How Hitler Took the World Into War

Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and the Road to War
By Benjamin Carter Hett

It’s a remarkable thing about World War II in Europe that this enormously destructive conflagration, which killed tens of millions and left embers that smoldered through the end of the century and beyond, happened because one man willed it to happen. True, one can point to deeper, structural causes of the conflict, but fundamentally, war began on Sept. 1, 1939, because Adolf Hitler desired it, lusted for it, brooked no opposition from inside or outside Germany to launching it. He had hoped at first to keep the struggle a local affair, between Germany and Poland. But even when it became clear that he would very likely have to fight Britain and France as well, he sent his soldiers across the Polish frontier anyway.

The war’s proximate origins are the subject of Benjamin Carter Hett’s fast-moving, absorbing and aptly titled “The Nazi Menace.” A historian of modern Germany who has written several works on the Nazi era, Hett concentrates here substantially on developments within the German government from late 1937 onward, but he also examines the thinking of leaders in Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, and to a lesser extent those in the other principal capitals: Paris, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Rome.

Along the way, thanks to the author’s knack for the capsule biography, we gain fascinating insights into less obvious figures, among them Hugh Dowding, an eccentric and canny architect of Britain’s air defense network; Ernst von Weizsäcker, a senior German diplomat torn between his opposition to a general war and his support for German expansion; and Dorothy Thompson, the ferociously anti-Nazi American columnist and radio broadcaster.

From the moment Hitler began his saber-rattling, we learn, numerous German officials sought to dissuade him from taking aggressive action. Any such move, they believed, risked a wider war, which Germany would probably lose. Hitler and his loyalists were unmoved. In early 1938, two highly placed dissidents, Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, the minister for war, and Gen. Werner von Fritsch, the army chief of staff, were forced out, the latter on a trumped-up homosexuality charge. Later, following more purges and a broad military reorganization that gave Hitler firm control of the armed forces, internal doubters sought in vain to arrest the seemingly inexorable slide to war. They were undone by their own timidity and careerist ambitions, and by Hitler’s stunning run of diplomatic successes — most notably at the Munich conference in September 1938, where Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier agreed to cede to Germany the strategically vital and mostly German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. (The Czechs were not consulted.)

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