On September 3, 1939, in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France, both allies of the overrun nation declare war on Germany.
The first casualty of that declaration was not German—but the British ocean liner Athenia, which was sunk by a German U-30 submarine that had assumed the liner was armed and belligerent. There were more than 1,100 passengers on board, 112 of whom lost their lives. Of those, 28 were Americans, but President Roosevelt was unfazed by the tragedy, declaring that no one was to “thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields.” The United States would remain neutral.
READ MORE: The Secret British Campaign to Persuade the US to Enter WWII
As for Britain’s response, it was initially no more than the dropping of anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets—13 tons of them—over Germany. They would begin bombing German ships on September 4, suffering significant losses. They were also working under orders not to harm German civilians. The German military, of course, had no such restrictions. France would begin an offensive against Germany’s western border two weeks later. Their effort was weakened by a narrow 90-mile window leading to the German front, enclosed by the borders of Luxembourg and Belgium—both neutral countries. The Germans mined the passage, stalling the French offensive.
French entry into World War I
France entered World War I when Germany declared war on 3 August 1914.
World War I largely arose from a conflict between two alliances: the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Triple Entente of France, Russia and Britain. France had had a military alliance with Russia since 1894, designed primarily to neutralize the German threat to both countries. Germany had a military alliance with Austria-Hungary .
In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated. The government of Austria-Hungary decided to destroy Serbia once and for all for stirring up trouble among ethnic Slavs. Germany secretly gave Austria-Hungary a blank check, promising to support it militarily no matter what it decided. Both countries wanted a localized war, Austria-Hungary versus Serbia.
Russia decided to intervene to protect Serbia, a small fellow Slavic nation, despite there being no treaty requiring Russia to do so. The Tsar had the support of the President of France, who otherwise was hardly involved. Russia mobilized its army against Austria-Hungary. France mobilized its army. Germany declared war on Russia and France, and invaded France through Belgium. Britain had an understanding and military and naval planning agreements with France, but no formal treaty obligations. Britain did have a treaty obligation toward Belgium, and as a result Britain joined France and Russia (the Allies) and declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers). Japan, allied with Britain, joined the Allies. The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) joined the Central Powers. Italy, instead of joining Germany and Austria-Hungary with whom it had treaties, entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1915. The United States tried unsuccessfully to broker peace negotiations, and entered the war on the Allied side in April 1917. After very heavy losses on both sides, the Allies were decisively victorious, and divided the spoils of victory, such as the German colonies and much of the territory of the Ottoman Empire. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires disintegrated. 
The invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 made the allied leaders, especially Chamberlain, distrustful of Hitler. Britain and France were beginning to think that war was likely, though they both tried to avert it between March and September. This invasion certainly changed the mind of Neville Chamberlain. He was a gentleman and believed that other leaders should behave as he did. The Munich Conference, negotiated peace, gave him the impression that Hitler would listen to reason and could be trusted. After the invasion, he no longer believed his word and prepared for war. A Promise to defend Poland, possibly the next target of Nazi Germany, was made in March 31st as a result. France already had an alliance, made in 1921.
Was Hitler to blame?
Yes – Rearmament, Rhineland, the Anschluss, Sudetenland and now Czechoslovakia…what is next? When is Germany going to stop breaking the rules of the Treaty of Versailles and respect the sovereignty of foreign governments? Hitler even gave his word at Munich that he did not have any designs on Czechoslovakia…he lied! If one does not stop Hitler, Poland, Hungary, Romania etc. could all be next. For every month Britain and France wait, the more powerful Germany becomes. This aggression led them to support Germany’s target, Poland.
No – A second world war was not inevitable in 1939, though it was likely. Would Hitler have stopped at Poland? The Nazi-Soviet Pact declared that Poland would be divided and the USSR would take control of the Baltic states. Was Hitler creating a European buffer against Communism? One can argue that the British and French were encouraging this with their policy of Appeasement. So Hitler was only doing what they wanted anyway, whilst becoming more powerful himself. Shouldn’t Britain and France tried to negotiate with Hitler to ensure the Nazis treated conquered people properly rather than go to war, allowing the Cold War to occur? This is hindsight but there is no doubt that some in the Soviet Communist Party wanted to export their revolution to Europe and other parts of the world.
Below is a table showing the outbreak of wars between nations which occurred during World War II. Indicated are the dates (during the immediate build-up to, or during the course of, World War II), from which a de facto state of war existed between nations. The table shows both the "Initiator Nation(s)" and the nation at which the aggression was aimed, or "Targeted Nation(s)". Events listed include those in which there were simple diplomatic breaking of relations that did not involve any physical attack, as well as those involving overt declarations or acts of aggression. In rare cases, war between two nations occurred twice, with an intermittent period of peace. The list here does not include peace treaties or periods of any armistice.
Key to Type (fourth column):
A = Attack without prior, formal declaration of war
C = Declaration and/or attack without standard, formal procedure, sometimes preceded by a casus belli thus fait accompli
U = State of war arrived at through use of ultimatum
W = Formal declaration of war made.
Britain and France declare war on Germany - HISTORY
France and Germany had an ongoing "Cold War" with Germany since Hitler and the Naziis came to power in 1933. Germany made moves from the very beginning which violated the Treaty of Versailles made in 1919. Germany had brought soldiers into the Rhineland in 1935 (which was a German province bordering France). Germany had entered in a union or "Anchluss" with Austria in 1936. Both actions were violations of treaty.
Most importantly, in 1938 Hitler had demanded the Czechoslovakian territory of the "Sudentenland". The French head of state, Daladier, and the British head of state, Chamberlain went to Munich and negotiated a treaty allowing Hitler to have this province of Czechoslovakia. At the time, Hitler had a great of point of telling these leaders that this was the "last territory" he wanted to gain in Europe for Germany. They were gullible and chose to believe him.
In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and any remaining illusions about his true intentions were gone. France and Britain had no alternative, but to declare war. Although, after the declaration precious little was done for six months.
I'm guessing though your real question is why wasn't war declared on the USSR since it too invaded Poland? The answer is more complicated. However, no treaty existed between the USSR and these countries that prohibited the USSR from engaging in this action. There was no prior treaty of Versailles that restricted the USSR. Russia had been a historic ally of the western countries in prior conflicts. The Western countries did not feel as threatened by the USSR as they did by Germany because of the geography involved. This doesn't mean to say that western leaders were not shocked at the role the Soviet Union played in the destruction and division of Poland. There was much criticism of the USSR for its actions.
Britain and France declare war on Germany - HISTORY
President Wilson was reluctant to enter World War I. When the War began, Wilson declared U.S. neutrality and demanded that the belligerents respect American rights as a neutral party. He hesitated to embroil the United States in the conflict, with good reason. Americans were deeply divided about the European war, and involvement in the conflict would certainly disrupt Progressive reforms. In 1914, he had warned that entry into the conflict would bring an end to Progressive reform. "Every reform we have won will be lost if we go into this war," he said. A popular song in 1915 was "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier."
In 1916, President Wilson narrowly won re-election after campaigning on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." He won the election with a 4,000 vote margin in California.
Shortly after war erupted in Europe, President Wilson called on Americans to be "neutral in thought as well as deed." The United States, however, quickly began to lean toward Britain and France.
Convinced that wartime trade was necessary to fuel the growth of American trade, President Wilson refused to impose an embargo on trade with the belligerents. During the early years of the war, trade with the Allies tripled.
This volume of trade quickly exhausted the Allies' cash reserves, forcing them to ask the United States for credit. In October 1915, President Wilson permitted loans to belligerents, a decision that greatly favored Britain and France. By 1917, American loans to the Allies had soared to $2.25 billion loans to Germany stood at a paltry $27 million.
In January 1917, Germany announced that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare. This announcement helped precipitate American entry into the conflict. Germany hoped to win the war within five months, and they were willing to risk antagonizing Wilson on the assumption that even if the United States declared war, it could not mobilize quickly enough to change the course of the conflict.
Then a fresh insult led Wilson to demand a declaration of war. In March 1917, newspapers published the Zimmerman Note, an intercepted telegram from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador to Mexico. The telegram proposed that Mexico ally with Germany in the event that the United States entered the war against Germany. In return, Germany promised to help Mexico recover the territory it had lost to the U.S. during the 1840s, including Texas, New Mexico, California, and Arizona. The Zimmerman Note and German attacks on three U.S. ships in mid-March led Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war.
Wilson decided to enter the war so that he could help design the peace settlement. Wilson viewed the war as an opportunity to destroy German militarism. "The world must be made safe for democracy," he told a joint session of Congress. Only 6 Senators and 50 Representatives voted against the war declaration.
Historical Context [ edit | edit source ]
After losing World War I, Germany signed the First Armistice at Compiègne on 11 November 1918 as a formal cessation of hostilities. Over six months later, on 28 June 1919, Germany agreed to the Treaty of Versailles, as an official peace treaty. After surrendering, the Weimar Republic was set up in Germany. The Republic was doomed from the start. The transition from monarchy to republic was not very smooth, and many people in the government were not sure what to do, after years of having one person decide most everything. On top of that, the army did not support the Republic, and hyperinflation rapidly set in, making German Marks next to worthless. On top of all of that, Germany had to pay make reparations, and took out a loan from the United States. The inflation was so severe that in November of 1922, one US Dollar equaled 4,200,000,000 marks, over one million times higher than it had been in 1914, and almost two million times higher than it had been just over two years before (in January 1922, 1 dollar equaled 191 marks). ΐ] In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected Reichskanzler (German for Chancellor of the Reich) of Germany. After being elected, Hitler quickly turned the government from a republic back into a dictatorship. After five years of power, Hitler annexed Austria into Germany, despite such an act being banned by both the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Treaty of Versailles. In early November 1938, the First Vienna Award was signed, allowing Germany to control part of Czechoslovakia. Soon after, the German territory of Memelland was granted to Germany, through the 1939 German ultimatum to Lithuania.
Despite all of the land Germany had recaptured, Hitler still wanted more: he wanted to create Lebensraum, or "living space". Many of the Western powers threatened to declare war if Germany had any further hostilities. Many of the countries followed through on that promise soon after Germany's Invasion of Poland, on 1 September 1939. Α]
Britain and France declare war on Germany - HISTORY
The reason the UK declared war on Germany was the terms of the Polish-British Common Defense Act. It basically stated that they would intervene if Poland was attacked by another European power, referring to Nazi Germany and not the USSR. The French had a similar pact, but neither did much of anything for Poland - not that there was much that could be done.
There is no way in hell England and France would have declared war on the USSR at the same time, lest the Nazis and USSR find a reason to enter a formal alliance to fight against the Allies. Without any other support at the time, England and France would have been ground into dust against the collective forces of the USSR and Germany.
Instead, British and later American intelligence agencies thought it best to allow Hitler to invade the USSR and let Stalin bear the brunt of the Axis army. This made fighting in the West much easier and at the same time neutralized Stalin's desire to "liberate" and annex all of mainland Europe into the USSR.
If the UK and France had collectively declared war on the Soviets at the same time as they did Germany, world history could have taken a sharp turn for the worse..
O.k. i should have thought about what most have stated before i started this thread in that if they had declared war on the USSR they would have been crushed by them and Germany simultaneously. Anyway i enjoyed everyone's thoughts about it as i'm glad i started it .
I think that the British guaranty for Poland was against German aggression. At the time the guarantee was given, the Soviet Union was a nominal ally with Britain and France against Germany. Part of the reason the alliance fell apart and the Russians signed a pact with the Germans was that the Poles refused to allow the Russians access to their country to push back the Germans if they invaded. While the British gave the guaranty, only the Russians were in a position geographically to directly help the Poles. The British and the French could only have attacked Germany from the west, and they declined to do even that.
The answer is pretty simple, actually. They barely had the will to fight Germany, and were surely in no position to take on another major power. The French folded in a few weeks once their actual fighting with Germany started, and the British were forced to quickly retreat beyond the protection of the English Channel. To think they could have taken on Russia too is too much to contemplate. We were lucky that Hitler attacked Russia because we barely beat him even with the Russians on our side.
Don't forget that Russia also attacked Finland in 1939 and absorbed the Baltic States in 1940. The US in particular was outraged by Finland attack, but characteristically provided little effective help. The Finnish foreign minister commented at the time that "the sympathy of the United States was so great that it nearly suffocated us."
But the thinking was the Germany was the greater threat and I think that was correct.
In some respects, the question of Allied intervention in the Finnish-Russian conflict needs to be viewed in the context of the strategy developed by the Allies in the aftermath of the invasion of Poland. It called for employing the idea of “distant war”. What that meant was that the Allies would seek out other fronts where Germany could be confronted, and in doing so, hopefully forestall any German moves westward into the Low Countries or France. Almost immediately, Churchill, as First Sea Lord, put forth the notion that Scandinavia would be an ideal front for the execution of the “distant war” plan. The belief was that a strong show of force in the region by the Allies would make it less likely that Norway or Sweden would feel pressured to throw their lot in with the Axis.
To that end, in September of 1939, Churchill proposed a plan known as "Operation Catherine". It called for a large force of Royal Navy vessels to be sent into the Baltic to operate against the Kriegsmarine. The hope was that German naval ships would be either bottled up in port by the superior British fleet or destroyed in battle should they try to come out. At the same time, the British would intercept and stop all vessels carrying vital ore from Sweden to Germany. The operation was to be launched in either late 1939 or early 1940. A supplementary plan, "Operation Wilfred”, was also put forth by Churchill in November 1939. The idea was to mine the territorial waters of Norway and force Norwegian ore vessels heading for Germany, into international waters where they would be detained by the Royal Navy. In the case of “Operation Catherine”, lack of time and simple logistics made the plan unworkable, so it was shelved. With “Wilfred”, though the Allies felt it imperative to cut Germany off from two of her primary ore suppliers, they knew the plan was inherently risky. Both Sweden and Norway enjoyed a very lucrative mineral trade with Germany. The fear was that should the Royal Navy interfere in any way, the two countries may well be driven into the German camp instead of away from it. Unwilling to chance it, “Wilfred” was also put on indefinite hold.
The Russian invasion of Finland in December of 1939 seemed to offer the Allies another chance to establish a Scandinavian front against Germany. The League of Nations formally expelled the Soviet Union over its’ actions and called for all other member states to assist Finland in fending off the Russians. Britain and France offered immediate support, but much like the case of Poland, they were just hollow promises. Yet, the belief was that since Russia was seemingly an ally of Germany, an attack by Russia on one of their neighbors might well push the remaining Scandinavian countries to seek Allied protection. Since the Baltic was controlled by both Germany and Russia and Finland’s northern ports were iced in, the only way to actually get troops or supplies to Finland would be by traversing Norwegian or Swedish territory. This seemed like an ideal situation for the Allies. They did not believe that Norway or Sweden would conceivably block the passage of vital aid to Finland under the circumstances. And once both countries allowed access to their territory, the Allies would have their foot in the door, enabling them to “persuade” the Norwegians and Swedes to accept further Allied “assistance”. Immediate plans were formulated to raise an Allied expeditionary force that would be landed in northern Norway at Narvik, then cross over into Finland via Sweden. Much to the Allies surprise, Norway and Sweden made it clear they would have no part of any Allied operation aimed at assisting Finland, due to fears it would anger Germany.
The continued reluctance of both countries to join the Allied side and concerns they would either be pressured to join the Axis or be occupied by Germany outright, caused the Allies to consider taking unilateral action to prevent Germany from getting their hands on the mineral wealth of the two countries. France put forth a plan to send a large expeditionary force into northern Norway to occupy both the Norwegian ore mines as well of those of Sweden. The British were very keen on this idea and were willing to join in with the French. The British then had second thoughts and decided to approach Norway and Sweden with the plan, offering it up as an idea to help the countries “protect” the mines from possible German seizure. As one would imagine, they politely declined the Allies transparent offer of aid. The plan was resurrected two more times, once in late January 1940, and then again in mid February 1940. This time the expeditionary force was to be landed in Finland, then move into Norway and Sweden and take of control of the mines. The same stumbling blocks remained so the idea was abandoned.
The last hope of getting the Scandinavian countries to sign on to the Allied cause arose on February 23, 1940. Finland made a formal request to the governments of Sweden and Norway to allow foreign troops to transit through their countries so they could assist Finland in their fight with Russia. Both governments turned down the request. On the 1st of March, Finland asked Britain and France to send 50,000 troops and 100 bombers to help them so they could continue to resist the Soviets. Neither Britain nor France could realistically provide this degree of help. Instead, they asked for permission from Norway and Sweden to send a smaller expeditionary force through their territory to help out Finland. Again, both countries declined. With no assistance forthcoming from the Allies, Finland was forced to begin peace talks with the Soviet Union on March 5, 1940 to end the Winter War. By March 13th, hostilities between the two countries officially ceased.
A large scale buildup of German troops along the German-Danish border, and increased German naval activity in the Baltic, signaled to the Allies that an invasion of Denmark was imminent and that German action against Norway was likely to follow. Deciding that the situation was so critical that they could no longer wait for Norway’s permission to act, Churchill’s plan to mine Norwegian waters, “Operation Wilfred” was finally given the go ahead and mining commenced on April 8th. At the same time, Churchill’s plan to send an expeditionary force to Norway was also approved. This force consisting of British, French, and Polish troops was hastily assembled at the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow for transport to Norway. The hope was to land in central and northern Norway, and assist the Norwegian Army in holding those areas should the Germans land troops there. The simultaneous invasions of Denmark and Norway on the 9th of April and the landing of Allied troops on Norwegian soil on April 14th marked the beginning of the Allies disastrous “Norway Campaign”. Despite initial success in inflicting heavy losses on German naval assets in Norwegian waters, the expeditionary force never managed to accomplish the same against German land forces. The subsequent launch of the Blitzkrieg against the Low Countries and France on May 10th, made the Allied position in Norway untenable. By May 28th, the Allies decided to abandon Norway to the Germans and withdrew the expeditionary force.
The failure of the Norway Campaign brought all hopes of opening a Scandinavian front and prosecuting a “distant war” against Germany to an end. Norway would remain occupied until the Germans surrendered in May 1945. Sweden managed to remain neutral, and the valuable ore from both countries continued to fuel the German war effort. Failure of the Allies to assist Finland against the Soviets, resulted in the Finns choosing to become nominal members of the Axis until September 1944. The Norwegian debacle also brought down the Chamberlain government in Britain. And the strangest twist of all the architect of the failed Scandinavian front and Norway Campaign, Winston Churchill, was rewarded for his efforts by being selected to succeed Chamberlain as prime minister.
Britain and France declare war
On 3 September 1939 the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that unless Germany agreed to withdraw their recent aggression against Poland, &lsquoa state of war would exist between the two countries.&rsquo To no one&rsquos surprise, Germany carried on the invasion of their neighbour, and so the Second World War began.
This was not just a potentially disastrous turn of events for Great Britain, but a deep personal humiliation for Neville Chamberlain. The previous year at the Munich Conference he had staked everything on reaching some kind of rapprochement with Adolf Hitler. As a result of this failure, Chamberlain has often since been cast as one of the &lsquoguilty men&rsquo responsible for the conflict. But was he really so to blame? After all, wasn&rsquot the Second World War essentially someone else&rsquos fault? Someone called Adolf Hitler?
&lsquoHitler&rsquos beliefs are absolutely paramount as a causal factor in the Second World War,&rsquo Richard Evans, the new Regius Professor at Cambridge told me. &lsquoWe know now through documentation that has become available over the last few years that he intended there to be a general European war really absolutely from the outset. He&rsquos telling people in private in 1932, 1933, when he&rsquos coming to power, that he&rsquos going to have a general war.&rsquo
It&rsquos a sentiment with which Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, the world expert on Adolf Hitler, emphatically agrees: &lsquoThe German expansion, as Hitler repeatedly said, could only come about through the sword, people weren&rsquot going to give you this land back willy-nilly, so you had to take it. And that, therefore, was the underlying cause of the beginning of the Second World War in Europe.&rsquo
It&rsquos largely thanks to fresh research into the economic history of the Nazi state that we can now say without equivocation that this was Hitler&rsquos war. Indeed, the scale of the German armament build up during the 1930s, ordered directly by the German Fuehrer, almost defies belief. By 1938, for example, the Nazis were planning for the German air force to be larger than any previous air fleet in the world &ndash larger even than the eventual size of the American air force at the end of World War Two.
The Nazi armament expansion plans would, according to the acclaimed economic historian Professor Adam Tooze, &lsquohave consumed in terms of annual spending something like a third of German gross domestic product in peacetime, before the war had even started, whereas normal military expenditure would be something like two, three, four per cent of GDP. So this is tenfold what NATO, for instance, was demanding of its members in the 1970s and 1980s.&rsquo
Hitler, according to Tooze, believed that, &lsquoWar is essential to the health of the German nation and that Germany needs to break out of the encirclement that it&rsquos in. So the idea that the Nazis could have somehow just extended the prosperity of the 1930s into some sort of peaceful VW future of modernity and satisfaction &ndash well, it&rsquos just not on the cards for Hitler&rsquos regime. It&rsquos a fundamental misunderstanding that many people succumb to, but it&rsquos really not what&rsquos on Hitler&rsquos mind at all.&rsquo
Instead, what was on Hitler&rsquos mind was struggle &ndash an epic racial struggle. &lsquoHe isn&rsquot a statesman in the normal sense of the word,&rsquo says Tooze, &lsquomaking straightforwardly rational calculations, assuming always that there will be a high probability of ultimate success. This is a man for whom politics is drama, a tragic drama that may not have a happy end. And so he is willing to take risks that he thinks are inescapable even if the odds are very highly stacked against Germany.&rsquo
But, of course, as Professor Richard Overy emphasises, we mustn&rsquot completely run away with the idea that Hitler was the only reason the war happened. The underlying, long term, cause of the conflict was a settlement at the end of the First World War which left Germans deeply aggrieved, both at the loss of their territory and the massive reparations the Allies demanded. This, as Overy makes clear &lsquodistorted the international order&rsquo and in turn was a crucial factor in making Hitler&rsquos subsequent electoral success possible.
&lsquoThe important thing,&rsquo says Overy, &lsquois identifying why Britain and France go to war. And I think there are a complex set of answers there. I think partly the answer is genuinely that Britain and France, and in Britain in particular, both the elite but quite a large part, I think, of the [general] population saw themselves as having some kind of responsibility, not only the responsibilities as the sort of masters of empire, but responsibility for maintaining the stability of the world order and a world order which despite their imperialism represented Western values.&rsquo
By the late 1930s Hitler was careful to hide one issue &ndash his desire for a war of conquest in Eastern Europe which would seize the rich agricultural land of Ukraine as part of a new German &lsquoEmpire&rsquo &ndash behind another &ndash the recovery of German territory lost as a result of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War One. There was clear public support in Germany for the second aim, but much less so for the first.
Indeed, many in the British establishment in the 1930s felt that somehow Germany had been treated &lsquobadly&rsquo at the end of the First World War &ndash but these same people would have been appalled at the notion that what Hitler really wanted was not the German speaking regions of Eastern Europe to be incorporated once more into the Reich, but instead to create a massive Eastern Empire based on slavery that stretched all the way to the Urals.
And the moment at which the British realized Hitler had been misleading them was in March 1939 when the Germans invaded the remaining Czech lands &ndash territory that had not been given to them as a result of the Munich agreement the year before. The entry of the Nazis into Prague demonstrated to the British, says Richard Evans, that Hitler &lsquodid not just want to incorporate ethnic Germans into the Reich or to right the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles - he was actually going for something much bigger.&rsquo
Shortly after the German takeover of the Czech lands, Neville Chamberlain offered a guarantee to the Polish that if they fell victim to German aggression then the British would, as he put it, &lsquoinevitably be drawn&rsquo into the subsequent &lsquoconflagration&rsquo.
And the reason that the British chose to make a stand over Poland, was, it appears, just because they thought that this country was next on Hitler&rsquos wish list. &lsquoIt&rsquos simply a strategic evaluation,&rsquo says Professor Anita Prażmowska, who teaches at the LSE, &lsquothis realisation that the balance of power in Europe is tipping dangerously against British interests and it could be dangerous - you&rsquove got to do something about it.&rsquo
According to Professor Prażmowska, the British decision to offer a guarantee to the Poles had no &lsquoideological&rsquo dimension &ndash it was straightforward, pragmatic politics. &lsquoFar from this being a carefully calculated policy, it is a policy where Chamberlain, with a very weak Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, finally says lets do something. It&rsquos very badly thought out, because war is declared knowing full well you&rsquore not going to defend Poland&hellip So indeed it is not a fight for Poland, it is actually an attempt to indicate to Germany the unacceptability of her behaviour.&rsquo
One can still argue backwards and forwards, of course, about the relative competence of Chamberlain at Munich and subsequently over the question of the Polish guarantee. Maybe, if the British and French had &lsquostood up&rsquo to the Nazis earlier then events might well have been different. But, ultimately, all of this debate still comes back to Hitler, because he was the key driver of events. And the truth is that he was driven not by rational argument but by fervent ideological belief. As Tooze says, he went to war &lsquobecause he&rsquos convinced, in my view, that the world Jewish conspiracy has taken on a whole new ominous character, and this starts in the summer of 1938, I think, fundamentally with the Evian Conference in which America becomes involved in European affairs around the issue of the organised emigration of Eastern European Jews.&rsquo
So by 1939 Hitler had come to believe that &lsquothe real centre of the world Jewish conspiracy is Washington and Wall Street and Hollywood, and that, of course, fundamentally shifts your assessment of the strategic picture, because behind Britain and France, as in World War One, ultimately stands the force, the full force, of the American armaments economy. And so with that in mind the balance of force in Europe in 1939 looks extremely ominous, because British rearmament is beginning with real intensity from the beginning of 1939, the Germans understand this, and so even though the situation is bad in the autumn of 1939 they quite rightly predict that it&rsquoll become worse in 1940, &rsquo41, &rsquo42, and this is because they&rsquove come face to face again with the limitations of their own economy.&rsquo
Furthermore, Hitler goes to war not knowing &lsquohow this struggle is going to end.&rsquo On this interpretation Hitler stands revealed as one of the least &lsquonormal and predictable&rsquo politicians in world history. Indeed, on the contrary, he was someone who knew that the odds were stacked against his own country &ndash and yet still wanted war. Someone prepared to gamble the future lives of millions of his people on the chance that the Germans could win a swift, decisive war. Someone who believed with all his heart in a deeply pessimistic view of the human spirit. &lsquoThe earth continues to go around,&rsquo he once said, &lsquowhether it&rsquos the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man.&rsquo
And whilst all this is a million miles from A.J.P. Taylor&rsquos assessment that Hitler was a politician the West could have dealt with, it is certainly true that the German leader would have preferred to have his war of European conquest without the involvement of the British in the fight. &lsquoWhat a terrible disaster the war was for both our countries!&rsquo a former SS officer once said to me, just before I filmed an interview with him for the documentary series I made twelve years ago, 'The Nazis: A Warning From History'. &lsquoAs a result of us fighting together you [the British] lost your Empire and our country was beaten and divided. If only we had been partners we could have ruled the world together!&rsquo
Such a &lsquopartnership&rsquo was a fantasy, of course. Not only could Britain never have stood by and seen Hitler enslave mainland Europe, but it was obvious by the spring of 1939 that the Nazis could not be trusted to keep to any agreement they signed. As Hermann Goering said after the war, treaties between states were &lsquoso much toilet paper&rsquo.
So Hitler emerges, surely without question now, as the person most responsible for the war. And the fact that such a dark figure &ndash ideologically driven to the point of taking foolhardy risks &ndash exercised such control in 1939 over the destiny of both Germany and the rest of Europe must, even now, seventy years later, be a warning for us all.
Britain and France declare war on Germany - HISTORY
To dovetail with what TonyT said (which were pretty much my first thoughts upon reading dazzleman's post) much the same restrictions hindered the British.
The landing of the BEF was not intended to be an offensive force, but rather a stopping (at most) or hindrance to any German advance into Western Europe. (Some American military observers referred to them as a speedbump.) As can be seen by the British evacuation of the same (smaller then) force at Dunkirk, Britain didn't really have sea-lift capacity readily available for an offensive sea-lift in Sept. 1939. A force large enough to drive to Berlin would have by necessity been much larger and required much more sea-lift/air-lift capability than the BEF did. and as evidenced by Dunkirk, the British didn't have that in 1939.
Neither the French nor the British had enough troops mobilized and then trained, nor did they have the transportation and materiel to support any sustained offensive capability in late 1939-early 1940.
Sure, Germany wasn't as geared up as they became, and the delay in offensive action on the part of the west gave them time to further mobilize, but they were miles and miles ahead of the western countries which were essentially starting from scratch.
So, yeah, a primed and ready mid-to-late WWII western army could have driven to Berlin much easier in 1939 or '40 than when they did. but no such beast existed in 1939.