Murray Polner: Review of Richard Overy’s 1939: Countdown to War (Viking 2010)


This slender volume by Richard Overy, professor of history at King’s College, London, and author of The Twilight Years: Why the Allies Won is an unflinching and gripping account of the tense ten days before Germany invaded Poland and the British and French then chose to honor its controversial obligation to defend Poland.

In his 2008 book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, Pat Buchanan described the guarantee to Poland made by Britain and France as a huge blunder that only then made war unavoidable. In this he was correct but there were significant circumstances that prompted the British and French to negotiate the guarantee.

Specifically, what Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, the British and French leaders did at Munich and later, when they guaranteed Poland’s security, was to try to prevent another war so soon after the carnage of WWI. More than all else, the prime minister and the premier reflected the will of their populations who clearly wanted peace. At one point, an overwhelming majority of Britons backed Chamberlain’s efforts. The same it seems was true in France and Germany. A French writer, Jacques Bardoux, commented in his memoir that "here, as in Berlin, the cheering crowds of 1914 were absent." The same absence of excessive nationalism was evident in other European countries.

By 1939 Britain, France and Germany were acting according to their own post-Versailles interests and illusions and believed the other side was bluffing. Overy comments, “If Hitler was responsible for war in 1939 this still begs the larger question of what kind of war he wanted.” Large or contained?

In the end, Hitler’s initial price was to isolate Poland by arranging to have the Polish Corridor and Danzig returned to Germany, clearly a deal-breaker and was rejected. by Britain and France. All the same, “[F]ew historians,” he tells us, “now accept that Hitler had a plan or blueprint for world conquest, in which Poland was a stepping stone to some distant German world empire.”

In the meantime, though, the two allies tried hard to believe that Hitler was far from serious in attacking Poland. Of course, he was incurably, irrationally anti-Semitic and despised minorities such as the Rom people, black Africans and the 70,000 mentally and physically disabled who ultimately were killed as a result of his order to do so on September 1, 1939.

But they took heart from bogus signs that large numbers of influential anti-Nazi German conservatives were reportedly organizing to overthrow Hitler— some of whom would later be executed for their involvement in the abortive July 2, 1944 attempt to kill the Nazi dictator. In the final hours before the war began Chamberlain and Daladier finally abandoned their policy of appeasement to avert what the French memoirist Bardoux presciently predicted would be a “War and a long war at that.” And though many historians and latter day politicians and pundits have condemned Chamberlain and Daladier for a lack of courage, their decision to honor their pledge to Poland was, to Overy at least, a brave act, though not so to the dissident independent socialist MP John McGovern, who told Parliament on September 3, the day Britain declared war on Germany: "I do not regard it [the declaration of war] as idealistic. I do not regard it as being for freedom, justice and human rights. I regard it … as a hard, soulless, grinding materialist struggle for human gain."

But why the guarantee to honor Poland’s borders? What had Poland to do with them? The re-entry of the Germans into European politics alarmed Western Europe and elements inside Washington. Even so, the wisdom of pledging to defend an authoritarian, anti-Semitic Polish government, which after the 1938 Munich pact had grabbed the Teschen territory from Czechoslovakia, was widely questioned.

Could then war have been avoided? Overy touches on the failure of forming an effective coalition of Britain, France and the Soviet Union, plus Poland against Germany, as French foreign minister George Bonnet urged. When Poland rejected the idea, which Bonnet, a pacifist, argued could have stopped Hitler’s expansionist schemes, he assailed the Polish leader Josef Beck’s “arrogant and treacherous attitude.” In Beck’s defense, however, it was he who proved prophetic because following the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet treaty, Poland was carved up between the two bullies on its eastern and western borders.

Once war was declared, Overy concludes, “For all the [allied] rhetoric of honor, the reality of war in 1939 was not to save Poland from a cruel occupation but to save Britain and France from the dangers of a disintegrating world.”

He might have added that the two nations were just as interested in safeguarding their empire’s economic and political interests. And the mindless obligation to Poland offers a contemporary lesson: Nations need to be very careful of what they promise to do in support of other nations because sooner or later -- like it or not -- they may have to honor their guarantee.

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