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‘A Low Dishonest Decade’?: War and Peace in the 1930s

Abstract and Keywords

This analysis of the origins of the Second World War in Europe challenges several key ideas of the historiography: the ‘thirty years war’ thesis, the notion of a European civil war, and the stereotyping of the 1930s as a seemingly unstoppable rush to war after the internationalism of the 1920s. There was no sharp contrast between decades—the period only makes sense as a whole. Churchill’s ‘unnecessary war’ was preventable. Alternatives to appeasement existed. Though the study of war origins starts with Hitler, his policies were decisively shaped by the actions of others and the instability of an international system, heavily impacted by the Great Depression and ideology. Miscalculation rather than design explains the war of 1939. The outbreak of war should not obscure the significance of the 1930s as a laboratory for ideas and institutions that came to fruition after 1945 and which continue to shape international society.

Keywords: Hitler, war origins 1939–45, League of Nations, internationalism, ‘thirty years war’ thesis, appeasement, peace treaties 1919, international history 1930s, Munich, Spanish Civil War

From a dive on ‘Fifty-second Street’ in the ‘neutral air’ of New York W. H. Auden dubbed the 1930s ‘a low dishonest decade’—a hollowing-out and betrayal of 1920s ideals.1 Though periodization helps to make sense of the past, it also caricatures and falsifies. There was no sharp contrast between the internationalism of the twenties and a Gadarene rush to war in the thirties. Attempts to explain the Continent’s rapid descent into savagery have skewed the narrative. The wars and rumours of wars—Italo-Ethiopian War, Rhineland crisis, Spanish Civil War, Anschluss, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig—appear as way stations on a road to destruction. Some accounts try to get the European phase of the Second World War started sooner by suggesting that the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War of July 1936 offers a more convincing beginning for the catastrophe. What Winston Churchill called ‘the unnecessary war’ was preventable. Over-preoccupation with the coming of war has obscured the strength of internationalism. As late as July 1935 a large swathe of British opinion supported sanctions and even the use of force to stop aggression. As well as a prelude to the most savage war in history, the 1930s were a laboratory for ideas and institutions that came to fruition after 1945 and continue to influence international society.

Why did a second European war follow so quickly on the first? Almost everyone in 1945 blamed Adolf Hitler. The beginnings of the two world wars were perceived differently: 1914 seemed more accident than design—in British prime minister David Lloyd George’s words, the nations ‘slithered’ into war; 1939, by contrast, appeared to be an open-and-shut case of wilful aggression. The Nuremberg war crimes trials charged Nazi leaders with launching a premeditated war of aggression. For nearly two decades after 1945 Germany’s culpability went unquestioned, as did the role of British and French appeasers, the so-called ‘guilty men’, accused of whetting Hitler’s appetite for conquest by shameful surrenders. Academic reflection—Rohan Butler’s The Roots of National Socialism (1941) and A. J. P. Taylor’s The Course of German History (1945)—assumed a (p. 208) one-way street from Frederick the Great to Hitler. ‘German thought and German practice’, wrote Butler, ‘have for the last century and a half been undermining the civilization of the West … civilization is confronted face to face with barbarism.’2

A. J. P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War (1961) still provides the best starting point for an understanding of the alarms and excursions of the 1930s. For the first time a leading historian contested Hitler’s culpability. The shock waves rocked academe and the media, sparking acrimonious debates. It was a brilliant achievement. Writing perilously close to events and without full access to British and French archives, Taylor effectively challenged what many regarded as obvious truths. ‘Hitler’, Taylor argued, ‘was not contemplating general war, and probably not intending war at all.’ ‘The vital question’ was why Britain and France did not resist Hitler before 1939.3 Distinguished colleagues like Hugh Trevor Roper, author of The Last Days of Hitler (1947), denounced Taylor’s iconoclasm—the available evidence pointed to Hitler’s guilt. As the Reich crumbled, search teams seized a huge treasure trove of secret documents, supplying prosecutors with evidence for war crimes trials. The inaccessibility of Allied records deterred challenges to the assumption of Nazi guilt. Until the Public Records Act of 1968 established a thirty-year rule of access researchers could not inspect the British archives. French and Soviet records were locked away—no French documents for the 1930s appeared until 1963.

Hitler’s ghost kept Nazism centre stage. It stays sexy, hogging listings; by 2000 the score totalled 37,000 publications on the history of Nazi Germany—12,000 of them since 1995. New Kindle editions of Mein Kampf sell like hot cakes.4 The tally reflects much more than a media obsession with wickedness. Academics have devoted entire research careers to the study of the Führer and his regime. In the United Kingdom a school watchdog warned in 2005 of the Hitlerization of the nation’s history teaching. The German ambassador in London complained of the country’s obsession with Nazism. The fixation with Hitler and the Holocaust helped sustain popular views of the war as ‘Hitler’s war’.

The onset of the Cold War buttressed the authorized version. Former British prime minister and foreign secretary Sir Anthony Eden described the theme of his memoirs as ‘the lessons of the thirties and their application to the fifties’.5 The lesson drawn was that dictators should be contained, not appeased. This was the rationale of the Truman Doctrine of 1947. After the establishment of the two Germanies in 1949 the West, in order to maintain a loyal Federal German Republic, magnified the role of Hitler and his minions. Germans described the Nazi period as ‘the unconquered past’—too recent and traumatic for stocktaking. America’s Cold War ideology lumped Hitler and Stalin together. Political scientists conferred academic respectability on the notion by merging Nazism and communism in a totalitarian model.6 Washington’s intervention in Korea and Vietnam assumed that containment offered the only realistic and honourable strategy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, US media denounced Adlai Stevenson, American ambassador to the United Nations, as an appeaser who ‘wanted a Munich’.7

The image of a Hitler bent on world conquest and emboldened by Western appeasers endured for another reason—it legitimized wartime and post-war regimes in Britain and France. Guilty Men (1940) was prefaced by Churchill’s words, ‘the use of recriminating about the past is to enforce effective action at the present’.8 Britons regarded VE Day (p. 209) as validating national values and ratifying the promise of a welfare state. In Churchill’s words, ‘their finest hour’ heralded a new age of hope and opportunity. France’s regeneration found its legend in the Maquis. Rulers and citizens colluded in manufacturing a myth of a country that had liberated itself—with some aid from allies. But Hitler’s aggression did not adequately explain the speed of the Republic’s collapse or the survival of its British ally. As a result, Anglo-Saxons became convenient fall guys for pre-war foreign policy failures. The script ran as follows. Starting with the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Britain and the United States cheated France by blocking demands for a separate Rhineland and Saar, offering as a sop a Treaty of Guarantee which collapsed within months, leaving France the lone gendarme of an unpopular peace. The retreats of the 1930s and the coming of war originated in British misjudgements. ‘The Munich Agreement’, affirmed a former ambassador to Berlin, ‘was the logical consequence of the policy practiced by Britain and France, but principally inspired by Britain.’9 After bullying her ally into war, the story continued, Britain contributed to defeat by holding back desperately needed RAF fighters in the Battle for France, and prioritizing the evacuation of British troops at Dunkirk. Worse followed with Britain’s attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt ganged up against General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, plotting to replace him by General Giraud, and when this failed excluded him from Allied wartime summits.

Taylor’s claim that Hitler did not plan for war but seized opportunities provided by others triggered the first phase of the debate on origins: Hitler a planner or opportunist? Hugh Trevor Roper, Regius professor of modern history at Oxford University, staunchly defended the planner thesis.10 The planner v. opportunist polemic assumed a monolithic Nazi state, allowing Hitler full power of decision. By the 1970s research uncovered a different picture of the Third Reich—a jungle of competing power centres and warring barons. As a result, a new phase opened: intentionalists v. structuralists—intentionalists asserted the primacy of Hitler’s ideas and intentions; structuralists insisted on the decisive dynamic of rival stakeholders. West German historian Hans Mommsen declared that Hitler was ‘in all questions which needed the adoption of a fundamental and definitive position, a weak dictator’.11 Agreement has emerged on the Third Reich’s racial and foreign policies. The missing link in the literature was the lack of a comprehensive and authoritative economic analysis. At last, we have what are likely to become definitive works on Hitler, the economy, and the functioning of the state.12 Hitler commanded foreign policy decisions. He had an agenda and an itinerary, which he pursued opportunistically. Since the 1990s studies have successfully reinserted the centrality of economics, ideology, and Hitler’s leadership.

Hitler was not responsible for the Second World War in the sense of deliberately planning or intending a world conflict. Nor did he intend a European war in 1939. Yes, he pondered a big war but was quite unready for one in 1939. Commitment to force did not exclude gaining his ends by negotiation. He planned local conflicts—against Czechoslovakia in 1938, against Poland in September 1939. European war began by miscalculation—the invasion of Poland assumed that Britain and France would accept a fait accompli and discuss peace. It ignored a decisive shift in Anglo-French attitudes from (p. 210) the divisions of Munich 1938 to a determination to stop Germany—‘let’s finish this once and for all’ (il faut en finir).

Taylor’s contention that the war had ‘little to do with Hitler’ and that the ‘vital question’ was why Britain and France failed to resist Germany before 1939 rekindled debates on appeasement. Spurred by the release of official papers, scholars revised earlier assessments and reached much more sympathetic conclusions about the ‘guilty men’, especially British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. Appeasement, argued the revisionists, far from being a diplomacy of fear and cowardice, represented a realistic search for détente, propelled by a broad mix of motives: popular support; deep detestation of war; the conviction that Germany had genuine grievances; distrust of communism; a sense of Anglo-German affinity. Above all, military unpreparedness for a triple threat from Germany, Italy, and Japan left no alternative but conciliation. ‘Hope for the best and prepare for the worst’ is how one historian epitomized the process.13 In short, the only practical policy was the one pursued.

Post-revisionists, notably R. A. C. Parker, counter-attacked in force. They interpreted the evidence differently. Chamberlain, they emphasized, neglected alternative options such as accelerating rearmament, giving a clear pledge to France, and seeking the support of the Soviet Union. Instead, the search for agreement with Hitler ‘strengthened both Hitler’s ambitions and his internal authority’. After March 1939 enough support in Parliament and country might have been mobilized for a strong alliance with France and a strategy of containing Germany within a League framework. Sadly, the government ‘rejected effective deterrence’, thereby losing any hope ‘of preventing the Second World War’.14 The decision in March 1939 to guarantee the independence of Poland and Romania came too late to persuade Hitler that Britain and France meant business. Appeasement feelers continued to reach him. He invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, convinced that after the German–Soviet non-aggression treaty of August the democracies could not stop him and would quickly offer a second Munich. British and French leaders, like Hitler, made a serious miscalculation. Misled by faulty intelligence of flagging morale, economic tensions, and indecision in the Nazi hierarchy, they decided to stand firm. Hitler, it seemed, might be bluffing. However, the invasion of Poland left them with no choice but to declare war on Germany in fulfilment of the guarantee of independence given to Poland. The hardening of British and French opinion left no wiggle room—reneging on the guarantee would have signified abdication as great powers and political suicide.

Was Hitler deterrable? Did practical alternatives to appeasement exist? Revisionists have not fully addressed a fundamental criticism of appeasement, namely that it ignored the irrationality of Nazism and Italian Fascism. Western leaders assumed Hitler and Mussolini were sensible, reasonable men who would keep their word. ‘I have the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word’, wrote Chamberlain after meeting Hitler. ‘Hitler’, he told colleagues, ‘would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected … he had now established an influence over Herr Hitler.’15

(p. 211) Appeasement was pursued single-mindedly and in great secrecy. Ministers then and later asserted that the citizenry would not support a war to stop Germany. Older histories endorsed the claim. In truth, opinion split sharply over approaches to Germany. Indeed, a February 1938 poll recorded a large majority opposed to Chamberlain’s policy. Aggressive news management muzzled criticism and suppressed inconvenient news items. A different lead from the top could have constructed a strong majority for resisting Hitler. After Munich a senior BBC official commented: ‘to my mind one of the serious features of … the crisis … was the ignorance of the people of this country … of much of the essential knowledge they should have had … We have, in fact, taken part in a conspiracy of silence.’16 If British and French opinion was more malleable than supposed, so too was the international situation. ‘The outstanding feature’ of the international situation, noted Foreign Secretary Eden in late 1937, was ‘its extreme fluidity’.17 That Hitler wanted war from 1933 does not mean he could not have been stopped. Opportunism and flexibility characterized his approach. Unprepared for a big conflict, he might well have retreated in the face of a determined democratic front in 1937–8.

The jury is still out on France’s responsibility for the decisions that led to war. Contrary to older histories that portrayed Marianne as an also-ran, reluctantly in tow to Britannia, the Third Republic was a pivotal player in international affairs, and its military collapse dramatically transformed European and world politics. Opposing Hitler’s bid for her Czechoslovak ally in 1938 could have prevented the outbreak of European war in September 1939, and a French victory in 1940 would have ended the war before it became global, preserving Europe’s primacy. Researchers did not probe France’s choices, partly because of closed archives, partly because the state prioritized research on the Resistance, and partly because the course of events seemed crystal clear. Demoralized by a series of diplomatic reverses, an ailing Republic without a powerful Continental ally succumbed to defeat and occupation.

Archival releases infused new life into the study of French policy. Scholars constructed fresh narratives. Yet the reasons for the failure of French diplomacy to prevent war and for the subsequent debacle are still controversial. Robert Young’s France and the Origins of the Second World War (1996) sought to rehabilitate the governing elite, arguing that the retreats from power reflected not moral or political ineptness but genuine doubts and uncertainties. The challenges of international politics overwhelmed well-intentioned leaders. Vacillation was both understandable and unavoidable. They did the best they could: ‘contradiction or ambivalence is inherent in the human condition … the trick … is neither to inculpate nor exonerate. It is to explain.’18 True, historians should not rush to judgement. But can explanation be separated from assessment of responsibility? Avoiding judgement leaves us with little more than a truism, namely that the French wrestled with dilemmas common to decision makers everywhere. Demonstrably, ambiguity and uncertainty belong to the human condition. But why did France’s rulers perform so miserably for much of the decade and succeed so well after 1958? Clearly, individual decision makers, state structures, and the economy made a crucial difference. By the spring of 1939 a reviving economy translated into a more confident and assertive diplomacy.

(p. 212) Understandably, the trauma of 1940 made the decade seem like a one-way street to Vichy. Given, however, what we know today about the Battle of France, it makes sense to disentangle the political and military stories: 1940 was primarily a military disaster, not the product of a terminally sick state and society. Moreover, it was an Allied disaster, outcome of a shaky Franco-British alliance and divided counsels. Nevertheless, as Ernest May argued, Germany’s victory, far from being a foregone conclusion, was a risky gamble that might easily have gone wrong.19 While not everyone accepts May’s thesis on 1940, it’s a salutary reminder of the chanciness and openness of events. Individuals could and did make a critical difference. In 1938 Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet battled successfully to keep France out of war. Though French historians blamed the ‘English governess’ for their country’s misfortunes, French appeasement was as much a home-grown product as its British counterpart.20 As much as detestation of war and fear of Germany, it expressed a genuine desire for Franco-German reconciliation and a European settlement. The domestic context of appeasement mattered. Popular Front leaders required international détente in order to minimize domestic strife and safeguard the social reforms of 1936. British tutelage was deliberately fostered to shield disengagement from central and eastern Europe. Publicly, politicians solicited commitments for France’s east European allies; privately, they invited a lead. Far from being hijacked by cross-Channel appeasers they wanted conciliation, cherishing the illusion that Franco-German economic agreements would advance political rapprochement. Alternatives to appeasement existed. Consider the robust revival of French diplomacy in the spring of 1939: instead of taking orders from ‘the English governess’, Paris demanded and got British conscription and a guarantee for Romania. More’s the pity, firmness came too late. If London and Paris had opted for deterrence, could they have counted on Moscow? Russia was the joker in the pack. A veritable mountain of evidence and analysis surrounds British, French, and German intentions. Much of the commentary now wears a distinctly faded look. The fire has gone out of the old controversies. By contrast, tracking Russia’s involvement still sparkles with unresolved controversy. Moscow’s importance as a player is incontestable. The Nazi–Soviet non-aggression pact of August 1939 rendered the coming of war inevitable. Without it Hitler would have hesitated to invade Poland and risk a two-front war. Two questions are very much alive: might Russia have been corralled into an Anglo-French containment front before the Munich Agreement of September 1938? What chances of alliance remained in the winter of 1938–9?

Russia’s role stays problematical because so little is known about Stalin’s inner thinking. His grip on policy was firm. The lack of hard evidence has spawned several interpretations. Soviet historians of the Cold War era stressed Stalin’s commitment to collective security as the main foreign policy goal in the 1930s. The failure of this policy forced him to turn to Germany and conclude a non-aggression pact. Western historians, however, have emphasized the ‘war-revolution’ concept as the main motor, insisting that the pursuit of collective security was really a device to provoke a world war and a revolutionary situation, affording Soviet communism a second chance to champion world revolution. Others suggest that the main objective was to restore German–Soviet political and (p. 213) military cooperation inaugurated by the Rapallo Treaty of 1922. None of these readings is airtight. Geoffrey Roberts contends that security came first for the Soviet ruler.21

The last thing Stalin desired was a big conflict. Ever present was the fear of a great capitalist coalition aimed at smashing the Soviet Union. In the mid-1930s the search for collective security through the League of Nations, popular fronts, and cooperation with Britain and France offered the most promising path. But Anglo-French commitment to non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War, followed by surrender to Hitler’s demands on Czechoslovakia, deepened Stalin’s distrust of the democracies. Was an Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance still negotiable after Munich? Doubtful to say the least. When France’s ambassador attempted to explain his country’s acceptance of Munich, a Soviet apparatchik responded: ‘my poor friend, what have you done? For us I see no other outcome than a fourth partition of Poland.’22

Benito Mussolini’s adventures brought European war closer: invading Ethiopia in 1935, enabling Franco’s victory in Spain, brokering the Munich agreement on Czechoslovakia, attacking Albania in April 1939, and helping Hitler to finish off France in June 1940. Quite an achievement for a courtesy great power without real clout. Scholars differ sharply on the motives and nature of Fascist policy. The evidence supports several interpretations. Pride of place goes to the Duce’s collected works—forty-four volumes, together with Renzo De Felice’s eight-volume biography. The problem is what to make of it all. The chameleon-like quality of leader and movement makes it hard to find coherence and consistency. Novelist Ernest Hemingway attended one of Mussolini’s press conferences. The Duce sat at his desk apparently reading intently before raising his head to greet journalists. Hemingway edged forward to see the book. It was a French–English dictionary—turned upside down.

Chaplin’s Great Dictator (1940) captured the comic elements of the Rome–Berlin Axis. Similarly, mid-twentieth-century British historians treated Mussolini as light relief after the nastiness of Hitler and Stalin. True, Mussolini seemed more moderate—considerably less internal repression (though not in Africa), much dysfunctionality, especially in the army and police, a strong Church and monarchy, and roller-coaster relations with Hitler. Biographer Denis Mack Smith considered Mussolini an opportunist living ‘in cloud cuckoo land’, improvising foreign policy ‘almost daily’.23 In contrast Italian historians, notably Renzo De Felice, viewed Mussolini and his regime sympathetically, asserting that he wanted to avoid war and stressing the continuity of Fascist diplomacy with that of Italy’s pre-1914 governments. According to De Felice, Mussolini, like his Liberal predecessors, exploited his country’s nominal great-power status by playing a balancing role among heavyweights in order to gain empire and leverage. In particular he sought France’s recognition of Italy as a great power with an African empire. For De Felice, Mussolini was a benign dictator: ‘mean spirited, if you will, but far from the cold fanaticism and the ferocious determination of a Hitler, of a Stalin, or of a Churchill’.24 Was Mussolini therefore little more than a fence sitter who, failing to get what he wanted from London and Paris, fell into Hitler’s embrace? De Felice would not accept this verdict but conceded that a new ideological Mussolini emerged in the 1930s.

(p. 214) The dominant voice, however, in the debate is historian MacGregor Knox.25 Mussolini was from the beginning a programmatic dictator, ideologically wired and intent on war. He aimed at making Italy a truly great power by breaking the British and French hold on the Mediterranean and North Africa. The prerequisite was alliance with Germany. The interpretation is forcefully presented but not entirely persuasive. Showman and supreme opportunist, or war-hungry revolutionary ideologue? Mussolini is best seen as a mix of conflicting tendencies. Increasingly attracted to Germany after 1935, he sought the best of both worlds—ideological solidarity with Hitler with autonomy and benefits for Italy. Thus he brokered a deal at Munich because he was unready for war and attempted to do the same in September 1939. In 1940 he waited for confirmation of France’s defeat before, jackal-like, moving in for the spoils.

Because the two world wars originated in a European conflict some historians argue that the years 1914–45 are best understood as a thirty years war, and 1919–39 as a European civil war. ‘To very many people who lived through the years of the 1930s what seemed to be in train was not the approach of another war between states’, wrote one analyst, ‘but the preliminary stages of a civil war between the forces of oligarchy, aristocracy, authoritarianism, fascism and those of popular democracy, socialism, revolution.’26 The rise of paramilitary leagues prepared to use violence to gain their goals had produced by the mid-1930s ‘in most countries of Europe a dissolution of the normal social and political process into civil disorder or civil strife’. Militarization as a result of the First World War, it is alleged, dissolved the idea of a common European society, engendering violence and political extremism.

Did an ideological civil war rage across the Continent? On closer inspection the notion of a European civil war is not as helpful as it might seem. By 1922 the Irish, Finnish, and Russian civil wars had ended; Mussolini and Hitler both came to power without large-scale violence. It is not true that by the mid-1930s most European countries faced the threat of civil dissolution or disorder. French right-wingers clashing with police in the Stavisky riots of 6 February 1934, Mosleyites and Communists battling in London’s East End did not make a revolution. Diversity and complexity characterize interwar Europe. The neat binary categorizations of democrats versus fascists are misleading. It’s remarkable just how much stability and modernization Britain and France enjoyed through the interwar years, as indeed did Scandinavian and Benelux countries and parts of independent central and eastern Europe.

Surely, however, the Spanish war and the paroxysms of the French Popular Front confirm a European civil war? Picturing the Continent as a left v. right battleground ignores important nuances. There were several Spains in 1936–9: Republicans v Nationalists; would-be mediators; those like Salvador de Madriaga who opted out of the conflict; reluctant conscripts—the ‘forest people’ of Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis (2008) arranging informal truces and deserting as quickly as possible. Neutrality in 1914–18 shielded Spain from mainline European tensions. Its peculiarities—peripheral nationalism, anarchism, the land problem, the weakness of the state, the role of the military, and the effects of colonial warfare in Morocco—weighed more than wider European concerns in the breakdown that led to civil war.

(p. 215) To be sure, the sit-in strikes and demonstrations of Popular Front Paris in May–June 1936 gave it a bear garden look. Socialist Marceau Pivert’s utopian slogan ‘everything is possible’ frightened many of the well-heeled into leaving town. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July ratcheted up tensions. In July 1936 Socialist prime minister Léon Blum, after promising military aid to the beleaguered Spanish Popular Front, opted for non-intervention. ‘Before any foreign war’, he argued in 1942, ‘France would have had civil war, with precious little chance of victory for the Republic.’27 At the time, Blum did not voice this fear publicly. Nor did diplomatic observers signal concern about the risk. While Blum and others of the governing elite may have feared civil war, there is no hard evidence that it posed an immediate and significant threat. The danger of civil war in France was more apparent than real. Midsummer madness passed. State and society possessed stamina and resilience. Only two episodes endangered public order—the Stavisky riots of 1934 and the Clichy incident in March 1937 when police fire killed six demonstrators. To be sure, as George Orwell’s train to Irun steamed through the French countryside in December 1936, peasants working in the fields turned and gave the anti-fascist salute but as a gesture of solidarity, not a call to revolution. In the Czech crisis of September 1938, with opinion fiercely split on the pros and cons of defending France’s ally, the Daladier government mobilized a million reservists without protest or incident. Despite sympathy in the French officer corps for rebel Nationalist leader General Francisco Franco, military leaders since the Dreyfus Affair at the turn of the century had shunned intervention in politics. No firm evidence of military plots against the Popular Front has surfaced and there is no reason to think that the general staff would have intervened pronunciamento style.28

At first glance, lumping together the two world wars makes sense. ‘A powerful thesis, resting on much solid evidence and strong internal logic’, conceded historian Philip Bell.29 After all, Germany’s bid for power provides continuity. Writer Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday (1942) evokes the pain of a world shattered by the war of 1914. However, the ‘thirty years war’ interpretation, outwardly so plausible, underwhelms. True, 1914–18 left a fractured world, but not necessarily a doomed one. Responses to the cataclysm depended on generations and vantage points. To someone, like Zweig, reaching maturity before 1914, the losses must have seemed irretrievable; for others, however, peace promised a fresh start—the chance to achieve the reconciliation and disarmament that had eluded the old world. Of course, German ambitions fired both conflicts, but there were significant differences between 1914 and 1939. Hitler’s racist genocidal mission presented a new phenomenon. Yes, Hitler shared Kaiser Wilhelm II’s aim of making Germany No. 1 in Europe, but he also contemplated a bid for world power. Philosophically, the ‘thirty years war’ concept implies a determinism that denies the intrinsic contingency of events. If Europe’s history ran on tramlines, what agency did leaders, ideologies, and economic forces have? And why stop with a thirty-year span? Why not settle for Philip Bobbitt’s long seventy-six-year epochal war—‘the war that began in 1914 must properly be seen as having continued until 1990’.30 The trouble with catch-all explanations is that, like original sin, they appear to explain a lot but in fact explain little. They do not tell us why an international war started in Europe in (p. 216) 1939 rather than 1936 or 1945. Most importantly, the ‘thirty years war’ concept, as well as being overly deterministic, does not square with the evidence of renewal and stabilization in the 1920s. In The Lights That Failed (2005) Zara Steiner argues forcefully that the 1920s constituted a new beginning in international relations, not just marking time on the road to a second war.

The Hitlerization of international relations in the 1930s obscures a fundamental truth. Germany and other state actors operated within a weak multipolar system. Systemic instability gave Hitler and Mussolini their opportunities. Among the ‘usual suspects’ for the coming of war the Versailles Treaty ranked high. Yet there is much more to be said for the treaty and the peace as a whole than older interpretations allowed. A flawed settlement yes, but not a punitive peace. In fact, all things considered, a considerable achievement. The negativities of the peacemaking sprang from the disarray of the victors. The problem was not so much the treaties as the fragility of the makeshift settlement. The First World War shattered a self-confident, self-sustaining Eurocentric world order, replacing it with a volatile transitional arrangement—flawed by Russia’s absence and America’s withdrawal. Nevertheless, the Locarno treaties of 1925 registered a real sense of stabilization and promise for the future. Two mega challenges swamped the system: the economic tsunami of 1929 and the rise of ideologies that did not share liberal democratic assumptions.

The world economic crisis devastated the domestic and international landscape, fuelling the rise of extremist political movements and the likelihood of war. ‘No single factor’, writes Richard Overy, ‘was more important in explaining the breakdown of the diplomatic system in the 1930s than the world economic crisis.’31 Though economic historians differ over the causation of the great crash, they agree on the consequences. By pulling the plug on the international economy and exacerbating social conflict within states, the Depression undermined the territorial status quo. Collapsing stock markets, bank failures, and mass unemployment brought political upheaval, which in turn hobbled international cooperation. Protectionism and beggar-my-neighbour policies destroyed trust and confidence. As well as nurturing Hitler’s rise to power, the crash provided neighbouring states with cogent reasons for conciliating him. War, it was feared, would destroy the prospects of recovery. Deflation and the fear of economic aftershocks delayed rearmament. Capitalism itself appeared threatened. ‘Men and women all over the world’, wrote the editor of The Survey of International Affairs 1931, seriously contemplated ‘the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down’.

Marxists fitted the Great Depression into an economic explanation of the Second World War that became part of Soviet historiography. With capitalism on the skids imperialist powers allegedly fought each other for markets, resources, and territory—much as Vladimir Lenin had diagnosed the war of 1914. German big business had Hitler on the payroll and called the tune. The Third Reich’s economic troubles in the late 1930s, it was argued, drove Hitler into a war for plunder.32 But these perspectives never dominated mainstream historical writing. The pragmatism of non-Marxist scholars resisted thesis-driven history whether Marxist or of the Spengler-Toynbee variety. Like the ‘thirty years war’ thesis the economic interpretation is a catch-all that tells us next to (p. 217) nothing about the specificity of 1939–45. Adam Tooze’s investigation of the German economy refutes the idea of a domestic economic crisis in 1938–9. As for big business, while it certainly bankrolled Hitler at times, the analyses of Ian Kershaw and Richard Evans suggest a partnership—with Hitler in the driving seat.33

The clash of utopian ideologies created a dystopian international system. The very bitterness of the war of creeds supplied a rationale for appeasement. Liberal democratic leaders aimed to bridge the divide between dictatorships and democracies with a so-called realistic, pragmatic diplomacy. ‘It was necessary to get rid of ideological prejudice’, asserted the French foreign minister, and ‘employ the type of diplomacy which seeks … useful relations … with every country’.34 Taking sides, it seemed, would only divide Europe into armed camps and recreate the international anarchy of 1914. Conference diplomacy, which had proved itself in the First World War and in the 1920s, seemed to offer a possible solution to the ideological gap. French prime minister Pierre Laval had an almost mystical faith in face-to-face contact: ‘he himself would certainly convince the Führer if only he could speak to him personally. Admittedly he spoke no German but the Führer would see that his intentions were honest.’35 Unfortunately, the difference in values between democracies and dictatorships went much deeper than supposed. Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin had no interest in cooperating with the international community to achieve lasting outcomes.

By contrast, liberal leaders assumed that there could be no final incompatible aspirations, where the wishes of one leader are wholly irreconcilable with those of another. The war of ideologies disadvantaged liberal elites in other ways. Inability to compete with the dynamism and projects of the dictatorships threw them on the defensive, as did the conviction that the peace settlement had to be revised. The assumption was that Germany and Italy had the initiative and must be placated. ‘The man in possession when challenged’, acknowledged a British junior minister, ‘must eventually part with something.’36 The dynamics of a failing international system made decision-making much more difficult and hazardous. As in the run-up to the First World War, the cumulative effect of frequent crises was increased turbulence. An effect became a cause, reinforcing the original cause. The rapidity of change blurred the distinction between war and peace. ‘We are already in a state of mobilization and at war, the only difference is that there is no shooting yet’, announced Hitler’s air force chief Hermann Göring in 1936.37 President Roosevelt condemned ‘a reign of terror and international lawlessness’.38 Extra-European events heightened tension. The Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937 without a Japanese declaration of war.

The elephant in the room was the United States. It’s hard to believe that a hegemonic world power from 1945 to the present stayed at home, leaving Europeans to manage most of the planet. Washington’s political withdrawal from Europe after 1919 left it with a strong economic, financial, and cultural presence. Anglo-American cooperation in the 1920s shaped European stabilization,39 while foundations like Carnegie and Rockefeller funded the League of Nations as membership, and credibility, slipped. ‘It is always best and safest to count on nothing from the Americans except words’, wrote Chamberlain in December 1937.40 But words were enough for Anglo-French leaders—they sought (p. 218) American endorsement, not leadership or interference. There is no evidence that President Franklin Roosevelt’s appeal to Hitler in September 1938 for a conference swayed the Führer, but the appeal’s significance, together with previous messages, lay in its impact on world opinion. The moral authority and prestige of the United States unequivocally supported conciliation and compromise. Witness the president’s cable to Chamberlain after the premier accepted Hitler’s invitation to a conference in Munich: ‘Good man’.41

Nazism’s role as a driver of German expansion highlights another weakness of the ‘thirty years war’ concept. It is now generally agreed that despite continuities like the pursuit of empire in eastern Europe and European hegemony, the discontinuities count for more. In effect the Third Reich concocted a new menu. Fired with a racial and ideological brew, it reached out for much more than Wilhelmine Germany had attempted. Hitler targeted the United States as chief enemy because of its economic might and as the centre of world Jewry. True, a powerful mix of social Darwinism and nationalism fuelled imperial Germany’s expansionism, but elites accepted the international system. Nazism, however, as Hitler insisted in 1936, was a ‘doctrine of conflict’. Violence was of its essence—internal terror, external conquest, and genocide. Nazi diplomacy established a continuity between peace and war where ‘subversion, propaganda, diplomatic and economic pressure, war of nerves, threat of war, localized war and general war itself all merged into a single spectrum’.42 Recent writing re-emphasizes the force of ideology for racial policy and territorial expansion. Ideology furnished the ultimate aim of world domination based on the rule of an Aryan master race. The Second Reich germanized non-Germans but did not murder them; the Third Reich made anti-Semitism an official state doctrine for the first time in modern history.

As war loomed, internationalism lost ground. While membership of the League of Nations Union (LNU) stayed steady at 200,000 in 1939, the circulation of its journal slumped from 100,000 at its peak to 8,000. Thirty-eight per cent of Britain’s adult citizens took part in the LNU’s ‘Peace Ballot’ of 1935. At its zenith in 1931 the organization had 400,000 members organized in 3,000 branches. What happened to internationalist aspirations? Only recently have scholars started to engage with such a profoundly important theme. The history of the LNU, one of the largest interwar voluntary associations, illuminates the movement’s difficulties. Nationalism and class trumped internationalism. ‘The Poshocracy’, as Susan Pedersen terms it, that led the organization prioritized social harmony at home and abroad. Members assumed that ‘Britain was the League’s strongest supporter because it was the most selflessly internationalist power’.43 The interests of Britain and humanity conveniently coincided. In short, domestic political culture prevailed. It’s very easy to follow older histories in writing off the League and internationalism as failures. This would be a great mistake. Partial failure, yes. The League—more accurately the great powers—did not deliver disarmament and collective security. Over a longer perspective, however, the continuity of internationalism in its Victorian, interwar, and post-1945 phases contributed hugely to world politics. The United Nations, as Mark Mazower argues, grew out of the League and interwar aspirations.44

(p. 219) The failure of internationalists to stop war has to be understood in the context of citizenry and democracy. The British state had a long way to go to reach maturity—late twentieth-century buzzwords like accountability, consultation, and transparency had yet to be invented. At this time and for many decades governing elites considered external policymaking and foreign affairs as arcane matters, the preserve of the foreign secretary and Foreign Office old Etonians. Rank-and-file internationalists, citizens generally, and even Parliament were perceived as intruders. This class barrier connects with the issue of public attitudes towards appeasement. Starved of reliable information and discussion, citizens acquiesced in top-down initiatives. The BBC, with a monopoly of broadcasting, neglected world affairs, as officials admitted. Few academics wrote on international affairs—historians considered the causes of the First World War contemporary enough. True, this was still an age of newspaper reading, but press treatment of key foreign events, including their dating, was unreliable. Writing in 1940 Robert Graves and Alan Hodge discovered ‘widespread disagreement in the Press about even so recent and important an event as the German re-occupation of the Rhineland’. They concluded: ‘the more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory; yet most people read little else’.45

‘A low dishonest decade?’ Not so. Literary critic Walter Benjamin imagined the face of Paul Klee’s angel of history turned towards the past, viewing it as a single great catastrophe. A storm catches the angel’s wings, pushing him backwards into the future. Gulag, Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the Cold War threat of nuclear Armageddon deformed perceptions of the 1930s. The title of Zara Steiner’s international history, The Triumph of the Dark, conveys the era’s disillusionment. The absence of subversive laughter thickens the sense of growing darkness—no Monty Pythons and Blackadders, alas. Leaders and followers took themselves all too seriously. Surprisingly, however, on one occasion Hitler hinted at humour. Questioned by Britain’s ambassador about the role of the paramilitary SS (Schutzstaffel) and SA (Sturmabteilung), Hitler denied their military character, saying they were just like the Salvation Army in England. At that point the ambassador burst out laughing. Yet the dark did not prevail. In many ways—political and social reform and international experiment—the period proved positive and foundational for the second half of the century.

Has everything that matters been said about the decade? Far from it. Seventy-five years on, many issues remain unexplored. The discipline of international history is finally emerging from a long fixation with elites and nation states. Enough said on Hitler, appeasement, and the foreign policies of the great powers; too little on many key questions. Greatly needed are comparative transnational studies of central concerns. High on the list are internationalism, pacifism, public opinion, news management, political cultures, ‘fringe’ diplomacy, ideological mobilization of Germans, Italians, and Russians, intelligence, relationships between business organizations and governments. Mental maps and prosopography promise a rewarding methodology for the discipline. We need a study of the British Foreign Office in the 1930s comparable to Zara Steiner’s work on the pre-1914 Office; a full investigation of British opinion in the 1930s is long overdue. Intelligence data presents another challenge. The large releases in recent years have yet to be incorporated into the narratives. One growth area in the historiography (p. 220) has been the investigation of German-based businesses in the Nazi period. The relationship between foreign policy and business in the democracies deserves similar scrutiny. Missing, too, is an analysis of the ideological mobilization of ordinary Germans, Italians, and Russians. As well as studies of national pacifist movements, analyses of transnational interactions are needed. The same applies to internationalism. The grass-roots movements that helped sustain the League of Nations and its agencies are only now emerging from the shadows. New questions and themes will continue to reshape perspectives. This is the nature of history. In Bertolt Brecht’s words:

  • Indeed it is a curious way of coping:
  • To close the play, leaving the issue open.46

Czesław Miłosz’s ‘Old Jew of Galicia’ should have the last word:

WHEN someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.47

Further Reading

Steiner, Zara, The Lights That Failed: European International History, 1919–1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).Find this resource:

    Steiner, Zara, The Triumph of the Dark: European International History, 1933–1939, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).Find this resource:


      (*) This chapter draws on my chapter, ‘Historians at War’, in Frank McDonough (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War (London: Continuum, 2011), 507–24.

      (2.) Butler, The Roots of National Socialism (London: Faber & Faber, 1941), 196–7.

      (3.) A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 218; The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1963), 9.

      (4.) The Times, Thursday 9 January 2014, 35.

      (5.) The Memoirs of Sir Anthony Eden, Vol. II: Facing the Dictators (London: Cassell, 1960), Foreword.

      (6.) Zbigniew K. Brzezinski and Carl J. Friedrich, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956).

      (7.) Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 120.

      (8.) Cato (pseudonym, M. Foot and M. Howard), Guilty Men (London: V. Gollancz, 1940).

      (9.) André François Poncet, Souvenir d’une ambassade a Berlin (Paris: Flammarion, 1946), 314.

      (10.) A. J. P. Taylor, ‘How to Quote: Exercises for Beginners’ and H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘A Reply’, both in Esmonde M. Robertson (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War: Historical Interpretations (London: Macmillan, 1971), 100–4.

      (11.) Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (London: Edward Arnold, 2000), 70 n. 5.

      (12.) Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Viking, 2006); Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (New York: Norton, 1999); Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis (New York: Norton, 2000); Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2004); Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York: Penguin, 2005); Evans, The Third Reich At War (New York: Penguin, 2009).

      (13.) David Dilks, ‘“We must hope for the best and prepare for the worst”: The Prime Minister, the Cabinet and Hitler’s Germany 1937–1939’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 73 (1987).

      (14.) Ruth Henig, The Origins of the Second World War 1933–1941 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 91; starting points for the revisionist argument are: R. A. C. Parker, Chamberlain and Appeasement (London: Macmillan, 1993); Frank McDonough, Neville Chamberlain: Appeasement and the British Road to War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).

      (15.) Anthony Adamthwaite, The Making of the Second World War (London: Allen and Unwin, 1977), 62–3.

      (16.) Anthony Adamthwaite, ‘The British Government and the Media, 1937–1938’, Journal of Contemporary History, 18 (1983), 291.

      (17.) Eden Memoirs, ii. 520.

      (18.) Robert Young, France and the Origins of the Second World War (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996), 150.

      (19.) Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).

      (20.) F. Bédarida, ‘La Gouvernante anglaise’, in René Rémond and J. Bourdin (eds.), Édouard Daladier, chef de gouvernement (Avril 1938–September 1939) (Paris: Presse de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1977), 228–40.

      (21.) Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 7.

      (22.) Anthony Adamthwaite, France and the Coming of the Second World War (London: Cass, 1977), 264.

      (23.) Frank McDonough, The Origins of the First and Second World Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 98.

      (24.) MacGregor Knox, ‘In the Duce’s Defence’, TLS, 26 February 1999.

      (25.) MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, 1939–1941 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982); To The Threshold of Power 1922/33: Origins and Dynamics of the Fascist and National Socialist Dictatorships (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

      (26.) D. C. Watt, Too Serious a Business (London: Temple Smith, 1975), 15.

      (27.) C. Audry, Léon Blum ou la politique du juste (Paris: René Juillard, 1955), 126–7.

      (28.) For the French officer corps and military responses to Spain see Martin S. Alexander, ‘Soldiers and Socialists: The French Officer Corps and Leftist Governments, 1935–1937’, in Martin S. Alexander and Helen Graham (eds.), The French and Spanish Popular Fronts: Comparative Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 62–78; Peter Jackson, ‘French Strategy and the Spanish Civil War’, in Christian Leitz and David J. Dunthorn (eds.), Spain in an International Context 1936–1959 (New York: Berghahn Books, 1999), 55–79.

      (29.) P. M. H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (Harlow: Pearson, 2007), 32.

      (30.) Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (New York: Anchor, 2003 edn), 571.

      (32.) Tim Mason and R. J. Overy, ‘Debate: Germany, “Domestic Crisis” and War in 1939’, in Patrick Finney (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War (London: Arnold, 1997), 90–112.

      (39.) Patrick Cohrs, The Unfinished Peace after World War I: America, Britain and the Stabilization of Europe, 1919–1932 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

      (40.) Cited in Kevin Smith, ‘Reassessing Roosevelt’s View of Chamberlain after Munich: Ideological Affinity in the Geoffrey Thompson–Claude Bowers Correspondence’, Diplomatic History, 33/5 (2009), 839–40.

      (41.) Roosevelt to Kennedy, 28 September 1938, in Donald B. Schewe (ed.), Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, Sept. 1938–Nov. 1938 (New York: Garland, 1979).

      (42.) J. P. Stern, Hitler, the Führer and the People (London: Fontana, 1975), 216.

      (43.) Susan Pedersen, ‘Triumph of the Poshocracy’, review of Helen McCarthy, The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c.1918–1945 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), London Review of Books, 8 August 2013, 19.

      (44.) Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 15.

      (45.) The Long Week-End (Harmondsworth: Penguin edn, 1971), 6–7.

      (46.) ‘The Good Person of Szechwan’, Epilogue, in Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays, vi, ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Methuen, 1994), 111.

      (47.) Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, epigraph (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).