Rothbard Archives

Home | Mises Library | Review of The Origins of the Second World War

Review of The Origins of the Second World War

  • treaty of versailles

Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld History

03/13/2017Murray N. Rothbard

[From a memo to Mr. Kenneth Templeton at the William Volker Fund, April 18, 1962.]

It is not often that one is privileged to review a book of monumental import, a truly significant "breakthrough" from obscuran­tism to historical knowledge and insight. But such a book is the magnificent work by A.J .P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961 — now New York: Athenaeum, 1962). As Taylor points out and explains at the beginn­ing of this book, Revisionism of World War II, in every country of the world, has been virtually non-existent. In the United States Pearl Harbor revisionism has progressed a long way, and built up a successful body of historical literature, so that its opponents have had to beat one retreat after another. But, in vivid contrast to the situation after World War I, the origins of the ''1939 war in Europe have been a locked door," and the historical profession, as well as all the general public and official opinion, in all the countries involved, have clung grimly and tenaciously to almost the same views that were held at the height of the­ conflict itself. While there has been a substantial shift in the wartime view that all Germany is and was forever guilty of war there has been no shift in the wartime view of Hitler and his Administration, and of the supposedly sole guilt which they incurred. The extent of the stifling atmosphere is indicated by the automatic disreputability, the shock, and shame, which any deviation from this propaganda line incurs if expressed verbally or in print. Any raising of the semblance of a doubt over the official line that (a) Hitler was bent on conquering the world, and (b) the only way to meet the situation was to take a "firm" line and stop him, is to incur the automatic charge of being "pro-Hitler" or "pro-Nazi." In the same way, the "historical blackout" operates today in the Cold War; any intimation that the Soviet is not solely responsible for the Cold War is met with the charge of being "pro-Communist" or "soft on Communism." All this is immeasurably aided by the old propaganda trick of identifying a State's domestic with its foreign policy; paint a government's domestic policy as wicked enough (e.g., Hitler, Communism), and the ignorant and the superficial will automatically agree that this wicked government must be guilty, and uniquely guilty, of any wars or threats of war that might arise, and that conversely the "good" United States (or Britain or France) will be uniquely innocent and virtuous. In the United States, even Pearl Harbor revisionism could only fight its way against heavy and oppressive odds, and its champions could be written off by the Establishment as either "mere journalists" (Morgenstern, Chamberlin) or as former isolationists and opponents of U.S. entry into the war (Barnes, Tansill, et al.) — although this was hardly a disqualification for the most enthusiastic praise lavished on such renegade ex-isolationists as Langer, Commager, et al. And, Pearl Harbor revisionism has faced no difficulties compared to revisionism on Hitler and Germany — for the wartime emotionalism whipped up here and abroad against Japan was as nothing compared to the frenzy whipped up against Germany and against Hitler. Here the blackout war-born propaganda frenzy has been virtually total.

Into this miasma has stepped, almost like a miraculous deus ex machina, the widely-renowned Oxford professor, A.J.P. Taylor. The shock here is particularly notable and remarkable because Taylor has been distinctive, even among his fellow Establishment historians, for the venom and sweep of his Germanophobia, which he had applied to virtually every European war in addition to World War II. And now, after being widely heralded by the "blackout boys" as a great historian, Prof. Taylor has not only radically changed his mind, but changed it to publish the first real revisionist work on 1939. The personal attacks on Taylor have been predictably numerous, vicious, and virulent. But the important thing is that Taylor was too prominent to ignore, and therefore his book is being, and will be, read, and marks the first great revisionist breakthrough on 1939. It is an inspiring lesson, this story, for it shows that regardless of how virulent and determined the suppression of truth, truth will out, that from somewhere courageous and independent-minded intellectuals and scholars will seize upon it and publish it to the world. And it will be heard. Why the shift in Taylor's entire orientation and approach to Germany?  Perfervid personal smears have abounded (e.g., by Trevor-Roper and by Rowse), and it has been suggested that this is all an amusing game, pour epater le bourgeois. None of this is worthy of comment. But one review that might be noted, and one of the most vicious, was by Prof. Stephen Tonsor in National Review. Tonsor, hardly mentioning the contents, hysterically charged that this was all a "presentist" tract, not about Hitler at all, but in the interests of "appeasing" Soviet Russia. But if this had been the reason for Taylor's shift, then he would have shifted long ago, at the beginning of the Cold War. Any yet, as recently as 1958, Prof. Taylor, in his book The Troublemakers: Dissent Over Foreign Policy, 1792–1939 (Indiana University Press, 1958), while praising all the pro-peace dissenters from foreign policy in modern British history, praised the pro-war dissenters from the appeasement policy of the late 1930s. As late as 1958, then, Taylor clung as tenaciously as before to his Germanophobic line (the book incidentally is dedicated to the eminent Germanophobe, Alan Bullock). "Presentist" policy toward Russia, then, could hardly have been the motive. No, there is only one explanation. A.J.P. Taylor began to investigate the documents, and as he did so, he began to realize the truth. The power of the truth, and his courageous recognition of the truth, swept away all of his own biases and preconceptions, and he next took the enormously courageous step to dare to publish these highly important findings to the world. Already, despite the volley of smears, Taylor has made a considerable impact; the distinguished and highly respectable History Book Club has picked the Taylor book as one of its books of the month, and in the History Book Club News the Taylor book received an amazingly favorable review from none other than Walter Millis, formerly one of the leaders of the "blackout brigade" (Millis did not grasp the full implications of the Taylor findings, but this is certainly an excellent beginning).

The central theme of Taylor is simply this: Germany and Hitler were not uniquely guilty of launching World War II (indeed they were scarcely guilty at all); Hitler was not bent on world conquest, for which he had armed Germany to the teeth and constructed a "timetable." Hitler, in brief, (in foreign affairs) was not a uniquely evil monster or daimon, who would continue to gobble up countries diabolically until stopped by superior force. Hitler was a rational German statesman, pursuing — with considerable intuitive insight — a traditional, post-Versailles German policy (to which we might add intimations of desires to expand eastward in an attack on Bolshevism). But basically, Hitler has no "master plan"; he was a German intent, like all Germans, on revising the intolerable and stupid Versailles-diktat, and on doing so by peaceful means, and in collaboration with the British and French. One thing is sure: Hitler had no designs, no plans, not even vague intimations, to expand westward against Britain and France (let alone the United States). Hitler admired the British Empire and wished to collaborate with it. Not only did Hitler do this with insight, he did it with patience, as Taylor excellently shows; the legend (that perhaps all of us have accepted in one degree or another), is that Hitler annoyingly created one European crisis after another, in the late 1930s, proceeding hungrily onward from one victory to another; actually, the crises naturally arose, were developed from external conditions (largely from the breakup of the inherently unstable conditions imposed by the Versailles-diktat), and by others, and which Hitler patiently awaited the outcome to use to his and Germany's advantage.

The European tragedy was that it was generally admitted, by most of the British, by the French (when their grandeur was not involved), and by world opinion, that the Germans were morally right, that the Versailles settlements deserved to be radically revised (e.g., the truncation, and then the prohibited Anschluss, of Austria; the geographical abortion under Czech despotism that called itself the "democracy of Czechoslovakia"; Polish tyranny over the Germans in the Corridor and Danzig, to say nothing of Upper Silesia, etc.). Being morally and generally realized as such, the Versailles settlement was also foredoomed to failure, as the suffering peoples continually would clamor for redress. Taylor points out that it was the great merit of the unsung Ramsay MacDonald to have realized this and to have set the "appeasement" line for Britain until 1939. It was the tragedy of Europe that once this was recognized as the right policy (the rational policy at once the most moral and the most expedient) what it was not pursued as rapidly and as determinedly as possible. Britain dawdled; and not all the British statesmen had the insight to approve "appeasement" as manifested by MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, or Sir John Simon. Locarno, the grudging end of reparations, etc., were steps taken dawdlingly, haltingly, and slowing. If appeasement had been pursued steadfastly by the late 1920 perhaps Hitler would never have come to power at all. So the tragedy of Europe was therefore this: that Britain (the leader of the Anglo-French coalition) understood that appeasement was the only rational policy, but, being the country "on top," a victor at Versailles over a vanquished Germany, inexcusably dawdled and delayed in putting this into execution. As a result, Hitler was forced to bluster and threaten, or to appear to do so, in order to win concessions which Britain should have granted a decade earlier. As a result, as each "crisis" developed in the late 1930s it seemed — even to Chamberlain and the British — that Hitler was exacting, by vicious threats, and a step at a time, concessions from a grudging, frightened Britain and France. Hitler was put in the wrong in the eyes of Europe and the world, when he was eminently in the right, and all because the British refused to pursue its goal of rational appeasement quickly and single-mindedly

Taylor's history of the various crises is fascinating; for one thing, it shows that, because of this dawdling, Hitler's policy, actually prudent, moderate, and passive (and even pacifistic) was also made to look warlike and belligerent by the almost totally irrational and sudden decisions of the nations concerned (the Austrians, the Czechs, and Poles) to be tough, to take a "firm line" against the so-called "aggressor." Time and time again, these countries were almost completely ruined by their own irrational "toughness" and their decisions to "stand firm." In my review of the important Jakobson work on the Russo-Finnish War (Rothbard to Resch, March 21, 1962) I indicated that Finland almost destroyed itself by its irrationally "tough" policy against the moderate and reasonable demands of Soviet Russia (and was later saved by the courageous "appeasing" acts of President Paasikivi, author of the highly successful "Paasikivi Line" for peace and peaceful coexistence). A similar story occurred with Hitler.

Let us first take "heroic little Austria," whose Chancellor Schuschnigg was supposed to have been "bullied" into submission by Hitler, and where Hitler's troops "invaded" the country. Austria was perhaps the most conspicuous sufferer from World War I and Versailles. Stripped of most of its territory, it found itself in a world of fluctuating currencies and tariffs and exchange controls, hardly a viable economic entity. For the first time reduced to being solely German, and it is eminently understandable that a strong movement for Anschluss with Germany should have developed. But conditions in Austria were troublesome, because Austria, in the 1930s, was run by a fascist dictatorship headed by Dollfuss and then Schuschnigg; the Austrian Nazis, who favored Anschluss, were forced into attempting revolts since the democratic route to power was precluded. Taylor points out, incidentally, a very important fact: that the Nazis in Austria, Sudetenland, Danzig, etc., were not, as has always been considered, mere "puppets" of Hitler, subject to his orders. (The same mistake has been made about domestic Communist parties subject to "orders from Moscow"; in the case of the Nazis, the mistake was even greater. These were ideological movements, which of course admired and were even influenced by Hitler, but could not be "controlled" by him. Indeed, most of the time Hitler was engaged in trying — often unsuccessfully — to restrain these indigenous Nazi movements from revolting, creating trouble, etc., so far from being mere puppet creations of Hitler were they.

To return, the indigenous Nazis had unsuccessfully revolted in 1934, and were generally restive. Schuschnigg, then, was happy to conclude a Gentleman's Agreement with Germany, in July 1936, in which he acknowledged that Austria was a "German State," and agreed to admit Nazis as members of his government. In return, Hitler acknowledged Austrian "sovereignty," and contentedly believed that Austria was now a kind of subordinate state to Germany, and that the Austrian Nazis would gradually, and peacefully, gain control of Austria. This, indeed, was the rational thing to expect from such an agreement. No coercive Anschluss or dramatic marching of German troops was contemplated.

The fool Schuschnigg, however, saw things differently; making the typical mistake that the Austrian Nazis were basically Hitler's puppets, he assumed that his peaceful settlement with Germany, and his inclusion of Nazis in the cabinet, would mean an end to any further domestic agitation by the Austrian Nazis. Now this, as I've said, was totally unrealistic; an ideological movement cannot be "called off" from afar, and Taylor shows that the extreme Austrian Nazis defied Hitler's suggestions to tone down their propaganda. And Schuschnigg assumed unrealistically that, when Austrian Nazi agitation had been publicized, Hitler would "call them off" and repudiate them (since Schuschnigg saw the continued agitation as a betrayal of the Gentleman's Agreement). Taylor demonstrates that, contrary to general opinion, it was Schuschnigg who insisted on presenting his demands to Hitler and who wangled an invitation to see Hitler at Berchtesgaden; Hitler, understandably impatient with the whole affair, thus being pressed on him, insisted that Schuschnigg make the German nationalist Seyss-Inquart Minister of Interior, and agree to coordinate its economic and foreign policy with that of Germany, in return for which, Hitler would agree to repudiation of the Austrian Nazis. Schuschnigg agreed to this voluntarily; this was simply a further evolutionary step, from the Gentleman's Agreement; Austria would become, in effect, a satellite of Germany, in return for which Schuschnigg would be spared revolutionary agitation by the Austrian Nazis. Hitler carried out his part of the bargain by bawling out the Austrian Nazis and insisting on the evolutionary, not revolutionary course.

Everything was now presumably nicely settled; in a peaceful and evolutionary manner, agreed upon by Hitler, Schuschnigg, and the more moderate, evolutionary Austrian Nazis. What happened? Schuschnigg, in effect, repudiated the voluntary Berchtesgaden Agreement of February 12, 1938. Suddenly, after two years of rational appeasement, he decided on a "tough" line; he decided to hurl a challenge to Hitler by dramatically announcing an Austrian plebiscite on Austrian independence, to be held almost immediately. Everyone recognized this as a challenge hurled at Hitler. Hitler saw no alternative to meet this with military action against Austria. When Schuschnigg finally agreed to postpone the plebiscite, after seeing that other countries would not come leaping to his rescue, Hitler now had, understandably, decided that Schuschnigg could not be trusted and that Seyss-Inquart should replace him. Schuschnigg wisely agreed and resigned, but then, another burst of irrational "toughness" occurred, and President Miklas of Austria refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart; finally Hitler marched in. He had not planned to march in; he had not wanted to march in. And even when he marched in, he only planned to insure Seyss-Inquart's appointment and then withdraw. But the great excitement of the enthused Austrian crowds spurred Hitler on, to announce a total Anschluss, an act approved by the overwhelming majority of the Austrian people.

To understand the Czech crisis, it must be understood that Czechoslovakia was the most grotesque of all the abortive creations of the Versailles system. The Czechs, led by the idolized Masaryk, had managed to swindle Wilson into believing that the Czechs and Slovaks were one and the same; and then, of course, Bohemia must have its "natural frontiers," thus dragging the Bohemian Germans into "Czechoslovakia," a land of Czech minority despotism over the Slovaks, the Germans, the Ukrainians, et al. The Germans were particularly unhappy at being plunged from co-partners in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to sufferers under the Czechs. The Anschluss electrified them, and the Czech crisis was on. Actually, the very existence of "Czechoslovakia" virtually cried out for dismemberment, and yet Benes resolved to take a very "tough" line, to stand firm against Hitler's "bluffs" and make him back down by inducing France and Great Britain to come to Benes' aid. Benes deliberately provoked the Sudeten Germans into demanding transfer to Germany and not just autonomy, in order to drive the French and British to his side. Unfortunately, again, the British and French dragged their heels on appeasement; the French were still bemused by their irrational system of alliances with East European countries whom they could not physically support. Once again, delay was so long that it looked as if the British were giving in to German pressure — whereas the British had been most eager for a rational settlement — and Chamberlain allowed himself to be dragooned into guaranteeing the rest of the Czech frontiers.

Munich, as Taylor courageously and perceptively declares, "was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life; a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples; a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and short-sightedness of Versailles." Yes, but there was one crucial thing wrong with Munich, as Taylor indicates: not that this was appeasement, but that appeasement had not been pursued quickly, eagerly, and thoroughly enough. Always there was the impression given by the West that the concessions were made out of fear of Hitler rather than for desire for justice; always there was only piecemeal rather than thoroughgoing solutions, so that the canker of unresolved problems still remained in central Europe. It should have been clear to any knowledgeable person that, once the Sudeten Germans had been reunited with their German brethren that Czechoslovakia was finished; the British-French guarantee of the rest of Czechoslovakia was the sheerest folly. Benes saw this, and skipped the country, from then on to proclaim against "appeasement" from a safe sanctuary. The Poles moved in on Tesin; the Hungarians, bitterly smarting from the Versailles-like Treaty of Trianon, moved in. Finally, the Slovaks, taking their cue, declared their much yearned-for independence. The Czechs, turning tough yet once more, prepared to march on Slovakia, whereupon Hitler recognized Slovak independence, to save Slovakia from the Czechs and Hungarians. The Czechs were now left with their own true section of Bohemia; surrounded by enemies, and faced with a Hungarian threat, Hacha, president of the Czechs, again voluntarily sought audience with Hitler, and requested Hitler to adopt Bohemia as a protectorate. And yet, the world, again saw this as a "betrayal" of Munich, German ruthless invasion of a noble, small country, etc. Again, Hitler had not bargained for open invasion, but only for slow, evolutionary disintegration of Czechoslovakia; events again presented him with (overly) dramatic gains.

If Benes was a fool for expecting Britain and France to defend the Czechs to the last when it was not even geographically possible, the same was all the more true of Poland's Josef Beck. Poland was another grotesque — or rather swollen — creature of Versailles. For centuries, Poland had been caught between the millstones of the two great powers in central Europe, Germany and Russia (also Austria-Hungary, which had now been "murdered" at Versailles). It should have been clear to any Pole that Poland could prosper, in fact could exist as an independent country, only in alliance with either Germany, Russia, or both. Any other course would be fatal. But World War I had a very peculiar result, as Taylor perceptively points out at the beginning of his book; both Germany and Russia were defeated in Eastern Europe; Russia by Germany, and then by the fact that Communist Revolution lost Russia the gains it would have reaped from allied victory. With both Great Powers temporarily knocked out, room arose for a myriad of independent countries in Eastern Europe; this was artificial and only temporary room, but few realized this crucial fact. Poland was not only independent, it acquired enough territory to tyrannize over a large number of Germans (in the Corridor, Upper Silesia, and Danzig) and Ukrainians, and White Russians. Poland in alliance with either Germany or Russia might have held to its ill-deserved gains; Poland alone was doomed. And yet, Beck, though initially allied with Germany, elected to stand alone, a Great Power, triumphantly defiant of both Germany and Russia, taking a resolutely "tough," firm line against anybody and everybody. And as a direct result, Poland was destroyed. Hitler's "demands" on the Poles were almost non-existent; as Taylor points out, the Weimar Republic would have scorned the terms as a sell-out of vital German interests. Hitler at most wanted a "corridor through the Corridor" and the return of heavily-German (and pro-German) Danzig; in return for which he would guarantee the rest. Poland resolutely refused to yield "one inch of Polish soil," and refused even to negotiate with the Germans, and this down to the last minute. And yet, even with the Anglo-French guarantee, Beck clearly knew that Britain and France could not actually save Poland from attack. He relied to the end on those great shibboleths of all "hard-liners" everywhere: X is "bluffing"; X will back down if met by toughness, resolution, and the resolve not to give an inch. (Just as in the case of Finland, and other "crackpot realists," when the "X is bluffing" line of the hard-liners is shown to be sheer absurdity, and X has already attacked, the "hard-liner" turns, self-contradictorily, to the dictum that not "one inch of sacred soil" will be given up, no peace while the enemy is on our soil, etc., which completes the ruin of the country by its "hard-line" rulers. This is what Beck did to Poland.) As Taylor shows, Hitler had originally not the slightest intention to invade or conquer Poland; instead, Danzig and other minor rectifications would be gotten out of the way, and then Poland would be a comfortable ally, perhaps for an eventual invasion of Soviet Russia. But Beck's irrational toughness blocked the path.

The real mystery of the book is Great Britain; from being the leader, if dawdlingly, of appeasement at Munich, Britain suddenly turned in early 1939, to the adoption of a "tough," collective security, "hard line against aggression." Britain guaranteed to Poland, a guarantee which of course could not be honored, failed to induce Poland yield to rational demands as it had prodded Czechoslovakia. Inducing Poland to yield would have been the rational conclusion to the English policy of appeasement; this would have written finis — at last — to Versailles. Instead, Britain suddenly became anti-"aggression" minded, and almost frantically tried to prop up the Poles. The question is, why? and here is the major spot in the book where Taylor's discussion is weak and unsatisfactory. For Taylor asserts that British policy had not really changed to much, that Britain was mistakenly of the belief until the very last that Hitler would yield to the threats of a "hard line" and then negotiate, accept reasonable changes at Danzig, etc. Britain, says Taylor, wanted Hitler to agree to be "peaceful" after that. But this was the last place where revision was required! No, it seems clear that Britain's frantic and radical about-face was not simply a bumbling, well-intentioned mistake; it seems clear, even from Taylor's account, that Britain deliberately shifted its policy to a war, and that it was frantic in settling on Poland because Poland was the last place where Britain could precipitate a war, while making Hitler look like a monstrous defiler of small countries.

It was clear that if Poland was to actually be aided by Britain and France, it could only be done, geographically, through Russia. And so the wooing of Soviet Russia began, and Russia was brought back — by the British and French — for the first time since World War I, into the thick of European politics. (The previous Franco-Soviet treaty had done so to some extent.) Taylor wryly points out that anti-Hitler historians had always denounced Hitler for making the Hitler-Stalin pact as a prelude to launching his war of conquest; and that now to that has been added the denunciations by Western Cold War propagandists to denounce Russia for doing the same. Actually, it is absurd propaganda to denounce Russia, as is always done, for not concluding a pact with Britain and France, and concluding one with Germany instead. Taylor is excellent in his discussion of the Pact and its antecedents. Britain and France wanted Russia to agree to come leaping to the aid of either Poland or Rumania if either were attacked by Germany, and if they requested it. In return for this surrender of its freedom of action, Russia was to get ... precisely nothing. The clue to all of Soviet Russia's foreign policy, as Taylor states, was fear; fear of attack by the West, fear of a repetition of the "international capitalist" invasion of Russia during its Civil War, which almost succeeded in destroying the Communist regime, fear of the ideological anti-Bolshevism of Hitler and of his allies in the "anti-Comintern" pact, fear of Japan which was already aggressing against it in Siberia. Soviet Russia's foreign policy was defensive, fearful, and security-minded (far more defensive, it should be added, than the traditional policy of the Czar). Fearful of Hitler, and understandably so, Russia was eager to join an anti-Hitler alliance, but only if it was a firm one; its greatest fear was joining such an alliance and then — like Benes — to be left holding the bag by Britain and France. Russia wanted two things: the ability, in case of a German war, to have its armies cross Poland to thrust at Germany, regardless of whether Poland agreed or not; and the ability to intervene against any pro-German regimes or bases that might be established in the Baltic states. In both cases, Britain, trumpeting the rights or small nations, refused to agree to any such free hand by Russia; and, in the case Poland, Poland flatly refused to have anything to do with Russian troops and a Russian guarantee. Poland would go it alone. In view of this, there was never any hope of a British-Russian alliance, and Taylor indicates that the British were always half-hearted in an attempt for alliance anyway.

Hitler had expected Beck to cave in likes Benes; but this time things were different. (We must remember that the Polish Army was greatly inferior to the Czech Army of 1938). Hitler then set out to conclude his own pact with Soviet Russia; if Russian neutrality were secured, he reasoned, surely Britain would give up any Polish guarantee — which would now be insanity — and Britain and Beck would listen to reason. Hitler offered Russia a non-aggression pact, with the added sweetener that, whatever happened, Germany would not advance beyond the Curzon line in Poland or in the Baltic states; at last, Russia had achieved the recognition which it could not get from the West — wedded to its small-power legalism — a Soviet Monroe Doctrine, a sphere of influence, in its security zone of Eastern Poland and the Baltic states. We should also not forget that Russia was left, like Germany, a "revisionist" power from World War I; this recognition of its sphere of influence was Russia's revision of Brest-Litovsk. And, as Taylor points out, the Hitler-Stalin pact was not an agreement for partition of Poland, as Munich was an agreement for partition of Czechoslovakia; it was rather a mutual agreement for neutrality and non-aggression, plus a German agreement not to penetrate to the Soviet sphere of influence. Poland had no legitimate complaint, since all it wanted from Soviet Russia was neutrality.

The Establishment historians have had a field day with the Hitler-Stalin Pact, since here was an act by both of their bogeymen. Any action mutually agreed-upon by these two dictators is supposed to be a priori monstrous. And so the Pact was supposed to have been the wicked spark that began World War II and dismembered Poland. But, as Taylor shows, both Germany and Russia thought of this as an action for peace, as it rationally should have been. The danger of a German-Russian conflict was avoided; and, both Hitler and Stalin believed, that with all hope of Russian support of Poland gone Britain and France would finally induce Poland to soften up and peace would be preserved. As Taylor states moreover, "it is difficult to see what other course Soviet Russia could have followed," given British adamance. We might go even further; in my view, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was one of the great deeds of European statesmanship — on both sides — in the twentieth century. It continued in the great tradition of Rapallo. The geographic facts are that peace can only be preserved in Eastern Europe if Germany and Russia are at peace, and therefore only a German-Russian policy of friendship or even alliance, will keep the peace in that troubled section of the globe.

Certainly, if the British, French, or Poles had been in the slightest degree rational, the Hitler-Stalin Pact should have done precisely that, and the British should have thrown in the "tough" line towel. Instead, the British and Poles got even tougher if anything, and apparently British public opinion now reveled in an irrational orgy of warmongering for the sale of collective security, "democracy" for small nations and whatnot. Here again, Taylor is rather too kind to British willingness to negotiate. The fact is that Hitler, beginning to be taken aback by his opponents' irrationality, began to urge negotiations, but the Poles remained adamant to the very end. But to me the clearest proof of British bad faith in the matter is that even after Hitler proved that he was serious and not "bluffing" by invading Poland, even then the British and the Poles would not negotiate; now, as we said above, the same "crackpot realists" who had ruined everything by proclaiming that the enemy was "bluffing" and would back down before toughness, were now demanding that no negotiations could possibly begin until the German troops had withdrawn from sacred Polish soil. And so Poland disappeared, and World War II began. Granted the imbecility of the policies of Benes and Beck; but the British, on Taylor's own account, bear more responsibility for the outbreak of that tragic war than he is willing to concede. Surely more than incompetence was here involved.

There are two further, amplifying general observations of importance which I am moved to by this scintillating book. One is the perniciousness of the typical "hard line" mythology, a mythology that has been especially beloved in the United States and Great Britain. It is a mythology that has consistently failed, and consistently plunged these "great democracies" into one war after another. This is the mythology of conceiving the enemy as, not only a "bad" guy; but a bad guy cast in the mold of Fu Manchu or someone from Mars. The bad guy is out, for some obscure reason, to conquer the world, or at the very least, to conquer as much as he can keep conquering. This is his only goal. He can be stopped only by force majeure, i.e., by "standing firm" on a "tough line." In short, while irredeemably evil, the Bad Guy is a craven at heart; and if the noble Good Guy only stands his ground, the Bad Guy, like any bully, will turn tail. Rather than Fu Manchu, then, the Enemy is a Fu Manchu at heart but with all the other characteristics of the Corner Bully, or of a movie Western. "We" are the Good Guys, interested only in justice and self-defense who need only stand our ground to face down the wicked but cravenly bluffing Bad Guys. This is the almost idiotic Morality Play in which Americans and Britons have cast international relations for half a century now, and that is why we are in the mess we are today. Nowhere in this Copybook nonsense is it every conceived that (a) the Bad Guy might be afraid of our attacking him (But Good Guys never attack, by definition!); or (b) that the Bad Guy might, in his foreign policy demands, have a pretty good and just case after all — or at least, that he believes his case to be good and just; or (c) that, faced with the defiance, the Bad Guy might consider it loss of self-respect if he backed down — and so two war. Let us all give up this childlike game of international relations, and begin to consider a policy of rationality, peace, and honest negotiation.

The second general observation is that Eastern Europe seems to have been the cockpit — and in tragic folly — of every major war of the twentieth century: World Wars I and II, and the Cold War. Eastern Europe, as I have indicated above, is a land of many teeming nationalities, almost all small and divided. The reality of Eastern Europe is that it is always fated to be dominated by either Germany or Russia, or both. If East European politicians are to be rational, they must realize this and understand their fated subservience to one or both of these two Power; and, if there is to be peace in Eastern Europe, both Germany and Russia must be friends.

Now don't misunderstand me; I have not abandoned moral principle for cynicism. My heart yearns for ethnic justice, for national self-determination for all people, not only in Eastern Europe but all over the world. I am a non-Ukrainian who would like nothing better than to see a majestic independent ethnic Ukraine, or of Byelorussia; I would to see and independent Slovakia, or a just settlement, at long last, of the knotty Transylvanian question. I still worry over whether Macedonia should properly be independent, or should be united to their presumably ethnic brothers in Bulgaria. But, to paraphrase Sydney Smith's famous letter to Lady Grey, please let them work this out for themselves! Let us abandon the criminal immorality and folly of continual coercive meddling by non-East European powers (e.g., Britain, France, and now the U.S.) in the affairs of East Europe. Let us hope that one day Germany and Russia, at peach, will willingly grant justice to the people of East Europe, but let us not bring about perpetual wars to try to achieve this artificially.

I cannot refrain from quoting Smith's famous passage, so a propos is it:

I am sorry for the Spaniards — I am sorry for the Greeks; I deplore the fate of the Jews; the people of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny; Baghdad is oppressed; I do not like the present state of the Delta; Tibet is not comfortable. Am I to fight for all these people? The world is bursting with sin and sorrow. Am I to be champion of the Decalogue, and to be eternally raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy? We have just done saving Europe, and I am afraid that the consequence will be, that we shall cut each other's throats. No war, dear Lady Grey! — No eloquence; but apathy, selfishness, common sense, arithmetic! ... "May the vengeance of Heaven" overtake the Legitimates of Verona! But in the present state of rent and taxes, they must be left to the vengeance of Heaven. ... There is no such thing as a "just war," or, at least, as a wise war.

To return to Eastern Europe, we heard little of the various nationalities before 1914, for the region was dominated by Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. World War I was causes, primarily, by Czarist Russian expansionist ambitions in East Europe, particularly in the Balkans, and its egging on of one of the few independent nationalities, Serbia. Germany and Austria-Hungary opposed the Russian move for expansion; Britain, France, and eventually the U.S. naturally insisted on entering the war — why? to promote that expansion?! As I said above, World War I ended in a very "fluke" manner, because of the Communist Revolution; but let us never forget that, if the U.S. and its heroic ally Czarist Russia had won the war — if there had been any Communist Revolution — Czarist Russia would have, as confirmed by allied secret treaties — dominated all of Easter Europe, and taken Constantinople as well. The cant and moralizing of our present Cold Warriors against Soviet "domination" of Eastern Europe appears pretty ludicrous in view of this fact; actually, the Communist Revolution prevented Russian domination of "satellites" in East Europe for a generation, and even then this was only a result of Hitler's attack on Russia. (Indeed, Finland was apparently permanently freed from Russian control by the Communist Revolution.) And yet, Americans would have consented to Czarist puppet states in Eastern Europe as long ago as 1918.

Thus, World War I was essentially a clash between Germany and Austria vs. Russia over who would dominate Eastern Europe, with Britain, France, and U.S. meddling into the fray. The peculiar defeat of both Germany and Russia in World War I, opened up, artificially, the path for national self-determination in Eastern Europe, a task which was terribly botched at Versailles. New injustices were created there, especially for the defeated countries. By 1939, Germany and Russia were at peace over Eastern Europe, and yet Britain precipitated war by leaping to war over a Poland which could not exist in defiance of both its great neighbors. Finally, as a result of Britain, and the U.S. meddling into a war over Eastern which did not properly concern them and Germany's tragic blunder in attacking Russia, the conquest of Germany naturally left Russia in virtual charge over Eastern Europe, again its sphere of influence. (This domination has nothing to do with "communism" but is the result of these Russian, etc., power factors, and would have occurred whatever Russia's social system may have been.)

And then after a record fatal meddling, twice, in East Europe, the U.S. and Britain precipitated the Cold War in order to eject Russia from her hard-won sphere of influence, in East Europe, again where none of the Western powers has any business in meddling!

There are various specific points about the Taylor volume that we might note further. There is a very good discussion at the start about why Revisionism has not been flourishing since the war; a good, if brief, critique of the validity of the Nuremberg documents. Once in a while, Taylor slips back into his old Orthodox line; for example, he doesn't seem to realize that the viper of "collective security" and therefore eternal war to preserve status quo boundaries was inherent in the League of Nations, and therefore that League-mindedness was an enormous obstacle in those years to realizing the morality and justice of an appeasement policy. Taylor also is surprisingly "soft" on Versailles, especially in the first part of the book, where he seems to hold that the only thing really wrong about Versailles was the continuing reparation question, which kept the situation irritated; and yet surely the whole last half of the book, with its discussion of the Austrians, Czechoslovakia, and Polish crises are testimony to the serious evils of Versailles. The importance of the fact that Germany won the war in the East (World War I) is noted, although Taylor erroneously puts the Treat of Brest-Litovsk in January, instead of March, 1918. Taylor fails to mention that the Russo-Polish war of 1920 resulted from Polish aggression against the Russian Ukraine, and the territorial losses Russia suffered to Poland in that war (of ethnically Ukrainian and Byelorussian territory) made her even more eager for revision, when she had the chance. Taylor also under weighs, even ignores, the fact that, at Versailles, a disarmed Germany was supposed to be accompanied by disarmed Allies. By ignoring the persistent Allied violation of the pledge to disarm, Taylor fails to make the case for German rearmament as strong as it was, or rather the case against Allied suppression of German rearmament. Also, Taylor fails to mention either Litvinov's or Hitler's proposals for general and complete disarmament by all countries — proposals by Bad Guys which the Good Guy "democracies" ignored — because they were armed and the Bad Guys were not — a short-sighted view, to say the least. Taylor is very good in his understanding of the merits of the Japanese case in Manchuria; though somewhat more is needed about the later Japanese-Chinese war of 1937 on. Taylor is very good in deprecating the importance of Hitler's — shifting — "dreams," as in Mein Kampf, dreams, even then, which had nothing to do with "world conquest," or even conquest of Britain. There is excellent Revisionism in deflating the much-trumpeted Hossbach Memorandum, purporting to be Hitler's "plans for conquest. Taylor is also excellent in pointing out that, e.g., "in 1940 the German land forces were inferior to the French in everything except leadership."

Taylor is also very good in criticizing the typical "moderate Revisionist" view of World War I, that no individual government or leaders were guilty because, wars are caused by the "international anarchy" — a view that ignores the actual causes and the actual guilt and blunders of any given war. Says Taylor properly: "'International anarchy' makes war possible; it does not make war certain." There is also a criticism of the Leninist view that capitalism "inevitably" causes wars. In his proper critique of the Lebensraum argument of Germany and Italy for expansion, Taylor ignores the fact that the argument was much more cogent for overpopulated, tariff, and migration-excluded Japan. He is also good — and again courageous — in deprecating the much-inflated importance of the Spanish Civil War, or of the alleged threat which it was supposed to embody of "international fascism." And yet, in some passages it seems that Taylor is reverting to his old self, and calling for active British intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

Taylor also properly states another truth which too many have forgotten: that Soviet Russia has always been interested in its own preservation, beyond the interests of "international Communism," which it has sacrificed for the sake of its peace and security time and again (Taylor mentions the case of Soviet failure to support the Chinese Communists as against Chiang).

Taylor does not exactly mention — it is outside of his province here — that the British, not the Germans, launched the barbaric policy of strategic bombing of civilians in cities, but he does say that the Germans had only planned for tactical fighter-bombing and not at all for strategic bombing of cities — which is testimony enough.

There are also some good pot-shots throughout at the tendency of the Soviet Union and the U.S. to stand aside from the quarrels and deliver moralizing lectures to the endangered parties concerned. Taylor wisely points out: "The experiment of calling in the New World to redress the balance of the Old had already been tried in the First World War. American intervention had been decisive; it had enabled the Allies to win the war. ... In retrospect, would it not have been better if they had been forced to a compromise peace with the more or less moderate Germany of 1917?"

Taylor should point out that Schacht was dismissed, not, as he has it, for cavilling at increased armament spending, but for insisting on higher taxes rather than deficits to finance it. (See the work of Burton Klein.)

The major weakness in the book, aside from the "softness" on British motivations in 1939 discussed above, is — presumably a hangover from the Old Taylor — an almost frenzied denunciation and bias against Mussolini and Italy. Fortunately, this is a tangential matter for 1939, and is not as warping as Germanophobia in this context. Ramsay MacDonald, for example, is denounced for writing cordial letters to Mussolini "at the very moment of Matteoti's murder — and odd pit of moralizing for someone who, on the German question recognizes the differences between domestic and foreign affairs, and what is proper conduct in the latter. Also, in assessing Mussolini's motives in attacking Ethiopia, Taylor states that it was simply unprovoked desire for conquest; no mention is made of continual Ethiopian provocation and aggression at Walwal. At the beginning of this book, Taylor brusquely dismisses American Revisionists as not being sufficiently "scholarly"; if he had paid more attention to American revisionists (such as Tansill's discussion of Italy and Warwal) it would have improved his book considerably.

In style, the Taylor volume is typical of Taylor's works: well-written, witty, abounding in facile generalizations that are grounded in speculation about various motives, and often too skimpily grounded in the documentary sources. The latter skimpiness is, as a matter of fact, all too typical of current British historical scholarship.

To sum up, A.J.P. Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War is a great work, a memorable and path-breaking work, of enormous importance in providing, at last, a Revisionist history of the causes of 1939. It has also the corollary merit, in passing, of providing important ammunition for Cold War Book revisionism as well. If there were to be further National Book Foundation programs, I would unhesitatingly recommend it for NBF distribution. What is needed now is a follow-up to this path-breaking volume, a follow-up which, with more exhaustive thoroughness and documentation, will complement Taylor by providing the definitive account of the origins of 1939. Let us hope that the promised book by David Hoggan will perform this job.


Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: Wikipedia

Follow Mises Institute

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here.
Shield icon interview