Predictable: The behavior of world leaders from era to era

Eighty years ago, on Sept.1, 1939, World War II began with a bang, an unprovoked Nazi German invasion of Poland, a blitzkrieg that produced shock and awe and featured such uneven combat as German Panzer tanks routing Polish horse cavalry. 

The onset of World War II was a momentous event, yet today in America little note is taken of it. Young Americans wonder what it has to do with their lives, and why they should bother studying it. 

The standard reason for studying history is the adage, attributed to George Santayana, that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeating its mistakes. But I believe that few mistakes have been avoided through knowing history, and I suspect that teenagers think so too.  A better reason is that human behavior does not change from era to era, and so to understand our own lives and our current leaders we absolutely have to examine the past, with its plethora of examples of that behavior.   

During the onset of World War II, the leaders of the major combatants behaved very badly indeed. 

The easy-to-identify bad actors are Hitler and Stalin, two men who, if anyone does, deserve the label of evil, responsible for killing tens of millions each. 

When Hitler was ready to invade Poland, he did not want to have to fight Stalin’s troops to do so. But Stalin and Communism had been the worst and most steadfast enemies of Hitler and Nazism since the mid-1920s — how could Hitler make an alliance with Stalin now?  Because Stalin also wanted to do something and not have to fight Hitler’s troops to do it — re-assemble the Czarist Empire of Nicholas II that had lasted until World War I. On Aug. 23, 1939, when the public part of the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced — the part kept secret was the deal about who could control what territory — it was as though the trigger of Hitler’s gun had been pulled.  Eight days later, German troops invaded Poland.

The leaders of Great Britain and France, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, while surely not evil men, also behaved pretty badly just then. Both countries had ironclad pacts with Poland pledging them to defend that country if it was attacked.  Two things to note about that.

First, the combined British and French armies, navies, and air forces were the largest army, largest navy, and largest air force in the world.  Second, the British and French leaders knew that Hitler was going to attack Poland, for he had been shouting all year of taking back its German-speaking area known as the Danzig Corridor. And every time he had shaken that rattle, a rattlesnake strike had followed: prior to “remilitarizing the Rhineland” in 1936, prior to taking possession of German-speaking Austria in 1937, and prior to annexing the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland in 1938.

When Poland was invaded, France and Great Britain were reasonably well mobilized and they declared war — but declaring war is very different from full-scale waging of war.  And that, they did not do.  Chamberlain and Daladier had appeased Hitler at Munich, and were still flummoxed by Hitler’s machinations. The proof is that while they had overseen their countries’ very extensive plans for defending their own territories, they had not done much to prepare to defend Poland’s. 

Some French troops, stationed in the Maginot Line, on France’s side of the border with Germany, advanced into Germany a few miles — but then stopped. Incredible! 

The British-led air forces bombed ports and supply depots, but did not specifically strafe German advance columns, nor direct their fury on Berlin so as to force Hitler to defend his own country rather than invade another. They did not bomb Berlin because the Brits feared reciprocal raids on London, possibly with poison gas. British ships steamed to blockade Germany in the North Sea, and French to block the Mediterranean so supplies could not get to Germany through Italy, but this took some time. 

The archives reveal that within the first week of the war, the French army stopped trying to halt the invasion of Poland, and that the British government — although fortified by the addition of war hawk Winston Churchill — ceased bombing when Soviet troops entered Poland on Sept. 17, 1939. 

Do promises among democratic nations ever have any chance of being kept? Are leaders always gutless when confronted with monstrous events? Is the fear of retaliation so great as to deter proper action? 

In studying the awful onset of the greatest war mankind has ever experienced, there is much in the way of examples to grasp to help us think about our world and our leaders today.  


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.