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Unspooling the mythology of World War II on 80th anniversary of its bloody beginning

“The sufferings of the many pay for the luxuries of the few.” – Greta Thunberg

Sunday, September 1 marked the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. On that day in 1939, German troops crossed the border into Poland, setting off the greatest war the world has ever known.

No war—and maybe no event of any kind—has been so thoroughly chronicled, both at the time it occurred and after the fact. But, like so many of the iconic events in America’s past, the rendering that endures in the culture is a stew of fact, fiction, and fairy tale.

It is worth our while to try to disentangle some of the realities of the war from the mythologies we so love to worship. One episode, in particular, deserves better understanding. It is the cause of the war itself.

The conventional narrative has it that the war, at least in Europe, was the result of Adolf Hitler’s aggression, and the failed “appeasement” of that aggression by Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister.

In fact, it was the West, and especially Britain, that nurtured and encouraged Hitler, in the hope that he would use Germany’s military might to destroy the Soviet Union, much as Germany had destroyed Russia in the first World War. Time and again, the British assisted Hitler in his acquisition of military power while deterring France, its putative ally, from challenging him.

But the Rottweiler slipped its leash, and turned on its master. It was one of the greatest strategic miscalculations of all time, almost costing the West its civilization. Understanding how and why this occurred is profoundly important.

During World War I, the Russian Revolution had placed a communist government in power. The capitalist states were livid. The U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and Japan mounted an invasion of Russia to try to overthrow the Bolsheviks. But the White Counter-Revolution failed. The invasion poisoned relations between Russia and the West for the rest of the century. Its toxic residue lingers still.

Then, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, economies of the capitalist world collapsed. Worldwide industrial production fell by over one third. Agricultural prices declined by one half. International commerce dropped by 60 percent. In Germany, unemployment reached 45 percent. Over the decade between 1928 and 1938, industrial production in the U.K. grew by 18 percent.

But in Russia, the economy grew by over 600 percent. The contrast with capitalism was startling, and inescapable. The communist system was burying the West, and the West was acutely aware of it, and threatened by it. In 1932, 80 percent of the German communist party was made up of unemployed people. They were coming after the capitalists, and the capitalists had no answer for them. Enter Adolph Hitler.

Hitler was an enterprising political opportunist, the Donald Trump of his day if you will, except that he had actually authored his own book. He promised the industrialists and bankers who ran the country that he would deal with the communists. So, even though he had never won a popular vote, they appointed him chancellor in January 1933.

By this time, fascism already had a warm reception in the halls of British power. Winston Churchill swooned over Italy: “Their triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism renders a service to the whole world.” The effusion would continue and increase as Hitler proved his anti-communist bonafides.

In October 1933, in his first diplomatic move, Hitler quit the League of Nations and the disarmament convention Germany had signed in the Treaty of Versailles. He announced a massive expansion in the military and that a German air force, forbidden by Versailles, already existed, in Russia. It was a naked affront to the integrity of the international order and the common instrument (Versailles) that had been devised to maintain it. Britain issued bland reprovals but did nothing else.

Then, in 1935, Britain signed its own naval treaty with Germany, gutting the limitations written into Versailles. Worse, in dealing with Germany directly, Britain undercut its main ally, France, destroying the collective security regime that had given Versailles its teeth. From there, it would be every nation for itself.

In March 1936, Hitler marched 150,000 men into the Rhineland, the area quarantined by Versailles to separate Germany and France. The move directly destroyed the Versailles framework. But just as when Germany re-armed in 1935, the Western democracies did nothing. The British actually told the French that they would not back any French action to roll back the invasion. France was not strong enough to act alone, so the aggression stood.

The Rhineland invasion marked a critical turning point on the path to World War II. It was the first German territorial expansion outside the boundaries laid down at Versailles. It greatly elevated Hitler’s prestige within Germany. And it was the last time Hitler could have been stopped short of actual military hostilities. He told his generals afterwards that if France had resisted, “We would have had to withdraw with our tail between our legs.” But nobody resisted.

From that point on, Western complicity with Hitler’s aggression fed on itself.

His next aggression came in 1938, against Austria. The unification of Germany and Austria had been forbidden by Versailles. But Versailles was no longer operative. On March 11, 1938, Hitler sent 200,000 men into Austria, annexing it and making it a collaborator in his march to global power. This was the backdrop for the movie The Sound of Music.

France was torn with factionalism and could not act without British support. Britain had publicly declared before the invasion that it would defend Austrian independence. But when confronted with Hitler’s aggression, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain soothingly replied, “I understand Germany’s desire for unification.”

British facilitation of Hitler’s aggression only spurred him to demand more. His next target was Czechoslovakia. Hitler demanded that the Western part of the country, the Sudetenland, be handed over to Germany. Russia, knowing the strategic significance of Czechoslovakia, asked Britain for help in deterring German aggression. Chamberlain declined.

The French, who actually had a formal treaty to defend Czechoslovakia, said they would only help if the British would. The British wouldn’t. The French asked the U.S. for help. The U.S. was tacitly supporting the fascists against the democrats in the Spanish Civil War and declined.

In September 1938, at an infamous meeting in Munich, Britain, Italy, France, and Germany agreed to carve up Czechoslovakia, giving Hitler the part he wanted, and leaving the rest to be sorted out later. It was one of the most notorious betrayals in the history of the world. It provided Hitler the perfect launching pad for his eventual attack on the Soviet Union.

Russia, which was best situated to help defend Czechoslovakia, had been intentionally excluded from the meeting. Nor were any Czech representatives in attendance. On his return to London, Chamberlain issued one of the most deluded prophesies in diplomatic history: he declared that he had delivered, “Peace for our time.”

Before leaving for Munich, Chamberlain had written to the king, “Herr Hitler has made up his mind to attack Czechoslovakia and then proceed further east.” Further east of Czechoslovakia is Russia. The king was wholly on board with Chamberlain’s scheme, as well as his artifices that he was doing what he could to deter Hitler.

Sudetenland was far from the end of the scheme. As he was plotting the takeover of the rest of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Hitler assured his generals that there would be no need for military force. “Our enemies are worms,” he declared. “I saw them at Munich.” He went ahead and took the rest of Czechoslovakia, despite having sworn at Munich that he would not.

The Western signatories to the Munich agreement had guaranteed the independence of Slovakia, the eastern portion of Czechoslovakia. But as they had by then done repeatedly before, they did nothing. Chamberlain made one of the most dishonest statements in the whole affair. He declared that “there’s no point going to war over a country that no longer exists.”

This was entirely in character. The year before, the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, had praised Germany as “a bulwark of the West against Bolshevism.” Before the meeting in Munich, Chamberlain had praised Hitler “for having carried through the renaissance of the German nation with extraordinary success. I have the greatest respect for this man.”

After Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Neville Henderson, Britain’s ambassador to Germany, finally let the cat out of the bag: “To put it quite bluntly, Eastern Europe is not a vital British interest, and the German is certainly more civilized than the Slav and less threatening to British interests.”

It was now the summer of 1939. All the world could see that Hitler, with the West’s encouragement and help, was amassing an army for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Russia was shouting from the rooftops—begging Britain and France—for a collective defense agreement, so that if Germany attacked any one of them, they would all come it that party’s defense.

Both Britain and France gave the Russians the stiff arm. They, especially Britain, had abetted German’s rise for the better part of a decade, all the while certain that once ready, Hitler would “proceed east.” At least that was the plan.

But at the last minute, Hitler offered Stalin a non-aggression pact. Both agreed not to attack the other, and effectively to divide Poland, which stood between them. Stalin, jumped at the offer, knowing that Russia was not anywhere near ready to withstand an attack by the mightiest military machine the world had ever known. He needed to buy time to bulk up for the attack that he knew would eventually come.

Hitler’s motivation was equally clear. Germany had lost World War I because it had had to fight a two-front war, against France in the West, and Russia in the East. Now, with Russia sidelined, Hitler had a one-front war to fight to conquer Europe. His generals gave a green light to the plan. The German invasion of Poland commenced on Sept. 1, 1939. World War II was under way.

In August 1939, just before the Berlin-Moscow Non-Aggression Pact was signed, Chamberlain was asked whether Russia might not be a useful ally against Germany. Chamberlain replied, “I have very deep suspicions about that country.”

The conventional theory of appeasement—that Chamberlain was a well-meaning bumbler who imagined he could propitiate Hitler by giving in to him—was concocted by British historians even before the war was over. It is childish but simplistic, which is its enduring strength. In truth, Chamberlain was as sophisticated a leader as the world knew at this time. He and the entire British elite held an abiding hatred for communism and an ingenuous fascination with fascism. The result was straightforward.

Faced with two great evils, fascism and communism, the British chose fascism. For all of its odious features, fascism was still based on capitalism. It still respected private property. Communism did away with private property in favor of collective ownership. The British elite, led by Chamberlain, imagined that if they helped fascist Germany become strong enough, it would destroy the communist menace in Russia, much as the Germans had destroyed the tsarist regime during World War I.

The British were not trying to avoid a war. They were trying to foster one—between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Rhineland, Austria, Munich and all of the other “capitulations” were but means to help Hitler to build up and “proceed east.” But never in their worst nightmares did Western leaders imagine Germany might actually ally with Russia, leaving it free to come after them instead. The miscalculation very nearly cost them their civilization.

This is important today as we can easily envision yet a third world war, where rising upstarts challenge established powers, and the established powers refuse to step aside. This is the scenario between China and the U.S. today, and it will only grow more pressing, and more threatening. In such circumstances, lying about motives cannot but make things worse. Much worse. Common interests will get subsumed beneath hidden, private ones. We see so much of that already in our domestic affairs.

But when we are mooting the possibility of world war, the stakes are too high to allow private interests to dictate what will surely be the fate of the civilization. There are so many potential flash points looming: Afghanistan; Iran; Ukraine; Venezuela; Kashmir; Syria/Lebanon; others. Transparency in dealings is imperative as the U.S. navigates a difficult and dangerous, but inescapable future. We don’t have that right now. We have private interests operating in their interests, and not those of the nation. That cannot work out well.

Robert Freeman

Library of Congress and Tom Lea (courtesy of the National WWII Museum)

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