The concept of a "Whig interpretation" of history is well established, but one could equally identify what might be called an Atlanticist Interpretation that is at work on the popular understanding of events leading up to the Second World War. Let us review some of the tenets of the Atlanticist Interpretation.
(1) The Treaty of Versailles in 1919, ending the war between the Allies and Germany, was too harsh; and was responsible for the rise of Hitler.
The problem with this statement starts with what it omits, and we do well to recall, "There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know." We know that from the outset a significant portion of the German public regarded the terms as harsh. But that equally suggests they would have regarded any terms short of the status quo ante as harsh. Germans had reason to believe that they were not defeated in the war, but only on the Western Front. They had inflicted a severed defeat on the Russian Empire, and imposed a far harsher treaty on its successor, the Soviet Union. In these circumstances, anything more than the retrocession of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, and the payment of an indemnity for costs might have seemed unreasonable.
The idea that the harshness of the treaty was directly responsible for the rise of Hitler is not only simple-minded, it was the argument of that arch-appeaser, Britain's Neville Chamberlain. He believed that if the harsh Versailles conditions were eliminated, Germany would be content. Yet very little of the sternest measures remained in effect by the time Hitler came to power in 1933. We know that the German army at first tried to train secretly men via the veterans' organizations that sprang up in the aftermath of the war. In 1927, the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission, the rather feeble watchdog appointed to ensure German compliance with the treaty, was abolished, and the German army was more or less free to do whatever secret activities it wanted. The reparations Germany had to pay were cancelled in 1932. After that, Hitler moved fast to remove all the other Versailles clauses. In 1935, he renounced the terms denying them an air force, and reinstated conscription. In that same year an Anglo-German naval understanding of 1935 lifted restrictions on the German navy's size and allowed the construction of U-boats again. By the time Hitler marched into the Rhineland in 1936, the only outstanding treaty conditions related to the Germany's borders to the south and east. These objections were overcome one-by-one until the Danzig crisis precipitated the Second World War. If the treaty as it pertained on August 31, 1939, was still too harsh, one wonders if the Germans would have accepted anything short of a declaration of their victory.
(2) Appeasing Hitler only fed his appetite for more conquest.
I find myself wondering whether this is a cum hoc ergo propter hoc type argument. What it omits is the fact that this is indeed what happened. The appeasers gave in to Hitler, so of course he asked for more. But there's evidence that he wanted to ask for exactly what he got anyway, in the form of the Hossbach Memorandum. This document, produced in November 1937, made clear his intention to seize control of Austria and Czechoslovakia in a war. In fact, in the document, Hitler believes war will come first, providing him with the opportunity to seize these neighbours. Poland doesn't enter into it. Hitler's book Mein Kampf predicts a war against the Soviet Union (in alliance with Italy and Britain) that basically aimed to restore the Brest-Litovsk Treaty settlement. (Finally realized with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.) So the idea that Hitler became progressively emboldened is just wrongheaded. Hitler wanted Austria and Czechoslovakia from the start. The Munich agreement was simply a stage along an already-existing ambition. Whether appeasement fed his appetite for a crisis over Danzig is more arguable. The fact that he mentions the coming Soviet war in Mein Kampf suggests that some kind of move eastwards was on his agenda in any case, but that he might have tolerated a Poland that joined with him is suggested by the 1934 Polish-German Non-Aggression treaty. In this case "there are known knowns. There are things we know we know."
(3) Hitler was [a madman] intent on world domination.
The simple (and true) statement that Hitler was a patriotic German politician is often lost in the meteoric path of his career. Whether he intended for Germany to become the greatest power in the world in his lifetime is by no means as clear as the "Hitler Legend" encourages us to believe. In the Zweites Buch, he clearly envisions an eventual showdown with the United States, but unlike his more personal vision of the original volume, this showdown is placed in the more distant future, the last fifth of the twentieth century. In 1980, Hitler would have been 91, and there is all sorts of speculation about his health that suggest he wouldn't have made it that far. Without taking on the United States, Hitler would never be able to claim world domination. Thus, if Hitler had any vision for world domination, he probably believed that it would fall to the next generation of Nazis to contend for it. However, it's not difficult to perceive that Hitler viewed Germany's rightful place as the arbiter of Europe. This sentiment owes more to Bismarck and Metternich than Blofeld. A corollary to the world domination thesis is that Hitler was mad to want such a thing. However, if as I suggest he didn't want it, it punctures the madman thesis. In this case, the Atlanticist Interpretation's omission is based on concealing some flimsy evidence.
(4) Isolationists in the United States underestimated the threat posed by Hitler.
One is forced into this point by accepting point (3). So if point (3) is rejected, point (4) is rendered partially invalid. Without doubt, a relatively united Europe led by a Germany antagonistic to American interests would pose some kind of threat. The omission here rests on their being too many variables for normal people to pretend to know how serious this threat would be. "There are unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." At the end of the day, the Isolationists did underestimate the threat, because Hitler declared war on the United States. But Hitler only did that because he knew that sooner or later Roosevelt would manoeuvre him into a situation where he would be forced either to act against the United States or make a humiliating climb down. Roosevelt pursued this strategy with some success against Japan. His use of the U.S. Navy to confront the German U-boats in the Atlantic gave the president plenty of opportunities to provoke Hitler.
Part of Nicholson Baker's avowed intention in writing Human Smoke was because he "didn't understand it". One of the reasons is that we still seem to be fighting the propaganda war.
(to be continued)