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In Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931–1941 (Basic Books, 2010), Joe Maiolo proposes (I want to write "demonstrates," but please read the book and judge for yourself) two remarkably insightful theses. The first is that the primary result of the disaster that was World War I was not the even great catastrophe that was World War II, but rather a new kind of state and one that is still with us. Maiolo's argument goes something like this. World War I caught the Great Powers flatfooted. They did not believe they were going to fight a protracted war; they thought things would be done quickly and with the men and materiel on hand. Instead, things bogged down and a massive war of attrition--something they had no experience with--ensued. In order to fight this war successfully (meaning to stay in it for the long term), the Great Powers had to fundamentally restructure their economies, something no state had ever had to do, at least in modern time. In a word, the government took over production and distribution in order to optimize the flow of arms and supplies. Many statesmen found this move objectionable, but all believed it necessary. Once the war was over, they remained convinced that the only way to deter their enemies and, in the case they couldn't, fend them off, was to retain control of large segments of the economy and plan to take control of even larger segments. The ability to make war on a World-War-I scale and for a World-War-I duration had to be built into the "plan." Thus the leaders of all the Great Powers effectively militarized their economies in anticipation of the next great conflict. The military industrial complex was born three decades before Eisenhower put a name on it.
Maiolo's second insight has to do with the origins of World War II itself. Most historians agree that it was "Hitler's War." He planned it, he armed Germany for it, and he started it. Maiolo doesn't necessarily disagree with this position, but he offers an interesting counter-factual that puts it in a different light. What if there had been no Hitler? Would the statesmen of Europe have avoided a second great conflict? Maiolo suggests not, and for an interesting reason. Several of the Great Powers--the Soviets and Germans in particular--were very dissatisfied with the settlement at Versailles. They would not stand pat in any case. Given what we know about Soviet and German plans for and movements toward rearmament before 1933 (thanks, it should be said, to Maiolo's own research), it is not clear that leaders other Stalin or Hitler might not have done exactly what Stalin and Hitler did in 1939, that is, take what they felt was rightfully "theirs" by force of arms. And as Maiolo shows, they would have had plenty of arms at their disposal in any case. The Europeans were going to go at again; it was simply a question of when.
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