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There is a disparity between the scholarship on the complex origins of the First World War and the Second. This is because the Second World War is almost universally attributed to the evil whims of one man, Adolf Hitler. In this controversial volume on the Origins of the greatest conflict in human history, Taylor’s has a clear message: Adolf Hitler did not mean to start a world war, It was an unprecedented plunder by British, French and German statesmen.
The concept that Hitler was aiming at complete world domination, and that it was his evil ambition that had caused the war, was false in the mind of Taylor. His point was that great powers behave as they do irrespective of whether they are ruled by Nazi fanatics, Stalinists, or parliamentarians like Winston Churchill. What matters are the interests of the great power in question, and the opportunities presented by its interactions with other great powers, both friends and enemies. This is undoubtedly the truth which has been obscured by generations of propaganda and national myths denouncing Hitler as a fanatic hell-bent on dominion over Europe and eventually the globe. The truth is that he never intended to march the Wehrmacht beyond the Rhine.
Although Taylor was an anti-fascist who hated Hitler and everything he stood for, he was also an historian committed to the truth, and it seemed obvious to him that however monstrous Hitler’s domestic policies, this was irrelevant to an understanding of German foreign policy between 1933 and 1939. Hitler, he rightly argued, acted in the expansionist tradition of Bismarck and Bethmann-Hollweg, as made clear by Fritz Fischer in ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War.. Hitler as Führer was a murderous racist; but Hitler as statesman was simply a German nationalist. Taylor wrote: ‘In international affairs, there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was German; and, having Germany’s great-power interests at uppermost, the one thing he did not plan was the great war often attributed to him’. The problem was not Hitler, but Germany’s militaristic customs.
Instead of Hitler’s series of illegal annexations, Taylor believed that the war was in fact, the war was unwittingly caused by a mist of diplomatic confusion. In the 1930s, the powers engaged in a complex interplay of ambition and suspicion, ignorance and misunderstanding, ill-judged moves and unintended consequences.
To rebuild German power after the military defeat of 1918 and the economic crisis of 1929, Hitler needed to dominate Central and Eastern Europe. Although he had vague principles, as set out in ‘Mein Kampf’, these were not well formulated, and had no specifics of territory he intended to rule over. He had no long-term plan. He was merely a foreign-policy opportunist. His impulse was expansionist because German territory had been hacked away at Versailles, a dishonour in the era of rising national pride, and German industry needed raw materials as the economy boomed in the mid to late 1930s.
Taylor is scathing about the incompetence of British and French statesmen. They first backed Czechoslovakia, then told her to surrender. They encouraged the Poles to resist, considering them militarily formidable, and anticipating an Eastern war of attrition, but spurned the Soviet Union, whom they regarded as aggressive but weak.
Taylor’s conclusion is that the Second World War was, in some, caused by the diplomatic suspicion inherent in a world presided over by great powers; but it was also, in another sense, caused by the uncertainties, misjudgements of Western statesmen in the late 1930s. It was definitely not caused by one man’s plan for global domination. This was, and is, a legend fostered by wartime propaganda.
Although published in the 1960s, this is a very important and very informative book, it therefore merits 4/5