Some Thoughts on A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War Sylvester J. Kowalski
A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, in my opinion, strongly contrasts with the majority of historians in regards to British culpability in the outbreak of this war.
When it came to Poland (after Czechoslovakia and Austria were occupied by Germany), Hitler’s objective was an alliance with Poland. Joseph Beck, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, believed that as long as he could keep the Danzig affair in the forefront, he could finesse Hitler’s offer of a German-Polish alliance, and, by so doing, “preserve Polish independence. Amid a great deal of rumors and provocations, Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, drafted assurances (March 30,1939)to the Polish Government:
“If…. any action were taken which clearly threatened their independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly felt obliged to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government and the French Government would at once lend them all the support in their power.”
“That afternoon Beck was discussing with the British ambassador how to implement his proposal of a week earlier for a general declaration, when a telegram from London was brought in. The ambassador read out Chamberlain’s assurance. Beck accepted it “between two flicks of the ash of his cigarette”. Two flicks; and British grenadiers would die for Danzig. Two flicks; and the illusory great Poland, created in 1919 [the Versaille treaty], signed her death warrant. The assurance was unconditional: the Poles alone were to judge whether it should be called upon. The British could no longer urge Poland to co-operate with Soviet Russia. Germany and Russia were regarded in the West as two dangerous Powers, dictatorial in their governments , ruthless in their methods. Yet from this moment peace rested on the assumption that Hitler and Stalin would be more sensible and cautious than Chamberlain had been – that Hitler would continue to accept conditions at Danzig which most Englishmen had long regarded as intolerable, and that Stalin would be ready to cooperate on terms of manifest inequality. These assumptions were not likely to be fulfilled.”
“The British had no practical means with which to fulfill their assurance; it was a declaration in words only. Translated into practical terms, it could only be a promise that the French would not go back on their alliance with Poland, as they had done in Czechoslovakia.”
Most Germans had an “indelible grievance against [the] Versailles” treaty regarding the loss of German territory to Poland. While Danzig and a corridor linking East Prussia to Germany was important, Hitler had to do something about the loss of territory. In October 1938, Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, discussed these aspects with Lipski, the Polish ambassador: “If Danzig and the corridor were settled, there could then be a ‘joint policy towards Russia on the basis of the Anti-Comintern Pact.” When Beck visited Hitler in January 1939, Hitler elaborated, but Beck did not respond. It was common knowledge that Poland aspired the territory of the Soviet Ukraine so that an alliance with Germany aimed toward the Soviet Union was consistent with Germany’s aims.
After the British alliance with Poland was known by others, the policies of France, Italy, Russia and Germany changed: “The Germans planned to dissolve the Anglo-Polish alliance; the Russians to exploit it. The French and the Italians both dreaded its implications for themselves and sought, in vain, a way to escape.” Chamberlain, with his alliance offer to Poland, created a monster.
“Was Polish obstinacy then the only thing which stood between Europe and a peaceful outcome? By no means. Previously Danzig might have been settled without implying any upheaval in international relations. Now it had become the symbol of Polish independence; and, with the Anglo-Polish alliance, of British independence as well. Hitler no longer wished merely to fulfill German national aspirations or to satisfy the inhabitants of Danzig. He aimed to show that he had imposed his will on the British and on the Poles. All parties aimed at a settlement by negotiation, but only after victory in a war of nerves.”
Chamberlain, with his Anglo-Polish alliance, blundered into an eventual war unless Britain and Poland agreed to Hitler’s demands. Negotiation without war was no longer possible. Poland was adamant and would not agree to Hitler’s demands. Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and this was the first phase of World War II. Britain “sleep-walked” the West into a World War with Germany. This was a war that was won neither by Germany nor the West, but by the Soviet Union. Poland and a good part of Germany were controlled by the Soviet Union after Germany surrendered in 1945.
What should Chamberlain have done in March of 1939? In my opinion, a prudent approach would have been for Britain to disengage from the German-Polish problem once it became clear that Poland had no intention of negotiating with Hitler. Britain should have left the Germans and Poles to resolve their differences between themselves. Further, if the final result was an attack on Poland by Germany, Britain should mobilize itself, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands into a defensive military alliance to protect Western Europe from Germany. By doing this, a German-Polish war might be limited to Central and Eastern Europe. Any expansion would have been because of aggressive German or Soviet Union aspirations. Hitler in 1939 did not feel confident of attacking the Soviet union without help. Neither before September 1, 1939 nor after the German victory over Poland did the Soviet Union show any signs that it wanted to start a war with Germany. After the conclusion of the German-Polish war, Hitler likely would concentrate on the South – Romania, Hungary, and the Balkan countries, and, also the Scandinavian countries.
While history shows that wars are caused by aggressive Hitler-type leaders, history also shows wars are started by blundering, stupid statesmen, such as, Chamberlain.