This article is from the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ, which will be available on newsstands Tuesday, November 16th, 2010. Visit the HistoryNet store to order your copy today!
How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931–1941
By Joseph Maiolo. 458 pp. Basic Books, 2010. $35.
Reviewed by John M. Taylor
The peace agreements that followed World War I created political instability in Europe that was an invitation to war. Germany was defeated but not crushed. Its people, angered by the loss of territory and by the “war guilt” clause of the Versailles treaty, still had one of the world’s biggest economies. In traditional interpretations of the subsequent rise of fascism, the charismatic Hitler takes advantage of the anguish of the Great Depression and the German people’s perception that they had been wronged by the peace settlement after World War I. Now, British historian Joseph Maiolo offers a provocative alternative thesis: that France and Britain played no small role in unleashing the dogs of war.
As early as 1933, Britain was convinced that Germany was aggressively rearming, yet neither Britain nor France—both had been bled white in World War I—was prepared to risk war to enforce Versailles. Instead, they set out to enhance their own military might, joining with Germany in an arms race that Maiolo argues moved the world inexorably toward war.
Though the book discusses the prewar military buildup in Japan, its focus is Western Europe. In October 1933, after Germany left the League of Nations, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer concluded that “common prudence would seem to indicate some strengthening of our defences.” Yet bad intelligence led Hitler’s adversaries to overestimate just how big a military machine he was building. “Throughout the 1920s and 1930s,” Maiolo writes, “the French drew up absurdly inflated estimates of German strength.” Within weeks of any national call-up, the French believed, the German army could expand from 150,000 full-time soldiers to four million men. Such wild predictions led to the decision not to oppose Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936.
Even as foreign intelligence services exaggerated Germany’s strength, Hitler worried that he was in fact losing ground to his enemies. Germany’s arms buildup was spectacular but not without shortcomings. The Nazis contemplated but never developed a long-range heavy bomber. And in 1939, though Hitler approved Admiral Erich Raeder’s massive expansion of Germany’s surface fleet, the project—soon scrapped—only delayed construction of the U-boats that would serve the führer so well.
Ultimately, Hitler believed, only those who had the means to wage total war would emerge as winners. Faced with a shrinking lead in the arms race, Maiolo says, he decided to “go for broke” in the summer of 1939.
Hitler’s determination to wage war may have made conflict inevitable, Maiolo concedes. But that determination was born of his desperation at Germany’s changing fortunes in the arms race. “Hitler was losing it,”?Maiolo writes, “and he knew it. Refusing to be deterred, he decided to run the risk of an all-out war against a constellation of foes that possessed a crushing level of economic superiority over the flagging Third Reich.”
Maiolo writes fluently of a period he knows well. But his focus on British and French initiatives in the arms race tends to obscure the fact that if Hitler had been inclined, he was fully capable of slowing the rush to war.
John M. Taylor is the author of several books of history and biography, including a biography of his father, An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor.