Book Review and Analysis
Keith Eubank in, The Origins of World War II, provides an argument that Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany were grossly underestimated and misunderstood pre-war, which led to the eventual invasion of Europe by his military. Adding to this was the fact that everything that could have gone Hitler's way, did. He wrote this book in a manner that made it easy to read, while still providing enough information for the reader to develop a good understanding of the sequential events that ultimately led to the launch of the second world war.
Keith Eubank is a history professor at Queens College of The City University of New York. He has graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania as well as Harvard. He is well published, having written several other books on this topic as well as others. The credentials are there, which makes his points that much stronger. The reader can trust that he has done the research and is not providing false information.
The style of this book is such that it breaks down each event that would eventually lead to war, and then provides a brief but information packed analysis as to why it was significant in the establishment of Nazi Germany. Instead of a work examining one or a few of these events, we get an overall look and a timeline like setup leading to the outbreak of war. There was no one factor that led to the war, some were more important that others but ultimately everything had to fall into place for Hitler to rebuild and mobilize his military as quickly as he did. All of those bases are covered in this book.
The Origins of World War II is broken into five chapters, each covering a period of time leading up to the war. Within each chapter Eubank covers the significant events that relate to the "cause and effect" chain of events that would trigger the second war. His thesis is fairly consistent throughout the book. He believes that little could have been done to change the course of what happened leading into the war. Hitler could only have been stopped if the rest of Europe had gone to war against Germany, the problem with that lies in the state of most every country but Germany. They were all devastated by the first war, populations and military in ruins, industries destroyed.
The first chapter sets the groundwork for road to World War II. Germany's industry was left largely untouched. The armistice prevented an invasion by the United States into Germany. The Treaty of Versailles began to radicalize the German population and would later fuel Hitler's rise to power as well as his reasoning for war later on. Article 231, which Eubank points out was erroneously labeled the "War Guilt Clause" by Germans, called for massive reparations to be paid by Germany. The German people failed to realize, according to Eubank, that the same clause was given to Austria and Hungary. He argues that the allies never intended to put a "guilt clause" in the treaty because they believed the Germans would know that they lost the war and a held a responsibility in starting it. Whether this is true or not is now irrelevant, because we know how Germany felt about the article, and that Hitler was able to use it in fueling his campaigns.
The League of Nations was in effect a false sense of security for the United States and Britain. France, however, never felt that safety. They went out on their own and formed a pact with Belgium and Poland, agreeing to intervene if there was ever German aggression in one of the countries. It seems that France saw what the others did not, in that the league could not really enforce the Treaty of Versailles. The militaries were too small now, and the U.S. had gone back to an isolationist foreign policy. The Great Depression would soon hit, to make matters even worse. Causing many European countries to cut military spending in an effort to save other areas of the economy. Germany, however, did not. The depression further radicalized German voters allowing Hitler to gain popularity and eventually take control of the country.
Eubank gives a brief biography of Hitler and his rise to power to open chapter two, touching on some of the more important aspects of his life. Including his service in World War I, embracing his speaking abilities, the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch, time in prison, and eventual mass support and takeover of the Nazi party. Eubank brings up an interesting point when he mentions, " The curiosity is not how few opposed Hitler, but how many served him gladly…" Many people may oppose a politician but not ever say it, as they can just speak with their vote. But having the mass audiences that Hitler did at speeches and other public events shows just how devoted his following was.
Because of the armistice ending the first war, Germany was able to save much of its military command and structure. Making a rearmament that much easier for Hitler. Hans von Seeckt had managed to keep the structure in tact playing right into Hitler's expectations of how they should rebuild. Because Hitler had to be better than the Soviets, instead of a five year plan he put forth a four year rearmament campaign. He wanted war and he wanted it soon. Due to the Versailles Treaty limiting the German military, he wanted to keep this secret as much as possible until he felt it was ready. As Eubank mentions, Hitler began to realize that he and Germany could not be stopped without a joint effort by Western Europe and another war. Knowing how opposed to war his neighbors were, it allows Hitler to begin asking for things that he otherwise would never have gotten. In an attempt to avoid war, appeasement became the common policy towards Hitler. After January 13, 1935 Hitler was no longer concerned with hiding his new military as the Saar plebiscite had passed. Germany was essentially free of restrictions on its military. Hitler wanted to win by Blitzkrieg and was positioned perfectly to do so. Surrounded by weak nations, the surprise attacks would annihilate the enemy before they could react. He was not as concerned with troops on the ground as we was with advanced weaponry, he wanted to avoid a "world war" like the first because it would require the economy to become almost completely geared toward the military. That could cause his popularity to drop, instead he wanted to quickly achieve victories with as little casualties as possible. This thinking would eventually be his demise as more countries piled against him, turning the war into a numbers game that Germany could not win.
Eubank opens the third chapter with Benito Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and the appeasement that would open the door for Hitler to begin his aggressive stance. As Britain and France refused military action against Italy, even after Mussolini's threats, Hitler saw a weakness in the league. Eubank forms a solid argument at this point, stating that critics of appeasement believe that had action been taken here the war could have been avoided. Eubank argues that, Western European involvement would only have allowed Hitler to invade sooner, that their troops would have been preoccupied. This was seen when the USSR attacked Finland after Britain and France were dealing with Germany in Poland. This is a very strong argument that doesn't necessarily prove appeasement as the better alternative, but that it may not have made much difference either way. Which seems to be Eubank's theory throughout, the war was basically inevitable in his eyes. It may have been pushed back or brought on sooner, but it was coming either way.
More appeasement would occur as Germany began to move troops up to the Rhineland, required to be demilitarized by the Treaty of Versailles, and the French who had solid knowledge of this did nothing. The French did not want to be consider the "aggressor" by occupying it to prevent an invasion, so they remained passive. Eubank makes another argument here that anti-appeasement historians sometimes argue that any French or English presence in the Rhineland would have caused the Germans to immediately retreat and somehow overthrow Hitler. This is just not the way it was, he argues. Hitler had policies that would allow his military to use force against any foreigners on German soil, if deemed necessary. March 7, 1936 36,500 German soldiers moved into the Rhineland. Over the next few weeks after no French military action was taken, Eubank believes that Hitler saw this as an open invitation to do as he pleased to French allies. If they would not defend their own borders, they surely would not aid their allies.
The road to war is the title of Eubank's fourth chapter. He opens it with the Reichschancellery meeting of 1937, which many see as a blatant example of Hitler planning a second world war. All of those in positions of power within the Nazi party were at this meeting, as Hitler needed everyone on the same page. Among things discussed were the gathering of raw materials for military vehicles, and further increasing the speed of rearmament. Hitler promised to solve Germany's living space problems by 1945. He knew that his window was approaching, and as time went on the Allies were getting further into their own rearmaments. He needed to act soon while they were still unprepared for war. The main outcome of the meeting, strategy wise, was that Hitler was going to invade Czechoslovakia first, unless an opportunity presented itself which made Austria the better target.
Hitler made an effort to use political means to take over Austria indirectly. But as relations deteriorated he decided that force was his only option to save face. German troops were ordered to march into Austria, but not to create bloodshed, but seem reluctant. The Austrian leader Schuschnigg knew what the result would be if he attempted to fight the Germans, so he resigned. This gave Hitler his greatest victory yet. It also, as Eubank mentions, "marked a change in Hitler's tactics." He know knew that the mere threat of invasion could be enough to get him what he wanted. Not a single shot was fired, supposedly, yet Germany had taken over Austria. More importantly, Hitler was now in great position to invade Czechoslovakia.
This is exactly what Hitler had in mind. He developed a plan to invade Czechoslovakia and destroy it so quickly, that intervention by the West would be irrelevant. But he could then turn his forces on them. In an effort to avoid this, the Munich conference was held, and Czechoslovakia would in turn lose large sections of its country without a battle ever being fought, simply to avoid conflict. Also Chamberlain was able to get Hitler to sign an Anglo-German relation agreement, that called for Hitler to consult with him before attempting to take new territory. Eubank believes that Hitler was tired and ready for sleep, which is the only reason he signed the agreement. He could have simply signed it with no intention of ever recognizing it. Hitler did learn, from this agreement, that Britain was extremely reluctant to fight Germany over territories. Further appeasements would give Hitler the Sudetenland, which the allies believed would pacify him, yet it only fueled the Nazi campaign. Further economic offers were made to Hitler after more threats to Czechoslovakia were learned of. The idea was that economic rewards would make Germany's need for territory unnecessary. These offers were largely ignored. On March 15, Hitler finally had his troops march and fly into Czechoslovakia, by the evening Hitler was already in the presidential palace in Prague. Still the French and British did nothing.
The concluding section of Eubanks work is simply titled "War." The west now realized that appeasement was not going to work, and a new policy was needed. The Germans wasted little time before moving their focus to Poland. This time the British made a statement backing up Poland, which Hitler would later use against them. The British House of Commons was beginning to realize that appeasement was not the answer, and were critical of Chamberlain for it. Another large bump in the road for Hitler would come with the letters USSR. So far, the soviets had been quiet for the most part. They said little during the Czechoslovakia turmoil, but Hitler realized that he would need their support to take Poland. Hitler gained power in the first place, largely from anti-communist, and anti-Bolshevik ideology, but the two countries did share common interests. As Eubank states, "the both shared a hatred for the Versailles settlement, and they both had old scores to settle with Poland." At this same time, Britain and France were vying for Soviet support as well. Several agreements were proposed attempting to guarantee that the three countries would support each other if Germany further advanced their conquest. Britain and France on their own pledged to aid Poland, Rumania, Turkey and Greece, but they needed the help of the Soviets as their own armies were still not completely ready for a war. Britain and the USSR could not come to agreement on an alliance. Chamberlain believed an alliance would drag Britain into a war that Stalin had initiated, as he still remained unsure of the communist leader.
Stalin, becoming fed up with the British inability to come to an agreement, began delegating with Germany as well. Eventually the non-aggression pact would be signed, also allowing the Soviets and Germanys to exchange raw materials. This gave Hitler the insurance that he needed that Stalin would not attack from the East as he invaded Poland. The window of opportunity was there, western Europe was not prepared for war and Hitler was in a great position to exploit that. Eubank brings up an interesting point here, that over the year of negotiations with Britain, Hitler had wore them down. The day after he ordered the invasion of Poland, Chamberlain was beginning to consider giving in to Hitler's demands. Eubank believes that Hitler may have been able to achieve all of his demands peacefully had he remained consistent. Hitler learning of this, changed the invasion date to September 1. All remaining diplomatic agreements and offers for Poland to become a vassal state would fail. Thus leading to the invasion of Poland and ignition of World War II.
Keith Eubank, in this book, has managed to create a very fact filled historical account of the events leading into the second world war. By maintaining a timeline like structure, and not only focusing on a few of the major events, he gives the reader an overall view of Europe and its troubles at this time. Keeping the book easy to read and flowing makes a huge difference and allows the reader to keep tract of the events as they happened.
In regards to his sources, he really covered all aspects. He used a mixture of scholarly writing as well as primary sources to put together a collective idea and sequential account of this topic. He used what he learned from these sources to support his main thesis, the seeds of war were planted in the Versailles Treaty and appeasement policy. He makes very clear his idea that not much short of war could have been done to stop Hitler once he took control of Germany. The rest of Europe was not prepared and he got into power at the perfect time. Essentially all the stars aligned for Hitler and he took advantage of it, though the war was eventually lost in the end. He managed to severely damage and entire religious group as well as take over much of Europe in a very short time.
This book would be a great tool to use for teaching any class involving World War II or Nazi Germany, high school level or above. As it was not hard to read, it allows the book to be handled by a much larger pool of students. His strengths and best arguments were in the first two chapters. Eubank gives excellent counter arguments to common appeasement criticism. In doing this, it allowed me to better understand why some of these political policies were done at the time. It is easy for us to look back and mock what the leaders did then, but at the time they had little choice or alternative.
Check it out for yourself!
thebeast02 (author) from Louisiana on August 23, 2011:
I'm glad you enjoyed it. I read the book for a senior level history class last semester and learned quite a bit from it.
WesternHistory from California on August 23, 2011:
Excellent post and a very interesting subject. Another area to explore was the relationship between Japan and the United States beginning in the first decade of the 20th century. There seems to have been a very close relationship between the two countries in regards to the expansion of Japan in Asia. Some historians believe that the United States actually supported Japan's exploits earlier in the century. During the 1930s there was a marked change in official U.S. policy brought on by Japan's overreaching in the region. This is what seems to have triggered U.S. sanctions against Japan particularly in the case of oil. From that point forward relations deteriorated between the two countries eventually leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor.