Was World War Two inevitable? And who is to blame for it?
Yes and Hitler.
But more needs to be said.
World War Two was a catastrophe for the world. It killed 50 million people. It unleashed genocide, in the shape of the holocaust in Europe at the hands of Hitler and the ‘Asian holocaust’ of millions slaughtered by the imperial Japanese military. While it left fascism in ruins, it extended Stalinism to Eastern Europe. It left cities in rubble, people in poverty, and legacies of bitterness. For European imperialists, it was a crippling blow to empire, both economically and as a force for anti-colonial nationalism.
Yet in collective folk memory, or large chunks of memory, in Britain and America, it is recalled as ‘the good war.’ A harsh slog and terrifying time certainly, but a just cause and ultimately a victorious one. The defeat of the Axis powers laid the foundations for much that was good, including what would become prosperous democratic states in Japan and Western Europe, with their security underwritten by America’s extended deterrence. For Americans, it was the making of them as a superpower and world leader.
What’s more, World War Two was quickly mythologised not only as a vital conflict, but a moral story. People have invoked its eternal lessons ever since: that it is both wrong and mistaken to appease and conciliate aggressors; that the cause of peace can easily be corrupted into the cause of peace at almost any price; that sacrificing other people’s interests for one’s own will only feed the appetite of predators; that unchecked aggression against nations far away at the periphery will become direct threats to the core; and that statecraft itself is not just a power-political art but a constant test of resolve, backbone and honour.
Two interlocking debates have resurfaced lately about the war. Firstly, could it have been avoided, or fought on better and more decisive terms? Secondly, whose fault was it?
There is a mountain of literature on the appeasement issue. A range of defences can be made of it. The times were harsh, with many potential enemies from imperial Japan to Stalin’s Soviet Union to fascist Italy. Britain’s power was limited, its commitments far-flung, its people hugely reluctant to fight another continental war, its elites haunted by memories of Flanders, and there was a sympathy with Germany, unfairly blamed and mistreated by the punitive diktat of Versailles. The United States was not willing to deter or balance Nazi Germany and was quite hostile to British imperial and naval power. And further east, by the time Hitler’s Germany posed a threat, Stalin had already murdered millions, and looked almost just as dangerous. There are also arguments that defend appeasement from different directions: some argue that it was a rational way of postponing conflict to buy Britain precious time to re-arm and prepare, others that appeasement was an admirable attempt to prevent another war outright, and others that even a flawed attempt at peace bought Britain the high moral ground, so that when war came, Nazi Germany was seen unambiguously as the aggressor.
I confess to mixed feelings on this one. We know now that Hitler was a rarity in the world of statecraft, a leader who could neither be deterred nor appeased, and unlike most incorrigible expansionists, was the ruler of a powerful state with a lethal military. But was the singularity of Hitler and the certainty of Nazi aggression as obvious at the time? He had laid out his blueprint for racial empire and extermination in Mein Kampf, so there was evidence. Or as the Ethiopian emperor warned after Mussolini raped Abyssinia, ‘It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.’ And appeasement wasn’t just a benign and well-intentioned effort at peace. Whether it was justified or not, to purchase peace it involved the calculated sacrifice of others, such as Czechoslovakia, to Nazism. As for the rearmament argument, time is a two-way thing, and the Reich also benefited from time to rearm, (not least to cannibalise the high quality Czech tanks).
Yet it isn’t clear what decent strategic alternatives there were. Belligerent warnings and alliances? But this can start wars as well as prevent them, as World War One seemed to prove. Military intervention against Germany, for example against the occupation of the Rhineland in 1936? Almost no public support, unclear results, and its not hard to see why people opposed making war for certain to avoid it hypothetically in the future. A grand alliance of Britain and the Soviet Union? Try presenting that to the House of Commons in the late 1930’s. The policies as they were resulted in close to a worst-case scenario. On the other hand, as things were, the Allies won.
Because of Britain’s weak hand, the remoteness and passivity of the US, the impossibility of allying with Stalin, and the inherent nature of Nazism, Chamberlain’s government, it seems, could not have done very much to avert Nazi aggression. It could, at least, have diplomatically and publicly opposed Hitler’s annexation of other European states. It could have tried harder to discourage Nazi expansionism, even if this was doomed to fail. It could have worked harder to forge a closer alliance with France to deter Hitler. Instead, it dogmatically presumed that only appeasement was the right way, threatened and marginalised dissidents within the government, suppressed dissenting opinion and inconvenient material from the press, and accused opponents of being unpatriotic war-mongers. It was the doves, in that decade, who most played the nationalist card. If there was a strategic alternative, Chamberlain’s government actively strangled any chances of it being tried.
The most important part of this debate is the powerful way it has shaped history since. We should be cautious of the Chamberlain/Churchill/Hitler analogy, because it is easy to misapply, and it can be deployed as a powerful myth to dismiss, shut down and delegitimise opposition to war. Leaders used and abused the Munich analogy to take their nations to disastrous wars in Suez, Vietnam and Gulf War II. Some are using the myth now to back an airstrike on Iran. The task of historians and public intellectuals should not therefore be to disown historical comparison, but to civilise and refine it. It is actually rare to have a Hitler figure, determined to conquer a Eurasian empire, in charge of a powerful nation, who has already embarked on a barbaric programme of persecution, euthanasia, and racial purification. Nasser, Saddam, Ahmedinejad, bin Laden – none of these are trivial figures, but we should be wary of naughty parallels.
See below for a great discussion about these questions. Victor Davis Hanson and Christopher Hitchens, two of my favourite writers, probably go too far in saying that the Iraq war was as just and necessary as World War Two. But their views of the war are more rigorous than Pat Buchanan’s. And its the kind of interview that brings history alive.