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1939: Countdown to War.

1939: Countdown to War. By Richard Overy. (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009. Pp. xi, 159. $14.00.)

The author of this study is arguably one of the best historians of the Second World War and here sets his sights on a mere ten days in 1939:24 August to 3 September. He trains his microscope on the individuals, aggressors and appeasers alike, upon whom history has laid a dreadful judgement. He charts the hour-by-hour advance to war via official documents, diaries, newspapers, and memoirs. The tale is riveting, which is not an easy task given that the characters and outcome are so well known.

One of the strengths of this book is its exploration of the complex motives driving Allied leaders. History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain or Edouard Daladier, and in the harsh light of hindsight it is easy to denounce appeasement as a major cause of the war in Europe. Richard Overy, however, neither exonerates nor totally condemns but is careful to demonstrate that they were men of their time. Context is everything. In the end, Overy demonstrates well that both Western leaders were resigned to war as early as 1938 but were determined not to deny peace its final, if unlikely, opportunity.

What also becomes apparent is that neither Berlin nor the Western Allied capitals were completely sure how German action against Poland would play out. Adolf Hitler for his part wanted to believe that Whitehall would resign itself to a German reconfiguring of central Europe. The Allies for their part were misdirected by their own desire to avoid conflict. When the Germans failed to go to war on the original date set for the invasion, 26 August, it seemed to indicate that Hitler's commitment to war was waning. This illusion was bolstered by the belief that economic tensions created by the Third Reich's rearmament were bound to promote internal threats to Hitler's position in the National Socialist Party and from conservative elements in German society, a chimera only completely dispelled by the invasion on 1 September.

Overy concludes by gathering his readers around the historiography of the war's causes. He rejects the idea that Hitler had a long-term plan for world conquest with Poland as the first stepping stone. It does seem more probable that Hitler's aim, at least initially, was the creation of a German-dominated central Europe with additional lands in the east in the very near future. He vainly hoped that this could be achieved without Britain and France honoring their commitment to Poland. Overy also takes a well-aimed swipe at the recent trend to suggest that war was unnecessary and that London and Paris would have been better off if they had capitulated. As he points out, the British in particular sensed a deep responsibility for maintaining international stability and that their way of life and values were very much threatened by an aggressive and racially charged German state. This book is an excellent primer on the last days of peace and is Overy at his succinct best.

Adam Claasen

Massey University

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Author:Claasen, Adam
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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