Sunday, March 20, 2011

Richard Overy: 1939: Countdown to War

This is my year (or more) of reading "big history", the long-terms trends that have marked the world. However, the narrative of microscopic history still holds a strong lure for me. In the hands of a capable historian, such as Richard Overy, the work can prove eye-opening. In this short book (only 124 pages of text), Overy shows how both sides to some degree stumbled into the war. Hitler, Overy concludes, expected Britain and France to back down over Poland. When they came into the war, changing it from a regional war to a European war (to to some extent a world war), Hitler was surprised and shaken. We are reminded that Hitler, for all of the magnitude of his evil, was a mere mortal, a political actor on the international and national stage. He had gambled and won during earlier crises, but here he was forced to lay a larger bet than either he or his military wished to place. Also, as Overy points out, Hitler wasn't planning to "conquer the world". This is the stuff of later Allied propaganda and a mis-reading of his intentions. He did, of course, have his eye on "living room" (sorry, I'm not going to try to spell the German) in the east, and he did assume that his Nazi regime would someday enter into a show down with the Soviet Union (which of course did happen, and Hitler lost). Overy also provdies a sympathetic portrait of Neville Chamberlain, who bears to burden of Munich, but who, in the end, led his nation into war.

The leaders involved all recalled the history of 1914 at the outbreak of the Great War. Each tried not to make the same mistakes. Nevertheless, a whole new conflagration broke out. Does this show, as Emerson suggested, that "events are in the saddle and ride mankind"? Overy thinks that the actions of individuals in the crucial days leading up the the full outbreak of war could have made a difference, and this always remains an intriguing question. The see-saw back and forth in historical judgment between free will and determinism, the great issue of Tolstoy and his critics, remains a challenge, with one side scoring a strike, and then the other counter-punching with gusto. This is, perhaps, why good history remains so intriguing. But rather than ending on my peroation, let me quote Overy, who says this better than me, and with more authority:

However large or long-term the forces making for war, there was a moment when those forces had to be confronted and harsh decisions taken by the principal historical actors involved. In the story of those dramatic days immediately before the outbreak of war, much still stood in the balance. Great events generate their own dynamic and their own internal history. The outbreak of war now sees a natural consequence of the international crisis provide principally by Hitler's Germany. What follows is intended to show that nothing in history is evitable. The stage dialogue between system and actors is at the heart of the historical narrative. Events themselves can be both cause and consequence, none more so than the events that led Europe to war seventy years ago. (From the Preface, x).