1939: Countdown to War

( 5 )

Overview

"Overy's book is easily the best account of Europe's descent into...death and destruction." —Evening Standard (London)

A brilliantly concise narrative of the days leading to the outbreak of history's greatest conflagration, 1939 takes readers hour by hour through the nail-biting decisions that determined the fate of millions. Richard Overy, a leading historian of the period, masterfully recreates the jockeying for advantage that set Europe's greatest powers on a collision ...

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1939: Countdown to War

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Overview

"Overy's book is easily the best account of Europe's descent into...death and destruction." —Evening Standard (London)

A brilliantly concise narrative of the days leading to the outbreak of history's greatest conflagration, 1939 takes readers hour by hour through the nail-biting decisions that determined the fate of millions. Richard Overy, a leading historian of the period, masterfully recreates the jockeying for advantage that set Europe's greatest powers on a collision course. Would Stalin join Hitler in a bid to divide Poland and flout the West? Would Britain and France succeed in forcing Germany to reason? And how far would a defiant Poland push its claim to exist? In the summer of 1939, the course of events was anything but assured, as this exceptionally absorbing book drives home.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…exceptionally lucid, concise and authoritative…
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this short book, stating that "nothing in history is inevitable," University of Essex professor Overy (Why the Allies Won) strives to explain what led to the outbreak of WWII after years of tension and appeasement. He focuses on the diplomatic maneuvering during "the extraordinary ten days of drama," August 24 to September 3, 1939, demonstrating that diplomats in London, Paris, and Berlin wanted to avoid a world war. But Overy traces the events and decisions that moved the two allies, sworn to defend Polish independence, from efforts at deterrence to a willingness to fight after Hitler invaded Poland. Overy is best in portraying the diplomatic wrangling, taking readers inside an explosive meeting between Neville Henderson, Britain's ambassador to Berlin, and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. He also uncovers some surprising facts, such as France's last-minute wavering in confronting Hitler and that the Nazi leader, in exchange for Britain acquiescing in his Polish takeover, promised to guarantee the British empire. The last-minute diplomacy Overy describes is fascinating, but there is too little political, military, and sociocultural background to provide context for readers unfamiliar with the period. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"Simon Prebble's crisp British accent and pleasant, slightly gruff voice fit the no-nonsense reportage and occasional analysis of a dreadfully serious historical moment.... This is what listeners of serious nonfiction want: an intelligent book intelligently read." —-AudioFile
Library Journal
The origins of World War II have probably not received the level of attention devoted to the century's earlier major conflict. In this slim volume, Overy (history, Univ. of Exeter; The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars) provides a straightforward examination of those last days in late August and early September 1939 when the peaceful European countryside was about to be shattered by a new world war. Hitler had originally wanted to attack Poland on August 26 but changed his mind. The following days were filled with hectic communications (and miscommunications) among Berlin, Paris, and London. The nerves of all the participants were shot by late August. Meanwhile, Hitler made up his mind again to start war mobilization with the attack on Poland scheduled for early morning on September 1. Overy believes that Hitler misjudged his Western counterparts because the German dictator was convinced that neither France nor Britain would do anything once the attack had begun. For that error in judgment, Europe and much of the rest of the world was convulsed in another terrible war for nearly six years. VERDICT Overy's well-crafted and easy-to-read book should be a useful source for both general and academic readers.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Kirkus Reviews

Overy (History/Univ. of Exeter; The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars, 2009, etc.) limns the annus horribilis in which World War II broke out in Europe.

By the author's account, the war was inevitable. Europe had nearly disintegrated into chaos, marked by "economic crisis, the rise of authoritarian dictatorships, deep ideological divisions, nationalist rivalries, and the collapse of the effort of the League of Nations to preserve peace." All of these elements virtually guaranteed conflict, though the so-called Polish question was the single great catalyst. After World War I, the Allies had both created an independent Polish state and carved access to the Baltic Sea for it out of German territory, another sure way to cause strife, especially since Germany never recognized many of the provisions even before Hitler's time. Yet it was Hitler who added the missing ingredient of revanchism, while his erstwhile treaty partner Joseph Stalin labored diligently to secure Soviet neutrality in the hope of winning some measure of control over Eastern Europe. As Overy writes, the Soviets were masterful in playing the Western Allies against Germany to gain concessions from both sides. Neither Germany nor Russia "regarded Poland as a permanent political fixture," so dividing it up was troublesome to neither party and indeed was "an acceptable outcome to both sides." The author gives Neville Chamberlain a slight rehabilitation, noting that by 1939 he had no illusions about Hitler or his intentions, and adding that very few ordinary Europeans actually wanted war. Yet in the end war was the only possible result of a great chess game in which Hitler played an Italian card even as Italy scrambled to maintain neutrality on its own, betting as well that England and France would not rescue Poland. That they did, the author concludes, was "not to save Poland from a cruel occupation but to save [them] from the dangers of a disintegrating world."

Inevitable? Perhaps not, but the events of 1939 made the war "hard to avoid." Lucid and to the point, as is Overy's custom—of much value to students of the political dimensions of WWII.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143120063
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/27/2011
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 478,998
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter, U.K. A leading expert on the history of the Second World War, he has written such acclaimed books as The Twilight Years, Why the Allies Won, and The Dictators, winner of the Wolfson Prize in 2005.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2013

    A brief yet in-depth look at the lead up to WWII

    Overy does a great job at breaking down some of the important issues that led to WWII. His writing, although scholarly, reads like a novel which makes for an easy read for beginners. This would be a good addition to a classroom reference set.

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    Posted April 5, 2011

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    Posted February 17, 2011

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