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Share on LinkedIn. Share via Whatsapp. I seem to hear a child weeping. But the Versailles settlement might not have ended in catastrophe, even though it made some sort of resentful German revival inevitable. Fascism was the trouble — fascism in a time when the liberal democracies were too weak to resist it or to defend the Versailles status quo. France and Britain were never, until the very end, quite able to grasp that the dictators were not rational, that deterrents did not deter them and that a diplomacy which offered concessions seemed to them an admission of weakness.
AJP Taylor, a historian who liked upsetting received ideas, wrote that Hitler never had a coherent plan of conquest but simply grabbed opportunities. But how do you negotiate with somebody completely unreliable and capricious? Until , Chamberlain resisted the idea of an anti-German alliance which would include the Soviet Union.
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And much of the Conservative party, while disliking both tyrannies, instinctively preferred the Nazis to the Bolsheviks. Even if Stalin had honoured an agreement, the Polish government would never have joined a military pact with the traditional Russian enemy. And when Chamberlain changed his mind, it was too late. In August , Nazi Germany and the USSR signed their infamous non-aggression pact which secretly agreed on the partition of Poland and the abolition of the Baltic states.
Chamberlain was shattered. The war broke out because, unexpectedly, Britain did something reckless. On 30 March , Britain and a reluctant France issued a guarantee of Polish independence.
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Soon afterwards, the guarantee was extended to Romania and Greece. Most of Europe knew this would not stop Hitler and that war was imminent. The invasion of Poland began on 1 September Britain and France declared war two days later. Hitler had never believed that the British would fight.
He had always intended to have a war — Poland, France, Russia eventually — but not this one. In contrast to the patriotic fervour of , the German people went into this conflict full of gloom and foreboding, a mood which only cleared after the dazzling victory over France in The British did not cheer either. So began the 21 months of European war — not yet world war. The Poles fought bravely but were crushed by Nazi and Soviet armies advancing from west and east. Britain and France did nothing militarily to fulfil their guarantees to Poland, and spent a static winter confronting the Germans across the French frontier.
Could this war — should it — have been avoided? Hitler would almost certainly have attacked France sooner or later.
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But Britain? To this day, a few historians think that the Polish guarantee was a fateful mistake. In April , Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. The Battle of Britain denied Hitler the air superiority he needed to cross the Channel, but Benito Mussolini now thought it safe to bring Italy into the war and occupy a sliver of France. Hitler had in fact won the war by the late summer of Britain, he thought, could now be bracketed out.
Hitler had conquered seven countries with a population of more than million, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic almost to the Black Sea. The Soviet Union and the US showed no immediate sign of wishing to join the conflict. Why, then, was this not the end of the story?
It was time for my father to leave for work at the torpedo factory. But he suddenly jumped up from the breakfast table and went to the window to stare at the morning sky. I can still hear the exultation in his voice.
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The wireless had just told us that Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. It was 22 June It was the day when an Anglo-German war began to turn into a world war. It was the day when Hitler set in train his own failure and death and the destruction of his country. And it was the day that designed the postwar world. The first was his own defeat; in the long run, no invader could overcome the colossal resources of Russia and the courage of its peoples.
The second was that Germany would not only be devastated but would be broken up into satellite states shaped by the victors. The third was that Russian power would surge forward right into the centre of Europe — something western statesmen had struggled to prevent for two centuries. There the Soviet armies would meet Anglo-American armies entering Germany from the west, a confrontation which would lead to the permanent division of our continent into two hostile camps — the cold war.
By the summer of , in any case, the war was starting to spread beyond Europe. Late in , two almost insane decisions completed the transformation into a true world war.
A few days later, Hitler inexplicably declared war on the US. There was no sober reason for it, beyond showing solidarity with Japan. President Roosevelt had been arming and supplying Britain for more than a year.