Reworking the Origins of the Second World War

Bringing together the history of international relations

The dramatic story of the origins of the Second World War has long been used by politicians to buttress foreign policy. The stark lesson, certainly in Britain, where the consequences of naïveté were the most severe, but also for the French, who suffered so much from the failure of Britain to lead in the right direction, and the United States that stood aside but eventually had to carry the burden, was that appeasing dictators like Hitler only whets their appetite.

Subsequently the lesson was successfully applied in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, which ultimately collapsed under its own dead weight from U.S. pressure, and even with Mrs. Thatcher’s determined fight to retain tiny, wintery islands in the South Atlantic against Leopoldo Galtieri, a tin-pot Argentinian dictator. But, and this should also not go forgotten, it was equally disastrously misapplied—most notably against Nasser of Egypt by Sir Anthony Eden in 1956.

There is, however, another crucial lesson in the story that has all too frequently been overlooked. Our understanding of international relations in the twentieth century cannot be reduced to the simplicity of traditional balance of power politics without doing serious damage to the truth. The indifferent application of our understanding of interstate relations in one epoch—the nineteenth century—to an entirely different time—the twentieth century—is not a sound recipe for success.1

Something fundamental happened in November 1917. The Bolshevik revolution shook the foundations of the European states system. It was assumed that although the allied war of intervention had failed to strangle the infant in its cradle, Soviet Russia would, under sustained pressure to conform, sooner or later miraculously transform into a “normal” country. This assumption emerged from the determinism of classical economics, the roots of nineteenth-century liberalism in Britain. It gave officials in the Foreign Office a comforting rationale for the much favored policy of doing nothing, or “watchful waiting,” as they preferred to call it.

Thus the exile of Trotsky in 1929 after the triumph of Stalin was completely misunderstood. The only real difference between the two in international relations was that whereas, on the whole, Trotsky believed foreigners had the capacity to make their own revolutions because the capitalist order was inherently unstable, Stalin equally firmly believed that foreigners were generally too incompetent to manage it without direct military assistance from the Soviet Union because the underlying conditions were by no means as propitious as Trotsky supposed. The case of Germany was not the only instance of this.

Léon Trotsky—as he appeared on his French passport (1917)
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Léon Trotsky—as he appeared on his French passport (1917)

Though the importance of such world changing events has never been in question, historians of international relations since the 1960s have come under attack. Social historians have casually dismissed the value of military history, diplomatic history, and the history of political thought as old hat. Instead they advanced the untested proposition that social history was “the most important area of research in history” and that all future history should be centered on social history.2 That never happened, however. It did not happen because it is inherently preposterous to assert that one branch of history holds all the answers. And even to assert its primacy is merely bold assertion.3 On the other hand, it was right to challenge the complacency of notable historians of international relations.

Buttressed by knights of the realm, such as Sir Llewellyn Woodward or Sir Charles Webster, diplomatic history offered tempting targets to snipers from opposing camps. Reviewing a meticulous account of the Manchurian crisis (1931)—Japan’s attack on China—that was based almost entirely on British and American diplomatic archives, the Sinologist John Gittings took to task its author for ignoring Chinese sources available even in English. His target, Christopher Thorne, whose scholarship had yielded a penetrating attack on Britain’s appeasement of Hitler’s Germany, was accused of bending over backwards to excuse the British and the Americans for not standing up to Japan. “Diplomacy is often said to be the art of the possible,” Gittings wrote. “It is perhaps less that than it is the art of asserting one’s country has done all that is possible when it has done nothing at all.” Having taken Thorne severely to task, Gittings walloped a very hard ball into an open goal. He caustically alluded to “one of those rare passages where the diplomatic historian allows the fundamental assumptions on which he operates to become explicit, too often illustrating his essential subservience to the myth-making of the official diplomats.”4

Zara Steiner’s Oxford history of Europe, The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933–1939, also came under fire. One assertive reviewer excoriated it as “old-fashioned international history, barely discussing the ideological and social forces lying behind diplomacy.”5 Yet Steiner did grant that “ideological assumptions affected the way statesmen and their advisers saw the world about them. It mattered that Neville Chamberlain hated war and believed that wasteful arms races led to conflict. He assumed that others shared his views.”6

But there is more. Important though he was as Prime Minister, Chamberlain was not alone in his beliefs, and they went much further than an instinctive aversion to war. Steiner, however, offered no broader consideration of the attitudes and prejudices prevailing at the top of society: not just among Cabinet members but also the assumptions, written and unwritten, of the Foreign Office clerks whose minutes and despatches are so frequently cited. This was, after all, a society run by a homogenous caste who had usually attended leading private schools and invariably Oxford or Cambridge. Steiner herself was very early on the awkward recipient of patronizing remarks from such as Sir Orme Sargent: “A woman, an American, a Jew? Studying the Foreign Office?” But she never let personal rebuff color the text. Britain’s best dressed ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, was surely not so wide of the mark when he told the Germans that “Great Britain should not be rated as a democracy but as an aristocracy” and that the “aristocratic ruling class was at present on the defensive against the broad mass of the popular front.”7

My book recognizes that discernible bias is built into state documents that we usually rely so heavily upon for our accounts. The history of international relations has to be scrutinized at more than one level and in more than one dimension. Leaving the victims’ side of the story out of the Manchurian crisis was not deliberate on the part of Thorne. But it followed directly from the sources chosen. The values inherent in relying on those sources, cultural and political, subconsciously shaped the result and those values were too embedded to be challenged. The prevailing notion of what is “normal” tends to go untested. Unguarded empiricism is, however, never a sensible way of proceeding. A suite of diplomatic documents alone will never provide the answers, however closely examined; and, remember, not all are declassified for the interwar period, even now. I had to go to Moscow to find the minutes of the Committee of Imperial Defence for December 20, 1936. When I complained to an official from the Cabinet Office, her retort was: “Why should we be dictated to by the Russians?” We have no access to the files of Britain’s secret service, M.I.6., for the interwar period, let alone those of the Soviet equivalent. To a greater or lesser extent historians are captive to government censorship. This being so, how are they to break out?

Discernible bias is built into state documents that we usually rely so heavily upon for our accounts.

To offset bias, official papers have to be transcended. It is a serious error to scrutinize them in isolation (that is to say only within the confines of one’s own language and exclusively from within one’s own culture), which is unfortunately too often the norm in the English-speaking world. The diplomatic sources have to be triangulated (from various foreign archives rooted in distinctive national perspectives); contextualized (through the domestic realm, where beliefs originate and are reinforced); and, of no lesser importance, interrogated for what is not always made explicit—the unwritten assumptions of those who in haste composed the texts for purely operational purposes—as well as for what the documents say. That requires heightened consciousness of the dominant mindset as well as active imaginative insight.

Ideas, mindsets, and assumptions matter just as much as do more elaborate ideologies that make explicit the purposes of power. Raw power alone goes only so far in ensuring states behave in identical ways in differing circumstances. For this reason, statesmen who lapse back into the reassuring predictability of balance of power politics tend to come unstuck. The international situation never looks the same from every perspective. Not everyone subscribed to “the comity of nations.” Counterparties acted in response to the specific vantage point of their own society, not in response to a worldview shared by all.

The interwar period is a lesson in point. Rivalry between the Great Powers after 1917 was acutely affected by a battle of ideas that reached above and beyond the normal preoccupations of diplomatic practitioners accustomed to the European states system from 1815 to 1914. In this sense, the twentieth century more closely resembled the era of the wars of religion of early modern Europe and of the French revolution than the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe, where eminent diplomatic historians traditionally cut their teeth.

Seen through the lens of classical realism or the opaque windows of a department of state, the international relations of the interwar period actually make little sense. It soon becomes evident that divergent and contested purposes drove the foreign policy of the various states which cannot be explained wholly along traditional lines. Indeed, politicians and diplomats came to fear more the insidious power of ideas than the measurable components of military capabilities. So a country with demonstrably weak offensive military capabilities—Soviet Russia—could seem all-threatening because of the power of its ideology. Yet a state with belligerent military strength—Nazi Germany—could appear as ultimately acceptable as an idiosyncratic member of the club because its ideology was seen by those ruling a country like Britain as none too pleasant, but complementary rather than menacing.

Thus instead of worrying about fascism, the British élite worried more about what would likely as not replace it—communism—were fascism destabilized and overthrown. An often silent complicity can thus be observed among those who would not have openly advocated an alignment with fascist states as witnessed during the Spanish civil war. The roots of anxiety lay well beyond the confines of ministries of state, in society at large, where, since the First World War, traditional loyalties could no longer be taken for granted.

It therefore does not make sense to reduce intention in foreign affairs to ragion di stato or raison d’état: the interests of the state that override every other interest. Who ran the state? Who were the custodians of diplomacy? They may not all have been the sons of “gentlemen of independent means” with a lot to lose. But more than a few undoubtedly were; certainly in London and Paris. Could these men (and they were invariably men) define the interests of the state without reflecting their own sectional interest? One does not have to be a Marxist to suppose that those ruling the state are likely, if unchecked, to serve the interests of their own class, whether aristocracy or bourgeoisie. The Renaissance idea of ragion di stato was invented precisely to offset such distortions. It was never suggested that governments invariably further the interests of the state, but that they should do so in the interests of society as a whole rather than in furthering sectional or ideological interests. The historian, like the political scientist, is entirely wrong to read this back to front and impose this as an assertion that this is what states actually do and have always done.8

One does not have to be a Marxist to suppose that those ruling the state are likely, if unchecked, to serve the interests of their own class, whether aristocracy or bourgeoisie.

The bias is not only one of class but also of nation. Commuting between foreign archives alone makes one exceptionally aware of entire societies whose practices are centuries old and are not at all easily captured in neat formulations by those who blandly assume that the makers and executors of policy are “rational actors.” This is a highly misleading notion borrowed from political science which, in turn, was taken from economics, at the very time discerning economists such as Kenneth Arrow were abandoning it.9 And whose rationality are we referring to? It is a form of imperial provincialism strikingly apparent across the social sciences in Britain and the United States, particular in the field of international relations, that assumes we reason alike regardless of social and national provenance. Thus examining the conduct of foreign policy within a vacuum inevitably makes for misleading assumptions, perhaps not about what has been happening but certainly why.

So are we left with an impossible task? How are we to get into the minds of those taking and executing decisions in ministries of foreign affairs? Declassified dispatches and policy memoranda obviously count for a great deal. But take care. In the modern era busy bureaucrats write elliptical telegrams that have to be enciphered at one end and deciphered at the other, before being reviewed or minuted speedily upon receipt. They are not about to waste valuable time telling each other what they already know; nor are they about to do so in position papers directed at the Secretary of State, who is, after all, even busier than they are and a politician wedded to his or her own insights or prejudices. Moreover, some statesmen are merely unreflecting caretakers dependent on subordinates for their judgements in fields far removed from their own. Personal papers such as diaries help and without them we would be lost—where, indeed, would we be without the indiscretions of former diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson? And without Chamberlain’s letters to his sisters we would also be much the poorer. But, as historians of the interwar period have found, the great houses of the British aristocracy who were highly influential in foreign affairs have in notable instances to their shame refused access to the relevant primary sources likely to embarrass living relatives. Some former ministers, such as Richard (R. A. B.) Butler, destroyed crucial papers—such as those touching on peace feelers to Germany (behind Churchill’s back) in the summer of 1940—that contradicted the dissembling memoirs they had put into print. And in Britain oppressive libel laws enabled culprits such as Sir Joseph Ball and Lord Rothschild to threaten court action in order to prevent the truth from being outed—in Ball’s instance, secret overtures to Mussolini; in Rothschild’s, his complicity with the Cambridge Five.10 For all of these various reasons foreign observers are, generally speaking, far more likely to be able to identify an implicit consensus of thought prevalent among those ruling another state, than are those safely on the inside.

The aim of my study is to bring together the history of international relations from the outside and the history of ideas from the inside; ideas projected to conscious purpose in international relations.

This article has been excerpted from The Spectre of War: International Communism and the Origins of World War II (Princeton University Press, 2021). Jonathan Haslam, George F. Kennan Professor in the School of Historical Studies, is a leading scholar on the history of thought in international relations and the history of the Soviet Union whose work builds a bridge between historical studies and the understanding of contemporary phenomena through critical examinations of the role of ideology. Haslam is the author of many books, as well as a blog, throughrussianeyes.com, which highlights aspects of Russia’s foreign and defense policies that do not see the light of day in mainstream media.

1. The Struggle for the Mastery of Europe 1848–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954) and The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamilton, 1961).

2. L. Hunt, The New Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) p. 1; and K. Thomas, “The Tools and the Job,” Times Literary Supplement , 7 April 1966.

3. Thomas later backed off from his youthful zealotry: Thomas, “History Revisited,” The Times, 11 October 2006.

4. C. Thorne, The limits of foreign policy: the West, the League and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931–1933 (London: Hamilton, 1972). J. Gittings, “Rules of the Game,” New York Review of Books , 17 May 1973. Thorne’s The Approach of War 1938–39 (London: Macmillan, 1967) was written before most of the documents were available. Yet he successfully built upon an inestimable advantage obtained from direct access to those son the periphery of the tragedy.

5. V. Bogdanor, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” New Statesman, 18 November 2010.

6. Z. Steiner, The Triumph of the Dark. European International History 1933–1939(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) p. 1048.

7. Quoted in Thorne, The Approach of War 1938–39, p. 17.

8. See Haslam, No Virtue Like Necessity. Realist Thought in International Relations Since Machiavelli (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002).

9. K. Arrow, “Risk Perception in Psychology and Economics,” Technical Report No. 351, October 1981. A Report of the Center for Research on Organizational Efficiency, Stanford University.

10. The five most notorious Soviet spies emanating from Cambridge University were Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, and Anthony Blunt. See Haslam, Near and Distant Neighbours: A New History of Soviet Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). The Russian foreign intelligence service, for whom they worked, are now releasing onto the worldwide web classified documents relating to their operations at www.cambridge5.ru.