Signposts: Returning to War

Richard Overy examines recent analyses of how Europe became embroiled in major conflict just two decades after the trauma of the Great War and we look at events and broadcasts commemorating September 1939. 

There is no particular reason to mark the passing of 70 years but so enduring has been the fascination in Britain with the last truly global conflict that no opportunity is ever lost to revisit familiar stories. In the final anniversary week, through to September 3rd, BBC Television plans to broadcast short programmes of Home Front experiences. The outbreak of war is not quite the Blitz, but fears of bombing, the feebleness of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Hitler’s unappeasable territorial appetites, the stories of evacuation and the return of Churchill to high office are all the stuff of our collective imagination about 1939.

It is almost 50 years since the Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor tried to challenge some of the popular assumptions about why war broke out. In his Origins of the Second World War (Hamish Hamilton, 1961), Taylor argued that Hitler was doing little more than Bismarck had done in trying to create a strong German state, that German rearmament had been a sham and that the outbreak of war had to be explained by looking at British and French motives, rather than seeing the war simply as ‘Hitler’s war’. The book provoked a storm of protest, but it has remained in print and has been widely read up to the 21st century, sitting uncomfortably side by side with the dominant view that war was caused by Hitler.

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