Could the Second World War
have been avoided?
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
MY 11, 2011
It’s military stalemate in Libya. It will be a long war of attrition by both sides. The troops of the Libyan president, Muammar Gadhaffi, have the upper hand. Unlike the NATO countries they have boots on the ground, always a prerequisite for success in warfare, his troops are well armed and reasonably trained with a clear command structure. His opponents are a rag tag bunch, if less rag tag than they were at the beginning. But they are organised enough to keep Gadhaffi away from the important town of Benghazi and can effectively force a division of the country between west and east. But what happens next is anybody’s guess.
Wouldn’t it have been better to accept from the onset that toppling the regime in Libya would be a long haul business? Sanctions were never given time to bite, although earlier sanctions against Libya over its downing of two civilian airliners, one American and one French, did eventually have an effect.
Too many national leaders resort to war too quickly. War ravaged the twentieth century from 1914 on. It was the bloodiest century in the world’s history. But it had been preceded by a long peace from 1815 to 1914, disturbed only by the three years of the Crimean War. (However, many historians say it was also broken by the war between Russia and Turkey. But since Russia and Turkey have always had a doubtful status as “European”, it can be safely put on one side.)
It is widely believed that the First World War that ended the 100 years of unprecedented peace in Western Europe, Korea and Vietnam were unnecessary wars. But the Second World War is still judged as a “just war”.
The great Oxford historian, the late A.J.P. Taylor, wrote in his seminal book “The Origins of the Second World War” that we should be careful in assuming that at the beginning it was unavoidable- although he also says that once it started it had to be finished with the defeat of Germany and Japan. In his introduction he makes the biting comment, “In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed [by the British]. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six and a half million Poles were killed. Which was better – to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?”
The British finally declared war on Germany because it invaded the Polish-ruled “Danzig corridor” a sliver of land, separated from Poland by German territory. The corridor had been created by the Versailles Treaty on the grounds that the port of Danzig was essential to the Polish economy. But later, with the construction of the port of Gdynia, Danzig needed Poland more than Poland needed Danzig.
Before the German march into Czechoslokia most British opinion thought the German claim to take back Danzig was reasonable and that the corridor was an anomaly of the Versailles Treaty, widely considered to be unjust. The British hand was forced by Poland once Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had declared that if Poland felt driven to war Britain would come to its aid. Poland, believing that it was a great power, instead of compromising, insisting on principal, had refused to even begin negotiations with Germany, yet it could probably have negotiated a compromise such as a corridor across the corridor. For his part Hitler mistakenly thought that Britain would never declare war over such a small issue. Moreover, his ambition was a peaceful alliance with Poland, not its destruction. But Britain, ashamed by its role over Czechoslakia, when it failed to honour its guarantee to protect it, believed it could not go back on its word again. London declared war on Germany.
This not just my long-held view, it is not just A.J. P. Taylor’s, it was that of Basil Liddell Hart, widely considered as Britain’s pre-eminent military strategist who I interviewed a few years before he died.
Hitler did not want a major war in Europe. He wanted to solve what he believed mistakenly was Germany’s living space problem and the anomalies of the Versailles Treaty by a series of small wars which would not involve Britain or France.
Of course, even if the British had not gone to war over Danzig, Hitler would have remained a tyrant. He would have persecuted the Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies. But the German people with their growing economic contentment, whilst turning a blind eye to this policy, would have continued as they did before hostilities broke out to resist war. The memories of the destructiveness of the First World War was still deep in their consciousness.
Can we avoid war in the future? Have our fingers been burnt over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Probably for this generation the answer is “yes”. But for the next? Memories are short and history is too often twisted.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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The Quest for Global Justice
of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging
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hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.
William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
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