The Second World War left behind ample scope for anguished historiographical debate in all the major powers involved in the conflict. 1 This has proved particularly true in Germany and Italy where historical disputes have followed an interestingly parallel course, extending well beyond the fact that the two countries were Axis partners in the war itself. Germany’s notoriously “unmasterable past” raised the issue of Germany’s collective guilt for Nazism. 2 To what extent did the origins of Nazism lie in German history and culture? Applied to the field of international relations, the question bore on Nazi expansionism after 1933. Was this simply a continuation of traditional German foreign policy, or was it the working-out of a peculiar Nazi weltanschauung? In answer to this foreign-policy question the Nuremberg Trials put the spotlight on Hitler, his immediate circle and Nazi ideology. Not until the 1960s did the scholarly search for the roots of the Third Reich’s international aggression really switch to the pre-Nazi period. In large measure, this was due to the work of two historians. Fritz Fischer, first implicitly and then avowedly, connected German annexationist aims in the First World War to the Nazi search for eastern Lebensraum a generation later. 3 A. J. P. Taylor reached best-seller fame by provocatively depicting the Führer as no more than a conventional if unusually opportunistic German statesman. 4 Since the 1960s, therefore, no account of Nazi foreign policy can ignore the diplomatic legacy bequeathed by the Bismarckian, Wilhelmine and Weimar regimes.
Historical literature on Italy’s role in the Second World War has undergone a similar metamorphosis. After Italy’s entry into war in 1940, Winston Churchill singled out Benito Mussolini as the “one man and one man only [who] was resolved to plunge Italy…into the whirlpool of war.” 5 Although at the time no more than a propaganda ploy to divide the Fascist Duce from the Italian people, it epitomized the view that Italy’s recent belligerence could be laid exclusively at the door of the Fascist regime. After the war some Italians built on this idea to develop the “parenthesis” argument, namely, that Fascism was a disjunctive interlude in the “real history” of united Italy. Fascism, wrote Benedetto Croce, the most notable spokesman of this persuasion, “was an outgrowth extraneous to Italy’s long history and repugnant to recent Italian traditions.” 6 Over the past half-century this assertion has been increasingly challenged, even if one cannot
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Publication information: Book title: The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered:A.J.P. Taylor and the Historians. Edition: 2nd. Contributors: Gordon Martel - Editor. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 57.
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