Among Barbara Tuchman’s many sins as an historian was the notion, propagated in her popular volume The Guns of August (1962), that the Great Powers had more or less blundered into conflict in 1914, and that smarter diplomacy might well have prevented the Great War. So pervasive is the Tuchman thesis that it is now a recurring parlor game to guess which combination of dangerous facts and blind statesmen--this was most popular during the 1980s--would push the world into needless nuclear conflict.

It is interesting to note that the Churchill government, mindful of the diplomatic path to war a quarter-century earlier, undertook to prove, in the midst of World War II, that the 1939-45 conflict with Germany was not a consequence of missed opportunities or obtuse politicians. Indeed, Britain had come close to disaster precisely because the Chamberlain government believed that Britain was unprepared for immediate war and that Germany, two decades after Versailles, had legitimate grievances to be addressed. Once appeasement was exhausted, and Hitler’s nature was all too evident, the French and British guarantee to Poland was necessary, and conflict was inevitable.

This spare, succinct, and eloquent account of events leading up to the British ultimatum to Hitler, who had already sent the Wehrmacht across the border into Poland, makes it clear that, while the Second World War was devastating to vanquished and victors alike, it was essentially unavoidable. Hitler’s grievances about the 1918 Armistice were a recurrent obsession, and his view of Poland as an illegitimate product of Versailles, were entirely consistent with German ultra-nationalist sentiments. Hitler, as he explained in detail in Mein Kampf, had a vision of a new German empire encompassing neighbors rather than overseas possessions: those portions of Central and Eastern Europe with an ethnic German presence, as well as the Slavic lands and peoples that (in his view) should be exploited from Berlin.

The only mystery, really, is why Hitler gambled on the likelihood that Britain and France would not honor their obligation to come to Poland’s defense. The answer is simple and twofold. First, Hitler had convinced himself that the decadence of the capitalist/democratic west (including the United States) would prompt all concerned to seek peace at any price. And second, in the Rhineland, in Austria, at Munich, and later as he marched on Prague, the British and French had fulfilled his expectations.

Indeed, after September 1939, it took several months for Hitler to grasp the fact that he had crossed a threshold too far: His “punishment” of Poland would not remain a local affair, and the continental conflagration he unleashed not only presented Germany with the question of what to do with vast conquered territories--leading, ultimately, to the Holocaust--but awakened one power to the east (Soviet Russia) and another to the west (the United States) that had no intention of accommodating German aspirations in Europe. Hitler lit the fuse, the accumulated pressures of the interwar period exploded, and the world was plunged into a darkness that is not yet fully broken.

1939: Countdown to War by Richard Overy, Viking, 159pp., $25.95

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