Even as an academic historian the Second World War occasionally seems like one of those subjects that has been done to death. What more can be said? You wonder as you contemplate the vast library of already-published excellent books dealing with the conflict or its most minute aspects (the type of artillery used by the British Expeditionary Force in France, US Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific War, and so on and so on). That is of course, untrue, and a particularly bad thing for a trained historian to think. There is always a new angle, a new interpretation. I think I just find myself completely overwhelmed by the prospect of doing a literature review on any aspect of the historiography of World War Two…
Anyway, I digress. Richard Overy’s 1939: Countdown to War is a very short and quite readable account of the ten days leading up to the Second World War. I picked it up for a few quid from Postscript Books‘ spring sale, I picked up several other things as well naturally (including an illustrated history of war gaming that I am very much looking forward to) and have read it quite easily over the course of a Sunday afternoon (it’s very short).
I say all this is in spite of the book being by-and-large my least favourite type of history. Overy covers in detail the labyrinthine diplomatic maneuverings which led to Britain and France going to war with Germany, over the latter’s invasion of Poland, on 3 September 1939. As I say, I normally hate this sort of dry, top-down stuff about what Lord Snootyface said to Count von Nobilitypants at an impromptu meeting at 11:30am in someone’s private club which then led to a global conflict with irrevocable consequences for the entire world. What I would find much more interesting is a detailed social history of the run-up to war. Overy occasionally talks about popular feeling in France, Germany, Poland and Britain, and sometimes draws upon source material written by non-diplomats and politicians, but his staple material here is once again the contents of the politician’s diary or memoir and the diplomatic bag.
Not to say that this material doesn’t have a place in the history of the Second World War, and indeed with a topic of this sort it becomes somewhat essential, but it does limit the work, especially when it is abundantly clear that the diplomats and politicians were only slightly more in-the-know than the general public about what was going on. To that end, it would have been nice to see more of the ‘bottom-up’ voices that he occasionally arbitrarily includes alongside those of the ‘major players’. While the source base is no doubt skewed in favour of a top-down perspective, and is needed to tell the story of how Britain and France went to war, there are still potential sources that could have been used – more could have been made of the Mass Observation data and one potentially interesting avenue would have been newspaper reportage of the period, for example.
The book is also limited in scope largely to Britain, France and Germany and what they were doing. Britain and France in 1939 found themselves in the invidious position of having guaranteed Polish freedom but not really being able (or necessarily willing) to do anything about it. There was of course great reluctance on the part of both powers (especially France) to once again engage in a huge, costly, protracted conflict with the Germans. Likewise, and to my surprise as someone who hasn’t read a lot about the Second World War in a long while, Overy shows how Hitler’s own ambitions were for a purely localised war as a tee-up to an eventual conflict with the Soviet Union (a player lamentably absent from this book, especially given Overy’s expertise in the area – he wrote an excellent book Russia’s War about the Russian experience of World War Two). This limit is necessary given the size of the book and its central question, but at the same time one feels a better history of the run-up to war could have been written with more consideration of the roles of countries such as Russia, Italy and America (both only treated with briefly), and Japan (barely mentioned at all).
Overy also engages in some welcome ‘myth-busting’. He has little time for the relentless myth of Neville Chamberlain as a lily-livered appeaser. Like most of the leaders of Europe (Hitler included), he had little stomach for yet another global conflagration so soon after the horrors of the so-called ‘Great War’. In this sense his attempts to avert war were those of a sensible man rather than a unforgivable coward. Additionally, and perhaps more interestingly as alluded to above, he notes that Hitler’s invasion of Poland did not stem from a Pinky-and-the-Brain like desire for world domination but rather a more historical central European desire to resurrect a sort of nightmare racially pure version of the Habsburg Empire (or Austria-Hungary as it sometimes known). Hitler was genuinely shocked by the British and French declarations of war in September, having believed to the last minute that his deliberately obfuscatory tactics would keep them from actually carrying out their ultimatums over Poland’s sovereignty. Overy also very skilfully explains why the ten days he chronicles were not an inexorable slide into conflict, but were shaped by events, and people’s responses to them, thereby avoiding a major trap of history, particularly history as popular as that of the Second World War.
As Overy ultimately points out, these British and French guarantees did little to help the Polish, determined to stand up to the might of Nazi Germany. They soon found out that their cavalrymen were no match for the Panzer divisions storming across their western frontier. Polish pleas for financial support in the days preceding the German invasion found the Allied powers unwilling to part with hard cash to finance the Polish war effort, and there was never any serious intention to deploy military forces in support of the Polish army and air force. RAF Bomber Command sprang into action and dropped six million leaflets over Germany (a rather more benign payload than what would come later), the infamous and impressive but ultimately superfluous Maginot Line was manned on the Franco-German border. Days before the war, evacuations had begun in Britain, where a thoroughly British solution was found for storing the priceless treasures in London’s museums – shifting them out to stately homes in the countryside. In spite of the fact that Polish resistance to German aggression had triggered it, the Allies would spend the next few years on the Western front fighting on home turf, first in France and then in the skies above Britain.
In the East, and in Africa, the war took place in the colonies of the European powers, as Japan aggressively sought to carve out its Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere before its strategically disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor finally brought the Americans into the war and led to years of unimaginably horrific combat in the Pacific Theatre. Though this was all some time distant in August and September 1939 it would have been interesting to have a little more focus on the imperial aspects of France and Britain (yes, I’m being biased as an historian of empire), as the colonies would become important sources of material, manpower and even territory in the war (after the establishment of the Vichy regime ‘Free France’ was essentially constituted in French Colonial territory for some years). There was a further aspect for Britain, where its huge settler colonies, the dominions, had won the power to declare war in their own right (and all promptly did so despite varying levels of enthusiasm). That is, however, the story of another book (and indeed Andrew Stewart’s Empire Lost provides an excellent if sometimes a bit dry account of Britain’s relationship with the dominions during the war).
In conclusion then, Richard Overy’s slim account of the lead-up to World War Two was an interesting if invariably limited read. As you can probably tell from this review it has clearly got me thinking about World War Two again. I feel it could have been a much longer book however, and would be interested if someone could direct me to a more comprehensive work which goes beyond the scope of Germany, and (metropolitan – in a colonial sense) Britain and France. This was, after all, a World War, not simply a clash of European powers, as the 2.5 million Indians who volunteered for service in the Middle and Far East would no doubt attest. Likewise, there was heavy focus on dry, ‘diplomatic history’ and not enough bottom-up social history for my liking. Consequently this is worth three arbitrarily-chosen ‘psi’ ψψψ