Patrick J. Buchanan, in Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War (reviewed in Freedom Daily in three parts, beginning here), charges British statesmen with blundering into wars that resulted in the devastation of Europe and the fall of their empire. It is not surprising that this book has a caused a stir, for it draws into question the reputation of the iconic Winston Churchill and presents a provocative revisionist interpretation of the Second World War.
Buchanan’s central thesis is that the war guarantee given to Poland by the British government in 1939 transformed a German-Polish dispute into a general European war, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of people and unimaginable destruction. The war guarantee effectively put the decision for war in the hands of the Polish government. It also encouraged Polish intransigence in the face of Germany’s demand that Danzig, a German city, be returned to the Reich. Furthermore, the war guarantee was inexplicably stupid, for Britain and France were in no position to honor it.
That is not a new argument. Many historians and scholars have supported it, including the late George F. Kennan, who wrote in a letter to Buchanan that the British government “would have done better to shut up, to rearm as speedily as possible, and to avoid further formal commitments of any sort, while awaiting the further turn of events.”
Of course, events did turn out differently, so it is up to Buchanan to speculate and offer a counterfactual history. His point is this: had it not been for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s presentation of a war guarantee to Poland, Adolf Hitler, who did not want war with Britain, would not have attacked the West; he would have acquired Danzig or conquered Poland before attacking the Soviet Union. The war would have been restricted to the East. It was Britain’s and France’s declaration of war that lured Hitler westward and led to the Nazi conquest of Western Europe in 1940.
The image of Hitler painted by Buchanan is that of a man who was ruthless but very aware of his country’s limited resources and reasonable in the conduct of his foreign policy. That view conflicts with the conventional comic-book image of Hitler as a bloodthirsty, mad dictator bent on world domination.
Buchanan points out that Hitler’s ambitions were confined to the European continent, and he never entertained notions of world conquest. He envisioned a Germanic empire extending into European Russia. This objective did not require war with the West. That is not to say that Hitler’s regime wasn’t a threat, but it does suggest that there were alternatives to a general war in 1939.
There is ample evidence to support Buchanan’s argument. Hitler devoted considerable resources to establishing the Siegfried Line, a defensive system on Germany’s western borders designed to ward off an invasion. As historian A.J.P. Taylor asked, If Hitler had planned all along to invade France, why did he build extensive fortifications up and down the Rhineland? As for Hitler’s ambitions, Buchanan quotes the Führer himself:
Everything that I undertake is directed against Russia; if the West is too stupid and too blind to understand this, then I will be forced to reach an understanding with the Russians, smash the West, and then turn all my concentrated strength against the Soviet Union. I need the Ukraine so that no one can starve us out again as in the last war.
Hitler made several peace overtures to Britain before and after France’s capitulation on June 22, 1940. While he ordered his generals to draw up plans for an invasion of England, he was never serious about it. Buchanan writes,
After overrunning France, Hitler stopped at the Pyrenees. He asked Franco for passage through Spain to attack Gibraltar. Denied, he abandoned the idea. He did not demand that France turn over its battle fleet, the fourth largest in the world, as Germany had been forced to do in 1918. He did not demand France’s North African colonies. He did not demand access to French bases in the Middle East to threaten Suez. He visited Paris, saw the Eiffel Tower, went home, and began to plan the invasion of Russia, preliminary orders for which went out in July 1940 — before the Battle of Britain had even begun.
Buchanan’s study extends as far back as the Great War. He rightly criticizes British statesmen, such as Winston Churchill, Herbert Asquith, and Lord Grey, for abandoning the policy of “splendid isolation” and plunging their country into the European war that had broken out in July 1914. He writes,
What would have happened if Britain had declared neutrality and stayed out? The Germans would have triumphed in France as in 1870 or there would have been a stalemate and armistice. The United States would have not come in. No American or British soldiers and many fewer French and Germans would have died. A victorious Kaiser would have taken some French colonies in Africa, which would have replaced one British colonial rival with another. The Germans would have gone home victorious, as they did in 1871.
The Great War was a cataclysm from which Western civilization has never recovered. It took the lives of ten million people, swept away three European monarchies (Romanov, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern), and left a legacy of bitterness and rancor throughout the continent.
George Kennan speculated a half-century ago, in his American Diplomacy, on what might have been if not for the Great War:
Today if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe — well, there would be objections to it from many quarters, and it wouldn’t make everyone happy, but in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems today.
Buchanan rightly condemns the Treaty of Versailles as a monument to stupidity and vengeance. The treaty placed blame on Germany alone for the war when, in fact, other parties to the conflict also bore responsibility for the slaughter. And while Woodrow Wilson claimed the United States entered the war in 1917 to guarantee the right to “self determination,” the victorious Allies refused that right to Germans living throughout Central Europe, which later allowed Hitler, once in power, to make territorial claims against Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
It is important to remember that Britain’s “finest hour” was largely a predicament brought about by Winston Churchill’s own blunders. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was the Cabinet’s strongest advocate for war against Germany in 1914. He ruthlessly imposed the hunger blockade and maintained it until June 1919, seven months after the Armistice. He demanded the toughest line possible against any revision of the Versailles Treaty and thus unwittingly helped the Nazis to gain power. As a Conservative backbencher in Parliament, he cheered Chamberlain’s war guarantee. Buchanan provides a magnificent quotation from British historian Correlli Barnett:
The plight of the summer 1940 … marked the consummation of an astonishing decline in British fortunes. The British invested their feebleness and isolation with a romantic glamour — they saw themselves as latter-day Spartans, under their own Leonidas, holding the pass for the civilized world. In fact, it was a sorry and contemptible plight for a great power, and it derived neither from bad luck, nor from the failures of others. It had been brought down upon the British by themselves.
The Second World War produced ghastly crimes, not all them committed by the Axis Powers. The terror bombing of German cities and the deliberate targeting of civilian population centers violated the established rules of civilized warfare. The forced repatriation of Russians, Cossacks, and Ukrainians by the Allies as well as the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe should be counted among the war’s great crimes.
What about Churchill’s apparent admiration of Joseph Stalin, a dictator as ruthless and murderous as Hitler? One could argue that an alliance with Stalin was necessary to defeat Hitler, but to fawn over him the way Churchill did was inexcusable.
Soon after Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Churchill spoke in praise of Britain’s new ally: “The Russian danger … is our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of any free man and free people in every quarter of the globe.” In 1942, upon his return from Moscow, Churchill in Parliament referred to Stalin as “this great rugged war chief” and said of him,
He is a man of massive outstanding personality, suited to the sombre and stormy times in which his life has been cast; a man of inexhaustible courage and will-power and a man of direct and even blunt speech…. Above all, he is a man with that saving sense of humour which is of high importance to all men and all nations, but particularly to great men and great nations. Stalin left upon me the impression of a deep, cool wisdom and a complete absence of illusions of any kind.
Buchanan writes that “to appease his great ally, Churchill would agree to Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic republics, his plunder from the devil’s pact with Hitler, and turn a blind eye to the Katyn massacre.”
When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Kennan opined that insofar as U.S. interests were concerned, aid might be given to the Soviet Union, but that “we should do nothing at home to make it appear that we are following the course Churchill seems to have entered upon in extending moral support to the Russian cause.”
By 1941, Hitler’s victims could still be numbered in the thousands while Stalin had already claimed most of his 20 million victims. How was it morally obvious that Great Britain and the United States should come to the aid of Soviet Russia?
Many argue that Hitler’s crimes were so horrible that the war was a necessary price to pay to rid the world of him. But the Final Solution was a consequence of the war, not its cause. The planned annihilation of European Jewry did not begin until 1941, and the infamous Wannsee Conference was held in January 1942, more than two years after the war began. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Nazi Germany’s policy towards its Jewish population was emigration, a policy frustrated by the refusal of many countries to accept Jewish immigrants. If war had been averted in the West, the Jews of France, Holland, Denmark, and Italy would have been spared. Furthermore, the Allies’ military strategy did not factor in the lives of the millions of Jews held hostage by Hitler’s SS. Indeed, the Allied demand for “unconditional surrender” helped seal their fate by needlessly prolonging the war.
Buchanan’s book is not groundbreaking, but it is superbly written and it promises to popularize an interpretation of a history that has, until now, been overshadowed by the triumphalism of the postwar period. Buchanan’s subtitle, How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, is important because it points to another thesis, that Great Britain, by waging a series of avoidable and foolish wars, bankrupted herself and fell from being a Great Power. As her imperial successor, the United States should take heed of the British experience in the 20th century.