Why did the Second World War happen?

We can now say without equivocation that this was Hitler’s war, say historians. But could more intelligent diplomacy on Britain’s part have saved Europe from a devastating conflict? Laurence Rees examines the evidence and what caused the Second World War.

Back in the 1970s, when I was at school, my history teachers were in thrall to AJP Taylor and his Origins of the Second World War (Hamish Hamilton, 1961). They taught that the answer to the question “Why did the Second World War happen?” was to be found to a large extent in the story of the incompetence of successive British governments in the 1930s; and, more particularly, in the stupidity of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the Munich conference in 1938 when he agreed that Adolf Hitler could annex part of Czechoslovakia – the German speaking Sudetenland. The German leader in the 1930s, we were told, following the Taylor line, was a politician “much like any other” and the war had been completely preventable had not near idiots been running Britain.

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Hitler’s war

“Hitler’s beliefs are absolutely paramount as a causal factor in the Second World War,” Richard Evans, the new Regius professor at Cambridge told me. “We know now through documentation that has become available over the last few years that he intended there to be a general European war really absolutely from the outset. He’s telling people in private in 1932, 1933, when he’s coming to power, that he’s going to have a general war.”

It’s a sentiment with which Sir Ian Kershaw, the world expert on Adolf Hitler, emphatically agrees: “The German expansion, as Hitler repeatedly said, could only come about through the sword – people weren’t going to give you this land back willy-nilly, so you had to take it. And that, therefore, was the underlying cause of the beginning of the Second World War in Europe”.

It’s largely thanks to recent research into the economic history of the Nazi state that we can now say without equivocation that this was Hitler’s war. Indeed, the scale of the German armament build-up during the 1930s, ordered directly by the German führer, almost defies belief. By 1938, for example, the Nazis were planning for the German air force to be larger than any previous air fleet in the world – larger even than the eventual size of the American air force at the end of the Second World War.

The aggrieved Germans post-WW1

But, of course, as Richard Overy emphasised to me, we mustn’t completely run away with the idea that Hitler was the only reason the war happened. The underlying, long-term cause of the conflict was a settlement at the end of the First World War which left Germans deeply aggrieved, both at the loss of their territory and the massive reparations the Allies demanded. This, as Overy makes clear, “distorted the international order” and in turn was a crucial factor in making Hitler’s subsequent electoral success possible.

“The important thing,” says Overy, “is identifying why Britain and France go to war. And I think there is a complex set of answers there. I think partly the answer is genuinely that in Britain and France (and in Britain in particular) both the elite – but quite a large part, I think, of the [general] population too – saw themselves as having some kind of responsibility. This wasn’t only responsibilities as the sort of ‘masters of empire’, but responsibility for maintaining the stability of the world order and a world order which, despite their imperialism, represented western values.”

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Why did Britain help Poland?

Shortly after the German takeover of the Czech lands, Neville Chamberlain offered a guarantee to the Polish that if they fell victim to German aggression then the British would, as he put it, “inevitably be drawn” into the subsequent “conflagration”.

And the reason that the British chose to make a stand over Poland, was, it appears, just because they thought that this country was next on Hitler’s wish list. “It’s simply a strategic evaluation,” says Anita Prazmowska, who teaches at the LSE, “this realisation that the balance of power in Europe is tipping dangerously against British interests and it could be dangerous – you’ve got to do something about it.”

Such a partnership was a fantasy, of course. Not only could Britain never have stood by and seen Hitler enslave mainland Europe, but it was obvious by the spring of 1939 that the Nazis could not be trusted to keep to any agreement they signed. As Herman Göring said after the war, treaties between states were “so much toilet paper”.

So Hitler emerges, surely without question now, as the person most responsible for the war. And the fact that such a dark figure – ideologically driven to the point of taking foolhardy risks – exercised such control in 1939 over the destiny of both Germany and the rest of Europe must, even now, 80 years later, be a warning for us all. It doesn’t take much imagination to think what the fate of the world would have been had he possessed nuclear weapons. Indeed, what a study of this subject has led me to believe is that on 30 April 1945, when Hitler finally realised the game was up and held a revolver to his head, if he had actually had the power, he would have blown the whole world apart along with his brains.