The Origins of the Second World War in Europe

The Origins of the Second World War in Europe

The Origins of the Second World War in Europe

The Origins of the Second World War in Europe

Synopsis

PMH Bell's famous book is a comprehensive study of the period and debates surrounding the European origins of the Second World War. He approaches the subject from three different angles: describing the various explanations that have been offered for the war and the historiographical debates that have arisen from them, analysing the ideological, economic and strategic forces at work in Europe during the 1930s, and tracing the course of events from peace in 1932, via the initial outbreak of hostilities in 1939, through to the climactic German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 which marked the descent into general conflict.

Written in a lucid, accessible style, this is an indispensable guide to the complex origins of the Second World War.

Excerpt

Mr Philip Bell’s interpretation of the origins of the Second World War is dispassionate, uncommitted, and perhaps for that reason brilliantly unanswerable. His basic point that ‘some theories wide enough to explain everything, end by explaining nothing’, is made in the context of a consideration of the argument that the existence of sovereign states is a cause of wars, an argument that Mr Bell considers to be ‘true but unhelpful’. If we apply the point to the long debate on the ‘appeasement’ of Nazi Germany in the 1930s we can see that a blanket condemnation of ‘appeasement’ is too imprecise to be tenable, and, indeed, explains nothing. The trouble is that vague, sweeping generalisations tend to be accepted by an ill-informed public, and build themselves up into powerful myths. Such generalisations may be accepted by the media and the public for several decades after they have been discarded by most professional historians. Most journalists seem still to think that the policy of appeasing Hitler was, in each of the relevant crises, cowardly and mistaken. They do not distinguish between the factors that were operative in 1936 from those operative in 1938, or, again, in 1939. Mr Bell shows that the British government’s policy had a cowardly side to it during the Spanish Civil War, but that Chamberlain’s policy in 1939 was extremely courageous. When Stalin preferred to negotiate with Hitler, Chamberlain preferred to resist Hitler by a declaration of war, encouraged, it is true, by an impatient House of Commons. There is no space in an editor’s foreword to say more on the appeasement debate. Bell’s lucid account and interpretation of the diplomatic history of the 1930s demolishes many familiar fallacies, without ever becoming polemical in tone. One point on Munich is worth mentioning here: in agreement with Professor D. C. Watt and other recent authorities, Mr Bell shows that Hitler regarded the settlement as a disaster, because he wanted a short, successful war against Czechoslovakia in the teeth of the passive disapproval of Britain and France. He was not content with success at the conference table. As Bell says, he wanted war for its own sake, and with such an outlook . . .
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