Chapter Four

History and Historians

Two broad and wide-ranging explanations of the origins of the Second World War thus confront one another. Within their extensive span, one or other of these interpretations subsumes many of the other versions of the problem that have been produced; but they do not exhaust them. ‘History will judge’, chorused the ambassadors in Berlin in 1939; but the judgements of historians have been almost endlessly divergent.

Consensus or debate?

It is often said that for some twenty years after the coming of the Second World War in Europe there was little or no debate about its origins. Hitler planned and caused the war, and that was an end of the matter. Then in 1961 A. J. P. Taylor published his book on The Origins of the Second World War, which by its attack on the simple ‘Hitler thesis’ opened a controversy which raged for several years. Shot and shell flew round Mr Taylor's head, and enough fragments could be gathered up from the battlefield to make more books in the years that followed. A quarter of a century later, a group of distinguished historians still found much life and stimulus in ‘the A. J. P. Taylor debate’.1

There is some reality in this picture. The attractions of the simple assertion of Hitler's guilt were certainly strong, and its grip was powerful. The judgement of the Nuremberg tribunal on war criminals, victors' justice though it was, rested on an overwhelming mass of evidence. It scarcely needed to be argued that between 1939 and 1941 Germany attacked her neighbours, and not the other way about: the Dutch did not fling themselves at Germany's throat on 10 May 1940. There was a powerful moral certainty, well expressed by Michael Howard, who fought in the war and later became one of its most distinguished historians: ‘There can have been few people in the western world (and even fewer in the Soviet Union) who did not believe in 1945 that the war which they had fought and won had been not only necessary but in every sense “just”.’2 At the end of the war, political convenience was added to moral conviction. Americans, British, and Russians had all united to fight Hitler, and they could still unite to condemn him after his death. To look further than the guilt of that appalling man might raise questions about American isolation, or British appeasement, or the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which at that stage were better left, like sleeping dogs, to lie.

Common sense, morality, and expediency thus combined to reinforce the thesis of Hitler's unique war guilt. The position presented a refreshing simplicity and certainty by contrast with the maze of conflicting interpretations which had arisen around the question of the origins of the First World War. The British historian G. P. Gooch, who spent much of his energies for some twenty years on the origins of the earlier war, was categorical about the contrast:

While the responsibilities of the war of 1914 remain a subject of controversy, the conflict which began with the German attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939, presents few difficulties to the historian. Opinions naturally differ on the use of their victory by the Allies during the 'twenties and on Anglo-French policy in regard to the dissatisfied Powers since 1931; but the revelation of Hitler's Napoleonic ambitions in March 1939, quickly followed by demands incompatible with Polish independence, places the guilt of the new conflagration squarely on his shoulders.3

Gooch's point, made in 1940, had much force at that time. But it is a serious exaggeration to say that in the 1940s and 1950s the consensus was unbroken. Even to concentrate upon the role of Hitler was not a simple matter. From the time of Hitler's rise to power onwards, there were fierce disputes as to the nature of the Nazi regime and the position of Hitler within it. Was the Nazi regime monolithic, moving as one man under the guidance of its Führer; or was it rather made up of warring groups, with Hitler balancing between them, practising the old skills of divide and rule? Was Hitler himself a Machiavellian, an ideologue, or a psychopath — or perhaps all three at once? Was he an independent agent, or merely the tool of finance capital, a new champion conjured up by the bourgeoisie to protect it against communism and revolution? What was the role of the German officer corps under Nazism — did it suffer the ‘nemesis of power’, or rather the nemesis of helplessness? Such questions had a direct bearing on the apparently simple thesis of Hitler's responsibility for the war; and indeed it was plain from an early date that nothing to do with Hitler was at all simple.4

Moreover, the wartime alliance against Hitler did not long survive the victory of 1945; and as it broke up, so the unanimous agreement to cast the whole blame for the war on Hitler disintegrated with it. It was as early as January 1948 that the American State Department published a volume of documents on Nazi-Soviet Relations, drawn from captured German archives and emphasising the pre-war co-operation between Germany and the Soviet Union in a way which cast some of the blame for the outbreak of war in 1939 on Stalin as well as on Hitler. The Soviet Union followed in the same year with a volume entitled The Falsifiers of History, which blamed American bankers and industrialists for providing the capital to rebuild German war industries in the 1920s and 1930s, and accused Britain and France of encouraging Hitler to turn his aggressive drive towards the east.5 The breakdown of Soviet-American relations and the rise of the ‘cold war’ thus disturbed the consensus on Hitler's sole war guilt at an early date.

The development of historical discussion about the origins of the Second World War in Europe is represented, not so much by a division into a period of consensus followed by a period of controversy, but by sets of contradictory interpretations which have flourished during the whole period since the 1930s. They have not all been continuously and equally prominent: they have come and gone, flared up and faded; but none has been absent from the discussion for very long. They march two by two like the animals into the ark. The idea of an inevitable war confronts that of an unnecessary war. The notion of a planned, premeditated war (war by blueprint, even) stands against that of war by accident or improvisation. Was it Hitler's war, brought about by the character and aims of one man, or another German war, in which Hitler was no more than a new representative of long-standing forces and ambitions? Was it at its heart an ideological war, a European civil war cutting across state boundaries and identities, or was it fundamentally an old-fashioned war between states, a war about power and material interests in which one state made a bid to dominate Europe and others eventually combined to defeat it? Let us look at these contrasting pairs.

Inevitable war or unnecessary war?

The idea of an inevitable war has taken different forms. There was a widespread belief that another war was implicit in the situation which followed that of 1914–18. The long-standing Marxist view that wars are the inevitable result of capitalism was applied to this war as to others, notably in East German works designed to show that Hitler was the instrument of capitalists and industrialists seeking to maximise their profits by controlling the markets and resources of Europe. Other historians have noted that to contemporaries, ‘from a certain time — earlier for some, later for others — war appeared inevitable; there never was a war which caused less surprise when it began’.6

Such notions of inevitability have long confronted a different view, which Churchill embodied in his phrase ‘the unnecessary war’. ‘One day’, he wrote, ‘President Roosevelt told me he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once “The Unnecessary War”. There never was a war more easy to stop….’7 This sentiment was echoed by Namier:

The issue of a crisis depends not so much on its magnitude as on the courage and resolution with which it is met. The second German bid for world domination found Europe weak and divided. At several junctures it could have been stopped without excessive effort or sacrifice, but was not: a failure of European statesmanship … the rest of Europe had neither the faith, nor the will, nor even sufficient repugnance, to offer timely, effective resistance…. Janissaries and appeasers aided Hitler's work: a failure of European morality.8

Both Churchill and Namier were advocates of resistance to Germany from an early date; and their argument was that at certain points the advance of German power could have been checked by the threat, or the comparatively small-scale use, of force. There thus developed the ‘lost opportunities’ school of thought. For example, German rearmament might have been prevented in its early stages, thus depriving Germany of the military strength on which all else depended. The strongest favourite among the ‘lost opportunities’ was seen in the German occupation of the Rhineland demilitarised zone in March 1936, when (it was widely asserted) a mere ‘police action’ was all that was needed. If only the French, preferably supported by Britain, had marched into the Rhineland, the Germans would have withdrawn at once, Hitler would have fallen, and all would have been well. Another opportunity, this time twofold, came to be found in the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938. On the one hand, firm opposition to Germany by the Western powers, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union might have deterred Germany altogether, or at worst have led to a war which would have been shorter and more easily won than that which actually took place in 1939–45. Or on the other hand a mere declaration of opposition by the British government would have brought about a revolt by the German opposition to Hitler, and thus removed the dictator from power. A recent advocate of this view, Patricia Meehan, sums the case up thus: ‘The tragedy of the aborted putsch of 1938 is that it was the moment of maximum opportunity with the minimum risk of failure.’9 A final ‘lost opportunity’ is often seen in the negotiations of May-August 1939 for an alliance between Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, which by its very existence would have deterred Hitler from going to war.

The ‘lost opportunity’ interpretation of events was in practice not too difficult to reconcile with some versions of the ‘inevitable war’ thesis. It was all a matter of dates, so that what was avoidable at one time became inevitable later. Churchill put the two views together within a couple of paragraphs. ‘Once Hitler's Germany had been allowed to rearm without active interference by the Allies and former associated powers, a second World War was almost certain…. Almost all that remained open to France and Britain was to await the moment of the challenge and do the best they could.’10 The same principle could be applied to other ‘lost opportunities’. This fusion of two apparent opposites became firmly lodged in British minds, largely through the influence of Churchill's own writings, and was widely accepted as an interpretation of the origins of the war. The conflict might have been prevented at one of a variety of points, but thereafter assumed a bleak inevitability.

Planned war or improvised war?

The next pair of opposites is made up of war planned and premeditated, and war by improvisation, or even by accident. For a long time the view was widely held that war was brought about by a carefully planned and timed programme of Nazi aggression — ‘blueprint’ was a favourite word. In part this arose from a striking appearance of regularity in German moves. In March 1935 the Versailles restrictions on armaments were thrown off and conscription introduced; and March 1936 saw the occupation of the Rhineland. After a fallow year, the series was resumed, but to a six-monthly instead of an annual rhythm: March 1938, the occupation of Austria; September 1938, the Munich crisis and the annexation of the Sudetenland; March 1939, the Prague coup and the destruction of the remainder of Czechoslovakia; September 1939, the war with Poland; April 1940, the invasion of Denmark and Norway, followed at once by the assault in the west. Once again, such an interpretation gained impetus and authority from Churchill. ‘Europe is confronted with a programme of aggression, nicely calculated and timed, unfolding stage by stage’, he declared in the House of Commons on 14 March 1938; and events seemed to prove him right.11 In the early stages of the war, the British public formed a strong impression of Hitler's infallibility: he knew everything and foresaw everything, and events moved at his bidding. After the war, the tale was taken up at the Nuremberg trials, where a principal charge was one of planning aggressive war. The point was emphasised in the title of a book by a Swiss historian, Walther Hofer, War Premeditated (1954); though in fact this book dealt only with the events of August 1939. In 1960 William Shirer, an American journalist and broadcaster turned historian, published his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (a best-seller in Britain and the USA, and much translated), which embodied the ‘blueprint’ idea in its massive and powerful narrative.

It was this view that was so severely handled in A. J. P. Taylor's book in 1961. Taylor presented Hitler as a Micawber-like figure, always waiting for something to turn up, taking advantage of opportunities presented to him by others; not a planner but a coffee-house talker and dreamer; at best an opportunist and improviser. The war between Germany and Poland assumed almost the appearance of a mere accident, arising because Hitler made a slight error of timing in launching one of his diplomatic manoeuvres, putting off until 29 August a move which he should have made on the 28th.12 The extreme forms of this argument have found little support; but the theme of opportunism and improvisation is another matter. Years before, in a book which was an uncompromising indictment of Hitler, Alan Bullock had noted the opportunist nature of the Führer's diplomacy in August 1939. Even in a chapter firmly entitled ‘Hitler's war’, Bullock described how the dictator hesitated between three courses: another Munich; a war against Poland alone; or a war against Poland which might involve France and Britain. He did not make up his mind until the British government made it up for him by declaring war.13 Three years before the publication of Taylor's book, readers of the Revue d'Histoire de la deuxième guerre mondiale had their attention drawn to evidence of hesitation and indecision in Berlin after the Prague coup, indicating that there was no firmly established plan, with a next stage ready to be executed.14 In 1963, Gordon Brook-Shepherd's book on the German occupation of Austria confirmed with ample proofs that the date and method of the Anschluss were forced upon Hitler by circumstances, and were not part of a pre-arranged plan.15 Since then, the ‘blueprint’ theory of Hitler's foreign policy, the programme nicely calculated and timed, has been largely abandoned.

This has not meant, however, that the whole notion of a plan has been abandoned. Rather, it has been taken up by German historians and linked to a view of Hitler as a man with a systematic framework of thought, within which he adapted his approach to some of the demands and opportunities presented by events.16 Andreas Hillgruber and Klaus Hildebrand have argued a strong case that Hitler had an outline scheme in two phases, the first to establish German control of Europe, and the second (which might well come only after his lifetime) to wrest control of the seas and world domination from Britain and the USA.17 The European stage of such a programme also forms the basis of K. D. Bracher's view that ‘Hitler from the very outset fixed his sights on one unchanging goal: to round off the territory of the national state, and to expand Germany's Lebensraum far beyond the “racial core” of the German people’; a goal which involved moving externally against the Slavs, and internally against the Jews.18 While not every aspect of these positions commands universal assent, they have produced widespread agreement that Hitler's undoubted improvisations must be seen within the framework of a seriously worked out system of thought.19 In this way, what appeared to be diametrically opposed interpretations have been very largely synthesised into what has emerged as a new orthodoxy.

Hitler's war or another German war?

This leads directly to the third pair of contradictory explanations: was this Hitler's war, or (as the advocates of the idea of a Thirty Years War asserted) simply another German war, the prolongation of that of 1914–18? It is not difficult to discern the similarities between the objectives of the Kaiser's Germany, and especially the war aims pursued by Germany in both east and west during the First World War, and the aims of Hitler's Germany. In eastern Europe, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 placed Germany in effective control of the Baltic provinces, Poland, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus. Among the ideas considered by General Ludendorff was the planting of a German colony in the Crimea. Hitler's Germany in 1941–42 aimed at control of much the same area, though by outright domination rather than indirect means; and a German colony was briefly established in the Crimea. In central and western Europe, the zone of German political and economic control sketched out in Bethmann-Hollweg's memorandum of war aims in September 1914 was actually established after the German conquests of 1940. The Kaiser's Germany also embarked on a ‘world policy’, with a great navy and colonial ambitions, which corresponded to Hitler's distant aims of a large fleet and world domination.

Against this strong evidence of continuity is the view that Hitler's personality, the nature and methods of his new regime, and the overriding demands of Nazi ideology constituted a sharp break in German policy, dated either in 1933, when Hitler came to office, or in 1938, when he finally broke the power of the conservative establishment in the Foreign Office and the General Staff. Even though some continuity with the past was maintained, the new elements were more important than the old. In particular, there is a strong case that by the 1930s the old-established German political and military leaders had grown cautious, and were by no means eager for a war of conquest. Hitler introduced a new way of thought, new men from far outside the old élites, and revolutionary new methods. Donald Watt, at the end of his massive study of How War Came, leaves no doubt as to his view of the role of Hitler. ‘Always one returns to Hitler: Hitler exultant, Hitler vehement, Hitler indolent, Hitler playing the great commander….’ And again: ‘Hitler willed, wanted, craved war and the destruction wrought by war’ — though at that point Watt adds, ‘He did not want the war he got.’20

Ideological war or a war for reasons of state?

This contradiction, still unresolved, is closely linked with the last pair of opposite interpretations: was the Second World War in Europe a distinctively ideological war, or a war between states over issues of power, material interests, or simply survival? The ideological element in the Europe of the 1930s was unavoidable. No one could travel in Germany and Italy without observing the ostentatious display of the fascist and Nazi regimes. Few travelled in the USSR, but those who did were very vocal. The Soviet regime attracted some and repelled others with tremendous force, and added much to the ideological vibrancy of Europe. The contrast with the condition of Europe before 1914 was marked. ‘Before 1914 the foreign policies of the European states all belonged to a single species. The chancelleries of the parliamentary democracies conformed to the same philosophy of civilised Machiavellianism as that of the dynastic states….’ Raymond Aron, who wrote these words, had no doubt of the importance of the change. It was exemplified, before the Second World War and even more after it began, by the number and significance of the ‘ideological traitors’ — Germans who preferred the defeat of their own country to a victory by Hitler; Frenchmen who supported a German victory out of disillusion with the Third Republic or active sympathy with Nazism; Russians who fought with their country's enemies against Stalinism. The same phenomenon was exemplified in the resistance movements against German occupation which took shape in Europe in 1939–41. Resisters were not numerous; and they were usually patriots above all; but often they were also ideologically committed. Aron, as both a Frenchman and a Jew, wrote from the heart: ‘man, without being in uniform, was defending his soul. The victory of either side signified, or seemed to signify, a conversion of souls by force.’21

The result was a situation in which there was ideological conflict between states — between the Nazi and fascist regimes and Bolshevik Russia, and between both of these and the parliamentary, capitalist democracies of Britain and France. There were also frequent cases of rebellion by individuals against the ideological character of their own country. When war came, the battle-lines often ran between fellow-citizens of the same country, as well as between one country and another. Moreover, the ideological conflicts involved ideals, values, and the whole working of political and social systems, so that the stakes of war were very high.

Against this is set the view that, despite the undoubted presence of ideological elements, the war was primarily one between states, fought for issues of national security or material gain. John Lukacs, for example, though well aware of the ideological aspects of the war, insisted that ‘Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, de Gaulle were statesmen first of all. They subordinated their philosophical and political preferences to what they thought were the interests of their states.’22 Churchill and de Gaulle above all, the men who refused absolutely to come to terms with Germany in 1940, drew their convictions from a simple, old-fashioned patriotism, rooted in the past and in their view of history; and Lukacs believed that their motives were less complicated and their resistance more steadfast than in those who were impelled by ideology. Stalin too seems to have fought above all for the security and survival of his Russian empire, appealing in 1941 to Russian patriotism and the heroes of the past rather than to communism, even though millions in other countries saw him as the leader of the Workers' Fatherland. In other versions of events, the war appears primarily as a struggle for economic advantage. Germany, with a booming domestic economy and a vast programme of armaments, went to war to secure its imports of raw materials and food. The war was launched by those who were convinced it could be made to pay, and forced upon those whose economic interests were attached to the status quo, and who foresaw only economic ruin resulting from another great conflict.23

The arguments continue. They are not likely to be stilled unless some complete lack of interest or innovation supervenes, leaving the issues to congeal into some inert and uninspiring immobility. So far, there is no sign of this. ‘History will judge’ was the cry in 1939. Its judgements have been, and still are, multifarious and often contradictory. Two wide-ranging and conflicting interpretations still stand, in the Thirty Years War thesis on the one hand, and the explanation from the depression plus Hitler on the other. More detailed examination brings out a wide range of differing views, here marshalled into four sets of contrasting pairs. Some of these views lend support to the Thirty Years War thesis; others — notably those which stress the role of Hitler and of ideology — oppose it. Many years of ardent and industrious historical work have brought us into something of a maze. Can we find a thread which will lead us through it?

There are certainly clues which may be followed. First, it helps to remember that even widely differing interpretations are not necessarily incompatible with one another, but sometimes explain different aspects of the same events. Second, several apparent contradictions are less difficult to comprehend when we grasp firmly that we are dealing with a lengthy process, covering some five or six years, as well as with particular events. It is natural that different explanations applied, and in varying degrees, to different elements in this complex development. Third, we must examine both the underlying forces behind the process by which Europe moved from civil strife and undeclared war to local and eventually Continental war, and also the various points along that road when particular states decided, or were compelled, to go to war. The next part of the book is therefore devoted to a consideration of the underlying forces of ideology, economics, and strategy; and the final part moves to a narrative of events from the mid-1930s to 1941. In this way, while we cannot resolve all the problems and conflicts of evidence and interpretation, we can nevertheless follow a thread which offers a way through the labyrinth.


1. See: W. Roger Louis (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War: A. J. P. Taylor and his Critics (New York 1972); Gordon Martel (ed.), ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ Reconsidered. The A. J. P. Taylor debate after twenty-five years (London 1986). A recent volume of essays, Robert Boyce and Joseph Maiolo (eds), The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues (Basingstoke 2003), shows that the A. J. P. Taylor controversy has largely run its course, and is now a part of the historiography.

2. Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (London 1978), p. 115.

3. G. P. Gooch, ‘The coming of the war’, Contemporary Review, July 1940, p. 9.

4. The whole problem is reviewed in Pierre Ayçoberry, The Nazi Question. An essay on the interpretations of National Socialism 1922–1975 (London 1981). For some of the questions under discussion, see e.g. R. Palme Dutte, Fascism and Social Revolution (London 1934); Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National-Socialism (London 1942), emphasising the role of conflicting groups; J. W. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power (London 1953), on the officer corps.

5. US Department of State, Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939–1941. Documents from the archives of the German Foreign Office, R. J. Sontag and J. S. Beddie (eds) (Washington 1948). Soviet Information Bureau, The Falsifiers of History (Moscow and London 1948).

6. Marlis G. Steinert, Les Origines de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Paris 1974), p. 15; cf. John Lukacs, The Last European War (London 1977), p. 25.

7. W. S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. I (London 1948), p. viii.

8. L. B. Namier, Diplomatic Prelude (London 1950), p. ix.

9. Patricia Meehan, The Unnecessary War. Whitehall and the German Resistance to Hitler (London 1992), p. 186; see generally, pp. 113–86. Both the Rhineland and the plot of 1938 have come to look increasingly unconvincing as lost opportunities (see below, pp. 217, 240–2, 268–9); but they have left their mark on historical and popular opinion.

10. Churchill, Second World War, vol. I, p. 148.

11. House of Commons Debates, 5th series, vol. 333, col. 95.

12. A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London 1961), p. 278.

13. Alan Bullock, Hitler: a study in tyranny (London 1952), ch. 9.

14. O. Desbrosses, in Revue d'Histoire de la deuxième guerre mondiale, no. 29, Jan. 1958, pp. 84–85.

15. Gordon Brook-Shepherd, Anschluss (London 1963).

16. Eberhard Jäckel, Hitler's Weltanschauung (Middletown, Conn. 1972).

17. A. Hillgruber, Hitlers Strategie (Frankfurt 1965); Klaus Hildebrand, The Foreign Policy of the Third Reich (London 1973).

18. K. D. Bracher, The German Dictatorship (London: Penguin Books 1973), p. 37.

19. See William Carr, ‘National Socialism: foreign policy and Wehrmacht’, in Walter Laqueur (ed.), Fascism: a reader's guide (London: Penguin Books 1979), p. 121.

20. Donald Cameron Watt, How War Came. The immediate origins of the Second World War, 1938–1939 (London 1989), pp. 619, 623.

21. Raymond Aron, Peace and War (London 1966), pp. 298, 173.

22. Lukacs, Last European War, p. 327.

23. A. S. Milward, War, Economy and Society, 1939–1945 (London 1977).

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!