Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
12 May 2021
Review by Nicholas Williams, Centre of East Belgian History, Eupen
1939: A People's History of the Coming of World War II
By Frederick Taylor
New York: Norton, 2020. Pp. 434. ISBN 978–1–324–00679–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, European Theater Print Version

In his new book, the prolific popular historian Frederick Taylor[1] discusses events that occurred in the year between the Sudeten Crisis (Sept. 1938) and the outbreak of World War II in Europe. His purview includes both governmental actions and the perceptions of "commoners" in Britain and Germany; his aim is to clarify the differences between democracy and dictatorship. The book's ten chapters examine a year that marked

a breakdown of hope, accompanying a collapse in what remained of the European political order. In its conclusion, with the German invasion of Poland, it also marks the beginning of a terrible transformation in the attitude of a large section of the German people, from passive, even sullen, accepters of the Führer's will to accomplices in genocidal horror. The means by which this change of heart was effected—a continual, ruthless and mendacious campaign of vilification in the captive German press and other media against all the ethnic groups and countries, large or small, that stood in the way of Nazi ambitions—form a key theme of this book. (13)

Although Taylor endnotes some of his sources and concisely summarizes the existing literature on his subject, he makes no claim to be presenting an innovative treatment of Nazi Germany.

Taylor poses the question "what did it feel like, as an 'ordinary' person in Britain or Germany, to be living through this time of tension, fear, uncertainty, and—ultimately—catastrophe?" (2). He argues that the general populace had little appetite for war and that Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, had to systematically gin up a readiness to go to war. In Britain, popular opinion, as expressed in the media—Taylor repeatedly cites articles from the Daily Press and Daily Mail—showed strong support for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. One wishes the author had more frequently referenced papers less supportive of appeasement. (In fairness, he does cite from the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Mirror.)

Taylor draws on several diaries as well, notably from the "Tagebucharchiv" (diary archive) in Emmendingen, near Freiburg; these have provided historians in recent years with a treasure chest of popular-history sources, making it possible to compare diplomatic sources with everyday perceptions of events. Taylor has also conducted interviews with some of the few remaining eyewitnesses of the events in question.

The author laudably seeks to capture the perceptions of men and women from various walks of life in German and British societies, be they working class, middle class, or elites. However, he sometimes disproportionately stresses particular voices, for instance, that of the critical journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich. It would be useful to know more about why they are so privileged in Taylor's narrative.

Another drawback is the book's slow pace. Excluding footnotes, 373 pages are dedicated to a single year in the history of its two target countries. Despite the fact that his book is aimed at non-specialist readers, some discussion of the author's historical methodology would have been helpful, especially with regard to his intensive use of interview sources. Survivors with active memories of the Second World War are now in their nineties. Consequently, what they claim to have witnessed and what actually occurred may be two very different affairs. The same goes for the twenty- to thirty-year-old audio recordings Taylor draws on. Fact-checking their stories against contemporary newspaper articles (3) is insufficient to distinguish what given individuals actually saw from what they only think they did.

There is, too, the unaddressed question of a rationale for writing a "popular history" of the run-up to the Second World War with an exclusive focus on Germany and Britain. Yes, Germany was the aggressor nation, but what about Italy? Or Japan? And what of the Soviet Union, which invaded Poland just as Germany did? Or other nations that suffered attacks by the Germans, notably France, Belgium, the Netherlands, among others?

Taylor's approach seems to put him in the insular tradition of British historiography, at least as regards popular histories. Richard Evans has argued that British historians have shown a remarkable interest in other countries.[2] One wonders why Taylor, who cites the recent trend toward nationalism visible in, for example, the Brexit vote (5) does not seem to recognize that the run-up to World War II is an excellent case study for an entangled history—histoire croisée[3]—of Europe in 1939; this could have included relevant discussions of entangled subjects like the European development of civil defence measures, the widespread panic caused by aerial warfare, and the development of civilian evacuation measures.[4] Much remains to be done to produce a sound popular history that will appeal to a wider readership.

All the above notwithstanding, 1939 is an exceptionally well written, accessible, and illustrative account of the lead-up to the Second World War. Such an undertaking is especially daunting with respect to Germany, where the distinction between popular and published opinion was blurred by the totalitarian aspirations of the state. Nonetheless, historians like Richard Evans[5] and Ian Kershaw[6] have written accessible histories based on sources reflecting both governmental decision-making and popular opinion.

All told, 1939 is a mixed bag. It is blemished by errors of fact, for instance, in its portrayal of appeasement as a matter of ill-informed decisions and caving in to Hitler's demands (15–40). Hitler was furious at the result of the Munich negotiations, which deprived him of the war he so desperately wanted.[7] French industrial production and rearmament during the Sudeten Crisis was rising, but nowhere near the levels Édouard Daladier and others deemed sufficient to take on the Wehrmacht,[8] particularly without the full backing of Britain. To claim that World War II was the "war that nobody wanted" is misleading at best. While some of the Führer's generals disagreed with him about the pace of the war, many nationalist elites joined him in their ardent desire to avenge the perceived humiliation of World War I even before the ink on the Versailles Treaty had dried.[9] While few Germans may have desired or even anticipated the mass scale of the genocidal horrors the Nazis eventually visited upon Europe, it is wrong to claim that nobody wanted the war. For one thing, the German lust for Lebensraum in the east preceded Hitler's.[10]

These criticisms aside, Frederick Taylor's new book is an illuminating, mostly reliable study of the momentous events of the year 1939. Its readers will not be disappointed and will enjoy a few side journeys along the way.

[1] His previous works include Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (NY: Harper, 2004) and Exorcising Hitler (NY: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[2] Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2009).

[3] See, further, Michel Werner, "Bénédicte Zimmermann, Penser l'histoire croisée: entre empirie et réflexivité," Annales 58 (2003) 7–36.

[4] See, e.g., Julia S. Torries, "For Their Own Good": Civilian Evacuations in Germany and France, 1939–1945 (NY: Berghahn, 2010).

[5] In The Coming of the Third Reich; The Third Reich in Power; and The Third Reich at War (NY: Penguin, 2004/2006/2009).

[6] In Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris, and Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis (NY: Norton, 1999/2000).

[7] Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (note 5 above) 676.

[8] See Peter Jackson, France and the Nazi Menace: Intelligence and Policy Making, 1933–1939 (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2000) 289.

[9] See Rüdiger Bergien, Die bellizistische Republik: Wehrkonsens und "Wehrhamachung" in Deutschland 1918–1933 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2012).

[10] See Bruno Wasser, Himmlers Raumplanung im Osten: Der Generalplan Ost in Polen 1940–1944 (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1993).

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