2015 11 – Who Started World War Two?

A reply to the claim that “Hitler started the war he could easily have avoided” in ‘People’s Car, People’s Poison’ (Volkswagen) (Notes on the News. Labour Affairs October 2015.)


Which wars did Hitler start? Not the war with Britain certainly. It was Britain that declared war on Germany.

Hitler attacked Poland after Poland had made a military alliance against it with Britain and France. The British and French Governments then declared war on Germany while it was attacking Poland.

Even assuming that Hitler started the war with Poland, which enabled Britain to start the World War, it was not the application of Keynesian policies to the German economy that enabled him to do so. It was Britain’s collaboration between 1933 and 1938 to break the restrictions imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I that did it.

Britain was the guarantor of the Versailles system. The United States Congress had repudiated the Treaty because Britain and France had refused to implement the policy on which the US had entered the War and defeated Germany. And Britain had prevented France from gaining a secure border against Germany and disabling Germany for future military action.

Maintenance of the Versailles curbs on Germany was therefore Britain’s business, very much more than anybody else’s. It maintained the Versailles system against the German and Austrian democracies during the 1920s, only conniving at some low level military collaboration between the Weimar democracy and the Soviet Union.  And it vetoed the merging of the German and Austrian democracies, which both desired.

But then, after 1933, it effectively set aside the Versailles system, not by undertaking an orderly revision of it but by enabling Hitler to break it and by collaborating with him in the breaking of it.

The period of Anglo-Nazi collaboration—not “appeasement” but collaboration—went on for five years.  It culminated in the breaking of Czechoslovakia by Britain in 1938, and the gift of the Sudetenland to Hitler—about six months before Britain suddenly decided to make war on him, using Danzig as the occasion.

Danzig was a German city existing between the two parts of the German state—which was divided by the Versailles Conference into two geographical parts with a stretch of Poland running between them.

Danzig lay with the “Polish Corridor” which divided the two parts of Germany.  It was not under the sovereignty of the Polish State but was a kind of city state under League of Nations authority, and was a complete anomaly in the Europe of nationalisms laid out by the Versailles Conference.

Poland did not succeed in getting any political influence within it during the twenty years since Versailles. And, because it was not given sovereignty over it, it refused to use it as a port.  It preferred to construct a new port, Gdynya, in its own territory, not far away.  And the League of Nations, the sovereign authority, had no political party that might have taken part in the civic life of Danzig.

Danzig was a self-governing German city, required to live in political isolation in an artificially contrived No-Man’s-Land. It might have been allowed to attach itself to the East Prussian region of the German state with little effect on the East European order of things, compared with the far-reaching changes made the previous year.  But Britain gave Poland a Guarantee that it would go to war with it against Germany if Danzig was annexed to East Prussia, and it persuaded France to do likewise.

This amounted to a military encirclement of Germany. And that fact was sharply pointed out to Whitehall by the South African Government, which played a prominent part in Imperial affairs in those times.

The Governments of Weimar Germany, democratic Germany, had never recognised the Polish Border arrangements as legitimate. One of Hitler’s first acts of foreign policy was to recognise the Polish Border in substance, but leaving the Danzig issue for later settlement, and he made a Non-Aggression Treaty with Poland in 1934. In 1939 he took Poland’s formation of a military alliance with Britain and France against Germany as a revocation of the Polish/German Treaty, and he attacked Poland. Britain and France did not deliver on their Guarantees to Poland. They let the Polish/German war run its course without interference. But they declared war on Germany and went about prosecuting it in a most leisurely manner, and chiefly by trying to get into a war relationship with the Soviet Union in Finland.

It might be argued that the annexation of Danzig to East Prussia would have been in breach of the Versailles Treaty and that Britain as the guarantor of Versailles did no more with the Polish Guarantee than prepare to defend Versailles—that might be argued if Britain had not been collaborating actively with Hitler since 1934 to break the Versailles Treaty.

Anglo-German collaboration against Versailles began in a serious way with the Naval Agreement of 1934, under which Britain gave Germany permission to construct a large Navy. This was not done as a revision of the Versailles Treaty.  It was an act of Imperial British sovereignty. Britain did not regard itself as being subject to Versailles authority in its handling of Germany. It was a freely-acting Empire, the Superpower of the inter-War period, doing what it pleased in the world, as the USA does now.

One can speculate on why, having joined with France in humiliating Germany and tying it up in the Versailles straitjacket in 1919, it later began to empower Germany, especially after Hitler came to power, and helped it to free itself from the shackles of Versailles. The fact that it did so is undeniable.

Hitler was still virtually unarmed when he introduced military conscription, and when he put his little army into the demilitarised Rhineland.

Germany did not become a major European Power until 1938, when it merged with Austria—which had been forbidden by Britain in the 1920s as being in breach of Versailles when democratic Austria and democratic Germany wanted to merge—and when Britain broke up Czechoslovakia, giving Germany the German Sudetenland and the Czech arms industry.

Britain broke the will of the Czech Government to defend its very defensible mountain frontier against Hitler if he was rash enough to invade. It made a gift of the Sudetenland to Hitler. Then the Poles and the Hungarians took their pieces of Czechoslovakia on German authority, and the Slovaks declared independence with German encouragement.  And the Czech rump of the state was occupied by Germany without resistance and was declared a Protectorate.

The complex of events that goes by the name of “Munich” made Germany the hegemonic authority in Eastern Europe. And all that remained of the Versailles arrangement was the German city of Danzig, in the Polish Corridor but not under Polish authority. Early in 1939 Hitler proposed that the matter left over in 1934 should be settled by attaching Danzig to East Prussia and establishing land communication between the two parts of Germany by means of an extra-territorial road across the Corridor.

At that point Britain decided to make war on Germany, using the only remaining Versailles grievance as the reason. It overwhelmed Polish imagination by apparently putting the British Army at its disposal for conflict with Germany over Danzig. And France, whose foreign policy independence had been subverted by Britain in the early 1920s, did likewise.

With the two greatest armies in the world placed at their disposal, and with their own army having been victorious in the most recent international war in Europe, the Polish/Soviet War of 1920, the Poles fancied their chances against Germany.

Placing a regime like that of Nazi Germany under military encirclement—after having helped to build up its power for five years—and doing so over an issue like Danzig, could only be understood realistically as preparation for war. And the manner of it was highly provocative.

Then German Intelligence saw that Britain and France were not making realistic preparations to wage war when the Polish Government activated the Guarantee. And Hitler broke the encirclement by striking at Poland, confident that Britain and France would leave the Poles to fight alone.

It might be that Hitler wanted to conquer the world and needed a war to get started. That seems to me to be a retrospective British concoction designed to explain away many things—but supposing it to have been the case, then it must be said that Britain laid on the opportunity for war for him.

I’m sure the new Labour Leader would have no time for this view of things.  But he is going to have trouble with foreign policy in a situation saturated with Churchillian mythology, with his Party opponents desperate to show how warlike they are. And it could do him nothing but good if a little publication on the Left tried to keep to the factual sequence of British action in the world.

Brendan Clifford