The real causes of World War II

Michael Parenti - Real History, Part 4

This is Michael Parenti for Real History, a series of talks by me, about important and controversial themes in history, many of which have been buried or ignored by those who control our intellectual environment. Those who control our vision of the past exercise a pre-eminent control over how we see the present and the future.

The usual explanations for World War II are the following ...

  1. Hitler was a maniac and bent on world conquest and nothing could stop him.
  2. The West tried to avoid war by appeasing him.
  3. The Soviet Union entered into an unholy alliance with Hitler, in the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and collaborated and made it possible for him to have his successes.

I want to show that all three of these statements are misleading and, in some respects, downright false in their implication.


Let's begin with the first one.

Hitler could have been stopped, he was not unstoppable, and there were powerful forces in the German army itself that were ready to stop him.

In 1935 Hitler unilaterally scraped a Versailles peace treaty that limited Germany to 7 divisions. He began a major mobilization of 21 divisions. He then told his generals he was going to move toward 36 divisions. His generals were stunned. Seven divisions was woefully inadequate, but this was a mobilization for another total war in Europe.

In 1937 Hitler told his general staff that indeed he planned war against France, Poland, and Russia and it would come sometime within the next 6 years. In fact it came within 2 years. Again, Hitler's generals were absolutely flabbergasted about this and really concerned. Another war - total war against all of Europe - was one that would bring inevitable defeat and destruction of Germany.

Well, what happened was a concerted conspiracy began - was begun - by the German general staff, to kill Hitler and remove the NAZIs from power. The Wehrmacht, the German army, would surround and move against the NAZI SS divisions. Key commanders would move their divisions in place and take over the NAZI elite forces. A special commando unit would be setup to storm Hitler's headquarters and kill him.

The generals did not see how Germany could fight two million French, the entire Polish army, and the small - but powerful - Czechoslovakian army, not to mention the British, who would be joining in inevitably.

To save Germany they decided to move against Hitler, but they got no co-operation from the West.

In 1936 Hitler violated the Versailles peace treaty by remilitarizing the Rhineland. England and France did nothing to stop him.

Hiltler had said that England and France would do nothing to stop him. His generals said it was too risky to move into the Rhineland. England and France proved Hitler right.

In 1938 the generals were about to strike. Much of the German general staff was involved. They hated Adolf Hitler. They hated the way the NAZIs had treated the German military staff ... I counted about 60 or so senior officers who were eventually executed by the NAZIs - or arrested - or died one way or the other, when these plans were eventually exposed.

So they were ready to move again, but Hitler annexed Austria. And the Western leaders did nothing. And the plans to do-in Hitler had to be postponed. They were temporarily politcally impossible because Hitler was triumphing so much. The Western allies gave him Austria on a platter. It was hard to convince people that Hitler was destroying Germany when in fact he seemed to be empowering Germany.

Later that same year, in September 1938, war loomed inevitably ... it seemed inevitable again. A war that the German generals believed they could not win. Hitler was laying claim to the entire western, industrial base of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland.

It was time to act - to destroy Hitler, or Germany would be destroyed, was the thinking among the German general staff.

And, by the way, not just with the German military but with other elements in the Abwehr, which was the Geman secret intelligence, not the Gestapo, not the NAZI Party, but the government group, and a number of other groups. There were people who felt that Hitler must be stopped. They were themselves all pretty much conservative, by the way.

By mid-September the conspirators believed they had the pistol cocked and ready, aimed at the head of state. All that was needed was the order to pull the trigger.

The trigger-pulling would be initiated by Hitler himself, when he announced publicly his intention to seize Czechoslovakia by force.

And the hammer would fly forward when the British and French handed down their decision to go to war over the principle of safeguarding the integrity of small nations.

Beck believed this is what they would do - Beck was the German general who was in charge of the conspiracy.

The Czechoslovakian people believed that the British and French would do the very same thing.

At that same time Hitler ordered a Panzer division with supporting infantry to parade through Berlin. The crowd stood sullenly and watched them pass.

This was [Timothy Wright?] Mason's description by the way. It's a very interesting point. He notes that the Führer had hoped for enthusiasm. Watching the apathetic reaction from a chancellery window he was disgusted. He turned away and he said to an adjutant

“I can't wage a war yet, with people like this.”

In other words, the German people were not all that gung-ho about war, they had just had a bitter and terrible war just 17 years before, and they remembered the hardships and the loss, and whatever else. So Hitler did not have mass support for war much outside his party.

Well, the German generals were ready to move against Hitler if he struck against Czechoslovakia and led to an impossible war.

But once again, British Prime Minister Chamberlain came to Hitler's rescue. The Czechs were ready to fight. The Soviet Union was ready to fight, and said it would join Czechoslovakia in the war against Hitler.

The Soviet Union made repeated overtures to Great Britain and France, and Poland, and Czechoslovakia for a joint military pact, a security pact, against Hitler : that if he attacked any one of them he would be attacked by all of them. But the British and French refused to join such a pact.

Instead the British and French hurried to Munich and gave Hitler the Sudetenland.

The German general plan was collapsed. There was going to be no threat of war. There was going to be no danger to Germany. There was going to be no reason to move against Hitler. The conspirators pulled back.

Czechoslovakia was not even allowed to attend Munich. It was at the Munich conference that Chamberlain gave Hitler Czechoslovakia. And that was the beginning of the end of the peace. Five months later Hitler moved in and took all of Czechoslovakia.

By the way, even after Munich the Soviet Union offered to stand with Czechoslovakia. Even offering to send troops and planes. The Soviets, however were denied passage to Czechoslovakia by Poland. Poland was a right wing military dictatorship. And Poland thereby did its own part in the digging of its own grave.


Let's take the second explanation.

That Great Britain and France appeased Hitler,and this is what led to the war. They proved weak and had no backbone. Well, they were war-weary and they were unwilling to fight. They were willing to take peace at any price.

That's really not quite true. They had been war-weary after World WarI - and yet they proved themselves very willing to fight. Right after World War I the British and French - and 12 other nations - sent expeditionary forces to invade and fight in Soviet Russia - as it was still called then - to overthrow the Russian Revolution.

So they were quite ready to fight - if it was to fight communists.

They were not ready to fight the fascists.

They were reluctant to confront Germany, even when it was weak, and could have been stopped in 1935, and had only about 7 or 10 divisions.

They had wind that the German generals were wavering, they had wind that there was a very serious conspiracy afoot. The British intelligence heard from ther Abwehr, the German secret intelligence. The Abwehr tried to feed London secret information on the NAZI build-up.

Chamberlain was not interested. Chamberlain failed to respond to all overtures from the anti-NAZI Germans, even high-placed ones who commanded divisions of troops. Even conservative ones.

In other words - I believe - Chamberlain was not an appeaser, he was an active collaborator of Adolf Hitler's. They actively encouraged Hitler's policy.

On Czechoslovakia - Chamberlain himself threatened Czechosolovakia. If the Czechs failed to accept Munich, he threatened to freeze their assets, he would deny them all materials if they decided to stand up alone against Germany, and he handed off all Czech assets in England to Adolf Hitler, when Hitler took over all of Czechoslovakia.

He engaged in the active participation of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and handed it over to the NAZIs on a platter.

Chamberlain say Hitler and NAZIsm as a bulwark against communism in Germany. And he saw NAZI Germany as a bulwark against communism in Europe.

With a few exceptions - like Winston Churchill - Western leaders were more concerned with the Bolshevik specter than with the fascist reality. They were uneaasy about Hitler's emergent power, but they didn't look upon fascism with the same loathing and fear that they did communism.

Unlike the communists, the fascists were not a threat to private enterprise. If anything, the fascists had crushed socialist organizations in Germany and Italy, and had made these countries safer for private capital.

Now, to be sure, Chamberlain and his associates were eager to avoid war. They didnt want war, but much of that eagerness arose not from some kind of pacifism, some commitment to peace, peace at any price, but from a willingness to strike the kind of bargain with a NAZI leader that they would never dream of entering with the Soviets.

The British historian Geoffrey Baraclough argued

“Hitler's successes in Western foreign policy were due less to German armament, the deficiencies and limitations of which were known to competent military circles, than to the tacit alliance of powerful reactionary elements in England and France which, although loathe to see a reassertion of German equality, were still more unwilling to check it by military alliance with Soviet Russia, or to run the risk of social revolution in Germany as a result of Hitler's fall.”

In other words, I'm not saying that Chamberlain necessarily loved Hitler - although there were plenty of leaders in the West who did. There was ... oh, all sorts of people in America ... Henry Ford was an open NAZI admirer, and a number of other American Plutocrats, and a number of people in England [were] also -

But Chamberlain's feeling was that if he had to choose betwen NAZIsm and Hitler or the risk - even the risk - of Soviet influence in Germany, then we will take NAZism. They could much better live with the reality - the horrible reality of fascism - than with the future-imagined risk of socialism.

Westen leaders never really quite reconciled themselves to the existence of socialist Russia, and at the same time they did fear Germany's growing strength. So their strategy was to turn Hitler's aggression against the USSR. So it wasnt appeasement.

Chamberlain went to Munich because he had a plan, and that plan was to give Hitler what he wanted and then send Hitler East, to attack Bolshevik Russia. After all Chamberlain and his party had just attacked Bolshevik Russia - let's see we're talking ... 1939 ... they had just been there 19 ... 18 years before, in 1921, invading Russia and trying to stop the revolution.

By the way, this was not an all together unrealistic plan. Given the rabid anti-communism and anti-sovietism professed by the NAZI leaders they were quite ready - and they talked about moving East, you know.

The commander-in-chief of the French forces, General [Maurice Gustave] Gamelin wrote in his memoire that one of the aims of the Anglo-French alliance was to bring about the clash between Soviet and German interests.

Harry Truman had made that famous statement ... We ought to let Hitler and Stalin fight each other until they totally exhaust each other and bleed each other white.

Now in Asia, the United States and Great Britain had something of the same plan. They did very little to deter Japanese aggressions in Manchuria and China. And here too, the anticipation was that the Japanese might move against the Soviet Union. And so they were willing to give them a free hand, just as they were willing to give Hitler a free hand in central Europe in Austria and Czechoslovakia.

And by the way, this is exactly what happened. in 1938 the Japanese militarists entered an alliance with Germany and Italy, it was called the anti-comintern pact. The comintern was the Communist International, made up of the international association of communist parties which were heavily under the influence and hegemony of the Soviet Communist Party. The Anti-Comintern Pact, an alliance of three fascist nations, Japan, Germany, and Italy. And they vowed a joint struggle against world communism.

The Japanese then attacked the Soviet Union that same year, near the Outer-Mongolia area, leading to a full-scale war that endied with Japan's suffering 18,000 casualties and military defeat.

During all this time, American corporations continued to expand their investment in German heavy industry, including arms productions. I'm talking about corporations like Ford Motor Company and General Motors.


Now, let's move to the third proposition.

That the Hitler-Stalin Pact - or the NAZI-Soviet Pact, the most talked about treaty in history [as the cause of WWII]. It is still regularly referred to in the US media at every opportunity as the meeting of the devils - of how Hitler and Stalin met and made this alliance.

Munich, by the way. is never described as the Hitler-Chamberlain Pact, or the NAZI-British Pact - which it was. It's always antiseptically called 'Munich'.

Well, as I said, the Soviet Union had made repeated overtures to conclude collective security pacts with the United States and Great Britain in order to contain both German and Japanese aggression. These overtures were repeatedly ignored or rebuffed, including the Soviet attempts to render arms and assistance to Czechoslovakia.

In time Soviet leaders lost what little confidence they had had in the sincerity and ultimate purposes of the Western democracies. It was evident that had Hitler, at this point time, struck directly at Russia he would have encountered very little, if any, opposition from France or Britain. As the historian Foster R. Dulles notes

“The American government, and Great Britain and France, had an attitude which was, to do nothing to free the Soviet Union from its anxieties regarding Hitler's crusade against communism”

If it were impossible to crush NAZI aggression by a united front, Stalin felt the next best thing for Russia was to attempt to divert any immediate German attack from the Soviet Union.

In the summer of 1939, the Soviets made frantic efforts to enter into negotiations with Western - French and British - leaders. The French and British sent a delegation by boat to Moscow - which took a week - and when they arrived they had no protocol papers.

And the question came up as - Where are your papers? Who do you represent? Can you negotiate with state authority?

It became clear that summer that a stall was under way. So what in fact happened is that Stalin began to make overtures with the NAZIs.

Isolated by the West, frustrated in its last minute attempts to form an anti-NAZI alliance with Great Britain and France - and I would point out that the Soviet union was the only country in 1936, '7, and '8 ... the only major country ... that was trying to form an anti-NAZI alliance. And believing that it was being setup as a target for Hitler's aggression - and they believed correctly - the Soviets decided to sign an eleventh hour non-aggression treaty with Hitler, in the summer of 1939.

To this day the conservatives talk about the diabolic affinity between the NAZIs and the communists for signing this pact. Conservative news columnist George Will would write

“The 1939 NAZI-Soviet Pact truly was a joining of kindred spirits.”

On another occasion George Will described the Soviet Union as a regime that was

“... once allied with Hitler ...”

In fact, the Soviet Union was never allied with NAZI Germany. The pact was a treaty - but it wasn't an alliance. It no more indicated an alliance with NAZIsm than would a non-aggression treaty between the United States and the Soviets indicate a US alliance with communism.

The pact was neither an alliance nor an agreement for the partition of Poland. Munich had been a true alliance for partition.

The British and the French dictated partition to the Czechs, they said ... You obey, This is what's going to happen, and you better toe the line, and the Germans are taking you over.

The Soviet government undertook no such action against the Poles. They merely promised to remain neutral, which is what the Poles had always asked them to do anyway. The Poles did not want to enter an alliance with the Soviets against the Germans.

More than this, the agreement was - in the last resort - anti-German, because it limited the German advance eastward in case of war. This is what Winston Churchill emphasized. With the pact the Soviets hoped to ward off what they most dreaded, a united capitalist attack on Soviet Russia.

And really, it was difficult to see what other course Soviet Russia could have followed. Ideally they wanted the grand alliance with the West against the NAZIs, but barring that, they turned the tables and made a pact with Hitler.

When Hitler attacked Poland, the Soviets moved into Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the Baltic territories that had been taken from them by Germany, Britain and Poland in 1919. They overthrew the rightwing dictatorships that were in those countries - by the way, today we ought to remember when we hear about Lithuania going back to its democracy, that Lithuania wasn't a democracy. They were rightwing dictatorships that the Western counterrevolutionaries had installed in the Baltic states. - The three states were incorporated as three republics into the USSR. The Soviets also took back western Belarussia, the western Ukraine, and other areas seized from them and incorporated into the Polish rightwing dictatorship in 1921 under the Treaty of Riga.

This has been portrayed as proof that they colluded with the NAZIs to gobble up Poland, but the Soviets re-occupied only the area that had been taken from them 20 years before. History offers few, if any, examples of a nation refusing the opportunity to regain territory that had been seized from it. In any case, by reclaiming their old boundaries, the Soviets did draw a line on the NAZI advance.

Even after Hitler attacked Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, the Western collaboration did not end. This is a part of history that's not known - never mentioned by George Will, never mentioned by commentators today, and not mentioned by many historians, either.

When Hitler struck East in Poland, nothing happened on the Western Front. Now, don't forget, Britain and France had just declared war.

There were still feelers from London and Paris about making a separate peace with Hitler, so that he could concentrate on Soviet Russia. From September 1939, when World War II began, to May of 1940 - about 8 months - there was no fighting between Germany and the Western allies, even though they were at war with each other. The French began to call it La Guerre Drôle - the funny war, the droll war, the lazy war, or whatever you want to call it - others called it the Sitzkrieg. Instead of the Blitzkrieg it was the Sitzkrieg, a sit-down war. In England, and France, it was called the Phony War. There was very little fighting.

Now Hitler had every intention of taking on the USSR, that was going to be his final, big fight. He wanted the breadbasket of the Ukraine, he wanted the oil fields of Baku, he wanted to destroy the communists. But he had to widen his base before attacking the Soviet Union, and so he took Denmark and Norway. He invaded them in April of 1940. That gave him more resources, more food, more farmland, more factories, more conscript labor.

Even then, high-placed conspirators in the German general staff made overtures toward Great Britain for a co-ordination of efforts. General Oster, Colonel Sass [?], General Beck - and even Field Marshall Rommel later on - they warned Britain of Hitler's oncoming

“violent, brutal offensive in the West”

The British couldn't - didn't - take it seriously. The British understood - that there was an understanding with the Germans - that they were giving them all this European real estate and they were finally going to move East and knock off the communist menace.

If the British would only guarantee the plotters - the Germans said - a fair peace, they would go at Hitler and overthrow his NAZI regime. The new government would relinquish Czchoslovakia and Poland and everything else - except Austria. That was their first offer. London did not even take the offer seriously.

In May of 1940 Hitler struck West. He wiped out France, and much of the British army at Dunkirk. Then he attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.

Stalin had expected it sooner or later. In 1939, Stalin had said ... We have 10 years, in 10 years we have to do what Britain did in 100 years. And there came the forced industrialization as Soviet Russia built a whole new industrial base east of the Urals. An industrial base which eventually outproduced Hitler in tanks, planes, and artillery.

Eighty percent of the German casualties were on the Eastern front.

The scale and the ferocity of the fighting was unparalleled in the West - or in any modern warfare - ever. There was nothing on the Western front that could compare to the battle of Stalingrad, involving millions of troops. The battle of Leningrad - where two and a half million Soviets died. The battle of Kursk involving tens of thousands of tanks. The battle of Warsaw, which took two months. The battle of Berlin where two million Soviet troops arrayed against one and a half German troops with almost a million casualties on both sides.

Most discussions in the West about World War II focus on the western war, which was about one-fifth of the actual war, and ignore the scale, and horror, and heroism of the Eastern front.

Most discussions in the West about the eve of World War II give us the usual blather about the Hitler-Stalin Pact and say little about the active collaboration of the rightwing Tory government. About the Hitler-Chamberlain Pact.

Just as little today is said about the active coilaboration of a rightwing US government with fascists throughout the third world, and with NAZIs in the Republican Party and in Bush's own campaign.

The fascists are OK because they defend private property and corporate investments, its the communists that are the menace - according to those who own the world.

Those of us who want democracy might want to think about this a little more seriously.

This is Michael Parenti for some Real History.