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The Origins of the Second World War

A book by AJP Taylor - 1961.

The book is the first post-war "Revisionist" work by an English Historian. It can be seen as a precursor to Guido Preparata's recent work "Conjuring Hitler" in that it calls into serious question the received simplistic, holier-than-thou, Anglo-American narrative that holds Adolph Hitler and his Third Reich solely responsible for the outbreak of hostilities and the carnage that ensued.

From the introduction


I wrote this book in order to satisfy my historical curiosity; in the words of a more successful historian, "to understand what happened, and why it happened". Historians often dislike what happened or wish that it had happened differently. There is nothing they can do about it. They have to state the truth as they see it without worrying whether this shocks or confirms existing prejudices. Maybe I assumed this too innocently. I ought perhaps to have warned the reader that I do not come to history as a judge; and that when I speak of morality I refer to the moral feelings at the time I am writing about. I make no moral judgement of my own. Thus when I write (p. 28) that "the peace of Versailles lacked moral validity from the start", I mean only that the Germans did not regard it as a "fair" settlement and that many people in Allied countries, soon I think most people, agreed with them. Who am I to say that it was "moral" or "immoral" in the abstract" From what point of view"that of the Germans, of the Allies, of neutrals, of the Bolsheviks" Some of its makers thought that it was moral; some thought it necessary; some thought it both immoral and unnecessary. This last class included Smuts, Lloyd George, the British Labour party, and many Americans. These moral doubts helped towards the overthrow of the peace settlement later on. Again, I wrote of the Munich agreement (p. 189): "It was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life; a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples; a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and short-sightedness of Versailles". I ought perhaps to have added "(goak here)" in the manner of Artemus Ward. It was not however altogether a joke. For years past the best-informed and most conscientious students of international affairs had argued that there would be no peace in Europe until the Germans received the self-determination which had been granted to others. Munich was in part the outcome of their writings, however unwelcome its form; and its making would have been much more difficult if it had not been felt that there was some justice in Hitler"s claim. Even during the second World war a Fellow of All Souls1 asked President Benes whether he did not think that Czechoslovakia would have been stronger if it had included, say, a million and a half Germans fewer. So long did the spirit of "appeasement" linger. As a matter of fact, there was no half way house: either three and a half million Germans in Czechoslovakia or none. The Czechs themselves recognised this by expelling the Germans after the second World war. It was not for me to endorse, or to condemn, Hitler"s claim; only to explain why it was so widely endorsed.

I am sorry if this disappoints simple-minded Germans who imagined that my book had somehow "vindicated" Hitler. I have however no sympathy with those in this country who complained that my book had been welcomed, mistakenly or not, by former supporters of Hitler. This seems to me a disgraceful argument to be used against a work of history. A historian must not hesitate even if his books lend aid and comfort to the Queen"s enemies (though mine did not), or even to the common enemies of mankind. For my part, I would even record facts which told in favour of the British government if I found any to record (goak again). It is not my fault that, according to the record, the Austrian crisis was launched by Schuschnigg, not by Hitler; not my fault that the British government, according to the record, not Hitler, took the lead in dismembering Czechoslovakia; not my fault that the British government in 1939 gave Hitler the impression that they were more concerned to impose concessions on the Poles than to resist Germany. If these things tell in favour of Hitler, it is the fault of previous legends which have been repeated by historians without examination. These legends have a long life. I suspect I have repeated some. For instance I went on believing until the last moment that Hitler summoned Hacha to Berlin; only when the book was in proof, did I look at the records again and discover that Hacha asked to come to Berlin, not the other way round. No doubt other legends have slipped through.

Destroying these legends is not a vindication of Hitler. It is a service to historical truth, and my book should be challenged only on this basis, not for the political morals which people choose to draw from it. This book is not a contribution to "revisionism" except in the lesser sense of suggesting that Hitler used different methods from those usually attributed to him. I have never seen any sense in the question of war guilt or war innocence. In a world of sovereign states, each does the best it can for its own interests; and can be criticised at most for mistakes, not for crimes. Bismarck, as usual, was right when he said of the Austro-Prussian war in 1868: "Austria was no more in the wrong in opposing our claims than we were in making them". As a private citizen, I think that all this striving after greatness and domination is idiotic; and I should like my country not to take part in it. As a historian, I recognise that Powers will be Powers. My book has really little to do with Hitler. The vital question, it seems to me, concerns Great Britain and France. They were the victors of the first World war. They had the decision in their hands. It was perfectly obvious that Germany would seek to become a Great Power again; obvious after 1938 that her domination would be of a peculiarly barbaric sort. Why did the victors not resist her" There are various answers: timidity; blindness; moral doubts; desire perhaps to turn German strength against Soviet Russia. But whatever the answers, this seems to me the important question, and my book revolves round it, though also of course round the other question: why did they resist in the end"

Still, some critics made a great fuss about Hitler, attributing to him sole responsibility for the war or something near it. I will therefore discuss Hitler"s part a little more, though not in a polemical spirit. I have no desire to win, only to get things right. The current versions of Hitler are, I think, two. In one view, he wanted a great war for its own sake. No doubt he also thought vaguely of the results: Germany the greatest Power in the world, and himself a world conqueror on the pattern of Alexander the Great or Napoleon. But mainly he wanted war for the general destruction of men and societies which it would cause. He was a maniac, a nihilist, a second Attila. The other view makes him more rational and, in a sense, more constructive. In this view, Hitler had a coherent, longterm plan of an original nature which he pursued with unwavering persistence. For the sake of this plan he sought power; and it shaped all his foreign policy. He intended to give Germany a great colonial empire in eastern Europe by defeating Soviet Russia, exterminating all the inhabitants, and then planting the vacant territory with Germans. This Reich of a hundred or two hundred million Germans would last a thousand years. I am surprised, incidentally, that the advocates of this view did not applaud my book. For surely, if Hitler were planning a great war against Soviet Russia, his war against the western Powers was a mistake. There is evidently some point here which I have not understood.

Now, of course Hitler speculated a good deal about what he was doing, much as academic observers try to put coherence into the acts of contemporary statesmen. Maybe the world would have been saved a lot of trouble if Hitler could have been given a job in some German equivalent of Chatham House, where he could have speculated harmlessly for the rest of his life. As it was, he became involved in the world of action; and here, I think, he exploited events far more than he followed precise coherent plans. The story of how he came to power in Germany seems to me relevant to his later behaviour in international affairs. He announced persistently that he intended to seize power and would then do great things. Many people believed him. The elaborate plot by which Hitler seized power was the first legend to be established about him and has been the first also to be destroyed. There was no long-term plot; there was no seizure of power. Hitler had no idea how he would come to power; only a conviction that he would get there. Papen and a few other conservatives put Hitler into power by intrigue, in the belief that they had taken him prisoner. He exploited their intrigue, again with no idea how he would escape from their control, only with the conviction that somehow he would. This "revision" does not "vindicate" Hitler, though it discredits Papen and his associates. It is merely revision for its own sake, or rather for the sake of historical truth.

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