It’s a remarkable thing about World War II in Europe that this enormously destructive conflagration, which killed tens of millions and left embers that smoldered through the end of the century and beyond, happened because one man willed it to happen. True, one can point to deeper, structural causes of the conflict, but fundamentally, war began on Sept. 1, 1939, because Adolf Hitler desired it, lusted for it, brooked no opposition from inside or outside Germany to launching it. He had hoped at first to keep the struggle a local affair, between Germany and Poland. But even when it became clear that he would very likely have to fight Britain and France as well, he sent his soldiers across the Polish frontier anyway.
The war’s proximate origins are the subject of Benjamin Carter Hett’s fast-moving, absorbing and aptly titled “The Nazi Menace.” A historian of modern Germany who has written several works on the Nazi era, Hett concentrates here substantially on developments within the German government from late 1937 onward, but he also examines the thinking of leaders in Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, and to a lesser extent those in the other principal capitals: Paris, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Rome.
Along the way, thanks to the author’s knack for the capsule biography, we gain fascinating insights into less obvious figures, among them Hugh Dowding, an eccentric and canny architect of Britain’s air defense network; Ernst von Weizsäcker, a senior German diplomat torn between his opposition to a general war and his support for German expansion; and Dorothy Thompson, the ferociously anti-Nazi American columnist and radio broadcaster.
From the moment Hitler began his saber-rattling, we learn, numerous German officials sought to dissuade him from taking aggressive action. Any such move, they believed, risked a wider war, which Germany would probably lose. Hitler and his loyalists were unmoved. In early 1938, two highly placed dissidents, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, the minister for war, and Gen. Werner von Fritsch, the army chief of staff, were forced out, the latter on a trumped-up homosexuality charge. Later, following more purges and a broad military reorganization that gave Hitler firm control of the armed forces, internal doubters sought in vain to arrest the seemingly inexorable slide to war. They were undone by their own timidity and careerist ambitions, and by Hitler’s stunning run of diplomatic successes — most notably at the Munich conference in September 1938, where Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier agreed to cede to Germany the strategically vital and mostly German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. (The Czechs were not consulted.)
Chamberlain, the second most important actor in the lead-up to war — curiously, he is left out of the book’s subtitle in favor of his successor, Winston Churchill — tried desperately to negotiate a lasting solution to the crisis. In keeping with much recent scholarship, Hett presents Chamberlain as a complex figure, intelligent and composed but also vainglorious and gullible. After a meeting at Hitler’s Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden in September 1938, Chamberlain wrote that he had “established a certain confidence which was my aim and on my side in spite of the hardness & ruthlessness I thought I saw in [Hitler’s] face I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”
Even after March 1939, when Hitler’s seizure of most of the rest of Czechoslovakia showed the bankruptcy of Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy, he clung to the belief that the Führer could be reasoned with. That Hitler might actually desire war was to the prime minister’s rational way of thinking impossible, especially following the mass carnage of World War I. Still, with Hitler now turning his murderous gaze toward Poland, the Chamberlain government shifted to a strategy of deterrence, joining with France to guarantee Polish and later Romanian independence. It also stepped up preparations for war, introducing peacetime conscription for the first time in British history and commencing Anglo-French military staff talks. War came a few months later.
For the Western leaders and their populations, the second half of the 1930s represented, Hett argues, a “crisis of democracy.” In the minds of influential observers like Churchill and the American columnist Walter Lippmann, it seemed an open question whether the major democracies could respond effectively to the threat from totalitarian states that were primed for war and had ready access to resources. Could Western leaders mobilize their competing interest groups and fickle constituents to support costly overseas commitments? What if these same constituents fell under the sway of fascism, with its racist and nationalist appeals?
Harold L. Ickes, the irascible and perspicacious American secretary of the interior, saw the danger. “Fascism is an ever-present threat, even here in America,” he warned in a speech before the Cleveland Zionist Society at the end of 1938. “Every intelligent man and woman knows that the danger that threatens America is the same that has already engulfed other countries.” Ickes’s fear was not realized, not then — little by little, Hett writes, democratic leaders in Washington and London found their footing. They were able to turn back the totalitarian threats while upholding what Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address called the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Today, we are again in a crisis of democracy, a point Hett stresses from his opening pages. Perhaps he does so with more insistence than necessary, as if uncertain his readers will grasp the parallels between the 1930s and our own day without his firm direction. Still, it’s hard to disagree with his overarching judgment:
“Above all, the world of the 1930s was wracked by a fundamental conflict: Should the world system be open and international, based on democracy, free trade and rights for all, anchored in law? Or should the world be organized along racial and national lines, with dominant groups owing nothing to minorities and closing off their economic space as much as possible to the outer world? Today we face this very conflict once again.”
At times, Hett’s admirable effort at concision gets the better of him. His cast of characters is huge (the glossary of names at the start of the book runs to 12 pages and contains over 100 individuals). But many of the players make barely a cameo, and important developments pass in a blur, or are absent altogether. The French are mostly offstage, for example, as are the Italians. We learn little about the connection between European events and Japan’s expansionist moves in the Far East. Most perplexing of all in a book about the war’s origins, the intense drama of the final week of peace, when nerves were on edge in all the key capitals, is barely covered, as Hett seems impatient to get to the spring of 1940 and Churchill’s ascension to power along with the Nazi attack in the west.
In the end, we come back to Hitler. As “The Nazi Menace” shows anew, no domestic or international pressures forced him into war. He chose it, and some part of him understood right away that he was getting more than he bargained for. On the morning of Sept. 3, 1939, he and his obsequious foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, listened intently as the interpreter Paul Schmidt read to them the text of a British ultimatum demanding that German forces be withdrawn from Poland. “When I finished,” Schmidt wrote in his memoirs, “there was complete silence. Hitler sat immobilized, gazing before him.” Finally, he looked up, turned to Ribbentrop and said bitterly, “What now?”
Fredrik Logevall, a historian at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.”
THE NAZI MENACE Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and the Road to War By Benjamin Carter Hett 416 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $29.99.