The Outbreak of the Second World War: Design or Blunder?

By John L. Snell | Go to book overview

Introduction

EARLY in 1946 the "Cold War" was openly acknowledged by Stalin and Churchill in two famous speeches. Both offered brief -- and highly divergent -- explanations of the causes of the Second World War.

Stalin's explanation, as given over Radio Moscow on February 9, 1946, provided guidelines for future Soviet historians:

It would be incorrect to think that the war arose accidentally or as the result of the fault of some of the statesmen. Although these faults did exist, the war arose in reality as the inevitable result of the development of the world economic and political forces on the basis of monopoly capitalism. [Italics added.]

Stalin thus reverted to an old theme of Lenin's that had been repressed during the war against Germany when the "strange alliance" with the West was necessary. Stalin's revival of this argument in 1946 put the West on notice that the U.S.S.R. would prepare for the possibility of another major war.

Churchill spoke soon thereafter at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946. His view of the causes of World War II had always put primary guilt on Nazi Germany. But at Fulton -- as for years before -- he also assigned a large responsibility to the appeasement policy of Germany's neighbors in the 1930's:

There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented without the firing of a single shot . . . but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We surely must not let that happen again.

Quite clearly, Churchill, no less than Stalin, was drawing lessons for 1946 from his view of the causes of World War II.

Refusing to agree that capitalism -- or anything else -- made war inevitable, Churchill was saying that softness invites aggression; and indirectly he was saying that firmness toward the U.S.S.R. could prevent a third World War, just as firmness toward Nazi Germany could have prevented World War II. The policies of nations have often been shaped -- or justified -- by views of the past, but seldom so strikingly as in the exchange of 1946, just reviewed. With their eyes on the thirties, the two statesmen drew conclusions about the needs of the 1940's, and their conclusions profoundly shaped the fate of people in the East and the West in the fifties and sixties.

The speeches of Stalin and Churchill suggest questions that are posed for you in this book. Did the Second World War come as a result of design? Whose design? Or was it the result of blunder? Whose blunder? These are questions of great historical importance, for the war that began in 1939 was the greatest in history. But they are more than questions of historical interest. Answers to them have great relevance to the present. What we think about the causes of the Second World War will be in considerable measure an augury of our future.

Our view of the past formidably influences our present and our future. But just as surely the conditions of our present -- and sometimes what we want out of the future -- influence the view we hold of the past. Because of ever-recurring new "presents," new angles of vision from which we view the past, historical interpretations of

-vii-

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