“War became inevitable by 1939 and, when it came, it was a surprise to hardly anyone.”

Historical debate surrounding the war has provided various interpretations of its causes and origins, some of particular relevance to the view in question. The inevitability of the war – how far it was inevitable, and if it was at which point it became so – is a point of contention which depends upon the view one takes of many other factors: for example, if one took the intentionalist view of Hitler’s role in the war as “master-planner”, one would view war in 1939 as inevitable because it was planned by Hitler; if one were a Marxist historian one might view the incidence of the war as “historically inevitable” in much the same way that Khrushchev in Source A takes the view that the Nazi-Soviet Pact was historically inevitable, although perhaps not for entirely the same reasons. Later historiography, particularly after AJP Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, would dispute the “inevitability” of war in 1939 and certainly the idea that Hitler was a master-planner – for if he were not, actions by other powers perhaps may have prevented war at that point; or perhaps the conditions of the international system after World War I made World War II very probable if not inevitable, Hitler or no Hitler.It is possible to sustain an adequate level of support for the view that war became inevitable by 1939. Firstly, if one accepts that war did eventually become inevitable, it is possible to argue that it was not before 1939. Source B, which dates from 1936, indicates a willingness on the part of Hitler to operate within a conciliatory and collective international system, and although he had acted unilaterally and without diplomatic consultation in remilitarising the Rhineland, opinion in Europe was largely persuaded that Hitler was entirely justified in doing so. It is also the case that the German forces were not at this point nearly strong enough to adequately defend Germany from a military response by France and/or Britain. Had such a united response occurred it is conceivable that Germany would have remained weakened and deterred from acquiring or even asserting any more of its demands, particularly territorial ones. The same is true of many other aspects of European relations before 1939 – for example, had Britain not made the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935, bypassing the League of Nations and breaking the Stresa Front (as well as alienating Italy by other means) it is equally conceivable that a united front against Germany by Italy, France and Britain (and possibly the USSR) that continued into the mid-30s could have prevented the escalation of German expansion to the point reached by 1939.Source C claims that “war could only have been avoided in one of three ways”, and if these three things had failed to happen or could not happen by 1939, war would then be inevitable. Firstly that “Germany might have chosen to settle for her gains of 1938”: this of course did not happen, and from the intentionalist perception it could not happen, since, as indicated in Mein Kampf and elsewhere by the desire for Lebensraum, Hitler had planned to obtain far more territory than he in 1938 had acquired. Secondly that “[Germany’s] potential enemies might have combined together in a coalition” too formidable for Germany to face: by 1939, the chance of this happening too was inconceivably remote, since Italy had been decisively alienated from the West and allied with Germany through the Pact of Steel and the anti-Comintern Pact, and especially since in August 1939 the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, destroying any chance of Britain, France and the USSR allying against Germany at that point.Thirdly, “those same opponents might have decided to accept German expansion”: this particular possibility was considerably more likely than the other two, and certainly Hitler seemed to think so and had grounds for thinking so based on the past [in]actions of the British and French governments. Indeed the Soviet Union did precisely that and got “the best terms they could for themselves” when they agreed to carve up Poland with Germany in 1939. That Britain and France did decide to guarantee Poland’s security and did decide in September 1939 to honour that guarantee thus appears by this account to have been the immediate cause for war in 1939. If, then, there was a real possibility of Britain and France not doing so (and since they had been somewhat content to avoid war in September 1938 by signing away Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty at Munich, it would seem there was), then war could not be said to have been entirely inevitable in 1939. Taking the source at face value, then, in this respect the view in question would not (even though the source claims war could only have been avoided in three ways, which suggests a degree of inevitability) appear to be entirely valid.That the war was “a surprise to hardly anyone”, however, is very debateable. It implies very strongly that most of the European powers were predicting war by 1939 and were aware of its imminence and inevitability. Closer examination shows this not to be necessarily the case. Firstly, Hitler himself was surprised completely by the outbreak of general war in 1939. He was quite confident that Britain and France would not (largely because practically they could not, and indeed in actuality they did not) intervene to protect Poland and he had envisioned, for example in the Four Year Plan memorandum, that Germany would become prepared militarily for such a war by 1940.Source C seems pertinently to imply here that it was German expansionism which in 1939 brought war to Europe – “Germany pressed on, and war came” – but it may be more accurate to argue that, since German expansionism had perhaps been evident for a while prior to 1939 (indeed in the view of AJP Taylor Hitler’s expansionism can be traced back in German foreign policy to that of the Second Reich in the First World War), it was Britain and France finally pressing at all which brought war to Europe. AJP Taylor argued that Hitler did not so much press as sit back and wait for Britain and France to drop concessions into his lap. He met with no real international opposition to the eventual destruction of the treaty of Versailles, from the remilitarisation of the Rhineland to Anschluss, and was even assisted by Britain in particular in doing so (with for example the Naval and Munich agreements). The point at which war would come, then, would presumably be the point at which Britain and France decided to cease signing away sections of Europe to Hitler and instead declare war; since both countries could foresee that such a time would come, and could decide when it would be, they could hardly surprise themselves by declaring war (thus here the view in question seems to have some validity).However, Taylor’s argument here tends to ignore the fact that Hitler was often pro-active in his acquisition of territory – although he did not plan for Anschluss at exactly the time it occurred, and although his designs on Czechoslovakia did fluctuate according to the international circumstances, he did take it entirely upon himself to remilitarise the Rhineland, he did encourage unrest and agitation among Sudeten Germans and he did then take up the cause of Danzig with Poland without the generous assistance of France and Britain. In summation, then, that war in 1939 was a surprise to hardly anyone does depend significantly on how far one views Hitler or Germany as intending to start it.A war Hitler himself intended to start could not possibly have surprised him, but it did; and Britain and France, being the ones who declared it, could not have been particularly surprised either. If one views the European situation as being characterised by the acquiescence, even assistance of France and Britain in German activities then it would seem that Hitler should have been, as he was, quite surprised, and that the two Western powers could not have been very surprised at all. (The argument Richard Overy puts forward concerning the power balance of Europe is relevant here in explaining that there was a limit to how much of a blow to the European power status quo – which Germany wanted, as in WWI, to surpass – the West would tolerate.)Overall, then, the view is semi-valid; its claims are supported in some ways but contradicted in others (e.g. the claim implies rhetorically that no one was surprised by war and that everyone knew it was going to happen, when Hitler, crucially, probably did not). That war was inevitable by 1939 is arguable, but probably not entirely true purely in the sense that it’s difficult to argue that anything was completely inescapable. In the context of the situation at the time, however, what was politically and economically possible (e.g. Britain calculated by 1939 that it could not sustain armaments on the scale it had been for much longer at all, and thus if war was going to happen it had to happen sooner rather than later) made war a far more difficult eventuality to avoid and a far more likely solution to be chosen.