In the pre-dawn hours of 1 September, 1939, German forces began crossing into Poland, marking what most consider to be the start of the six nightmare years of the Second World War. The conflagration would consume more than 30 million souls by the time Japan officially signed the instruments of surrender in Tokyo Bay, six years and one day later. How the eventual defeat of the Axis came about is the subject of countless volumes, with countless more to yet be written.
As instructive to our generation and those which follow is just how the world came to the threshold of catastrophe that was unleashed seventy years ago this day.
The world had spent the majority of the previous decade negotiating with a cruel and despotic dictator whose virulent anti-semitism and design for world domination had been lain open in Mein Kampf for all to see and read.
Among the first acts of this dictator is to withdraw his country from the League of Nations (1933). The hope of controlling his ambitions through collective security was shattered forever. Shortly afterward, agents of his country had a direct hand in the assassination of a neighboring head of state, with the murder of Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss in 1934.
The democracies of Europe, England and France, recoiling from the horrors of the last war, looked the other way as this dictator acquired and developed weapons in direct violation of existing treaties, creating an air force and tank force. To challenge such violations was to risk war. And a European war was an unthinkable, to be avoided at all costs.
Emboldened, this dictator marched into the Rhineland in 1936, an area that had been forbidden military forces and fortifications. Again, rationalizing that such an act could be reasonably justified, and was not worth risking a wider European war, the European Democracies did nothing.
In 1937, as civil war raged in Spain, this dictator sent his legions with their new weapons to use this civil war as a testing ground. Those weapons had been developed and tested with the complicity of Russia, ruled by another dictator whose enemy was the West. The Democracies of Europe were once again silent. To challenge this dictator risked provoking him, leading to a wider European war.
There were those, like Churchill, who warned of this dictator and his ambitions, but were shouted down and dismissed as war-mongers for preaching preparedness and strength. War must be avoided. The dictator’s ambitions, satiated.
The next year, 1938, singing the now-familiar tune of “protection of German minorities from persecution” amidst the supposed chaos of unrest, this dictator subsumed Austria. Expressly forbidden by the Versailles and St Germain treaties, the Anschluss (joining) was allowed to stand, for fear of risking a wider European war.
In the autumn of that year, once again tales of abuse of Germans at the hands of an ethnic majority led to demands for annexation of the Czech Sudetenland. This time, Europe’s Democracies actively participated in the dismantling, meeting at Munich and handing over the territory of a sovereign nation. They did so clinging to the promise that this act of betrayal represented the dictator’s “last territorial demand in Europe”.
Chamberlain returned from Munich to a hero’s welcome, waving the document that represented “peace in our time”. A sigh of relief, war had once again been averted. “Peace in our time” would last exactly 334 days.
In March of 1939, this dictator’s army occupied the rest of unfortunate Czechoslovakia. Without the modern fortifications of the Sudetenland so graciously handed the Germans, the Czechs were defenseless.
By the summer of 1939, rumblings in the East centered around the city of Danzig, whose German population “suffered” at the hands of the Poles. By August, agitation among the Germans in Danzig made it clear to even the wildest optimist in the European Democracies that the dictator had found his casus belli.
Yet, in the previous six years, the Western Democracies had stood idly by while the dictator had:
- Violated the peace treaty by building and testing banned weapons and expanding his armed forces
- Brought about the assassination of the head of a neighboring state
- Reoccupied the Rhineland
- Sent forces to be battle tested in Spain
- Annexed Austria
- Grabbed the Sudetenland
- Occupied Czechoslovakia
This had not satiated the dictator’s thirst for conquest. Instead, such vacillation, weakness, and inaction had only emboldened. “My enemies are worms,” the dictator had said. “I saw them at Munich”.
So, when the Poles refused to accede to the threats of the dictator, there would be war. All that had been surrendered, all that had been conceded, the honor that had been betrayed in order to prevent war had been for naught.
On 1 September 1939, war came after all. The dictator had wanted it all along. He had told us so. We simply hadn’t the courage to believe him.