The origins of World War Two in Europe
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The origins of World War Two in Europe book
World War Two was a catalyst in the twentieth century. It accelerated the demise of Europe’s global inﬂuence, bringing to centre stage two great powers, the Soviet Union and the USA, which afterwards helped to hasten the collapse of European colonial empires. It ﬁnally brought an end to Germany’s bid to dominate the Continent, dating back to 1870-71, paving the way for reconciliation with France and the formation of the CommonMarket. And, through the arrival of nuclear weapons, it ushered in a new era, when the protagonists for global hegemony confronted each other via proxies, arms races, economic warfare, culture and propaganda, because a hot war between them risked mutual annihilation. But while the outcomes of the conﬂict are clear-cut, its origins
remain controversial. ‘Responsibility for this terrible catastrophe’, insisted Neville Chamberlain on the day Germany invaded Poland, ‘lies on the shoulders of one man, the German Chancellor, who has not hesitated to plunge the world into misery in order to serve his own senseless ambitions.’1 Although German aggression lies at the heart of any answer as to which power provided the main impetus for the outbreak of general hostilities, it is too simplistic to speak merely of ‘Hitler’s war’. German ‘white books’ issued during the conﬂict to justify Nazi foreign policy were insistent that Britain and France forced the hostilities onGermany. In that perspective, it was more Chamberlain’s war than Hitler’s. The Third Reich’s expansionism had proceeded unchecked until September 1939. There is also evidence to suggest that when Poland was invaded, Hitler gambled again that Britain and France would merely protest in the same ineﬀectual way as they had done over Germany’s transgression of the Munich Agreement. Equally, it is clear that Hitler was determined to implement his ideologically driven foreign policy, which was bound to lead to a wider war. It can be argued that the power vacuum in central-eastern Europe
arising from World War One and the peace settlement, in combination
with Germany’s reluctance to accept its post-1918 eastern frontiers, rendered conﬂict inevitable. But the timing and manner of its outbreak was down to Hitler, whose racial ideology, fanaticism and persistent chance-taking added new dimensions to German foreign policy. Any examination of the causes of World War Two needs to ask why the counter-challenge to Hitler was so long delayed, and whether an earlier abandonment of appeasement might have postponed or limited the ensuing conﬂict. Why the Western powers, especially Britain, eventually moved towards confrontation is another key question. A diagnosis should take into account how and why the post-1918 settlement unravelled. Recent work demonstrates that the 1920s are worthy of greater consideration in pinpointing where mistakes were made, even if the most critical decisions belong to the succeeding decade. The unsettling eﬀect of Benito Mussolini’s Mediterranean ambitions, and especially of the Abyssinian Crisis, which destroyed the credibility of the League of Nations and got Germany out of isolation, also helps us to understand how the drift to war accelerated towards September 1939. Again, assumptions and miscalculations made in the post-Munich period demand investigation. Nor should we forget the three further stages in the expansion of the European conﬂict down to June 1941: Mussolini’s declaration of war on the Western powers, the subsequent spread of hostilities to the Balkans, and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR.