A Questionable Counterfactual: Could World War II Really Have Been Avoided?

In an interview with the German newspaper, the Osnabrücker Zeitung, the historian and former head of the Institut for Zeitgeschichte in Munich, Horst Möller, answered a variety of questions pertaining to the Second World War.  Notably, the content of the interview, sensationalistically entitled “The Second World War Could Have Been Avoided,” was full of counterfactual questions and answers.

The first was “could the war have been avoided?”  In responding to this question, Möller criticized the Treaty of Versailles for creating many “problems involving national minorities,” for example, three million Sudeten Germans on the German border with Czechoslovakia.  “One possible way of avoiding the war would have been to pursue a more reasonable set of Peace Treaties that would have addressed the problems.”

He added that a second way to have avoided the war would have been for the Allies to respond to Hitler’s aggressive actions in 1935/36 – for example his remilitarization of the Rhineland – “with more decisiveness.”

Asked to assess the importance of the Hitler-Stalin pact for the war’s outbreak and whether it “would have been imaginable without it?” Möller noted that Hitler was committed to war by 1937 (as shown by the famous Hossbach Memorandum), but that the pact was still “decisive” as it “minimized Hitler’s risk” of invading Poland.  “Without the pact,” he asserted, “the war would not have unfolded as it did.” 

Finally, in answering the question whether “Hitler was primarily responsible for the war?” Möller replied, “without Hitler, the Second World War would not have transpired as it did, neither in its radicalism or timing.”  Even if Hitler’s task was made easier by Stalin, “he was the main guilty party, with plenty of helpers.”

Möller's answers are basically sound.  He judiciously balances between the primary and secondary factors responsible for the war's eruption.

That said, his claim that the war could have been avoided is not very convincing.  Given Hitler's commitment to war, it would have been extremely difficult for the Allies to have kept him from trying to realize his goals through force.  

To be fair, it doesn't seem that Müller's main goal was to emphasize the war's counterfactual dimensions.  More likely, the journalist conducting the interview wanted to emphasize them for publicity purposes.   We all know that "what if?" claims garner attention.  The interview is notable for concentrating its focus as much on what might have happened as what did. Perhaps this focus represents the new default perspective for journalists hoping to spice up their coverage historical topics.  It has certainly been seen in lots of European and American media articles about recent historical events, for example, the hundredth anniversary of World War I.  Whether the trend continues remains to be seen, but its prominence is quite clear.