Michael White: The second world war: the honourable road to ruin

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael White is assistant editor and has been writing for the Guardian for over 30 years, as a reporter, foreign correspondent and columnist.]

Who to blame for the second world war, the nostalgia industry is asking this week. As the hours tick away towards the 70th anniversary of Britain's fateful declaration – Sunday morning, 3 September 1939 – the simplest, most obvious answer remains the right one. Hitler did it, though Bismarck has a lot to answer for.

Yet through most of my adult life all sorts of clever people have been wriggling. In 1961 AJP Taylor published The Origins of the Second World War, in which he explained that Hitler was a pretty run-of-the-mill European politician in foreign policy and that the war was made likely by the unwise Versailles treaty of 1918 but its immediate cause was the usual crop of mistakes by politicians.

I remember it because when I sat my history special paper in remote Cornwall two years later I was still blissfully unaware of the controversy it sparked. I passed, but was chagrined when I discovered my ignorance by buying the paperback edition.

As I recall, Taylor, a brilliant historian and man of the left ("I have no beliefs, but I am on the side of the underdog," he once told me when I interviewed him for the Guardian), argued that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 28 August 1939 was a rational response to Munich the previous autumn when Britain and France gave him chunks of Czechoslovakia and implicitly said: "Go east, young man."

But that won't wash, will it? Even Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, his nominal president, have been struggling to square an awkward circle this week. As the Guardian reported, Medvedev called it a "flat-out lie" that the Russians bore any responsibility for the war.

Putin, a Greater Russian chauvinist by temperament and his camp taste for stripped-to-the-waist photo-ops, did better in Poland when he admitted that the pact – whereby Hitler and Stalin divided Poland – was morally indefensible. Indeed it was, and Poland has only escaped the awful consequences in the past decade or so.

But Putin spoiled it by blaming Poland for "plotting" against the USSR throughout the 30s, via its non-aggression pact with Germany. Inter-war Poland, restored after 150 years of being wiped off the map, was not a nice place. But Putin's charge is like accusing Belgium of plotting to invade the Third Reich. At least the Germans since Willy Brandt have apologised.

Yes, the punitive nature of Versailles was a mistake, spotted at the time. It weakened Germany, but not enough to prevent her seeking redress. It was the hyper-inflation of 1923-24, plus the Great Crash of 1929 and beyond that caused a fragile civilian society – with no previous experience as a plural, liberal state thanks to brutal Bismarck – to collapse into the arms of Hitler.

Taylor made much of the idea of Hitler as a sleepwalker – the Führer's own expression – but his regime, economically unstable, politically predatory, militarist and paranoid, needed the expansionist policies it pursued in order to stay in power. Sooner or later a European war was inevitable...

... Yet the most important decision of the European theatre during the war (it began in 1939, not 1941 as both superpowers later asserted) was taken in London in 1940: the decision to reject the negotiated peace that Berlin wanted and that many of the pro-appeasement Tories wanted too. Once he double-crossed Stalin, it meant that Hitler was always fighting on both flanks.

So for all his faults – and Max Hastings's new biography lists them in full – Churchill remains the man who held the line between the fall of France and the attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In my more fanciful moments I like to think of him as the Spartan (no Spartan he) King, Leonidas who held the Greek line against the Persian empire in 480BC. At a stretch that makes the cabinet war rooms in Whitehall our Thermopylae.

US entry to the war – as Churchill immediately grasped ("so we have won after all") – meant that Hitler would be defeated. Hitler made things easier by declaring war on the Unites States, arguably the stupidest thing done by any of the combatants.

But US entry also meant the eclipse of Britain as a world power. And this is where it gets tricky. The lobby that would have cut a deal with Hitler in 1940 still has its adherents. I have a letter on file from Alan Clark, explaining in some detail why it would have better served British interests and why I was wrong to say otherwise...

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Arnold Shcherban - 9/6/2009

Whether militarily or politically there should be no doubt in any serious researcher's mind that it was USSR that carried the brunt of the war against Nazi Germany and broke the spine of the German military machine.
Yes, it was a Purr's victory (much more loss of life and resources on Soviet than on German side), but it was the USSR who made a major (much bigger than the comparable Western one) contribution to the Allies' victory in WWII, which Western intellectuals, historians, and politicians constantly try to belittle.
Both quantitative and qualitative analysis of the WWII leaves no doubts
about the above conclusion, and no
"cute" ideological considerations or the continuously exaggerated role of some great Western personalities cannot deny the brutal facts of history.
Moreover, by delaying the opening of the Second Front up to the summer of 1944 US and Great Britain basically played into the hands of Hitler, allowing him to prolong the war in Europe and kill many more millions of Russians, Jews, Poles, etc, just to prevent the loss of more British and American troops.
It's high time for "free" Western historiography to open itself to really objective, non-ideological analysis of the causes and developments of WWII...