Andrew Alexander: In lessons of war, overlearning is often as big a danger as not learning at all

Roundup: Talking About History

[Andrew Alexander is a Daily Mail columnist.]

The surge of memories and commentaries about September 1939 has supposedly offered any number of moral, political and military lessons.

But there is another, perverse side to the process - overlearning, often as big a danger as not learning at all.

As we slid into World War II, British and French leaders remembered acutely how disaster had built on one minor event.
World War I developed from Austria's wild assumption that the Serbian government was behind the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo.

A grim question hovered at the back of many minds in the late 1930s. Surely another East European quarrel, this time involving Czechoslovakia - yet another country of which we knew little - could not be allowed at any price to start another major war? We had learned too much about Austria, too little about Hitler.

Overlearning also emerged in our generals. In 1914, their plans left them unprepared for the potential of the machine-gun, barbed wire and trench warfare. By 1939, the British and French were fully prepared for another static war and found themselves facing the German Blitzkrieg.

Politicians at the end of World War II also overlearned. Dictators could never be appeased, was the conclusion. Only force and resolution would pay.

Stalin was seen as a repeat of Hitler. His refusal to retreat from Eastern Europe was a prelude to Nazi-style aggression.

But Russia had experienced two German invasions in 27 years with loss and devastation beyond our comprehension, much as we liked to believe in our unique suffering.

After such a history, any Russian government would be determined to retain control of the countries through which the invasions had come. But the Americans, with the noisy support of Churchill, refused to understand.

As we know now from the Kremlin archives, Moscow was in fact hoping for an era of 'peaceful co-existence' with the West, though not without some tensions.

The theme that 'dictators' are automatic threats has never left our political thinking. When Anthony Eden launched the futile Suez venture we were strongly reminded that President Nasser had that label...

comments powered by Disqus