It is an article of faith among American interventionists — from neoconservatives to liberal internationalists, elite and common alike — that had the West (Britain, France and the United States) screwed up its courage and waged war against Nazi Germany in, say, 1936 (when Germany remilitarized the Rhineland) or to prevent the Anschluss or to back up Czechoslovakia in the Sudeten Crisis, the disaster of World War II could have been prevented. A larger war could have been prevented by a smaller war.
But this places the entire problem of Germany’s post-World War I rearmament and irredentism on Hitler and the Nazis, which is not the case, as Pinson Koppel makes in his book, Modern Germany: It’s History of Civilization (which, yes, I am still reading). In discussing German foreign policy during the early and mid-Weimar period, he writes:
The depth of German rejection of the treaty [of Versailles] can only be understood in terms of the almost universal certainty of Germans that they would win the [First World] war and of the enormous discrepancy, therefore, between the kind of treaty such a victory would have brought and the treaty born of German defeat. German moderates agreed fully with the extremists in attributing German defeat to a purely accidental and unique configuration of circumstances, and they too looked for the eventual disunity among the Allies that would undo the German defeat. The goal of German foreign policy, to borrow [Walther] Rathenau’s figure, became the ascent once more to the top of the mountain. In this goal, there was unity among all parties. The only difference between the moderates and the extremists was as to means. The moderates were resigned to a process of slow ascent from the bottom of the valley. The radical nationalists, impatient of such slow progress in regaining national glory, were ready to risk the hazardous adventure of jumping across the wide cleft. Ultimate objectives, however, of Socialists as well as of conservative nationalists, were the same: to convert Germany from the “object” of policy of the Entente to that of active and free determination of its own policy, to nullify the Versailles Treaty, to rectify the eastern borders, to regain its lost colonies, to end Allied occupation and reparations, to regain its military power, and to be restored once again to a position as one of the great powers, if not the great power, of Europe. Differences there were as to methods and tempo of attaining these goals, but these differences cannot be dismissed as trivial or insignificant. But ultimate objectives were on the whole uniform. Therein lies the main reason why when Hitler later took the radical path to these ends there were some misgivings among the other Germans as to method but no real opposition of a profound nature to his ultimate objectives. (p.423-424)
Pinson goes on to cite a 1925 letter from German liberal and sometime chancellor and foreign minister during the Wiemar period, Gustav Stresemann, to the Hohenzollern ex-crown prince saying that his government sought the eventual end of reparations, expansion of the German military, regaining of Danzig and the Polish Corridor as well as Upper Silesia, Anschluss with Austria, and de facto and de jure protectorate over 12 million Germans living outside Germany, such as in the Sudetenland. Granted, this letter was not made public until after Stresemann’s death, but Pinson goes on to say that these goals were widely shared by all parties and ideological views in Germany in the 1920s, from socialist to nationalist. My own research into the issue of German disarmament, for a paper I wrote at Georgetown comparing Germany with Iraq, led me to the same findings. All German governments in the 1920s were determined to rebuild the country’s military, including air and sea power outlawed in the Versailles Treaty.
But these were the stated aims of the German government in 1925, a liberal German government, when Hitler was still reclining in prison dictating his “memoirs.”
And none of this fantasy about doing away with Hitler in 1936 or 1938 addresses what would have become of Germany or who would have governed it. There were no liberals left in Germany by the mid-1930s, and doing away with the Hitler government would have only put Germany in the hands of rightist generals, generals still committed to nationalism, militarism and expansion. There was little faith in the world in the liberal democratic welfare state in the late 1930s; that faith didn’t exist until after the war we know was well underway and even won. Were Britain and France prepared to occupy Germany in the 1930s? A war in the east, against Czechoslovakia, against Poland, against the Soviet Union, would most likely still have taken place. Jews would still have been deprived of civil liberties and citizenship in Germany (though the extermination camps of the 1940s would most likely have been avoided). And remember, it was that war against Poland — and the guarantees the Western allies made to Polish security — that brought about the World War II of history.