Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 3

Home History Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 3

Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 3

Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 3

As Kana Miller, whose books we have quoted in our article series, recently wrote; though Manchuria was a Chinese Territory controlled by warlords loyal (in name if not in the realm) to China’s nationalist government, thousands of Japanese soldiers were stationed there under the terms of an earlier treaty. This enabled Japanese forces to overrun the area quickly. Within weeks of the Manchurian Incident, they controlled the southern part of Manchuria, with the north following by early 1932.

This was no imperial invasion, the Japanese claimed. Instead, it was a response to the cries for help coming from the people of Manchuria, who were suffering under the warlord’s iron-fisted rule. Japan merely wanted to help oppressed people establish an independent state to liberate them from the maelstrom of corruption that enveloped China.

Japan even had a name for this new state: Manchukuo or the land of the Manchus. To add luster to their vision, they recruited the most famous Manchu around – China’s last emperor, Puyi, to lead it. (Having been deposed in 1912, Puvi pictured below was available for alternative monarchical engagements.)

This whereby we have argued that the conventional chronology of WWII as from 1939–45 is no longer helpful and that the war must be understood as a global event since the Asian and Pacific theatres were as important as the European one, and possibly more so in their consequences.

Then, during the night, under the codename ‘Himmler,’ an operation was mounted to simulate a Polish attack on German frontier posts: SS men left six dead concentration camp prisoners dressed in Polish uniforms at Hochlinden border station, while at the Gleiwitz radio transmitter a simple message in Polish was broadcast, while a dead Polish prisoner was left on the floor as evidence of Polish territorial violation and a justification for war. This was a device as crude as the Japanese army’s sabotage of the Manchurian railway in 1931. Shortly before 5 a.m. on 1 September, the first German aircraft attacked the small Polish town of Wieluń while the German training ship Schleswig Holstein, on a tour of duty in Danzig, opened up its guns on the Polish fort in the harbor. The campaign that followed was designed to be so swift that the Western powers would be presented with a fait accompli. ‘Case White’ had been worked on since April. By 1 September, 1.5 million German soldiers were stationed in East Prussia, eastern Germany, and Slovakia, supported by 1,929 aircraft and 3,600 armored vehicles. Most of them were grouped into ten motorized divisions and five newly joined created ‘Panzer’ divisions. These were highly mobile combined arms units with large numbers of tanks, supported by waves of bombers and dive-bombers roaming deep into Polish territory, designed to provide the spearhead for a more conventional army based on foot and horse that followed on to exploit the damage done by the armored fist. 

The Polish army was fully mobilized only late in the day to avoid antagonizing the Germans. It was, on paper, not much smaller than the German, with 1.3 million men under arms, but it was supported by 900 mainly obsolescent aircraft and only 750 armored vehicles.1 Polish preparation was based on a more traditional operational experience. The hope was that the Polish armies could hold the attack near the borders while mobilization was completed and then retreat in good order to stand their ground around established strongpoints. The air force was soon outmatched; half was destroyed in the first week of combat. A hundred of the remainder were ordered to fly to bases in neighboring Romania to avoid complete annihilation.2 German forces rolled forward against stiff local resistance, but they were only 65 kilometers from Warsaw after a week. It was not an entirely asymmetrical battle, as it is often presented; between 13 and 16 September, a bitter battle raged along the Bzura River in front of the Polish capital. German losses of armor and aircraft rose steadily. Then, on 17 September, at German prompting, 1 million Soviet forces invaded from the east to occupy a zone of Poland assigned to Soviet interest under the terms of the secret protocol to the Non-Aggression Pact.

Battling now on two fronts against high odds, Polish defeat was only a matter of time. Refusal to make Warsaw an open city resulted in heavy artillery and aerial bombardment from 22 September. Warsaw capitulated five days later, and Modlin, the final Polish redoubt, on the 29th. Limited fighting continued into early October. Some 694,000 Polish militaries went into German captivity, 230,000 into Soviet, though an estimated 85,000–100,000 escaped into Romania and Hungary. Polish military dead totaled 66,300 with 133,700 wounded; German losses were 13,981 dead and missing with 30,322 wounded, almost the same as Italian losses in Ethiopia, while the Soviet Red Army, facing a thin demoralized Polish defense, ended up with 996 dead and 2,000 injured.3 Despite the vast divide in numbers and quality, German aircraft losses were substantial: 4285 destroyed and 279 damaged, some 29 percent of the aircraft committed.4 On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to sign a second agreement, a Treaty of Friendship, to demarcate their spheres of influence. Within four weeks, Poland had ceased to exist as a current state.

The short campaign was little affected by the news on 3 September that Britain and France would honor their pledge to Poland by declaring war. However, that day’s evidence on German streets showed alarm and despondency rather than the outburst of national zeal evident in 1914. Hitler remained confident for weeks that their declaration of war was merely pro forma and that they would seek ways of extricating themselves from the commitment once Poland was divided between the two dictatorships. Almost no military or material help was granted to the Poles by the Western powers, who had privately written off Poland as a territory to be restored only later when the war was won. 

In the shadow of a larger war that Hitler had not wanted, the imperial project already begun in the Czech lands was applied more ruthlessly to Poland, where a past language of colonization, commonly used before 1914, was revived to define and justify the subjection of the captive population. Despite the changed character of the conflict after the Western declaration of war, German planners, security forces, and economic officials set about establishing a long-term imperial settlement of the region, alongside the demands of wartime improvisation. As one German planner in East Prussia put it on the day of the invasion, the object was ‘an act of total colonization.’5 Hans Frank, head of the National Socialist Lawyers Association and governor of the rump Polish area known as the General Government, saw his fiefdom as a ‘laboratory for colonial administration,’ and although the regime in Berlin preferred not to call them colonies, Frank’s economics minister, Walter Emmerich, thought German rule was a ‘special European variant of colonial policy.’6

The final constitutional arrangement of the captured areas was the subject of much debate. The German conquests were provisionally divided up into several distinct units: the province of Posen, taken over by the Polish state under the peace settlement in 1919, was transformed into a new German district, the Wartheland; the former Prussian region further north on the Baltic Sea became the Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia; the remainder of the territory, including Warsaw, became the General Government, with its capital at Cracow. Upper Silesia, lost to Germany in a plebiscite in 1920, was reincorporated into the Reich. Its industrial resources were taken under German trusteeship, and many were assigned to the Reichswerke’ Hermann Göring’ supervision. 206,000 Polish industrial and commercial businesses were taken over and distributed to German owners or state corporations.7 The Wartheland and Gau Danzig were known as the ‘annexed eastern territories, and a particular police frontier separated them from the rest of Germany to prevent the easy movement of Poles into the Reich.

In the case of the Wartheland, the overwhelming majority of the population, 85 percent, was Polish. Only 6.6 percent were German, and in the city of Posen, its new capital, only 2 percent.8 However, the new ruling class throughout the different regions was German. Ethnic Germans were directed to wear a distinguishing badge (since skin color was no indication of ethnicity). Poles were treated as a colonized people, who were supposed to raise their hats and make way on pavements and footpaths for any German who passed and were banned from theatres and public buildings designated for Germans only. Several German women who had been trained at the Colonial School for Women in the north German town of Rendsburg for a role in a future overseas empire were now redirected to work in the East (Osteinsatz), to practice skills once intended for Africans.9 Poles were subjected, not citizens. They were ruled by local governors, who were responsible for regional administration and who acted as the link between local government and the ministries in Berlin, and with the security apparatus run by Heinrich Himmler. 

The first object of German imperial policy was to destroy any surviving vestiges of Polish national and cultural life and to restructure the entire area racially. Before the invasion, Himmler’s second-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, set five unique action units (Einsatzgruppen). Composed of approximately 4,250 police and security men, their task was to police the rear areas behind the front and capture and execute the Polish political, cultural and nationalist elite, as the Italian army and police had done in Ethiopia.10 The purpose was to decapitate the Polish elite to reduce Polish society to a level that matched the colonial imagination of the ‘East,’ consistent with Hitler’s injunction to army leaders in August that he wanted ‘the destruction of Poland.’11 The exact number of men and women murdered during what was known as Operation ‘Tannenberg’ will never be known with certainty, but they numbered tens of thousands, perhaps as many as 60,000. Some of those murdered were Jews, but the policy was directed principally at the Polish elite. After a conference with Heydrich: ‘Spatial cleansing: Jews, intelligentsia, clergy, nobility.’12 Jews were nevertheless victimized in other ways, beaten or humiliated or occasionally murdered, their property seized by German officials or looted by German soldiers. Many were herded into the first significant ghettoes or deported from the annexed territories to the General Government, but they were not yet systematically murdered.13 

The imperial idea was eventually to ‘cleanse’ the whole colonial area of Jews and of Poles who could not be ‘Germanized’ and to replace them with German settlers. Still, in the meantime, racial segregation and racial subjection were imposed by the new imperial masters as self-defined ‘bearers of culture.’14 On 7 October 1939, Hitler appointed Himmler as Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom, with instructions to organize the ‘new territories of colonization utilizing population displacements.’15 Himmler had long been a supporter of the idea of an eastern empire settled by German colonists. He chose the title of his new office himself and began a planned program to settle Germans and expel Poles from eastern farmlands. A racial register was implemented to identify Poles whose physical features suggested some German blood. Himmler declared in December 1939 that he wanted ‘a blond-haired country’ in which the ‘development of Mongolian types in the newly colonialized East’ would be forcibly prevented.16 The imperial antonyms – civilized/barbarous, familiar/exotic, cultured/uncultured – were exploited to emphasize the role of difference or ‘otherness,’ as they had been before 1914.

The war against Poland can better be understood as the final stage in a largely uncoordinated movement to found new territorial empires in the 1930s, rather than the conventional view that sees it as the opening conflict of the Second World War. Looked at from this longer perspective, the effort to found new imperial orders linked the fate of Japan, Italy, and Germany in the regions in which they had chosen to build them. In all three nations, a nationalist consensus emerged in favor of the empire after years of widespread resentment and national frustration, a view represented by the national leadership, though not entirely caused by it. Through narrowing down strategic options and silencing, often forcibly, those domestic elements that were hostile to or critical of the new imperialism, the three new empire states took risks to achieve what they wanted, yet the more they succeeded, the more possible seemed the attainment of the longer-term goal of fragmenting the global order – a new Roman Empire, the leadership of Asia, a Germanized Empire in Eastern Europe. But the result was a strategic dead-end. The irony is that imperial projects that were supposed to enhance security, to protect the national interest, and, in the end, to enrich the metropolitan populations, created instead growing insecurity and high costs, as most imperialism did. The risks were regarded as worth taking because the old international order seemed to be in the throes of collapse. It is probably the case that if the other major powers had had to deal only with the seizure of Manchuria, Ethiopia, and the Czech lands, they would, in the end, have lived with that changed reality. 

The problem was the dynamic nature of all imperial expansion. The new conquests proved to be irreversible improvisations, like much of the empire-building before 1914, and they opened the way to further conflict. The Japanese seizure of Manchuria sucked Japan into a defense of strategic interests in northern China, and eventually into a major war with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime; Italian occupation of Ethiopia whetted Mussolini’s appetite for more if a significant colony could be gained at relatively little cost; Hitler’s search for living space proved to be an elastic concept, stretching further as opportunities arose, but it ended with a major international war over Poland that he had not wanted. Despite anxiety about the future menace of the Soviet Union, both Japan and Germany found themselves against expectations with a long common frontier with it. For Japan, there were two major border conflicts with the Red Army, in 1938 and again in summer 1939. Although the Japanese army was defeated in 1939, a ceasefire was signed on 15 September because neither side wanted to risk an all-out war while the European situation was uncertain.17 Hitler postponed potential conflict with the Soviet Union by the Non-Aggression Pact. Still, he understood that the new common frontier in occupied Poland was not likely to be permanent. In the background was the unpredictable attitude of the United States as it watched the new empires expand. The common bond for Italy, Germany, and Japan was the determination not to let go what had been gained; in all three cases, these were territorial acquisitions made through conquest, with a ‘blood sacrifice’ that was not to be abandoned, as it had allegedly been left after the Great War. There was no way, except large-scale war, for the other powers to expel the new imperialists from their new-won territory. The issue of territoriality cut both ways. 

The Second World War was a decision taken in London and Paris.

The Second World War as a result of decisions taken in London and Paris, not in Berlin. Hitler would have preferred to consolidate his conquest of Poland and complete the German domination of Central and Eastern Europe without a major war against the two Western empires. That this did not happen was mainly due to growing confidence in 1939 that Franco-British military and economic strength would be equal to the task of defeating Germany in the long run, and to a growing resolution on the part of both the French and British publics that the threat of a major international crisis, which they had lived with for almost a decade, could only be resolved by picking up the threads of 1918 and fighting Germany once again. For Britain and France, declaring war was a much larger issue than the more minor wars fought by the three aggressor states because they understood that their war would be a global war, involving their imperial interests across every continent, and facing threats in not one theatre, but three. The choice to face Germany first was dictated partly by the accidental circumstances of the Polish crisis, but largely because the two vectors in the Great War had come to assume that the unresolved outcomes of the settlement of 1919 made the second round of European warfare unavoidable, after which they hoped to found a more resilient international order in which the peace of Europe and the peaceful pursuit of empire might both be permanently secured. 

This was a decision taken after years of instability, but it was a fateful and challenging decision to take after the shattering experience of the Great War. Though the German, Italian and Japanese leadership all imagined that at some point they might face a major conflict with states challenging their new regional empires, they did not want or expect it in the 1930s. For British and French statesmen, on the other hand, it appeared axiomatic that a new war, if it came, would be a renewed ‘total war,’ more deadly and costly because of new weapons, and a profound threat to economic stability. Acceptance of war was only justified if the menace to imperial security and national survival were deemed sufficiently dangerous and irreversible. Both states assumed that the growing bellicosity and military strength of the three Axis regimes were directed principally at them, a continuation of the struggle for great power hegemony begun in 1914, rather than the more functional view taken by German, Italian and Japanese leaders that war was the necessary means to secure regional domination of an imperial area. Of the three states, Germany was the one most feared not only because of Germany’s potential military and economic strength but also because Hitler seemed to personify hostility to the Western view of civilization and its values. Throughout the 1930s, the major Western democracies hoped that they had judged the crisis wrongly and that the new generation of authoritarian statesmen they opposed would share their revulsion at the prospect of a renewal of the terrible bloodletting of the Great War and not engage in what British politicians liked to describe as a ‘mad dog act.’18 These were significant concerns, and they explain the caution with which both states approached the international crises of the 1930s and the eventual decision, was taken in 1939, that the cataclysm would finally have to be faced, come what may. 

The wider public echoed the reluctance of the British or French governments to contemplate a second major war in a generation. In both countries, during the inter-war years, there existed a destructive element in public opinion hostile to the idea of war as a solution to any future crisis and fearful about what war might mean. The spectrum of widespread anxiety stretched from former soldiers who had experienced the trenches and wanted no more war to young socialists and communists in the 1930s for whom peace was a political commitment. If absolute pacifism (or ‘integral’ pacifism as it was called in France) was confined to a minority of the anti-war movement, hostility to the idea of a new war reached a wide circle. The significant anti-war movement, the British League of Nations Union, had a nominal membership of 1 million and campaigned nationwide for the virtues of peace against the menace of war. In 1936, a large pacifist congress in Brussels established the International Peace Campaign to unite the anti-war and pacifist lobbies across Western Europe; the British branch was chaired by Lord Cecil, head of the League of Nations Union and a major establishment figure.19 Right up to 1939, the anti-war lobby campaigned for peaceful solutions. The British National Peace Council organized a petition in late 1938 for a ‘New Peace Conference’ and had collected over a million signatures by the time it was presented to the prime minister just days before Chamberlain gave his historic guarantee to Poland.20 The movement against war was reinforced by the widespread belief that any future conflict would be bound to involve attacks on the civilian population using a mix of weapons of mass destruction – bombs, gas, or even germ warfare. So embedded did fear of bombing become that politicians in Britain and France persuaded themselves that every effort should be made to avoid general war, particularly against Germany, if the consequence would be immediate and annihilating air attack against vulnerable cities.21 The French prime minister from April 1938, Édouard Daladier, regarded bombing as ‘an attack on civilization itself,’ while his pacifist foreign minister, Georges Bonnet, just before the Munich conference in 19, thought ‘war with bombs’ would result in revolution.22 On the eve of the Czech crisis Chamberlain told the Cabinet how he had flown back from Germany over London and imagined the hail of German high explosive and gas over the capital: ‘We must not lose sight of the fact that war today is a direct threat to every home in this country.’23

There were also profound security issues in the British and French global empires, which made the prospect of a renewed war challenging to embrace with all its extravagant costs and dangers. It is important to remember that Britain and France, though leaders of the League system and, until the mid-1930s, the most heavily armed of the major powers, were not like the United States in the 1990s: they were relatively declining powers, with significant obligations worldwide, critical electorates unwilling to endorse war quickly, and economies recovering from the effects of the depression in which the decision to divert resources to large-scale military spending had to be balanced against the social needs and economic expectations of democratic populations. Under these circumstances, commitment to the integrity of the existing international order and the empire’s security, while avoiding major war, involved a complex balancing act. Unlike the aggressor states, Britain and France derived many advantages from the world as it was, and it would indeed have been surprising if the two powers had engaged sooner in warfare against the new wave of imperialism. However, many critics then and now might wish they had. There was too much at stake for the two global empires in a rapidly changing world to abandon peace for war. ‘We have got most of the world already, or the best parts of it,’ claimed Britain’s first sea lord in 1934, ‘and we only want to keep what we have got and prevented others from taking it away from us.’24 When the idea of handing back the Tanganyika mandate to Germany was raised in Parliament in 1936, Anthony Eden, then secretary for the colonies, objected that there were ‘grave moral and legal obstacles to any transfer of territory.’25 In opinion polls taken in 1938 to test British and French views on conceding any overseas territory, there were substantial majorities against.

Some 78 percent of British respondents preferred war to abandon any former German colonies held as British mandates. In response to Italian claims on Tunisia and Corsica, Daladier publicly announced in November 1938 that France would not relinquish ‘a centimeter of territory’.26 Not until May 1940 did the two empires consider giving territory away in a desperate effort to buy Italian neutrality during the Battle of France. But when the British War Cabinet debated handing over Malta to Mussolini, the majority still demurred, though by just one vote.27

Despite efforts in Britain and France to emphasize in the 1930s the importance of imperial unity and the advantages they enjoyed from empire in all its many forms, the overseas territory remained a source of persistent insecurity, both internal and external. Arab protest continued in the Middle East mandates and French North Africa. Britain conceded self-government to the Iraq mandate in 1932 (though informal British control continued), recognized an Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936 that confirmed virtual independence and joint custody of the Suez Canal, and maintained two divisions in Palestine to cope with Arab insurgency and violence between Arab and Jewish populations. The conflict in Palestine was the most significant military undertaking by British forces between the wars. The brutal repression of the insurgency resulted in at least 5,700 Arabs dead and 21,700 seriously injured, imprisonment without trial, and a blind eye to torture by the security forces.28 In India, following a wave of riots and assassinations, the British used ‘civil martial law’ to imprison nationalist and communist opponents during periods of heightened tension – a total of 80,000 political prisoners between 1930 and 1934. Strikes and protests were met with volleys of shots. At Cawnpore in March 1931, 29 141 were killed; in Karachi in March 1935, 47 more.29 India was eventually granted a limited measure of self-government in 1935, which enfranchised only 15 percent of the population and failed to satisfy the majority Congress Party’s demand for complete independence. There was widespread strike activity and labor protests in African and Caribbean colonies badly affected by the economic slump, in Tanganyika, Northern Rhodesia, Gold Coast, and Trinidad; in the African copper belt, workers were shot and killed in a wave of strikes in the middle of the decade, while in Barbados popular protest against economic hardship in 1937 left fourteen dead from gunshots and bayonets.30 

Much of the protest from poor workers and farmers was blamed on local communist movements, which all imperial powers fought against with short programs of exile, imprisonment, and police repression, but there were also political movements representing the nationalist aspirations that had emerged in 1919, some of which were appeased with limited sovereignty – as in Iraq or Egypt – and some challenged with summary arrest, the suppression of anti-imperial organizations and publications and, in the French case, a state of siege declared throughout the empire in 1939.31 Communism as an international movement was ideologically committed to campaigns to end colonial empire, which explains British and French anxiety. When the British Air Ministry began to plan the ‘Ideal’ long-range bomber in the mid-1930s, its range was not based on the threat from Germany but on a possible war with the Soviet Union, whose cities and industries could be hit from empire airbases. Long-range would also contribute to ‘Empire reinforcement’ against a Soviet threat.32 Fear of communism also explains the ambivalent attitude taken towards the Spanish Civil War when Britain and France pursued a formal policy of non-intervention rather than supporting the democratic-republican government. Given the widespread prevalent fear of a general war and the various problems of holding together global empires that were difficult to defend adequately against external threats and internal political protest, risk reduction became a central component of British and French strategy in the 1930s.

The term ‘appeasement’ usually defines this avoidance of risk, but it is unfortunate, as one of its proponents, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, later remarked. Appeasement has become the lightning conductor for a long line of critical and hostile analysis of Western behavior in the face of dictatorship and a watchword for any current failure to act with firmness against any threat to Western security.33 Yet, as a description of British and French strategy in the 1930s, it is highly misleading. In the first place, the term implies a commonality of interest between both states and between the officials, politicians, and soldiers responsible for making strategic judgments. In reality, the policy was never monolithic. Still, it reflected a variety of assumptions, hopes, and expectations which changed in reaction to circumstances. At the same time, policymakers employed a wide range of possible options to preserve the critical elements of Anglo-French strategy: imperial security, economic strength, and domestic peace. It is more useful in many respects to describe this strategy in the terms made more familiar in the age of the Cold War twenty years later – containment and deterrence.34 The record of both states in their approach to global problems in the 1930s was never simply a spineless abdication of responsibility, but a prolonged, if sometimes incoherent, an effort to square the circle of growing international instability and their desire to protect the imperial status quo.

Containment as a form of what is now called ‘soft power’ took many forms, from French efforts to maintain a system of alliances in Eastern Europe to the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, which placed agreed limits on what naval rearmament Germany could undertake. Economic concessions or agreements were also an essential part of the strategy. It was widely assumed that trade agreements or loans might assuage the belligerent posture of potential enemies or win over new friends. In Britain in particular, the idea that a general settlement – a ‘Grand Settlement’ Chamberlain called it – might be achieved by getting the major powers to sit down together to revise Versailles and its aftermath, though never seriously tested, indicated a willingness to engage flexibly with the post-war order, as long as it could be based on negotiated, mutually acceptable grounds. In the United States, President Roosevelt echoed the idea in a ‘New Deal for the World’ to be brokered by peaceful means once the aggressor states were put into quarantine. The ambition to contain the crisis in the 1930s proved, in the end, illusory. Still, the resentment felt by Japan, Germany, and Italy at the continued effort made by the Western powers to limit the damage they might do is an indication that ‘appeasement’ scarcely describes the reality of deteriorating relations between the states involved.35 

Under Roosevelt, the American government also favored strategies that would contain the new imperialists, but the priority was to limit any threat to the Western hemisphere. Roosevelt took more seriously than he should the idea that the Japanese or Germans would find subversive ways to threaten the United States from Central and South America. Hemisphere defense became the favored strategic profile since it involved no commitment to active war abroad and satisfied isolationist opinion. The Neutrality Laws pushed through Congress by isolationist politicians in 1935 and again in 1937 limited what the president could do, but did not prevent efforts to contain any hemisphere threat by expanding the United States navy under the 1938 Vinson Act, up to the limits set in the 1930 London naval treaty.36 Fear that the Panama Canal might be bombed by German aircraft from South America or seized by the Japanese led to efforts to expand United States bases there, which eventually numbered 134 armies, navy, and air force installations.37 Efforts were made to counter Japanese and German propaganda and economic interests in the wider hemisphere by funding pro-American newspapers and undertaking the pre-emptive purchase of scarce raw materials the aggressor states needed. In Brazil, where wild rumors suggested a possible German Anschluss (annexation) of the German communities living in the country, the Washington government brokered an arms deal, followed in 1941 by a guarantee to defend Brazil against any foreign threat.38 None of this amounted to intervention on the broader world conflicts, for which Roosevelt had no mandate. One of the first experimental opinion polls, taken in 1936, found that 95 percent of respondents wanted the United States to keep out of all wars; in September 1939, only 5 percent of those asked favored helping the British and French.39

The other side of the coin of containment was deterrence. This was a word widely used in the 1930s, well before the nuclear stand-off. Its purpose can be summed up by a comment made by Chamberlain to his sister in 1939 on the eve of the final Polish crisis: ‘You don’t need offensive forces sufficient to win a smashing victory. What you want are defensive forces sufficiently strong to make it impossible for the other side to win except at such a cost as to make it not worthwhile.’40 Throughout the 1930s, both Britain and France chose to move from limited military spending to large-scale and expensive military preparation. Rearmament was not a sudden reaction to German moves against Czechoslovakia and Poland. Still, a policy pursued, often with considerable domestic protest, since at least 1934, but with accelerated tempo from 1936 onwards. In Britain, the government had recognized by the mid-1930s that the various potential threats compelled an extensive program of remilitarization. The Defence Requirements Committee, set up late in 1933, recommended in 1936 a substantial increase in military spending for imperial defense, with priority given to the Royal Navy and the build-up of a solid defensive and offensive air force. A rough four-year plan was drawn up, seeing expenditure rise from £185 million in 1936 to £719 million in 1939. British intelligence estimates suggested that a possible war with Germany would not come until at least the end of the decade so that British and German spending followed much the same trajectory, except that in 1934 Britain was already armed while Germany was not.41

The defense of the home islands was complemented by defensive preparations overseas. British forces were stationed throughout the Middle East, in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus, and Palestine. Egypt was regarded as particularly important, and the Suez Canal was ‘the center of the Empire’ because of the vital maritime link between Europe and the Asian territories. The treaty with Egypt in 1936 allowed Britain to station a garrison of 10,000 men at the canal, while Alexandria remained a vital naval base. To defend the British Empire east of Suez – some five-sevenths of British imperial territory – a significant naval base at Singapore was approved in 1933 and completed five years later at the cost of £60 million.42 The situation in China with growing Japanese encroachment was more challenging, and the defense of Hong Kong against a determined Japanese assault was regarded as unfeasible. Still, instead of British loans and materials for Chinese forces allowed the British to fight what has been called a ‘proxy war’ to defend both British and Chinese interests.43 This did little to assuage anxieties in Australia and New Zealand that they were now very isolated in the face of a Japanese threat. Still, Britain had little choice, given the range of commitments, but to spread its growing defense effort ever more thinly across the empire. 

France too began from an established base in the 1930s, with an army larger than the British army and a powerful navy. The economic crisis in the mid-1930s held down the level of military expenditure, but in 1936, prompted by German moves in remilitarizing the Rhineland, the newly elected Popular Front government, combining left and center-left parties, embarked on an extensive program of rearmament that, like the British and German plans, was designed to reach a peak by 1940. Spending rose from 15.1 million francs in 1936 to 93.6 million in 1939. For France, the priority was to build the Maginot Line defenses and arm and equip them: a necessity, so it was believed, because of the demographic gap between the French and German populations. For that part of the army not at the frontier defenses, the French high command developed a doctrine based on the successful campaign that defeated the Germans in 1918. The principle was built around massive firepower as the means to support an attack or neutralize an oncoming enemy, allowing the infantry, still regarded as the ‘queen of battle,’ to occupy ground step-by-step, though with limited mobility. The exploitation of firepower required a highly centralized and managed ‘methodical battle,’ in which auxiliary arms such as tanks and aircraft would play a supporting role rather than prepare the way for a war of maneuver. Artillery and machine guns were vital, and infantry would move only at the pace of the supporting ‘curtain of fire.’44 The emphasis on a prepared battlefield in metropolitan France meant that French planners paid less attention to the empire. Colonies were made to pay for their defense expenditure: Algerians had to find the 289 million francs needed to modernize the French naval base at Mers el-Kébir; no significant naval base was constructed in Indochina after the French navy commander-in-chief vetoed plans for a submarine unit at Cam Ranh Bay, Admiral Darlan, who made it clear that the French Asian empire simply could not be protected if war came.45

The framework for a deterrence policy was much more in evidence by the time of the Munich crisis in September 1938 and even more so a year later. The twin approaches of containment and deterrence supported strategies designed to help Britain and France avoid war while remaining credible powers capable of protecting their global economic and territorial interests. Yet, it is essential to recall that even before the outbreak of war in September 1939, one or other of the major democracies had come close to open conflict with the new imperial states. In south China, a form of flimsy armed truce existed between Japanese forces and the British, which constantly threatened to spill over into open war. Conflict with Italy was undoubtedly prepared for in 1935–6 during the Ethiopian crisis as a way to limit the threat to British imperial interests in the Middle East and Africa. In August 1935, twenty-eight warships and the carrier HMS Courageous were sent to Alexandria to warn the Italians; the RAF units in the Middle East were strengthened, and army reinforcements were sent out. The local naval commander-in-chief was keen for a pre-emptive strike. Still, the British Chiefs of Staff and the French government both wanted to avoid a war that might, in practice, unravel imperial interests throughout the region.46 In 1938–9, it was the turn of the French navy to chafe at the bit for the opportunity to inflict a sudden defeat on the Italian fleet, restrained this time by British hopes that Mussolini could still be divided from Hitler by cautious diplomacy. 

The clearest example of ‘brinkmanship’ came with the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938. The story of German threats and British and French betrayal at the Munich Conference, when the Czech government was compelled to allow German occupation of the German-speaking areas of the Sudetenland, usually presents this as the high point of deluded and feeble appeasement. Yet, in reality, Munich was a moment when Hitler was compelled to abandon the war that he craved for German living space because the risk of confronting Britain and France in a major conflict was considered at that stage too risky. From the perspective of the time, it did seem that Hitler had been forced to accept the territorial change that the British and French were prepared to allow, a result of containment, even if one that served the Czechs ill. The week before the Munich Conference, both the British and French armed forces were placed on alert. The Royal Navy received mobilization orders; trenches were hastily dug in public parks in London as improvised air-raid shelters. French mobilization orders were sent out on 24 September, and a million men were under arms, even though both the French and British Chiefs of Staff had little confidence that they could restrain Germany by war since the rearmament programs were still in mid-stream and the Maginot Line not yet completed.47

Mobilization had nevertheless been the trigger that had plunged Europe into war in 1914. Hitler had not anticipated this, and up until a few days before the planned invasion of Czechoslovakia, he still insisted to his anxious military commanders that Britain and France would not intervene. Despite British and French fears that they might end up waging a war they could not win, neither government was prepared in the end to allow Germany a free hand to invade and conquer the Czechs. By 25 September 1938, the view in Berlin saw Hitler’ backing away from Chamberlain’s determined stance’, a very different perspective on the British leader.48 Two days later, when Hitler had hoped to order mobilization, Sir Horace Wilson, a personal emissary from Chamberlain, delivered a message – repeated twice for the interpreter to be sure that Hitler understood – that if Germany attacked Czechoslovakia, France was bound by treaty to fight Germany. In this event, Wilson continued, ‘England would feel honor-bound to offer France assistance.’49 Hitler responded angrily that European war would break out in a week if this were the case, but the meeting unnerved him. The following morning the French ambassador confirmed French intentions to oppose a German invasion. When a delegation led by Hermann Göring arrived soon after, Hitler was asked if he wanted general war in all cases, to which he replied: ‘What do you mean? Whatever the case? Not!’50 In ill-temper, he agreed to Mussolini’s suggestion, prompted by the British, for a conference. His army adjutant noted in his diary: ‘F. [ührer] wants no war’ and ‘F.[ührer] above all things does not think of war with England’. The climb down was evident in Berlin. ‘Führer has given in, and thoroughly,’ noted another diarist on 27 September; and two days later, ‘Strong concessions from the Führer.’51

A European war was averted in 1938 not simply because the British and French governments feared it but because Hitler was deterred from stepping across that threshold. Significantly, when Chamberlain drove through the streets of Munich after the conference, he was cheered by German crowds, genuinely relieved that war was avoided. The response in Britain and France was one of spontaneous relief that peace had been saved. French women knitted gloves to send to Chamberlain in case he was cold in the aircraft that conveyed him back and forth to Germany; a street in Paris was hastily renamed ‘rue de Trente Septembre’; a new dance, ‘Le Chamberlain’, was invented, though its intention may well have been ironic.52 Le Temps concluded the day after Munich that France, with its global imperial responsibilities, had a ‘profound and absolute’ need for peace.53 Whether both states would actually have fought in 1938 remains speculation, but in the end, neither had to because this time Hitler judged the risk too great. A year later, with the crisis over the German threat to Polish sovereignty, both states did accept the probability of war, though they hoped that Hitler might again be deterred. They assumed up to the last moment before the German invasion of Poland on 1 September that, if they made unambiguously clear their intention to fight, he would again not run the risk. 

Many factors changed between September 1938 and September 1939 to make the British and French governments more confident about pursuing a firm line over the German threat to Poland. Despite the relief that the Czech crisis had not resulted in war, Chamberlain and Daladier had few illusions that if Hitler continued to expand into Eastern Europe, they would have to use violence to restrain him. This did not exclude the possibility that diplomatic solutions or economic agreements might render further German expansion unlikely, and both were pursued in 1939. But once German forces occupied the Czech state and established the protectorate on 15 March 1939, it was evident to the democracies that the next move meant war. Informed by the intelligence services shortly afterward that Germany would imminently attack Poland, Chamberlain gave a spontaneous guarantee of Polish sovereignty in the House of Commons on 30 March. A few days later, France echoed the promise but also added Romania and Greece. Poland was not itself of much importance to either Britain or France, but it became, almost by chance, the occasion rather than the cause of the showdown between the two sides. Unknown to the Western powers, Poland’s refusal in the early months of 1939 to make any concessions to Germany on the status of the Free City of Danzig, or the Polish’ corridor’ through former Prussian territory, prompted Hitler to order preparations in April 1939 for a campaign to destroy Poland in late August of that year. Britain and France were now locked into an inevitable conflict if the German menace to Poland materialized. The two states finally agreed to concert their actions in the year that separated the Czech and Polish crises. France had been inhibited throughout the 1930s by the uncertainty of whether Britain would support French forces militarily in a European conflict. In February 1939, staff talks were agreed upon. The following month a ‘War Plan’ was drawn up that reprised the strategy that had brought victory in 1918: a three-year campaign in which French fortifications, an economic blockade would bottle up Germany, and air action until Hitler either capitulated or lacked the means to resist an Anglo-French invasion. ‘Once we had been able,’ the plan concluded, ‘to develop the full fighting strength of the British and French Empires, we should regard the outcome of the war with confidence.’54

Both states prioritized ensuring that their empires would indeed rally to the cause in 1939 if it came to war. For Britain, this had been far from certain, following the decision of the significant Dominions not to support the idea of war over the Czech crisis. But in the spring of 1939, Canada’s premier, Mackenzie King, won domestic support for joining Britain in any possible European war, and the governments of Australia and New Zealand followed suit, helped by the completion of the Singapore naval base in 1938 and sustained by the idea of a ‘one voice’ Commonwealth. In South Africa, intense hostility from the Afrikaner community to the concept of waging war divided the white population right up to the outbreak of war itself, when the new prime minister, Jan Smuts, persuaded parliament that declaring war was to protect South Africa’s interests against a threat of German neo-colonialism. When war came, the British viceroy in India, Lord Linlithgow, simply announced that India would follow suit, regardless of Indian opinion.55 For France, anxious to underpin its continental strategy, the empire was even more critical in preparing for European war in 1939. Partly this reflected the official propaganda of le salut par l’empire (‘salvation through the empire’), which was evident throughout the months leading to war. While Daladier ordered tightened repression of political opponents throughout the colonial empire, the public face was to play up the idea that ‘100 million strong, we cannot be defeated. Plans were made to substantial conscript numbers of colonial soldiers to serve in France or to release French soldiers from overseas duty, including five West African divisions, a division from Indochina, and half a dozen divisions from North Africa 520,000 soldiers by 1939.56 Efforts to rally the imperial economy to produce more war materiel largely failed, but the supply of raw materials and food for the French war effort did expand. For better or worse, reliance on empire was seen as a positive advantage in the confrontation with an enemy whose access to overseas supplies could be severed at will by the British and French navies. 

After the wave of relief following the Munich agreement, the change in popular mood complemented the changing military and strategic picture. Opinion polling found that large majorities favored no further concessions to Germany when the ink on the agreement was scarcely dry. A poll in France in October 1938 found 70 percent against giving anything more away; polls in 1939 showed that 76 percent of respondents in France and 75 percent in Britain supported the use of force to preserve the status of Danzig.57 More significant was the seismic shift in the attitude of the anti-war lobby in both countries. The popular response to the European crisis was distinct from the nationalist enthusiasms of 1914. It was rooted more in the belief that the collapse of the internationalist project and the rise of militaristic dictatorship presented a profound challenge to Western civilization that could no longer be ignored. The mood was one of resignation since the war was certainly not widely welcomed. Still, it was nourished by a growing sense of responsibility for democratic values and a rejection of what many writers now viewed dramatically as a looming Dark Age. In 1939, Leonard Woolf wrote Barbarians at the Gate as a warning to his fellow countrymen of the fragility of the modern world they took for granted.58 

The transformations in 1939 did not make war inevitable, but it made it difficult to avoid once Poland became the object of German aggression. The French government would have preferred a situation where some agreement might be reached with the Soviet Union to encircle Germany, and more assistance extracted from the United States, where large orders were placed in 1938 and 1939 for aircraft and aero-engines. Despite a deep well of conservative distrust of Soviet motives, a military agreement was explored in the late summer of 1939. Still, it stumbled on the impossibility of getting the Polish government and high command to allow Soviet forces on Polish soil. Neither British nor senior French commanders rated the Red Army as a valuable military ally. They all exaggerated the potential strength of the Polish army, a misperception encouraged by Poland’s earlier victory over the Red Army in 1920. When the German-Soviet Pact was announced on 24 August, Chamberlain blustered about ‘Russian treachery.’ Still, he had never been an enthusiast for military collaboration, and for neither government did the pact make any difference to their commitment to honor the pledge to Poland if Germany invaded.59 Whether or not Stalin would have entered an alliance in good faith remains an issue of conjecture rather than fact. A German Pact suited Stalin and Soviet interests far more and fitted with the ideological preference for a war between capitalist-imperialist states from which Soviet Communism would eventually pick up the ruined pieces of Europe.

The calculation that Hitler would be deterred by the sight of the rapidly rearming British and French empires or by the wave of anti-fascist sentiment washing across the democracies was not entirely misplaced. A weaker hand had forced Hitler to climb down from war in 1938. Intelligence sources suggested a severe economic crisis in Germany, even the possibility of an anti-Hitler coup. Even after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September, Chamberlain allowed him to withdraw his forces rather than face a world war. The idea of a conference was briefly mooted by the Italian leadership on 2 September, echoing Mussolini’s intervention in September 1938. Still, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax told his Italian counterpart Ciano that the British condition was ‘the withdrawal of German troops from Polish soil,’ which ended any prospect of peace.60 Historians have searched for convincing evidence that Chamberlain wanted to wriggle out of his commitment even at this late stage, but there is none. Only a complete German capitulation to British and French demands for an end to the violence would have averted world war, and by 1 September, that was the least likely outcome. Neither containment nor deterrence had in this case worked. Chamberlain announced a state of war on the radio at 11.15 on the morning of 3 September; Daladier announced a state of war at 5 p.m. that afternoon. A temporary alliance of imperial elites and democratic anti-fascists had made possible new world war. ‘We can’t lose,’ observed the British army chief of staff in his diary.61


The critical factor for Japan, Italy, and Germany was territory. Control over a domain, exercised in various formal and informal ways, lay at the heart of the empire. The model for ‘territoriality’ was the forty years of violent territorial expansion and pacification that preceded the 1930s and were still going on. In this more extended context, the decisions taken in Tokyo, Rome, or Berlin to wage their local wars of aggression make historical sense. The discourses of ‘race and space’ that had supported empire since the late nineteenth century had lost none of their explanatory force for the generation that came to power in the 1930s. Though this form of imperialism appears anachronistic, even delusional, the paradigm of empire seemed familiar and near. The results of the redistribution of territory in 1919–23, or the consequences of the economic catastrophe after 1929, only strengthened rather than weakened the belief that seizing more territory and resources was an indispensable means to save the nation. From the Manchurian Incident to Word War II.

It is not clear when Hitler decided that living space in the East could be found more usefully in Poland. Until 1938, the Poles were regarded as potential allies in a German-dominated anti-Soviet bloc. They would hand back the German lands they were granted at Versailles and voluntarily became a German satellite. Only when the Polish government repeatedly refused the German request for an extra-territorial rail and road link across the Polish Corridor and the incorporation of the League-run Free City of Danzig back into Germany did Hitler decide to launch against the Poles the small war he had been denied in 1938, and to take Polish resources by force. Poland now contained the vast former German coal and steel region in Silesia and promised vast areas for German settlement and an agricultural surplus to feed the German population. At the meeting on 23 May 1939, when Hitler presented to the military leadership his intentions against Poland, he claimed that ‘Danzig is not the object in this case. For us, it involves rounding off our living space in the East and securing our food supplies.’ Food supply could only come from the East because it was sparsely populated, continued Hitler. German agricultural proficiency would raise the productivity of the region many times over. From the Manchurian Incident to Word War II, part two.

While the collapse of resistance on the northeast front continued in late May, the significant Allies began to consider the awful capitulation scenario unthinkable two weeks before. Weygand, despite his apparent resilience and energy, told the French Cabinet on 25 May to think about abandoning the fight, and Reynaud was the first to pronounce the word ‘armistice,’ though it was an ambiguous term, as the Germans had discovered in November 1918. According to a commitment made on 25 March 1940, this had to be agreed with the British that neither ally would create a separate peace. On 26 May, Reynaud flew to London to explain to Churchill that France might consider giving up. Unknown to him, the British War Cabinet had begun to discuss a proposal from the foreign secretary, Halifax, presented to him by the Italian ambassador, for a possible conference convened by Mussolini. Italian motives remain unclear since, by now, Mussolini was also preparing to declare war to profit from what seemed to the Italian leadership a ripe opportunity for exploiting the imminent conquest of France. After three days of debate, the British decided against any initiative. Though often seen as a turning point at which the appeasers might nearly have triumphed, some discussion of the consequences of a comprehensive defeat was inevitable, and not even Halifax had favored any settlement that compromised Britain’s primary interests. Eventually winning support from Chamberlain, who kept a seat in the War Cabinet, Churchill carried the debate to reject any approach to Mussolini. British leaders were already contemplating war without France. ‘If France could not defend herself,’ Churchill told his colleagues, ‘it was better that she should get out of the war. The war in the West deepens while at the same time it spread further into the western colonies.

The British Empire did not collapse or accept defeat in 1940, but the year was a turning point in the long history of European imperialism. Failure and occupation in Europe undermined the claims of the other metropolitan powers, France, Belgium fatally, and the Netherlands. Fatally undermined For the British Empire, the crisis raised awkward questions about the future. Nevertheless, the British government refused to confront the paradox of emphasizing the value of the empire to Britain’s war effort while at the same time using force to stifle demands for greater political autonomy in India and running Egypt under virtual martial law. The priority was the survival of the home islands. Neither side, German nor British, could find a strategy capable of undermining the other’s war willingness or achieving a decisive military result. Still, it seems almost certain that with an army of 180 divisions and the spoils of much of continental Europe, Germany would have found a way in 1941 of bringing the war in the West to an end if Hitler had not turned to the East. Britain, by contrast, had no way of achieving victory over Germany. Expelled from Europe twice in Norway and France, facing a crisis in Africa, economically weakened, desperately defending its access to the broader world economy, Britain faced strategic bankruptcy. The war Britain waged for a year after the fall of France was the one prepared for in the 1930s – air defense, a powerful navy, and lesser imperial conflicts. This was the war Chamberlain had prepared for, but Churchill was the one forced to wage it. War almost lost.

The two major campaigns against British Malaya and the American Philippines protectorate began on 8 December. Pilots with specialized training for extended overseas flights attacked the Philippines, flying from Japanese Empire bases on Taiwan; as in Oahu, they found American aircraft lined up on the tarmac at Clark Field and destroyed half the B-17s and one-third of the fighters. Amphibious landings began on the 10th on the main island of Luzon and made rapid progress towards the capital, Manila, which surrendered on 3 January. The United States commander, General Douglas MacArthur, appointed earlier in the year, withdrew his mixed American–Filipino force south to the Bataan peninsula. The staff was doomed with no air cover and only 1,000 tons of supplies shipped by an American submarine. MacArthur was evacuated to Australia on 12 March to fight another day. Bataan was surrendered on 9 April. On 6 May, after a grueling and tenacious defense of the island fortress of Corregidor, the surviving American commander, General Jonathan Wainwright, gave up the fight.

The Japanese Fourteenth Army captured almost 70,000 soldiers, 10,000 of them American. They were marched along the Bataan Peninsula to an improvised camp; ill, exhausted, and hungry, they suffered beatings, killings, and humiliation from Japanese Empire forces. The geopolitical transformation of Asia and the Pacific.

In 1942 the new Fair Employment agency was absorbed by the War Manpower Commission, limiting the prospects for using the agency to combat racial inequality. In the South, the administration offered subsidies and training programs to help raise the productivity of white farms while turning a blind eye to the increased control over black workers that wartime reforms made possible. The president remained largely silent on the paradox presented by his rhetoric of freedom and the survival of racial segregation and discrimination at home. The same held for Roosevelt’s view of racism in the British Empire, which was prudently cautious about undermining the wartime alliance, despite his private view that the colonial empires were morally bankrupt and ought to be brought under international trusteeship or granted independence. When the British authorities arrested Gandhi in August 1942 and thousands of other Indian supporters of his ‘Quit India’ campaign, Roosevelt made no public statement condemning the decision or the violence. Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, canceled a speech he was to make on behalf of the Office of War Information in protest and sent a telegram to Roosevelt linking the civil rights movement to the broader world struggle for emancipation from Western imperialism: ‘One billion brown and yellow people in the Pacific will without question consider ruthless treatment of Indian leaders and peoples typical of what white people will do to colored people if United Nations win. How the various countries justified WWII.

References upon request

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