Arms Races and the Origins of the Second World War, 1929-1941.

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: War Studies


The causes of World War Two continue to fascinate scholars. Appeasement policy, the wellsprings of fascism and the coherence of the Nazi programme of destruction provoke heated debate. Over the last thirty years, historians have pored over the documents and a rich literature on the foreign and defence policies of the great powers has emerged. Some questions appear to have answers / or at least ambiguous ones - while others, such as the reality behind Soviet calculations, are open to fresh research. One important question, however, remains neglected: What was the relationship between arms races and the coming of global war in 1939-41? This neglect at first appears puzzling. In the Cold War, the causal link between nuclear weapons and international stability was a matter of survival. Tirpitz, dreadnoughts and the flurry of last-minute army laws all find their place in every text on the Great War. Why not the 1930s? The answers are clear enough. In the initial phase of research, consulting the vast body of archival material to make sense of armaments objectives of all the Great Powers presented an impossible challenge. Scholars naturally concentrated on national policies. Some specialists even questioned whether there were interstate processes distinct enough to label 'arms races'. And, above all else, the debate about war in 1939 revolves around personalities / Hitler, Chamberlain, Stalin and Daladier / their choices and the limitations on their freedom to choose. In other words, the determinism of Sir Edward Grey's explanation for 1914 / that 'the enormous growth of armaments in Europe, the sense of insecurity and fear caused by them / it was these that made war inevitable' / does not sit comfortably beside a preoccupation with the culpability of statesmen. Recent work on 1914, however, demonstrates that exploring the arms race of the 1930s is a worthy and feasible project. David Herman investigates the perceptions and calculations of general staffs in The Arming of Europe the Making of the First World War (1996), while David Stevenson analyses the 'militarization of diplomacy' in Armaments and the Coming of War (1996). Both historians go beyond the obvious conclusion that the build-up of weapons was a precondition for war and they both reject the determinism of Sir Edward Grey's verdict. To provide a historically sound and concrete analysis, Herman and Stevenson reconstruct the arms race at two levels: as a distinct interstate process of competition and as an empowering and constraining influence on the statesmen of 1914. Similar methods can be applied to the 1930s with equally rewarding results. We need to understand how the 'system' of arms competition shaped national policy and decisions for war. Arms races are competitions between states. To understand how an arms race unfolds and influences international politics, the historian must examine how actions and reactions criss-crossed frontiers. For the interwar period, no historian has set out to capture the dynamic of global competition in land, sea and air armaments or to explore the connections between the arms race and the coming of World War Two. This project proposes to do so.


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