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The Origins of the Second World War
The Nature of the Topic
Only fools study whole syllabuses; the wise select prominent topics, which regularly form exam questions. The growth of international tension in Europe in the 1930s, culminating in the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, is certainly one such theme. But it is not a self-contained topic. Ideally, it should be studied in conjunction with allied issues, such as the Versailles Settlement; Appeasement; Fascism in Italy; and, above all, the history of the Third Reich. If you adopt such a broad-based strategy, you will be in a good position to tackle several questions in a typical exam. One topic will reinforce another, adding an air of authority to your work.
The Vital First Steps
Try to gain an overview: if you can form a ‘mental map’ of the key factors, events and personalities, you will find it much easier later on to add factual depth and to master the differing interpretations historians have put forward. Start with Versailles and the treaty provisions which gave Germany a sense of grievance but left her potentially very strong. At this stage it is a good idea to consult a decent historical atlas. Then examine the 1920s and the degree to which there was peaceful revision. For the 1930s, you should be more detailed: compile your own chronological table of key events, noting not only what happened but also its significance. Return to the atlas again to see the results of Hitler’s territorial acquisitions. You also need a brief knowledge of the Second World War, including Hitler’s invasion of the USSR from June 1941. Mastering the narrative of events is absolutely vital - it is a precondition to genuine understanding - even though you yourself will not need to reproduce such a narrative.
Now you must focus on important areas of analysis. These must include the following:
There are many other questions with which you should grapple.
There are good textbooks in the Access to History and the Seminar Studies series. But Philip Bell’s Origins of the Second World War in Europe (Longman, 1986) is strongly recommended. Everyone should at least dip into A.J.P. Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War (Penguin, 1964): provocative, one-sided, sometimes misleading, it is also brilliantly written and, at times, supremely witty. I doubt if anyone can read it without laughing aloud at least a dozen times.
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