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1939: Countdown to War Hardcover – September 23, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1St Edition edition (September 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670022098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670022090
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #291,359 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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.
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From Booklist

Given the personality and ambitions of Hitler and the ideological nature of the Nazi regime, the outbreak of WWII in Europe is often seen as inevitable after the betrayal of the Czechs at Munich. Professor Overy doesn’t dispute the idea that, in the long term, military opposition to Hitler had to happen. However, the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939; the subsequent declaration of war by Britain and France; and the short-term military aspects of the conflict were the consequences of a series of decisions made by a small number of men during the months preceding the outbreak of war. Of course, we know how the story ends, but Overy effectively utilizes primary sources to build up dramatic tension as the clock ticks down. Some of his assertions and conclusions go against the grain and should generate controversy. Chamberlain, while not a a tower of strength, had no illusions concerning Hitler’s ultimate aims. The Poles may have hastened the outbreak of war by refusing to compromise over the city of Danzig. Hitler correctly anticipated a short war against Poland but neither sought nor expected a wider war. This is an interesting and often provocative description of Europe descending into an abyss. --Jay Freeman

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Jeff VINE VOICE on November 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Richard Overy's latest great book is a short book about a short, but very important period of time, the two weeks right before WW II started with the Nazi invasion of Poland.

We're taught today that the invasion of Poland was inevitable, Hitler was continuously resolute, and that there was little to be done or was done to stop the invasion.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong as Overy demonstrates. In fact, the invasion was postponed once, a number of very prominent Nazis were looking for a way out, Stalin was on the fence, Mussolini washed his hands of the whole thing, and there was almost continuous shuttle diplomacy up to and even a few days after the invasion on September 1. He renders this was a pace and economy that moves the reader along quickly, with just the right amount of detail.

Most WW II books are long because the war was long and global in scope. Overy has a knack for asking a basic question we think we know the answer to, and then demonstrating that at a minimum there is a lot we don't know, and doing it tersely and effectively. He did this before in his excellent 'Why the Allies Won' and he has done just as good a job here with 1939.

If you're a history buff, you'll love this book. It would be an ideal book for the holidays for anyone else interested in diplomacy, WW II, Nazi Germany, or the intersection of politics and war.

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29 of 36 people found the following review helpful By D. Halliday on December 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This short book concentrates very specifically on politics a few days either side of the German attack on Poland and on the expectations of the leadership of Germany, Poland, France and Britain.

The style achieves a balance between being easily readable and rigorous.

The author's thesis is that rather than the outbreak of a general war being foreordained, both sides suspected the other of bluffing. Hitler wanted only a local war (against Poland) in 1939 and given his earlier diplomatic successes, thought France and Britain would back down. France and Britain assumed that against their slightly bigger combined war potential, Germany would not be so rash as to seriously follow through with a full scale war and Hitler could be made to back down by their warning that they would honour their pledge to protect Poland. He emphasises the role of personality, exhaustion and intuition in the diplomatic exchanges leading up to the eventual allied declarations of war.

The focus is likely to be too narrow for those with a casual interest in WWII. But for those with a deeper interest, this book is unsatisfying. Even with its narrow focus, it's so short that it leaves out relevant detail available from more general books. Another shortcoming is the absence of a timeline to make the narrative easier to follow.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By S. Smith-Peter on July 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is an interesting short look at the days leading up to the outbreak of WWII. When looking at history at this level of detail, the reader is able to feel how things might have gone differently. The hero of the book, quite unexpectedly, is Neville Chamberlain. Overy argues that Chamberlain felt personally betrayed by Hitler's response to Munich and was staunch in making the invasion of Poland the trigger for a general war. Hitler, it seems, really believed that Poland would be yet another in the series of regional wars that he had fought and won. The villain of the book (aside from Hitler of course) is the French foreign minister, Georges Bonnet, who does all he can to delay the declaration of war.

Overy's point is that the declaration of war was not inevitable and that it was possible - and Hitler was betting on it - that Hitler might have been allowed to take Poland like he did Czechoslovakia. Although not a massive book, it is tightly argued and written in an engaging way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Kurt A. Johnson TOP 1000 REVIEWER on April 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Preparing to launch what he hoped would be a limited war with Poland (that is to say against Poland alone), on August 24, 1939, Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered the German military to prepare to invade Poland on the morning of the 26th. However, on the 25th, Hitler was taken aback when a British-Polish Agreement of Mutual Assistance was announced, and he quickly postponed the invasion. But, in the days that followed, while the British and French governments sought to avoid war, Hitler was determined to launch a war against Poland and was only spending his time trying to ensure that the Western nations would not come to Poland's aid. This is the story of that brief week, from August 24 to September 3, as Europe teetered on the brink of war...and then fell over.

This is a very short book, on a very limited subject. It covers only about eleven days, examining what went on behind the scenes as the subject of war and peace was discussed in the capitals of Europe. There are no "bombshells" in this book, no recently declassified events that will change how you look at the beginning of World War 2. But, what it is is a very good, in-depth look at what was happening behind the scenes in the very final days before and into the War.

Now, if you are expecting a big book, full of important information, you will be disappointed. It's a small book, on a limited subject, and what it sets out to do it does very well indeed. So, if you know what this book is about before you pick it up, you will be quite pleased with it.
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