Could World War II have been prevented?
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EARLIER THERE HAD BEEN MUNICH — a fiasco for Chamberlain. This was not so much because he gave away the store — Czechoslovakia wasn’t his to give and he had been in no position to defend it — but because he made the mistake of trusting Hitler. He seemed weak and naïve. Hitler then humiliated him with a triumphant tour of Prague after he had taken over the Sudetenland.
With the news that Hitler was now planning to recapture Danzig Chamberlain decided he had to make a stand. That was his fatal blunder. He promised to go to war if Poland asked for help.
The British historian Roy Denman has called this guarantee “the most reckless undertaking ever given by a British government,” putting peace or war in Europe in the hands of an “intransigent, swashbuckling military dictatorship.”
“Therein lay the foolishness of the pledge,” Paul Johnson wrote in Modern Times. “Britain had no means of bringing effective aid to Poland, yet it obliged Britain itself to declare war on Germany if Poland so requested.” The “loosely worded pledge” was “one of the most ill-considered in British history.”
Churchill (not yet prime minister) immediately supported the pledge, saying that “the preservation and integrity of Poland must be regarded as a cause commanding the regard of all the world.” But in The Gathering Storm, published after the war, he changed his tune. “How could we protect Poland and make good our guarantee?…Here was a decision taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people.”
Tragically, that’s what happened, over the next few years.
I was interested to read about the pledge to Poland, because I had known little about it. Chamberlain has been criticized for it, but we are a hundred times more likely to have heard him vilified as an appeaser, returning from Munich waving a piece of paper and promising “peace in our time.”
A recent, analogous turn of events, potentially involving Russia and the United States, reminds us that the Polish guarantee of 1939 should always be remembered as an object lesson. In August, military forces in Georgia invaded two breakaway or autonomous provinces, and attempted to reunite them with Georgia. Russia then attacked and beat back the Georgians. It also invaded other parts of Georgia, including Gori, birthplace of Stalin. Possibly Russia wants to restore the whole of Georgia to Russian control—I don’t know.
What I do know is that Sen. John McCain pressed for Georgia’s admission into NATO and said, “Today, we are all Georgians.” Lest we forget, a guiding principle of NATO is collective security: “An attack on one is an attack upon all.” If attacked, then, Georgia could call on its NATO allies (us) to come to its defense. Against Russia.
Thus the parallel with the Polish guarantee. In a Washington Post piece in August, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that the prospects of NATO membership emboldened Georgia to launch its attack on the breakaway provinces. It seems to me that expanding NATO out to Russia’s borders has been a foolhardy exercise and one can only hope that the Germans and French will put a halt to it.
Die for Gori? I hope not. Let’s try to keep a sense of proportion about these things. There are times when a country must go to war, but good judgment is a prerequisite. War against Germany to protect Poland showed poor judgment. So would a war against Russia now to protect Georgia’s independence.
IN REVISITING THE PRELIMINARIES to World War II, I want to make one more point. Let’s pretend that we can rewrite history, this time without Chamberlain’s pledge. Now what happens? One possibility is that Hitler decides to move east and attack the Soviet Union. He was explicit in Mein Kampf that east was the most promising direction for German expansion, not west or south. And east was where he went anyway. Maybe, with a neutral Poland, an advance to the east would have meant the early end of the Soviet Union, or mutual destruction of the German and Russian armies.
But engaging in such speculation ensnares us in counterfactual history and, as you can readily see, it’s all guesswork. You can make it come out any way you want. Does this mean that we should avoid such speculation? Maybe. We certainly shouldn’t believe any of this subjunctive history. Perhaps it’s an interesting game but it won’t prove anything.
Notice, however, that those in the “good war” camp all along have engaged in just such counterfactual speculation. How so? Obviously they do not call World War II the good war because they believe that the terrible things that happened—50 million dead, including 6 million Jews—really were good. What they mean is that if the destruction of the Third Reich had not happened, an even worse outcome would have come our way.
They have already decided how things would have turned out, if the actual course of events had somehow been derailed. Some believe, for example, that Hitler would have conquered the whole world and we all would have become slaves of the Nazis.
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