The Origins of the Second World War

The Origins of the Second World War

Book - 1961
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Publisher: London : Hamish Hamilton, [c1961]
Branch Call Number: 940.531/TAY BRMA


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Feb 03, 2018

Taylor was neither a Hitler admirer nor an Appeasement apologist. It's clear from the outset that he finds Hitler as loathsome as most others would, and while it's not within the purview of this book to spend too much time on it, he makes note several times that Hitler's greatest crimes were done in the name of the anti-Semitism many in his country (and Europe, and the Americas) had been preaching for decades but were unwilling to act on. That Taylor wanted to spread the blame for the war shouldn't make anyone feel better about Hitler.

Taylor's thesis is that the resolution to World War 1 necessitated World War 2. "The German Question" tormented Europe's leaders for decades. According to Taylor, the most important thing about the Treaty of Versailles was not the reparations or the disarmament of Germany, but the acknowledgement of "Germany" as one state. Germany, as anyone could see from a map, was then the largest state in Europe at the time. One of the many things Great Britain and France could agree on was that Germany *should* be if not the most powerful state, a more powerful state. While they signed onto the Treaty of Versailles, the British were sensitive to American disapproval (and France followed suit). A decade and a half was spent squirming out of the treaty without obviously abandoning it until the takeover of Czechoslovakia.

Taylor's most shocking assertion comes in one of the first chapters: for all of Hitler's bluster and screaming, he wasn't nearly as well-armed as he boasted he was. Churchill was among those who believed him, but he was wrong. He, like many in this story, stumbled into his conclusions, although in his case he stumbled in the right direction. (Let's end Churchill's deification with that, however; Taylor points out twice that Churchill was an admirer of Mussolini.) Does this add to Hitler's reputation as a bully? Of course- but it's also an indication that he was a skilled poker player, and he was playing for his German audience as much as he was his international one.

Benes of Czechoslovakia and Beck of Poland both saw through him and bluffed at certain points, but only Beck was willing to make the call. (The French and English statesmen are not forgiven for their concessions to Hitler; even after every promise he made was broken, the British and French kept believing "this time will be different" while avoiding difficult choices.) Stalin also seems to have understood the kind of person he was dealing with, and his words to Hitler after agreeing to the Non-Aggression Pact make that clear (for all the good it did).

Why is it important to show Hitler in this light? Because it is too easy to explain him away as an Evil Genius and that lets everyone else off the hook. Taylor takes pains to remind people that Hitler said a lot of things- and many of them were quite terrifying- but most of those public statements didn't correspond to what happened; in fact, Hitler concealed most of his plans from his top staff.

Skilled at poker player but lousy at chess, Hitler knew from the beginning that if he had to go to war his cause would be difficult to carry off. He was, in that sense, similar to the other European rulers, none of whom could bear the thought of another World War. The only major power willing to throw around military might was Japan- but even Japan wasn't willing to engage in battles they couldn't win.

Well-written and engrossing. Highly recommended for history students.

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