Hitler's Gamble? Did Hitler Intend to Provoke a General War over Poland in September 1939 or Was It a Serious Miscalculation? Adam Tooze Examines the Views of Leading Historians before Offering His Own, New, Interpretation of the Decisions and Events in Germany That Ignited the Second World War

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AT 6AM ON A WINTERY MARCH morning in 1939 Adolf Hitler shattered the fragile European peace brokered six months earlier at the Munich conference by sending the Wehrmacht across the border into what remained of Czechoslovakia. This act of aggression triggered a dramatic international escalation, which led directly to the outbreak of war in September 1939. Within weeks of the occupation of Prague, Britain and France had issued formal guarantees of the security of Poland, Romania and Greece. At the same time, London entered into unprecedented conversations with Moscow in search of a military alliance. Germany was confronted with a possible resurrection of the Entente alliance of the First World War and Hitler and Goebbels responded by raising the propaganda war to a new pitch. On April 1st, 1939, at the launching of the giant Tiro pitz battleship in Wilhelmshaven, Hitler harangued an appreciative crowd on the horrors of the blockade and the perfidy of Albion. Meanwhile, German diplomats worked hard to persuade Italy and Japan to forge a true triple threat to the British Empire. In the end neither side was able to achieve their desired coalition. Japan refused to be drawn into an offensive alliance against Britain. Stalin mistrusted Chamberlain. So, in August, in a remarkable volte face, Molotov and Ribbentrop concluded the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Hitler unleashed his troops on Poland on September 1st, safe in the knowledge that the Soviet Union would take its share. Two days later, true to their declarations of six months earlier, France and Britain declared war on Germany.

On this basic narrative there is no disagreement. But why Hitler escalated international tension at this point remains a controversial question. There are those historians--notably Richard Overy and Ian Kershaw--who continue to maintain that Hitler did not in fact intend to provoke a general war over Poland in the autumn of 1939. They cite Hitler's boastful speech of August 22nd, 1939, to the German military in which he claimed that the 'men of Munich' would shrink from war over Poland. Ian Kershaw speaks of a 'mis-calculation'. But this is by no means universally accepted. Among British historians it was a view most bitterly opposed by the late Tim Mason, who in the pages of Past and Present in 1989 engaged in a furious dispute with Overy on the question of whether or not Hitler had in fact been driven to war by the pressure of an impending economic crisis. In a more measured but no less determined tone the thesis of an 'unintended war' has been consistently rejected by Gerald Weinberg, the foremost American authority on Hitler's foreign policy. Of course no one questions that Hitler would have preferred to occupy Poland without taking on the Western powers. And this was clearly a wish fervently shared by the majority of Germany's military leaders. However, as Weinberg and others argue, from the beginning of the Sudeten crisis in May 1938 onwards, Hitler knew that he would eventually have to confront the Western powers. And in the autumn of 1939 he attacked Poland because he had decided that he was willing to risk that wider war sooner rather than later.

But what pushed Hitler into this relentless and ultimately self-destructive aggression? Hitler's chief German biographer Joachim Fest argues that it was the Fuhrer's growing sense of mortality that convinced him that he had no time to lose. The Weinberg-Mason case, by contrast, is founded on considerations of the balance of power in the broadest sense. Albert Speer later recalled that in the autumn of 1939 Hitler was haunted by the idea that he might miss a crucial strategic opportunity. He had to strike sooner rather than later because he knew that the military advantage that Germany currently enjoyed over its enemies was fleeting. And he made this point explicitly in correspondence with Mussolini in the spring of 1940. From the spring of 1939 onwards the 'decisive circles in British government' had set themselves to the 'elimination' (Beseitigung) of the 'totalitarian states'. …

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