Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Remembering the Outbreak of the Second World War
Remembering the Outbreak of the Second World War

Remembering the Outbreak of the Second World War

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

Eighty years ago, Adolf Hitler’s war erupted. On September 1, 1939, the Nazi tyrant unleashed a lightning campaign to crush Poland. In destroying Poland, Hitler had the assistance of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, with whom he had made a pact to carve up Eastern Europe. With the Nazi murder machine striking from the west, and the Red Army invading from the east, even a determined Polish resistance could not long delay the inevitable. Surrounded, outnumbered, cut off from outside assistance, Poland was swallowed up within a month by the Nazi and Soviet evil empires.

Confronted by Hitler’s naked aggression, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. In going to war with Germany, the leaders of Britain and France felt duty-bound to honor a solemn commitment that they had made to uphold the independence of Poland. This commitment, this red line laid down by the British and French governments did not deter Hitler from embarking on his war of conquest. Hitler knew that while Britain and France could declare war, neither country could do much militarily to prevent the destruction of Poland. The leaders of Britain and France had been slow to arm against the growing Nazi menace during the late 1930s. Once having declared war, they hurried to prepare for the coming trial of strength with Germany.

In attacking Poland, Hitler gambled that Britain and France, militarily unprepared, led by leaders who he thought had no stomach for a fight, would renege on their commitment to stand by Poland. In that assessment, he proved wrong. Germany’s assault on Poland galvanized the will of the British government and people to fight against Hitler. One unmistakable sign of Britain’s determination to fight became manifest when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain invited Winston Churchill to serve in the government as the civilian head of the Royal Navy. During the previous ten years, British governments had excluded Churchill from holding high executive office. In Berlin, on hearing the “ill-omened press report” about Churchill’s return to office, Hitler’s henchman Hermann Goering lamented: “Churchill in the cabinet. That means that the war is really on. Now we shall have war with England.”[1] Such was Churchill’s reputation as a fierce adversary of the Nazi regime that Germany’s leadership now knew Britain would take a stand against Hitler’s drive to dominate Europe and world power. Weakness in Britain’s leadership was coming to an end. In Churchill, a fighting leader had come into office, a leader who would never surrender in the struggle against Nazi tyranny.

Lessons from Britain’s Policies

Remembering the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in Europe provides an opportunity to reflect on how Britain, the leading world power of the age, sought to avoid a return to great-power rivalries, arms races, and descent to war. Britain’s leaders had no easy foreign policy and strategy choices open to them. And, yet, Britain’s leaders did have options. As the leaders of a global superpower, British statesmen had a strong hand to play. They chose to follow a grand strategy of restraint, offshore balancing, and accommodation, thus handing over the strategic initiative to Hitler. Revisiting this history also provides a lens for examining the foreign policy and strategy choices facing American leaders in a twenty-first century era marked by a return to great-power competition.[2]

Britain’s leading statesmen between the wars imagined that they could avoid conflict by pursuing a policy of appeasement. Before the Second World War, appeasement did not have today’s negative connotation. Appeasement was viewed as a way for settling differences, of reconciling conflicting interests and aims, avoiding the use of violence to bring about political change. Nor was appeasement a passive, reactive policy: instead, it sought to seize the initiative to promote constructive change by negotiation. Proponents of appeasement lauded it as a rational approach to conflict management, preventive diplomacy in place of preparing for war. Neville Chamberlain, for example, aimed “to arrive at that condition of European affairs which we all desire and in which nations might look upon one another with a desire to co-operate instead of regarding each other with suspicion and resentment . . . to arrive at a position, in fact, when reasonable grievances may be laid aside, and when confidence may again be restored.”[3] Today, the word accommodation perhaps serves as the closest cognate to appeasement in the field of international relations.

Enlightened appeasement, so British leaders thought, also served the purpose of upholding Britain’s position as the leading world power. Appeasement was not meant to transform the international order, but to preserve Britain’s leadership at the center. By making timely concessions to Hitler, Nazi Germany could be converted into a satisfied power that would help steady the British world order. Appeasement also held the promise of serving as a substitute for a policy of containing German expansion, which would entail an arms race and entangling military commitments to defend allies in Europe. Appeasement, if successful, would provide for Britain’s security on the cheap as well as reduce the risk of confrontation and war.

Of course, we know that appeasement was doomed to failure. Nazi Germany could never be a satisfied power. Hitler held in contempt the enlightenment ideal of avoiding conflict through negotiation and compromise. He prided himself as a fighter. He had no intention of playing the role that Chamberlain wrote for him as a responsible stakeholder in a world led by Britain. Hitler’s manic will to wage war ruled out cooperation to lay aside grievances. Hitler fought to establish a Nazi superpower to overshadow Britain’s empire on the world arena.

Countering Hitler’s Aggression

The clash between the Nazi drive to power and Britain represented much, much more than a geopolitical challenge. At stake in this contest was nothing less than the fate of Western Civilization. Churchill, for one, recognized what was at stake in the fight against Hitler’s wicked worldview and he underscored the danger in his speeches throughout the 1930s. Churchill made clear:

There can never be friendship between British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from the persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be a trusted friend of British democracy.[4]

The Nazi seizure of power within Germany ushered in a life-and-death struggle pitting the Western democracies of the Atlantic world against a militarized great-power tyranny.

Hitler did not hide the fundamental nature of what was at stake in the contest. In response to one of Churchill’s speeches, the German leader remarked: “There has been formed in the world the curious custom of dividing peoples into so-called ‘authoritarian’ states—that is, disciplined states—and democratic states.” Hitler’s definition of the two camps provides a stark contrast between these two forms of government: in his worldview, disciplined states were taking on decadent democracies.[5] Nor did Hitler hide his racial agenda and threat to bring about “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”[6]

After seizing power within Germany, Hitler moved very quickly to build up the German armed forces. This military buildup violated the Versailles Treaty of 1919 that ended the First World War. The restrictions of Versailles prevented Germany from having competitive armed forces that could take on the other European great powers. For example, Germany initially lagged far behind Britain in air strength and manufacturing capacity. Historian Adam Tooze writes: “In 1932 the German aircraft industry employed 3,200 people and had the capacity to produce no more than a hundred aircraft per year.” All that would change rapidly, as the regime lavished resources on the buildup of Germany’s air power. At the outbreak of war, the German aircraft industry employed more than 250,000 workers “and was capable of turning out every year more than 10,000 of the most sophisticated combat aircraft in the world.”[7] The German buildup in air strength represented a revolution in the European balance of power that would pave the way for Nazi conquests.

Any hope of stopping Hitler’s aggression required that Britain dramatically increase its armed forces in the emerging arms race with Germany. Falling behind Germany in armaments would put Britain in the dangerous strategic position of having to give in to Hitler’s geopolitical ambitions or to fight him from a position of military weakness. Britain certainly possessed the industrial, financial, demographic, and scientific resources to build up the British armed forces in an arms race with Germany. During the First World War, Britain showed itself capable of manufacturing large numbers of aircraft and deploying an air force more powerful than that of Germany. The Second World War would again demonstrate how Britain could renew its strength as an air power.

Mobilizing this rearmament effort, however, required political will and leadership. The British governments in power during most of the 1930s wanted to avoid an arms race, not wage one. They viewed appeasement as an alternative to an arms buildup, which they believed would be an inevitable precursor to war. The efforts made by Britain’s interwar governments, to be sure, provided the bare minimum of strength to hold on in 1940. British leaders were not blind to the air menace. Stanley Baldwin, the leading Conservative political figure in interwar Britain, famously stated: “The bomber will always get through.” Neville Chamberlain, too, sought to expand the Royal Air Force as a deterrent against Hitler, first by building up a fleet of bombers and later by strengthening capabilities to defend against air attack.[8] Still, as Churchill advocated at the time, the government needed to do more to prepare Britain for war if a smashup with Hitler could not be avoided.

If the governments led by Baldwin and Chamberlain could have done more, the opposition Liberal and Labour parties acted in an even more irresponsible way by condemning any major steps toward rearmament. Clement Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party, denounced the government for seeking to maintain parity between Britain and Germany in air strength. In the House of Commons, Attlee spoke for Labour: “We deny the need for increased air armaments. We deny the proposition that an increased Royal Air Force will make for the peace of the world and we reject altogether the demand for parity.”[9]

Churchill stood out on the British political scene in calling for major increases in defense spending, castigating both the government and the opposition parties for their failure to rearm more rapidly. For his efforts, he was branded a warmonger who held outdated views about international relations and the search for security. One critic charged Churchill with demanding large increases in defense spending “without giving the smallest reasons why this colossal expenditure should immediately be undertaken. That is rather the language of a Malay running amok than a responsible British statesman. It is rather the language of blind and causeless panic.”[10] Churchill was not blind, and he had good cause to call for the maximum effort in building up British air strength for a coming trial with Nazi Germany. British weakness in the air acted as a spur for Hitler to act, to take advantage of Germany’s advantage to attack. Britain’s political leaders—government and opposition—by holding back in defense spending gave Hitler his opportunity to strike. In August 1939, in explaining his decision for war, Hitler told his generals: “England is vulnerable to air attack. The English air force itself has only about 130,000 men, whereas we have 390,000.”[11] Churchill understood a fundamental truth of international competition: losing an arms race might tempt an aggressor to attack.

What Does This Mean Eighty Years Later?

What insight can an examination of the interwar period offer us about the world in which we live today? The 1930s and the threat posed by Hitler’s Germany, of course, was a unique period in history, never to be repeated.[12] Moreover, drawing parallels between different historical eras in an effort to apply lessons of the past for today can mislead as well as guide. Some important differences obviously exist between Britain’s strategic predicament during the first half of the twentieth century and the United States position in the global arena in the twenty-first century.[13]

Still, the history of the interwar period surely matters in showing the dangers that can emerge if the leading world power seeks to isolate itself from international partners and fails to modernize its armed forces. Today, the alternative to an American-led world order is growing global disorder. In the absence of countervailing American power, non-state extremist armed groups will establish themselves as state actors.

Meanwhile, without effective American security guarantees, countries threatened by aggressive neighbors will face unpalatable policy choices. The history of the 1930s underscores the bleak alternatives that victims of aggression confront if they cannot find international support: fold like Austria and welcome their conquerors; allow themselves to be partitioned without a fight like Czechoslovakia; or, take up arms, make a heroic stand, suffer horrendous losses, and go down to defeat like Poland. Some countries, when assaulted by aggressors, might have the wherewithal and will to offer protracted resistance, even if they suffer repeated defeats. Nationalist China under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership, for example, kept up its fight against imperial Japan, despite suffering huge losses.

Between the wars, part of the impetus behind the British search to appease Hitler was the apparent unwillingness of the United States to join in any strategic partnership with Britain against aggressor states in either Europe or Asia. Neville Chamberlain viewed the United States as part of the problem rather than a partner in the search for security. In 1934, he complained about American isolationism: “We ought to know by this time that the U.S.A. will give us no undertaking to resist by force any action by Japan short of an attack on Hawaii or Honolulu.”[14] That insight would prove unnervingly and unhappily prophetic!

Churchill held a different view of America’s role in the world. He gambled on American support for Britain because a Nazi-dominated Europe threatened the security of the New World as well as the British homeland. In betting on American assistance, Churchill took a big risk. Just imagine how an America led by a President Joseph Kennedy or the popular Charles Lindbergh would have made Churchill’s strategy of fighting on in 1940 look like an act of folly. Britain’s “finest hour” would have ended in disastrous defeat if Franklin D. Roosevelt had not possessed the strategic wisdom and exhibited the political courage to entangle the United States with coalition partners to bring about, in the words of the Atlantic Charter, “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.”[15]

The tragedy of international politics between the wars was that the great power democracies failed to join together to preserve the peace. Instead, a blinkered view of national self-interest led to the breakdown of security cooperation and military preparedness. It would take the horrors of the Second World War before the United States would put aside outdated foreign policy conceptions of avoiding alliance commitments and forge a global network of security partnerships to deter another great power war. Enlightened self-interest calls for the United States to remain in the twenty-first century the leader of a grand alliance bringing together the world’s democracies to underwrite international security. If we isolate ourselves from international partners and let down our guard, the United States will not escape the tragic consequences of a world on fire.

[1] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 165.

[2] Charles Krauthammer’s essay “Decline Is a Choice,” in Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics (New York: Crown, paperback edition, 2015), pp. 352-366.

[3] Neville Chamberlain, In Search of Peace (New York: Putnam, 1939), p. 34.

[4] Churchill speech in Parliament, October 5, 1938, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches (New York: Chelsea House, 1974), vol. 6, pp. 6004-6013.

[5] Hitler speech, November 6, 1938, Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 5: The Prophet of Truth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 1015.

[6] Hitler’s speech before the Reichstag, January 30, 1939, accessed at

[7] Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (London: Allen Lane, 2006), p. 125.

[8] One defense of the National Government was offered by A.W. Baldwin, My Father: The True Story (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1955), pp. 180-287.

[9] Quintin Hogg, The Left Was Never Right (London: Faber, 1945), p. 53.

[10] Sir Herbert Samuel speech, July 13, 1934, Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 5:  Prophet of Truth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 552.

[11] Hitler to German military leaders, August 22, 1939, J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919-1945, vol. 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination (Exeter: Exeter Studies in History, 1988), p. 471.

[12] See Michael Lind’s scathing attack on American leaders who admire Churchill, “Churchill for Dummies,” The Spectator (April 24. 2004), accessed at; also see David A. Bell, “Not Everything Is Munich and Hitler,” National Interest (May-June 2016).

[13] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990), pp. 49-68.

[14] Letter to Hilda, dated July 28, 1934, in Robert Self, ed., The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters, vol. 4: The Downing Street Years, 1934-1940 (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2005), p. 82-83.

[15] The Atlantic Charter, August 14, 1941, accessed at