Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Review: 1939: Countdown to War, by Richard Overy (2009)


Cover of 1939: Countdown to War, by Richard Overy, 2009. My American paperback edition replaces Neville Chamberlain's picture with Winston Churchill, which doesn't make sense, since Chamberlain was Prime Minister in 1939. But Churchill's face is no doubt more familiar to American readers.


Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister from 1937-1940.

Historian Richard Overy.
We all know how World War II started. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Simple, right? Well, like many events in history, there’s more complexity than we might think. In his 2009 book 1939: Countdown to War, British historian Richard Overy takes us through the final week before the invasion day by day. Even during those last days of August, there was still hope among many leaders in France and England that war could somehow be avoided. 

Forming the backdrop for the events of 1939 was the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938, which had ended with the Munich Agreement. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously said of the Munich Agreement, “I believe it is peace for our time.” Chamberlain hoped that Hitler would be satisfied after Munich, but instead, Hitler made it clear that Germany wanted the Danzig Corridor, former German territory that had become part of Poland after the Treaty of Versailles. Poland allied itself militarily with France in England in 1939, and those two countries pledged to come to the aid of Poland if Germany invaded. 

Throughout 1939: Countdown to War, Overy deftly explores the hour by hour diplomacy of the final week of peace. Overy makes it quite clear that Hitler never believed that France and England would actually keep their word to Poland. As always, Hitler used best case scenario reasoning to inform his planning. Since he thought that France and England wouldn’t actually fight him over Poland, then why not take Poland? Adding to Hitler’s hubris was the signing of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on August 23rd, which ensured that, for the moment, the Soviet Union would not enter into a war against Germany. Hitler thought he could have a local war with no other countries interfering. The Non-Aggression Pact emboldened Hitler to go ahead with the invasion of Poland, which was scheduled to begin on August 26th. However, Hitler soon canceled the invasion, which was then rescheduled for September 1st

One thing I particularly enjoyed about 1939 was Overy’s nuanced portrait of Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s historical reputation has ebbed and flowed, but I think in the minds of most people he remains the symbol of appeasement. Chamberlain remains fixed in memory as the man waving the paper saying “it is peace for our time,” in contrast to the pugnacious Winston Churchill saying “We will fight them on the beaches.” Of course, we in 2017 have the benefit of hindsight-we know that Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” will blow up in less than a year. But, as Overy shows, Chamberlain changed his mind about Hitler after Munich: “Neville Chamberlain is often painted as a man who searched for any way of evading conflict in 1939, but though he always thought peace preferable to war, he had few illusions about Hitler by the beginning of 1939. In March he described Hitler to a guest as ‘the blackest devil he had ever met.’” (p.15) Chamberlain was not going to back down if Germany invaded Poland, a point that he made clear in a letter he sent to Hitler on August 22, 1939.

Overy does an excellent job of describing the diplomatic exchanges among the countries during these days, and the back-channel attempts at brokering some kind of deal to avoid a war. There was hope on both sides that a major war could be avoided-some in England and France thought that standing firm would cause Hitler to back down, and Hitler remained stubbornly convinced that England and France would never honor their treaty obligations to Poland and actually fight. 

Overy unearthed an odd attempt at back-channel diplomacy by Birger Dahlerus, a Swedish businessman who had connections to English diplomats and also to Hermann Göring. Dahlerus worked furiously to bring both sides together to broker a deal, and he met with Göring early in August, but was unsuccessful.

Even after the invasion of Poland on September 1st, there was still drama, as Chamberlain presented Hitler with an ultimatum demanding that German troops withdraw from Poland immediately. Originally, the ultimatum did not have a time limit, which left members of Parliament confused as to whether a state of war existed or not. A time limit was set for 11AM on September 3, 1939, and when there was no response from Germany; Chamberlain announced that England and Germany were at war. World War II had begun.

1939: Countdown to War is a slim volume, just 124 pages, not counting footnotes and index, but it tells the story of a momentous time in history, as Europe entered into another destructive war.

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