The Origins of the Second World War
During the 1920’s diplomatic and political historians busied themselves with arguments over the “war guilt question” of World War I: was the German government primarily responsible for unleashing The Great War? After World War II there was, at first, no similar debate. Both the public record and the secret documents exposed by the collapse of Nazi Germany seemed to point clearly to a single conclusion: World War II in Europe was Hitler’s war. He planned for it, he intentionally began it, and he chose to expand it in a vain attempt to dominate the world.
In 1961 the British historian A. J. P. Taylor challenged this prevailing orthodoxy with an arresting small book bearing the selfsame title as Baumont’s book discussed here. Hitler, Taylor argued, was an ordinary man pursuing goals which he held in common with Gustav Stresemann and other German moderates of the Weimar period. He wanted to revise Germany’s eastern frontiers at the expense of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, and generally rid Germany of the burdens imposed upon her by the Treaty of Versailles. And he wished to do so without touching off a major war. During the late 1930’s, however, Hitler became confused by British policies which first encouraged him through appeasement of his every demand and then issued paper guarantees to Poland and other weak East European countries. World War II broke out in September, 1939, Taylor concludes, because Hitler misread British intentions and inadvertantly set off the conflagration.
Maurice Baumont is doubtless one of the best qualified individuals to contribute to the debate on the questions which Taylor raised. French by birth and training, he fought for his fatherland in World War I. From 1919 to 1927 he lived in Berlin, working for the reparations commission. From 1927 to 1940 he was at Geneva as a member of the International Secretariat of the League of Nations. During World War II he found haven in the academic life, and in 1946 he became the French editor-in-chief on the cooperative project to publish the captured German Foreign Ministry documents. In addition, he has held prestigious academic posts in France and Switzerland and has been the editor of the major French historical periodical on World War II. From practical as well as from academic experience, then, his eminence is unquestioned.
In his major French publications he has spelled out his views in great detail. This book is intended instead as a readable summation of his views, unburdened by scholarly apparatus and historiographical argument. It is partly narrative history, retelling the story of Allied folly and Axis aggressiveness. France and Great Britain, the guardians of the Versailles settlement and the pillars of the League of Nations, shifted uncertainly back and forth between policies of collective security based on an idealistic view of the League, and of balance of power based on opportunistic assessments of individual situations. While these powers thus wavered, Hitler shrewdly extricated Germany from the shackles of Versailles, wooed Italy, and exploited divisions among his potential victims.
The book is partly personal memoir, giving the reader Baumont’s recollections of the impact of events as well as his brief but illuminating pencil sketches of diplomats and national leaders whom he saw first hand. Pilsudski of Poland, for example: “with his clear eyes deep set below bushy eyebrows, and his drooping moustache, was dominated by a fierce desire for independance.” And Mussolini: “Violent, proud, touchy, very impressionable and spiteful, he brought arrogance and insult to international relations.”
The book is partly essay, raising rhetorical questions and leaving the reader with aphoristic commentaries on events. Would Mussolini become the leader of an anti-Hitler coalition? Could Il Duce, who had been instrumental in bringing Ethiopia into the League, reduce her to the status of a colony? Had France and Great Britain given Mussolini secret encouragement to move into Ethiopia? “How...
(The entire section is 1656 words.)