Known Knowns & Unknown Knowns

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The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion by Peter Hitchens
I.B. Tauris, August 30th, 2018

 

I recalled Peter Hitchens describing himself as the obituarist for Britain in some interviews with him I have viewed online. This was particularly true with regard to his book ‘The Abolition of Britian’ but it is the basic theme of the writing and public speaking for which he is most well-known. The no-nonsense, honest and cold assessment he documents of his homeland is often depressing and gloomy and I have found myself missing a world I never knew while reading his work. There is little room for optimism and outside of the spiritual reality of Christianity and he fundamentally isn’t optimistic about the future of his country.

Although I at first found this hard to accept, I have realised he is essentially correct. Even were the majority of the British to turn suddenly and swiftly back to the virtues and beliefs that made their country great, the country that was can not be resurrected. If such an unlikely event were to happen, it would be a creation – it would be new. It wouldn’t be what was lost. As the more sensible conservatives know; you can’t just bring back the 1950s. This is just cultural role-playing and no more sincere or serious than those on the right calling for a return to the pagan gods of old.

In The Phoney Victory Peter Hitchens takes on one of the last lingering moments of glory left to the British people (outside of their strange worship of their national health service) and lays bare the reality. In doing so, he doesn’t take away from the genuine courage displayed by many British or indeed take any shots where they aren’t warranted. He just exposes many myths as just that as well as the less savoury, though no less relevant aspects of Britian’s involvement in World War II.

Something I’ve wondered for a few years and never yet heard a good answer to is why we celebrate victory in a war that (even Australians), learn was entered into on behalf of Poland when by the end; Poland was still in much the same if not worse situation. A related question also concerned why it was not a concern that the Soviet Union also invaded Poland when Stalin and that regime were just as barbarous at each other? In general, we only celebrate the “liberation” of one half of Europe and with the deliberate cultural destruction that followed just a few decades later, it seems like Eastern Europe’s suffering may have been worth it to avoid the latter.

Peter Hitchens has obviously given a lot of thought to these and similar observations and his book does much to illuminate known but not well-known aspects of the war. To put it in Internet tabloid form, he destroys the myth that World War II was a moral war. I don’t have personal experience with how the modern British public feels about the war or if the average person really knows anything about it. Since the Nazis have been turned into these ridiculous cartoon-character type boogie men, it is hard for people to allow any nuance about the war at all today. Hitchens well knows this. So while to my eyes, the book doesn’t seem at all controversial, to people in general it very much is. And with the very silly and unrealistic view of Nazi Germany, someone who is very much against what that regime stood for but who is sensible enough to look at it realistically, is in an unenviable position.

Hitchens focus then is not to be any sort of apologist for the other side and actually Germany really isn’t focused on much at all for a book about World War II. Hitchens main focus is on his homeland and the reality of Britain’s situation before, at the beginning, during and at the end of the war. The completely empty promise to Poland is covered in the very first chapter and the second interestingly details an uncomfortable fact that Poland joined in with the invasion of Czechoslovakia before becoming the victim of two tyrannical neighbors.

The attitude of the United States towards Britain before the war is also covered extensively. Since the end of World War II the general image of the two countries is that of best friends but this was not at all the reality prior to the war. There was significant hostility among the American public and political class towards Britain and the help they were given prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor cost a lot of money. This is something I was aware of going in. My cynicism towards the “special relationship” is also helped by being an Australian and having heard American politicians say much the same thing about my own homeland that they do about Britain.

There are also a series of very repugnant incidents covered including a deliberate attack on French Navy ships by Britain ostensibly to prevent them from falling into German hands. Some utterly stupid strategic decisions by Winston Churchill which have been glossed over in the myth-making surrounding him. This includes his very real culpability for disasters such as the surrender of Singapore. Hitchens also points out that much of this is not hindsight but decisions that he made against the wishes of people who knew better. Churchill’s greatness is significantly deflated throughout the book though Hitchens is fair to the man and gives him all the credit due to him.

One of the most lengthy and moving was the chapter  “Gomorrah” on the deliberate policy by Britain of bombing civilians. This is something else I was quite familiar with as it was the focus of study for a history project back when I was in my final year of high school. I was even familiar with some of the works used in it. Like Hitchens, I share complete distaste for these bombings and it is yet another known but not well-known fact that as well as being immoral; these attacks were strategically ineffective. This was also well enough established during the war and yet they were continued regardless. As with many parts of the book discussed, Peter Hitchens has to deliberately distance himself from Nazi apologists who make similar arguments such as with the destruction of Dresden. But there can be little doubt that the average victim of one of these bombs was hardly likely to be in ideological conformity with the SS and Hitler’s inner-circle.

The final chapter before the conclusion discusses the disgraceful forced movement of ethnic Germans at the end of the war and the suffering entailed by them. Once again Hitchens is clear that pointing out bad things the “good” side did does not equate to sympathy with the enemy. The way he keeps doing this suggests that most of the responses he expects in reaction to the book is emotional rather than rational. As stated at the beginning, Hitchens generally covers depressing subject matter but there is a positive message. This is that truth, however uncomfortable, is more important than lies or omissions. Indeed the first time I mentioned Hitchens on this blog was in praise of his unabashed passion for the Truth.

The Phoney War isn’t a book of new or exciting revelations about World War II. It simply covers facts that are known to many professional historians but excluded in the general narrative about World War II as it is popularly known. As in my lifetime, the events of the war have become increasingly mythologised due to a mixture of time, propaganda and ever increasing public ignorance of the war; this is timely and important book. Despite the emotional response that this will provoke in many, Peter Hitchens leaves plenty of room to be proud of the bravery of your forbears while acknowledging that the men leading them often made immoral or foolish decisions. Further, one can never honour the past by shying away or being deliberately misleading about the truth.

One final note I should make is that from a literary standpoint, this is probably the best book I’ve ever read by Peter Hitchens. This will probably be less-appreciated by the average reader but I found much of what was covered even more moving due to the passion and mastery in his writing style.

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