Blundering into World War Two

Currently we're getting used to revelations that the Iraq War (Act II) was started on the basis of completely false intelligence; in other words, a total screw-up, a massive blunder. However, this is nothing new. Most other wars also started as a result of government incompetence and/or government malevolence in some mix, and the exception usually perceived, World War Two, is no exception at all.

Conventional wisdom holds that WW-II was an unfortunate necessity, in which the Good Guys took on and beat the Bad Guys who had started it. I was brought up on the belief that the German government, not the British, French or American one, had opened hostilities. It was quite disconcerting, the first time I heard and actually thought about the somber tones of Neville Chamberlain on September 3rd, 1939 , reporting that his government had declared war on Hitler's. That's right; in case nobody told you, it was the Brits who started WW-II. They did it by blundering into it; escalating what would have been a minor border dispute between Poland and Germany into a worldwide slaughterfest. Two years later, America joined it less by stupidity than by the malevolence of FDR; but had it not been for the original incompetence, there would have been no war for him to join--and massively prolong.

The myth that Hitler began it all is still taught, alas, in government schools and on government licensed TV with all those endless WW-II documentaries on the History Channel and elsewhere; yet it's 44 years since that myth was busted by my favorite non-Libertarian historian A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1961 masterpiece The Origins of the Second World War. Last month I noticed my copy had mysteriously vanished from my bookshelf, so I got a fresh one from Amazon, and celebrated its arrival by reading it all through for the first time since before I heard the L-word. The feast was delicious.

The conventional story--the myth--is that a very wicked dictator and his henchmen seized power in Germany and started liquidating Jews and leading his very willing countrymen into a systematically planned war for world domination; that the lovers of peace and democracy belatedly armed themselves and heroically saved the world from that dreadful fate. With such fables has each succeeding generation been deceived into supposing our government is good and that "democracy" is a term more or less interchangeable with "freedom."

Taylor, being a non-libertarian, does swallow some of that hogwash and certainly blunders himself when effusing, outside his specialty, on the economic theories of J.M. Keynes. Like most others, he was fooled into calling the Nazi banker Schacht "brilliant," apparently supposing his 1933-36 economic recovery was real (in fact it consisted mainly of smoke and mirrors), but Taylor's great service to humanity has been to show how the warmonger fable contradicts reality in almost every respect, after researching what was actually said and done by the main players between 1919 and 1939. The result is astonishing.

Most now acknowledge that the War originated in 1919, in the savage settlement imposed on the defeated Germans by the victors of WW-I (itself begun by huge government blundering five years earlier). The German one had been no more to blame than the others, yet it was "punished" by loss of territory and by reparations. However, those gross errors could have been corrected peacefully if (so the myth goes) a monster had not arisen to restore the lost glory of Germany by waging war. Taylor spells out what really happened.

There's no whitewashing of Nazi atrocities, mind; Taylor was left-of-center and no secret admirer of Hitler. One of the few unchanging principles that drove Der F'hrer was, Taylor says, a rabid hatred of Jews; and of course, his government was authoritarian and ruthless above most others of its day and even by the standards of Bush, Ashcroft & Co.

The first mythical chapter that he busts is that the Nazis seized power, in some kind of coup d'etat. They did not. They won an election fair and square, just like Bush did. True, having gained power, they did manipulate the Reichstag into eliminating all opposition so they never had to seek re-election; though at least through 1941, they were wildly popular and would in my view certainly have won. The popularity came from fulfillment of promises (to get rid of the constraints of Versailles ) and from the illusion of prosperity Hitler was able to create; but as Taylor shows, it did not come from any enthusiasm for war. When war came, in 1939, there was as much gloom around Germany as there was elsewhere in Europe .

The second chapter is that when retrieving that lost territory and incorporating Austria , the Nazis did so by massive force of arms. They did not. Taylor shows that in every case Hitler announced a demand (for the Sudetenland, for example) and boasted of his military might, and then sat and waited for whatever the rest of Europe would offer to give him; which he would graciously accept. Taylor reveals that for the first time in recent history, a head of government claimed to have more military capability than he actually had, not less; for the second half of the '30s, Hitler emulated Joshua, at the Battle of Jericho. And sure enough, one by one, the walls came a-tumblin' down. The one thing Hitler did not want, according to Taylor , was a general war; for he was simply not prepared to fight one. Instead he wanted to win by lying, intimidation, patience and bluff, and was very good at all four.

The third is that when the final crunch arrived over a not-unreasonable claim to gain access to and control over the German speaking city of Danzig in Poland , the Nazis refused to negotiate and just launched their Blitzkrieg. They did not. Taylor shows that they were always willing to meet with Beck, head of the Polish government, but that Beck refused to talk. He also shows why Beck was so stubborn; he had received from Chamberlain six months earlier an entirely unsolicited guarantee that if Poland was attacked, Britain would come to its aid. This above all other blunders was what started WW-II; the Brits had neither defensive nor even diplomatic need to give any such guarantee, yet when it was called, they had the choice only of honoring it or openly reneging.

Hitler glanced at the map, saw that the former was impossible without Britain starting a major war, and gambled on the latter; this time, for the first time, his gamble failed. He locked himself in to a timetable for invasion that allowed a few days too few for negotiations to get under way. The Brits had stupidly created the trap, the Poles stupidly refused to talk, and Hitler stupidly refused to change his timetable. Almost every Danziger wanted to be part of Germany ; nobody outside Warsaw thought the transfer unreasonable, yet the delicacies of government diplomacy demanded war. Result: about 80 million violent, premature deaths.

There's much more in Origins, such as a blow-by-blow account of how the Soviets came to change "sides" just a few days before the War began; the whole book is a thrilling read. But meanwhile, let's note what A.J.P. Taylor completely failed to do.

First, having demythologized Hitler so well, he failed to point out that that means he was not a sub-human monster but a very human politician and statesman, just like all the others; and that means that all other politicians are just like Hitler. That is the truth they are all so eager to hide--by keeping the myth well and truly alive by every propaganda trick at their disposal.

Second, having so brilliantly exposed the origins of WW-II as being diplomatic blundering of the kind that started WW-I, he might and should have stood back and at least wondered aloud: if inter-government posturings and hypothetical diplomatic exchanges fail twice in 30 years to prevent unprecedented human catastrophe, is it not time to question whether to continue the very institution of government that provides their source?

Of course it is; and although Taylor loved to shock conventional opinion and be seen as a radical, the fact is that he was not nearly radical enough. The evidence was plain before him, plainer than to anyone else perhaps and plain because his own research and reasoning had uncovered it. Yet, sadly and incredibly, he failed to ask that obvious question.

We market-anarchists have asked it, and answered it, and very much in the affirmative. We are his heirs, and then some. We, alone, have learned the primary "lesson of history."

Back to Subject Index