Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World by Patrick J. Buchanan, Random House, July 28th, 2009
This is a continuation of my journey into the alternative history of World War II which I have covered in a number of posts including two previous books that I reviewed which were The Phony Victory by Peter Hitchens and Stalin’s War by Sean McMeekin. The subject of this review is a good few years older than the other two and I had been meaning to read it for a number of years. It has lost none of its relevance today.
By coincidence, before beginning this review I had happened to re-watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When hero travels to the Austrian castle to rescue his father, there is a scene showing a group of Nazis busily planning European domination. This was in 1938 and a year before what is generally considered the beginning of World War II. In another scene shortly after we are told solemnly by the hero’s father that the Nazi “armies of darkness” will march across the earth if they obtain the Holy Grail. This is similar to the original film where they were after the Ark of the Covenant for the very same purpose. Buchanan’s book makes nonsense of such beliefs as at this very time, Germany was going out of its way to avoid war with the France and Britain and had no plans to dominate Europe and certainly no plan to dominate the world.
Yet this is generally believed by most today — even by otherwise well-read people. It is the assumption in virtually all forms of media on the subject including television shows, films and even video games such as the Wolfenstein series. There are certainly history books that have this as the historical narrative for World War II as a great crusade against totalitarianism. In truth, as McMeekin exhaustively showed in Stalin’s War, the very worst totalitarian regime was the key ally in “liberating” Europe and controlled most of Eastern Europe by the end including the very country Britain had entered the war to defend. And as Hitchens points out, the war was certainly no moral crusade for Britain and marked the end of British Empire with both the United States and the Soviet Union coming out as the dominant powers in the end.
Hitchens and Buchanan are actually comparable as both are not historians but have written works documenting the decline of their respective nations and both have also come to many of the same conclusions about the reality of World War II. Buchanan covers some of the same ground that Hitchens later would in his book which focused on Britain though Buchanan is far more scathing of Winston Churchill than Hitchens is. The main information is in the title and this book focuses very much on Hitler and Churchill and demonstrates that the latter was far more of a warmonger than the former.
The first part of the book covers the period before, during and after World War I and is for the most part uncontroversial. Unlike with World War II, the Great War is rarely defended as a moral crusade by historians or commentators and acknowledged as the malevolent industrial slaughter it was. Buchanan’s purpose in covering it is to show how wronged Germany was following the war — which again is generally acknowledged as a grievance that greatly aided Hitler’s rise to power.
Where the book really becomes interesting is when the narrative approaches the latter part of the 1930s. The mainstream history has each piece of territory Hitler took portrayed as steps to an ultimate plan to dominate Europe. In reality, he was merely taking back German territory lost after the First World War. The march into the Rhineland is considered particularly ominous but reality was very different:
“The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life,” Hiter later said. “If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs.”
Hardly the language of a tyrant bent on European domination and this is not an isolated example. Buchanan has examples leading all the way to the early stages of the war where Hitler still hoped to make peace with Britain and France. This includes personally calling off his forces from what could have been a slaughter of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. The latter of which is still considered a mythic victory when it was at best a successful but no less humiliating retreat. That this retreat only succeeded because the forces were given reprieve by their enemy give it even less significance. That the supposedly tyrannical Hitler allowed this in order to make peace terms puts a lie to Churchill’s subsequent rhetoric.
Buchanan also spends a great deal of time covering Britain’s guarantee to Poland and how ridiculous it was. Pointing out the geographically obvious that it was promising to defend a small landlocked nation being threatened on both sides by much larger neighbours. Britain had absolutely no ability to stop let alone intervene as the subsequent invasions proved. Worse, the guarantee made Poland more truculent about holding onto territory that was in fact peopled by ethnic Germans who did not want to be part of Poland. In covering this Buchanan reminds readers of the largely unknown truth that Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union and Germany and not just the latter. That while Britain was hostile to Germany’s attempts to merely take back their own territory, it was overlooking the blatant aggression of the Soviet Union against nations like Finland. It should also be remembered that Britain’s indignation was made more laughable by the territory they had conquered and controlled on almost every continent in the world at the time.
Buchanan quotes Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times writing after the war of what an alternative strategy:
There is no doubt whatsoever that it would have been to the interest of Britain, the United States, and the world to have allowed—and, indeed, to have encouraged—the world’s two great dictatorships to fight each other to a frazzle. Such a struggle, with its resultant weakening of both Communism and Nazism, could not but have aided in the establishment of a more stable peace. It would have placed the democracies in supreme power in the world, instead of elevating one totalitarianism at the expense of the other and of the democracies.
This would have made a lot more sense than making geopolitical promises that couldn’t be kept.
As in the title, Buchanan believes that World War II was an unnecessary war and the two chapters before the conclusion, Hitler’s Ambitions and the ironically titled Man of the Century consider Hitler and Churchill more specifically and are the most interesting parts of the book. Buchanan has no love for Mean Mister Moustache but little of the caricature we know of Hitler survives his analysis. As mentioned, it is clear he had no desire to dominate the whole of Europe and most of his focus leading up to the war was regaining lost German territory. Hitler certainly had no love for the Soviet Union and any territorial ambitions he did have were mostly focused on Eastern Europe. It is hard to believe that he would have ever invaded France had he not been threatened over his desire to reclaim Danzig which once again, was also the desire of the people living in Danzig. Considering the purpose of his invasion of Poland was reclaiming this territory, anyone with some sense of geography could quickly work out why any German government would not be displeased by it not being under German control.
Churchill comes out very badly and hardly the hero he is usually portrayed as. Though often called a racist and anti-Semite, much of Buchanan’s views are still consistent with modern outlook on racial issues and one of his attacks on Churchill was his racism which was not dissimilar to Hitler’s. From my perspective, this was one of the few aspects of his personality that made him more endearing:
To Churchill, Negroes were “niggers” or “blackamoors,” Arabs “worthless,” Chinese “chinks” or “pigtails,” Indians “baboos,” and South African blacks “Hottentots.”
Not very culturally sensitive, I guess. Buchanan goes into much more depth than this and documents his many blunders going back to the Boer War. And though he doesn’t say as much, it is not hard to see how Churchill could have had hidden operators pulling his strings throughout the war.
Buchanan does include more recent historians who generally support the mainstream narrative such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts as well as early histories of the war from A. J. P. Taylor and Churchill himself. A lot of the time he isn’t contradicting these authors but just making a different interpretation of the evidence they provide. I have not read Taylor (which is on my list), but I have read a few Buchanan uses by Ferguson and Roberts.
I haven’t felt the need to quote as extensively as I did with Stalin’s War because it goes over much of the ground I have written about before such as the immoral aerial bombing of German cities and the little-known ruthless displacement of many German people after the war that resulted in mass deaths. Hitchens also goes over this in The Phony Victory. Much of this information is not secret or denied and it is a positive step that it is becoming better known today.
What is important to emphasise is that little of what Buchanan claims in this book could be dismissed as “conspiracy”. He simply sheds light on things that are well known by historians of the war but usually absent or brushed over in mainstream histories such as in documentaries and school syllabi. As someone who was keenly interested in the war from a young age, there was little of this covered in the histories I studied or read and it was only my own curiosity aided by thoughtful men like Buchanan that brought this knowledge to light.
The next major read for me will certainly be Hitler’s War by David Irving which I’ve been curious to read for many years.