1939: Countdown to War

In This Review

1939: Countdown to War
By Richard Overy
Viking Adult, 2010
176 pp. $25.95
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Overy argues that "nothing in history is inevitable" -- not even the outbreak of World War II. This concise, clearheaded text seeks to prove the point by describing 11 days in 1939, from August 24, when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, to September 3, when France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. With events and information moving faster than they could be processed and decision-makers suffering from exhaustion and stress, both sides acted with "growing irrationality." Hitler believed the assurances of Joachim von Ribbentrop, his foreign minister, that the French and British were bluffing, and so expected to prevail quickly against the Poles alone. French and British leaders sought to redeem their "national honour" by extending a guarantee to Poland and deterring Hitler, and so gave little thought to how that guarantee might have to be honored in practice. Overy's narrow focus willfully obscures the legacy of World War I, Hitler's unbounded ambitions, the failed strategy of appeasement, and other complex causes that perhaps made war inevitable. Still, it makes for provocative reading.