Commentary Magazine


How War Came, by Donald Cameron Watt

Hitler’s War

How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War.
by Donald Cameron Watt.
Pantheon. 736 pp. $29.95.

Donald Cameron Watt’s volume is the result, as the author tells us, of a lifetime’s concerned reflection on and study of the causes of World War II, a process that began when, at age eleven, he helped his father fill sandbags in the English Midlands. At the end of the war, he joined the British occupation forces in postwar Austria. After whetting his curiosity as a junior officer assisting local denazification efforts, he studied at Oxford with, among others, Christopher Seton-Watson and John Wheeler-Bennett, both of whom played important intelligence and policy-making roles in British wartime strategy. Cameron Watt devoted much of his subsequent academic career at the London School of Economics to publishing and editing the captured archives of the German Foreign Ministry for the years 1918-45, and to close study of the comparable documents of other European nations and the United States.

How War Came displays Cameron Watt’s meticulous learning to its full advantage. It is the most comprehensive and, all ambiguities aside, the best single study of the road to war from the Munich conference to September 1939 that we are ever likely to have. It is also, in some ways, a surprising book. Cameron Watt, after all, is the chief living heir to what Elie Kedourie has called the “Chatham House version” of world politics and of the goals and methods of British foreign policy. Kedourie invented the phrase to describe what he considered to be the fatuous pro-Arabism of British Middle East policy, based as it was on the belief that the Arabs shared the Gladstonian liberal world view of the British elite. In broader terms, a Chatham House view of world politics is one that rejects ideology as a driving force—that, for example, would regard Joseph Stalin as essentially a Russian nationalist with whom one could do business if one respected his legitimate security interests, or that would see World War II as the result of accident rather than of design, and Hitler as victim rather than as perpetrator.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the view presented in How War Came. Cameron Watt’s central thesis, repeated with salutary frequency, is that World War II was Hitler’s war, a war that he wanted and therefore provoked as rapidly and as effectively as he knew how. The last thing Hitler took into account was German national interest, since he ignored all evidence that, by provoking war, Germany would conjure up an alliance of enemies it could not possibly defeat, and that the result of war would therefore be the destruction of the European political order centered on a strong Germany.

Cameron Watt’s masterful book displays several outstanding traits that deserve mention in this era of deliberately induced political ignorance and rejection of history in American higher education and political debate. He consciously, even provocatively, focuses his account on high politics, on what heads of state, foreign ministers, aides, and the occasional wellmeaning businessman or financier did and said. No deep economic structures or arcane capitalist plots for him. Notably, he denies by the overwhelming force of his narrative the notion, formerly and perhaps still popular in leftist circles, that the Western governments provoked the war with Hitler in order to cause a demand for armaments that would guarantee profits for big business and save capitalism. How War Came is blessedly free of the passive constructions and obscure lines of causation favored by most contemporary historians: on every page, people act, say, do, speculate, and blunder.

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Cameron Watt also pays careful attention to the minor players in the European tragedy: the Finns, the Dutch, the Yugoslavs, the Rumanians, even the Bulgarians and Greeks strut onto the stage, contributing their bit of interested argument or, very occasionally, of disinterested sacrifice. We discover a Europe vastly more complicated than the caricature of a foolish Chamberlain confronting a Machiavellian Hitler at Munich and blundering on to the fateful declaration of war a year later. For example, the Poles in 1939 did not see themselves as weak victims of a threatening German attack; rather, the Polish military government was wildly optimistic and believed that it could easily beat back the Germans. We are reminded, also, that Chamberlain was entirely right, on one level, in choosing appeasement in 1938, for he knew well that Britain could not afford a war, and that the result of war would be, as indeed it was, to put an end to the British empire and, probably, to impoverish permanently the British economy. But Cameron Watt is equally clear in showing why this concern, perfectly reasonable in a civilized political environment, was wholly irrelevant in the face of Adolf Hitler.

In my view, Cameron Watt is entirely correct in emphasizing that the Italians in 1939 were by no means fervent supporters of Hitler. Even Mussolini did not want war; he wanted to aggrandize Italian power, but on the cheap. After all, he was a far more rational and, arguably, intelligent man than his German dictator-colleague. Unfortunately, he was also intolerably vain and could not stomach the idea that Germany was about to steal all the glory of a hegemonic place in Europe when it was he, Mussolini, who had launched the career of fascist government in 1922. So, in the end, he went along, rather than taking the strong stand against war that, so Cameron Watt argues, might possibly have deterred Hitler.

The chances of such deterrence, however, were always minute, because Hitler was not a rational politician amenable to considerations of balance of power, of geopolitical weight, or of strategic calculation. In the famous Hossbach Memorandum of 1937, in which Hitler set forth his strategic plans, he declared (correctly) that Germany would not be ready for a European war unti 1943. After Munich, he became convinced that the West was so decadent that he could seize Poland without a fight. When it became clear in the spring of 1939 that Britain would fight over Poland, he was not deterred, but determined more than ever upon immediate war. The pact with Stalin in August cemented, but did not trigger, the decision to attack the Poles.

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Narrative history is not fashionable in today’s academy, probably because narrative implies individual responsibility. Cameron Watt says not only that World War II was Hitler’s war, but that Western and Central European politicians failed miserably either to understand the Nazi peril or to take measures to crush it quickly and effectively. Britain lost its best chance to destroy Hitler by giving in at Munich; had the British remained firm and threatened or even declared war over Czechoslovakia, a military coup would have toppled Hitler, sparing Europe the Holocaust and division. Cameron Watt offers some caustic remarks on the fatuous fools who thought that more consultation, more conferences, and more contacts between Nazi leaders and Western governments could save peace. One lesson of How War Came for today is that realism, not faith in common goals, is the only guide to national survival; a lesson not entirely useless in the Gorbachev era.

Cameron Watt displays only a faint trace of Chatham House-ism when he states, in an afterword about the war itself, that the German inhabitants of the eastern parts of Germany and of Central Europe were expelled by the Poles, and in many cases killed, “in retribution” for the Holocaust. This is false. The postwar Polish regime had no remorse for the murdered Jews; it drove out the Germans because Stalin had given the Poles a third of Germany in return for the half of Poland he insisted on keeping from his pact with Hitler. The expulsion of the Germans was a geopolitical act of ground-clearing; it had no moral or political connection to the German murder of the Jews.

It is easy to find lessons in the events of 1939. It would be a pity, though, if lesson-finding were to detract from the sheer pleasure and exhilaration of Cameron Watt’s magisterial and elegant work. It is, in the best sense, and despite minor quarrels one may have with details, a monument to humanistic scholarship.

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