these men had reached that room and why Britain now confronted the most dangerous challenge in its history is the subject of this essay.
Williamson Murray

7. The United States

On April 6, 1917, the United States formally joined a wartime coalition for the first time in its history. America’s entry into what later became known as ‘World War I’ (a christening in which Franklin Roosevelt apparently played a role) demonstrated that it had accepted the challenge thrown out by former President Theodore Roosevelt, to ‘play a great part in the world’. Inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric about making the world safe for democracy, Americans set out upon their own ‘Great Crusade’.
Warren F. Kimball

The Small European Powers and China

8. Poland

In the run up to the Second World War Poland briefly occupied a new and prominent role in international relations. Since the closing months of 1938 Poland’s status had changed from that of Germany’s partner in the destruction of Czechoslovakia to its probable next victim. In most European capitals the fear arose that Poland would provoke Germany by a hasty or imprudent response to tensions in the Free City of Danzig. The perception of Poland as a victim rather than a player in the complex game of brinkmanship that marked the months preceding the outbreak of the war, has long persisted, encouraged not least by the provocative work of the British historian A. J. P. Taylor. In his study of the implications of the British policy of appeasement, Taylor suggested that by guaranteeing Polish security and hence the security of the Free City of Danzig, Britain encouraged Poland to become intransigent and that this caused the outbreak of the Second World War.1 While Taylor’s apportioning of responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War to the British policy of appeasement has been extensively debated, the general assumption has persisted that small states were at best passive, at worst opportunistic in their responses to the impending European conflict. The main reason for this is that the Second World War is still seen as the consequence of the breakdown of the Versailles order in which smaller states, first Czechoslovakia and then Poland, played only walk-on roles. By implication, the study of the east European states’ foreign policies appears to be unnecessary. To conclude that they were passive, lacking in foresight and generally inept, is an easily made assumption even now.
Anita J. Prazmowska

9. Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia’s ascent from the ashes of the Great War, the charismatic founder of the new state, Thomas G. Masaryk, and the Czech-German crisis of the 1930s have attracted considerable attention. This chapter approaches the saga from a new perspective by stressing those aspects of Czech history in the inter-war period that contributed to the country’s collapse just two decades after it had appeared on the map.
Igor Lukes

10. The Neutrals

To include a discussion on the neutrals in a book investigating Europe’s descent into war in September 1939 might seem rather perverse. How can states that tried to stay aloof from the war be held in any way responsible for its outbreak? The choice between peace and war surely lay with the Great Powers, whose statesmen paid precious little attention to the wishes of the Czechs, let alone those of their small, neutral neighbours. Yet, for many contemporaries, the concept of neutrality was far from irrelevant to the diplomacy of the 1930s. The drift towards neutrality in the mid-1930s inevitably affected the complexion of European politics at a time when the international system was already strained by the demands of the revisionist powers. ‘Far from discouraging war,’ insisted Quincy Wright, America’s leading international lawyer of the time, ‘neutrality has tended to encourage aggression of the strong against the weak. Neutral rights have themselves provided the basis for disputes which have drawn non-participants into war.’1 This chapter tests these claims by investigating three areas in which the neutrals might be held to have contributed to the destabilisation of the international system before 1939: their ‘rejection’ of collective security, their influence on the operation of the European balance of power, and finally their impact on western defence planning after 1936.
Neville Wylie

11. China

China’s weakness was an important factor permitting and encouraging Japan’s empire-building on the continent of Asia in the 1930s. To a significant extent, the Japan-American collision that finally resulted on 7–8 December 1941 in global war arose out of conflicts between Tokyo and Washington over Japan’s effort to subordinate China. To the extent that China’s weakness encouraged rather than deterred Japanese aggression, the train of events leading first to Sino-Japanese and then to Japanese-American war must be traced back to China’s weakness. Stated differently, a power vacuum on the continent of Asia combined with the global crisis of capitalism that began in 1929 to prompt Japan down the road of expansion and ultimately produce the Asia-Pacific component of what became the Second World War.
John W. Garver



12. Political Science Perspectives

For political scientists, the international relations of the 1930s represent not only a horrifying episode in history, but a case that exemplifies and tests alternative theories of international politics.1 Although international historians and political scientists share a common subject, they approach it quite differently.2 Most historians would shudder to consider the immediate origins of the Second World War as a ‘case’ of something rather than historical phenomena to be understood in their own right; for political scientists, they can only be understood as a case because the very notions of explanation, understanding, and cause-and-effect relations involve comparisons to other situations. The relationships between the case and broader theories flow in both directions. That is, we both use our theories to help understand the case and we use the case as evidence for the validity of the theories, with the danger of circularity being overcome by looking at many aspects and instances.
Robert Jervis

13. Ideology

‘Ideology has been dealt with in literally thousands of books and articles, but (as many other authors also conclude) its definition is as elusive and confused as ever.’ So runs a recent authoritative statement on the subject.1 Since ideology can and does mean different things to different people, it is incumbent at the outset of this essay to explain briefly how the word and the concept are being used.
Alan Cassels

14. Economics

In view of the importance given to economics in the analysis of contemporary politics and international relations, it is remarkable how small a place it occupies in the literature on the origins of the Second World War. For every hundred books on, say, ideology, military plans and policies, intelligence, diplomacy and the personalities involved, scarcely one is published that directly confronts the economic issues. Of the many reasons for this situation, two may be singled out for mention. In the first place, the liberal conventions of historical scholarship place supreme value upon evidence, which in the case of international or diplomatic history means firsthand evidence of influence upon the decision-makers, whereas by and large economic factors exert only an indirect influence upon the making of foreign and defence policies. Second, and closely related to the first, is the negative influence of crude Marxist explanations of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, which began to appear in print even before he took office.1 Based on the assumption that social classes behave precisely in accordance with their economic interests and that under capitalism big business exercises a hegemonic influence over the political system, Marxists presented Hitler as merely the cypher of German economic élites. The manifest inaccuracy of this interpretation served to underline objections to determinist, and particularly economically determinist, approaches to history. Yet to set aside economic factors is to overlook a number of extremely important, arguably crucial, aspects of the pre-war period. For, as the following chapter briefly indicates, the uniquely prolonged and severe economic crisis between the wars profoundly affected all the Great Powers, albeit in different ways, influencing their choice of leaders and even regimes, their levels of arms expenditure, their mutual relations, and ultimately their willingness or reluctance to contemplate war.2
Robert Boyce

15. Peace Movements

At first sight, a study of peace movements may not appear central to an examination of the origins of the Second World War when compared to the ambitions of dictators, the deliberations of cabinets, or the plans of general staffs. Yet such an appearance is misleading. A study of peace movements brings us to the heart of a vital issue. In 1919, over much of western Europe, and above all in France and Britain, the prevailing sentiment was ‘Never again’ — no more war. If that feeling had continued to prevail in these parliamentary democracies, where the support of public opinion was necessary to go to war, there would have been no war in 1939, or at any rate the conflict would have taken a very different form, with France and Britain standing aside for some time. A crucial precondition for the outbreak of war in 1939 was the transformation of the sentiment of ‘Never again’ into the reluctant but resolute acceptance of conflict that actually obtained when war began.
P. M. H. Bell

16. Armaments Competition

Sir Edward Grey’s verdict on 1914 is a suitable starting point for any essay on the relationship between armaments and war. As British Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916, he had experienced firsthand the destabilising effect of the arms race on great power politics. After the war, the danger of ‘great armaments’ had been recognised. In 1919, the League of Nations called for the reduction of national armaments to levels consistent with safety and collective security. In 1925, when Grey published his memoirs, the post-war situation in Europe and Asia had stabilised enough for concerted efforts to begin. The Preparatory Commission for the planned World Disarmament Conference began its work in the following year. Hopes for a speedy outcome, however, proved ill founded. Seven years passed before the Conference convened. Discussions continued in Geneva well into 1934, but the advent of the Nazi regime in 1933 signalled the end of disarmament. The editors of the League of Nations Armaments Year Books had indeed recorded a steady rise in world arms spending from 1925 to 1930. The economic slump forced a reduction in arms spending from 1931 to 1933, but the steady upward trend resumed in 1934. In the 1939–40 edition, the editors explained the massive jump in arms expenditure in 1937–39 as evidence of ‘the state of mind that prevailed in the world after the failure of the [Disarmament] Conference’. In what was to be their final statement on the subject, the editors remarked that, at the time of publication, ‘some ten European and extra-European countries were at war’. Their statistical task had come to a gloomy end.2
Joseph A. Maiolo

17. Intelligence

Intelligence is the collection and analysis of information by a power, to enable it to make maximum use of its resources against rivals and potential enemies. Intelligence is not a form of power but a means to guide its use, whether as a force multiplier, or by helping statesmen to understand their environment and options, and thus how to apply force or leverage, and against whom. Intelligence is a rational activity, but its significance, like rationality itself, is limited. Intelligence shows what can be understood in the context of what cannot be known. It commonly addresses several related questions, which can be answered only in probabilistic terms, hence the uncertainty of any answer must be multiplied by that of others. Subjects under observation defy their observer through denial and deception, and alter their behaviour in response to that of the observer. They use intelligence to guide their actions — and so affect the behaviour of the observer. The truth is not just out there; through the use of intelligence powers may gain greater knowledge of the international environment — and alter it.
John Ferris

18. Diplomacy and Diplomatists

The record of the First World War did severe, if not permanent, damage to the standing and credibility of two of the traditional instruments of European governments and of the élites from which they were recruited. The first victim was the professional military, or, to be more accurate the generals and their general staffs. I have written elsewhere of the effect that this had on their role as advisers on policy to the European powers between the First and the Second World Wars.1
Donald Cameron Watt

19. Propaganda

The axiom that ‘when war breaks out, the first casualty is truth’1 belies the significant role played by propaganda before the outbreak of World War Two. Although more commonly associated during the inter-war years with the dictatorships,2 recent research has uncovered significant propaganda activity, both at home and abroad, on the part of the democracies.3 Many studies focus on domestic campaigns that served to forge national identities at a time when governments were just beginning to regard propaganda, defined in various ways, as an essential function of the peacetime state, although the difficulties of evaluating the impact of this propaganda are compounded by the absence of statistical or attitudinal data relating to public opinion. For example, the American Institute of Public Opinion Research was only founded in 1936 and the nearest British equivalent, Mass Observation, was not formed until 1937.4 Research on propaganda has therefore tended to be top-down, with major areas of controversy forming around speculation, of necessity, about its effects or impact. None the less, it was between the wars that state propaganda conducted at both the national and international levels came to be a fact of everyday political and diplomatic life. Obviously the dictatorships embraced it more readily — and more visibly — as an essential element of their power. But the democracies also engaged in it, more reluctantly, slower and in less obvious, but in many respects more intriguing ways.5 The degree to which this peacetime propaganda conflict contributed towards heightened international tension and misperception, and thereby to the outbreak of war in 1939, is the subject of this chapter.
Philip M. Taylor
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