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1939: Countdown to War


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Richard Overy has spent much of his distinguished career studying the intellectual, social and military ideas that shaped the cataclysm of the Second World War, particularly in his books The Origins of the Second World War, The Inter-War Crisis, 1919-1939, Why the Allies Won, Russia's War and The Morbid Age. Since 2004 he has been Professor in History at the University of Exeter. Richard Overy's book, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, won the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hessell Tiltman Prize.


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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Overy is one of the great historians of the second world war -- Bryan Appleyard Sunday Times This country's most distinguished historian of the Second World War ... Overy's book is easily the best account of Europe's descent into the death and destruction that were Hitler's element -- Michael Burleigh Evening Standard Nail-biting ... with rare narrative verve, he documents the ultimatums, emissaries, letters and increasingly desperate proposals that shuttled across Europe in the countdown to war -- Ian Thomson Independent Even those who think they know it all about how war broke out will learn something from Richard Overy's book -- Simon Heffer Literary Review One of the great historians of this conflict -- Simon Garfield Observer

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.) Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.

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