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Book Review


Overy, R. J. The Origins of the Second World War, 2 ed. (New York: Longman, 1998). 145 pp, $17.00.

      Deceptively thin, R. J. Overy's The Origins of the Second World War contains a great deal of material into its 145 pages.  Overy's purpose in writing this book is to challenge the notion that  World War II was "Hitler's War" and instead to draw attention to the larger political and economic factors that made the rest of the world equally involved. Many of the explanations in today's textbooks and classrooms take too much advantage of hindsight.  Overy specifically challenges the argument that European democracies challenged Hitler on moral grounds after discovering his appetite for expansion was insatiable, or that Chamberlain and his cabinet were weak politicians, browbeaten by Hitler at Munich and determined to make up for it in Poland.  The Second World War, like the first, was the result of "old fashioned balance-of-power politics." (2)

     French and British inability to resume their pre-1914 dominance created global economic and political vacuums which Germany, Italy, and Japan were eager to fill.  Emulating British and French examples, the rising fascist countries sought empires to expand their wealth and influence.  Initially, Britain and France acquiesced because Axis expansion did not directly affect their spheres of influence and could be ignored while at the same time they maintained order at home and economic interests abroad.  Additionally, Britain and France hoped that the time purchased with appeasement could be spent on rearmament as a deterrent to further expansion.  In the end, the British went to war over Poland because losing another country to German demands signaled the decline of British and French authority on the continent.

     After 1940 it was obvious that Britain and France lacked the ability to contain Germany and maintain status quo, thus leading to Britain's dependence on the United States.  The developments in Europe encouraged Italy and Japan to pursue their own empires resulting in the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's full engagement in the war.  When the war ended, the Allies had successfully re-established the balance of power, but the United States and the Soviet Union sat at the heads of the table instead of Britain and France.

     Having previously written more narrowly focused (and much lengthier) studies of  World War II,  Overy is to be credited for the fact that he can to cover so much territory in so few pages.  His brevity, however, is not without its drawbacks.  In particular, Overy's focus on empires and economies leaves little room for social factors and particularly for German anti-Semitism.  In his introduction he acknowledges that some interpretations of Hitler's war stress the importance of Nazi racism, but Overy neither confirms nor challenges these perspectives.  Hitler's fixation on Lebensraum in Eastern Europe and the full impact of the Nazi-Soviet Pact cannot be fully understood without some mention of the role of Nazi racial policy.  Overy does discuss the impact of social pressures on England and the United States, but he should have also done so in his discussion of other countries. 

     The book is well structured and includes a detailed table of contents, index, several maps, and a guide to major figures in the text.  Overy's unusual method of citing sources (bracketed numbers in the text refer to numbered bibliographic entries) may confuse readers who jump right into the book and then wonder what "[84]" means.  Citations referring to documents, collected in an appendix, are clearer.  Some direct quotes are not cited, and, although, these many quotes are not essential to the argument; it is frustrating that they are not properly documented.

     Given the amount of detail and the level of familiarity with modern European history required to understand Overy's arguments, Origins of the Second World War is ideal for upper-division college and graduate seminars as well as for instructor preparation. Throughout the book, Overy poses many questions which can spark class debate or ideas for senior theses. The bibliography includes over 180 references to primary and secondary sources providing an excellent resource for students to begin their research.  Most of the secondary sources are in English, although a few are in French or German.  Some of the most important primary documents (or at least excerpts) are included in a separate section of the book; instructors will find these useful in assigning smaller papers or presentations.

     The Second World War is too often taught in a vacuum as an event that had a major impact on the future but whose ties to the past are little more than thin threads linkingt back to the Great War.  Though few of Overy's conclusions are truly novel, his ability to place the war in its global economic and political context challenges what is taught in most undergraduate classrooms.



Chris Thomas
Texas A&M University


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