To some extent or another, war guilt is arbitrary. The righteousness of the cause is what really determines war guilt, not any kind of intent or physical action. As long as one side is considered to have been morally justified, it doesn't matter what they do in pursuit of their aims, the actions are justified purely due to the the perceived inherent "goodness" of the side perusing them. This is why the Allies can firebomb upwards of 500,000 German civilians in WW2 and people will make excuses for them, attempting to justify these heinous acts of barbarism when had the Germans been responsible, we'd never hear the end of it.
And indeed, we do never heard the end of it when it comes to the German bombings of Coventry, Rotterdam and Warsaw, collectively the death figures of the combined civilian losses wouldn't even break 10,000, and nobody is willing to stress how cities like Warsaw and Coventry were legitimate military targets. As was Rotterdam I imagine, although I'd have to check up on that; nonetheless, the Rotterdam bombing was a mistake, and was called off at the very last minute but nonetheless it was too late for a few of the bombers who didn't find out in time. Still we hear again and again about the bombings of these cities, while there's conspicuously always silence from the same "arbiters" of morality when it comes to the bombing of cities like Dresden. Such people seek to delegitimize the death and suffering of the Germans of such cities because they hate "Nazis", not because they give a damn about human lives. Even if you accepted the now official 25,000 figure for the losses at Dresden, it's still twice as high as the figures for those cities bombed by Germans put together, yet that's all we hear about.
The example of the bombing war is a perfect display of the arbitrariness of guilt. By all accounts the Allies are the worst offenders, yet because they're perceived to have been de facto morally superior to the Germans, it doesn't matter even if they commit and allow the same actions they subsequently indict the Germans for.
This is also perfectly displayed by the question of war guilt. In order to "confront" Hitler, the Allies had to try and win over the Soviet Union. We see from the documentary record the effort by the Allies to try and convince Poland to accept Soviet "help" (by allowing passage of the Red Army into Poland) in a conflict with Germany, admitting in the process that there's nothing that they could do to help her without the Soviet Unions support. This meant appeasing the Soviet Union. The British foreign secretary Viscount Halifax expressed his frustration in this respect to Kennard the British Ambassador in Warsaw on August 17th, 1939 saying thus:
If the outcome of the Moscow negotiations depends on Poland's consent to the Soviet march-through, then the Moscow negotiations have already failed. For the Polish government says no to the Soviet-French-English demands as coldly and firmly as to those of Hitler. Still on the threshold of war and doom, the Poles refuse to negotiate with the Reich as well as to consent to the Red Army waging war from Polish soil.
Michael Freund, Geschichte des Zweiten Weltkrieges in Dockumenten, Vol. III, Der Ausbruch des Krieges 1939 (München, 1956), Pp. 100.
The Poles would not accept the insistent demands of the British and French to allow Soviet troops into Poland, nor was she willing to accept any German offers, or to even negotiate on any offers. The Poles were obviously the ones who made the war inevitable in the end, which Halifax shows, but nonetheless the Allies could do nothing without help from the Soviets, and they probably knew what would happen once they gave the Russians an inch. But they didn't care, because if it meant that Hitler was going to make it one step closer to autarky, he had to be stopped.
In another instance we can observe the British attempting to woo
the Communists by offering them the Balkans, contrary to their policy of "protecting" small states, they were quite willing to see those countries swallowed up by the Soviet Union if it meant preserving the "balance of power" and preventing Germany from becoming dominant in Europe. This is borne out by a wire report to Berlin from the German ambassador in Moscow, von der Schulenburg on July 13th 1940, who was reporting on a meeting held between Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador to the Soviet Union and Stalin himself as related by Molotov:
Molotov informed me today that the British Ambassador here, Cripps, had been received by Stalin a few days ago at the request of the British Government. On this occasion Molotov handed me a record of the conversation on Stalin's orders.
Cripps asked for the Soviet Government's opinion on the following questions:
1.) British Government was convinced that Germany was striving for supremacy over Europe and wanted to swallow up all European states. This was a danger both to the Soviet Union and to England. Therefore, both countries should agree on a common line of self-protection against Germany and for the purpose of restoring the European balance.Alfred Seidl (ed.), Die Beziehungen zwischen Deutschland und der Sowjetunion 1939–1941 (H. Laupp'sche Buchhandlung, Tübingen, 1949), Doc. 148, p. 194-195.
2.) Independently of this, England would like to trade with the Soviet Union on condition that England's export goods would not be resold to Germany.
3.) British Government believes that the Soviet Union deserves to unite and lead the Balkan states for the purpose of maintaining the status quo. This serious mission, under present circumstances, could be accomplished only by Soviet Union.
4.) The British Government was aware that the Soviet Union was dissatisfied with the regime in the Straits and the Black Sea. Cipps was of the opinion that the interests of the Soviet Union in the straits should indeed be safeguarded.
In plain language, it was in the interests of Britain to maintain the "status quo" in Europe - which was her true concern, not the ex post facto
moral justification of preventing "aggression" against other European countries - and in order to do this she would allow the Soviet Union to invade the Balkans. Stalin however, was quite explicit in his reply to the British offer, and refused to do any of this (which of course he later reneged on when it suited him by toppling the Yugoslav government etc.) and quite explicitly positioned himself against any attempts by the British to restore the status quo which benefitted them, stating:
The previous so-called European equilibrium had weighed down not only Germany but also the Soviet Union. Therefore, the Soviet Union would take all measures to ensure that the old equilibrium in Europe would not be restored.
Ibid., p. 195.
As a result of this, did the British decide to consider the Soviets as much of a "threat" as National Socialist Germany? No. Even though Stalin had expressed to them that he was principally against their entire war aim, which is what made Germany a "threat" and a cause for war in the first place, the British didn't apply the same consistent logic toward the Soviets. Any moral justifications the British had were nothing more than a pretext to justify their own war of economic conquest in Europe, to stifle German independence and peruse their own interests. Which is fine in principle, but the problem lies in the lie itself, which is that the British had somehow a more "noble" cause than Hitler. When in truth, Hitler by all metrics had a much more noble cause than the British.
After the war between Germany and Poland broke out, and the Soviets invaded Eastern Poland on September 17th, the British were trying their damndest to avoid consistently applying the logic they used to indict Germany against the Soviet Union:
we should not let Western statesmen off the hook. British and French leaders chose to swallow Molotov’s lies about Stalin reclaiming former Soviet territory not because the lies were clever, but because they wanted to believe them, so as to avoid armed entanglement with the USSR at a time when they were already having trouble figuring out how to defeat Germany alone. As Foreign Minister Halifax explained to the British war cabinet on September 17, 1939, he and the French ambassador, Charles Corbin, had earlier agreed that the “provisions of the Anglo-Polish Agreement would not come into operation as a result of Soviet aggression against Poland, since the Agreement provided for action to be taken by His Majesty’s Government only if Poland suffered aggression from a European power.” In their grasping for legal straws to avoid entanglement with Stalin, Halifax and Corbin had adopted the view of Slavophile intellectuals that Russia was not really a European country. Realizing how absurd this sounded, Halifax informed the war cabinet that, whatever the text of the agreement may have said, there was an unwritten “understanding between the two governments” of Britain and France “that the European power in question was Germany.” “On this interpretation,” Halifax concluded in his odd legal briefing, “Great Britain was not bound by treaty to become involved in war with the U.S.S.R. as a result of their invasion of Poland. M. Corbin has indicated that the French Government took the same view.” The Allied cause was not one of principled objection to armed aggression as such, but to German aggression specifically. Hitler’s invasion of Poland, less cynically camouflaged than Stalin’s, was easier to grandstand against.
Sean McMeekin, Stalin's War: A New History of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2021), Pp. 110-111.
The responsibility for the war must lie with the ill considered British insistence on a war with Germany over her internationally recognized moral grievances over Danzig and the corridor. Regardless of Hitler's ambitions, whatever one would say about that, the actions and motives of the British and her allies cannot be swept under the rug and ignored. Nor can the impact of their decisions which clearly led to the world conflagration known as the Second World War.
Again we see that the British were hardly consistent in their logic, in fact they were outright hypocrites, as the Allied "hero" of the war Winston Churchill will show us again in a moment.
The concern for Britain was not Poland but Germany. The British knew when the pact was signed between Berlin and Moscow what that would mean for their efforts in avoiding a conflict in Eastern Europe to prevent Germany getting back what rightfully belonged to her. Yet Britain insisted on aiding Polish intransigence with her blank cheque, and didn't encourage mediation, but instead continued to do nothing and promote delays. These actions were irresponsible and saddle her with much of the guilt for the war which broke out. As the German historian H.W. Koch points out:
Especially after the conclusion of the Russo-German Pact Hitler could legitimately hope that it nullified any hopes the Poles might entertain of Anglo-French military intervention on their behalf. And even if the Poles persisted in not giving way to Hitler's claims without the use of force, Hitler, who could not know the secret stipulation of the Anglo-Polish treaty, according to which the British guarantee was limited to the sole contingency of German aggression, had to assume that it applied also to Russian intervention in Poland. Since this meant war between the Russo-German alliance and the Anglo-French-Polish combination, a war in which neither French nor British could do anything effective to aid their Polish ally, there was good reason to suppose that Britain and France would not aid their ally. In Hitler's view if the Poles had any sense of realities they would see it the same way. The extent to which Hitler discounted Anglo-French intervention is best seen when one looks at the troop dispositions on Germany's western frontier between September and October 1939. Moreover Hitler and Ribbentrop tried very hard to get Russian military demonstrations on Poland's eastern frontier prior to 1 September 1939 (which Stalin and Molotov judicially avoided). This is surely inconsistent with the thesis underlying Walter Hofer's book War Premeditated: the thesis that in 1939, Hitler's objective was war (a war of which Chamberlain in 1938 had deprived him), for this kind of demonstration would have been the likeliest thing to make Poland more amenable to German demands, and thus kill Hitler's chance of having his own little war. One can hardly exclude the possibility that in spite of all Hitler was aware that another diplomatic victory might not be granted to him. But weighing the possibilities it seems likely that Hitler gambled in the conviction that the odds, or providence, as he would have put it, favoured this.
H.W. Koch, Hitler and the Origins of the Second World War. Second Thoughts on the Status of Some of the Documents, The Historical Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1968), Pp. 142.
This also refutes the argument used by those who want to blame Hitler, that somehow he should've known that the British would've been so stupid and irresponsible as to continue her phoney moral crusade against Germany if she invaded Poland. The claim, as it often goes, that Hitler had been "warned" by a country who in reality could do nothing without Soviet help, of which the Poles didn't want to accept, and which the Germans deprived her of all possibilities of attaining on August 23rd 1939 when the non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia was signed. To expect Hitler to have taken them seriously thus stretches credulity beyond the realm of suspendable disbelief. Hitler, by all measures, took a risk that to any sane person viewing the cards at play could only conclude was a safe bet.
The ultimate responsibility therefore lies disproportionately with the British. Keep in mind, these facts still stand, regardless of Hitler's intentions. No "whataboutism" can save the Allies from their own duplicitous actions which have been there for all to see since the very beginning, and which do not go away no matter the German intentions. These facts which the arbiters of morality know about, but judicially avoid discussing because it makes the claim that Germany was solely guilty for starting the war look like nothing more than an attempt to cover ones eyes and ears to the reality of the situation, which was that the British weren't the morally righteous policemen of the world, but instead self-interested hypocrites who would appease the Soviet Union and sell-out any countries in Eastern Europe they needed to in order to maintain the "status quo". Which is exactly what they did with regard to the Balkans as we've already seen, but also to Poland, the Baltic countries, and Finland.
Winston Churchill on October 1st, 1939 commented on how the Soviet invasion of Poland was "justified" because it was in the "interests of its own safety", an argument which really has no validity in terms of the Soviet Union and her geographic position, but which nonetheless could legitimately be applied to Germany in her invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia, but which Churchill would feel repulsed to admit:
October 1, 1939, in the first of a series of wartime radio addresses on the BBC, Churchill defended the USSR’s invasion of eastern Poland “in the interests of its own safety” and pointed out that the forward Soviet position there posed a roadblock to German expansion.
McMeekin, op cit., p. 112.
The admission therefore, is that the Soviet Union is justified in doing exactly what Germany did, but for dubious reasons, but that's "okay" because the aim is stifling German expansion, not Russian expansion.
In a meeting of the war cabinet on November 16, 1939, Churchill went still further in endorsing Stalinist aggression. “No doubt it appeared reasonable to the Soviet Union,” Churchill argued, “to take advantage of the present situation to regain some of the territory which Russia had lost as a result of the last war, at the beginning of which she had been the ally of France and Great Britain.” That Hitler had used the same justification for Germany’s territorial claims on Poland either did not occur to Churchill or did not bother him. Nor did it trouble him that, as he predicted, Stalin would shortly apply the same rationale “not only to the Baltic territories, but also to Finland.” Far from being opposed to Soviet aggression, Churchill argued that “it was in our [British] interests that the USSR should increase their strength in the Baltic, thereby limiting the risk of German domination of this area.” The imperative for British policy in the short term, he argued, was to avoid making the “mistake” of trying to “stiffen the Finns against making concessions to the USSR.”
Far from being "principled" opponents of military aggression, Churchill and his ilk were staunch proponents of it!
The question of "war guilt" is thus further muddied by the poisoned well of the moral pre-disposition of taking the Allies and their justifications for the war at their word.