Lessons for today: The lead-in to the ‘phony war’

The 80th anniversary of the start of World War II in September 1939 approaches, and merits special efforts to remember it, because how that war began has renewed relevance today, as Europe is roiled by internal conflicts, right-wing factions are increasing their power, and NATO is being weakened. 

What immediately jumps out is the Western democracies’ indulgence of dictators, Hitler in Germany, Stalin in the Soviet Union, Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy. While on the eve of World War II their worst crimes continued to be successfully hidden from most people outside of their countries, enough about their actions was already known for the Western democracies to have been considerably less trusting of them. 

The Munich Agreement of Sept. 29, 1938, should have shown them that. Signed by Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain and Edouard Daladier of France, along with Hitler and Mussolini, it allowed Germany to take over the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia without military opposition — in exchange for not beginning an all-out war. Today, we judge that as the epitome of “appeasement,” but when Daladier alit from his plane near Paris he expected to be booed and was stunned to be cheered, and Chamberlain upon returning to Great Britain celebrated the Munich Agreement as “peace in our time.”  Franklin Roosevelt did not disagree. Within a few months, Hitler had broken his promises and completely dismembered the remainder of Czechoslovakia. 

Stalin was not consulted on Munich and was supposedly upset about it, because the Soviet Union and France had previously agreed to jointly protect Czechoslovakia. Which reminds me of another matter forgotten today: that in the 1930s the greatest bulwark against the increasing power of Hitler’s Nazis had been Communism. Communists in Germany, Austria and the Soviet Union were the only large organized groups to oppose Hitler’s rise prior to 1933, and after that to oppose his territorial land grabs, as well as to oppose Franco’s during the Spanish Civil War.  Because Hitler’s fascism was perceived as merely capitalism on steroids, and as Christian, and because German oligarchs cooperated internationally with their counterparts in the West, the Third Reich was judged by Great Britain and the U.S. as less of an anathema than the godless, private-property-killing Soviet Union. Only France, whose governments throughout were radically socialist, steadily opposed Hitler’s expansions and repudiations of Germany’s obligations of the Great War, but not to the point of ultimate confrontation. Fighting the Depression, rather than the rise of a neighboring despot, had been France’s main concern.    

The third mistake was for countries to have counted on treaty-allies behaving as they pledged they would. 

The immediate trigger for World War II was the signing of a “non-aggression” pact between Germany and the USSR on Aug. 23, 1939, with its secret protocol allowing Hitler and Stalin to split Poland between them, and for Hitler not to interfere with Stalin taking over Latvia, Estonia and Finland.

The possibility of a German invasion of Poland had long since been understood: during a July Fourth celebration in Paris, when the Polish ambassador threw a ball for visitors including the leaders of the British and French military services, and participants cavorted to a mazurka, a guest made a pun about “jolie danzing,” a reference to the Polish city of Gdansk, which Hitler had promised to conquer for some time. In settling the Great War, Poland had received three German provinces, West Prussia, Poznan and Upper Silesia, which were a tantalizing target for Hitler. Recognizing that, Poland had signed a pact with Great Britain and France to protect its territorial integrity.  

Eight days after the Hitler-Stalin pact, on Sept. 1, 1939 the Nazi blitzkrieg began. Poland’s forces were so ill-equipped that units on horseback had to fight Panzer tanks. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany and pledged to make good on their compact with Poland. However, they were so far from Poland’s soil that they could only send airplanes to deter the invaders, which had only slight effect. On Sept. 8-9, German forces reached Warsaw; there, resistance was fiercer.

The caution of the Western generals became pronounced — and provides another lesson for today. If it was near physically impossible to get French and British land forces into Poland to counter the invaders, it was very possible to attack Germany to force a Nazi retreat from Poland to save their homeland. However, this was not done for reasons including the absence of detailed plans for such an invasion because the generals had been focused for 20 years only on defense. When on Sept. 17 the USSR invaded Poland from the East, the French and British generals basically gave up the fight, arguing that they must retain their forces to defend their own homelands, not send them to die in a hopeless cause. Warsaw was overrun on Sept. 27, and shortly thereafter Poland officially ceased to exist. 

The war continued, but not actively; a period known as the “phony war,” a dangerously idle time that I’ll cover in later articles, lasted until Hitler’s forces invaded the Low Countries and France in May 1940. 


Tom Shachtman, author of more than a dozen American and world histories and documentaries, lives in Salisbury. He will speak at the Hotchkiss Library of Sharon on “The Phony War, 1939-1940” on Sunday, June 9, at 4 p.m.