The Magazine

World War II Revised

Apparently, the Good War was a Bad Idea.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By WINSTON GROOM
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Churchill, Hitler, and the "Unnecessary War"

How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World

by Patrick J. Buchanan

Crown, 544 pp., $29.95

Human Smoke

The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

by Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, 576 pp., $30

Here come two very odd bedfellows: the right-wing battle-axe Patrick Buchanan, and the left-wing novelist Nicholson Baker, each dredging up the mendacious argument that Britain and America had no business fighting World War II. Buchanan even throws in World War I for good measure. Both volumes are apparently intended to counter the upsurge in World War II literature such as Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers, and other works that extol the virtues and sacrifices of the Allied victory over the Axis powers.

Debunking those themes has been a favorite subject of fringe historians since the 1950s and '60s, most notably by one of Buchanan's primary sources, the revisionist Englishman A.J.P. Taylor, among whose notions was that Great Britain should have aligned herself with Soviet Russia instead of the Allies during the Cold War. Buchanan's polemic offers little beyond a rehash of the revisionists, except that, as usual, his verbiage is always in your face like a hot breath, spewing out facts, figures, and conclusions so contradictory it's akin to coming upon a man on a park bench arguing with himself.

Haranguing that it was Winston Churchill and the British, not Hitler, who started World War II, Buchanan reaches back to the beginning, which he rightly sees as the First World War. There is nothing wrong with this, for history shows that without World
War I there would never have been a World War II. Where Buchanan strays from common sense, however, is in placing the blame for WWI on Britain, and in particular on Churchill, whom he despises. Thoughtfully, he even provides a possible motive--his own Irish upbringing: "I yet recall hearing, as a child in the 1940s," Buchanan writes, "how the Lusitania had been carrying contraband, how the tales of German atrocities in Belgium had been lies, how the British had sent 'Black and Tans' to shoot down Irish patriots," and so forth.

By the turn of the 20th century, Germany had turned itself into an economic power straining to get in on the scramble for Africa, though all that remained by then were scraps. That was where the trouble started. The young Kaiser Wilhelm II was something of a crank and military nut who had ditched his great diplomat Bismarck to embark on a gigantic naval program that would rival the British Fleet. The British were understandably alarmed; as Churchill wondered later, "What did Germany want this great navy for? Against whom, except us, could she measure it, match it, or use it?"

During the next decade, the kaiser proceeded to disturb the peace of Europe by provoking a series of "crises" in an effort to horn in on the French and British empires. In the meantime he trundled out the old complaint (first lodged by Fredrick the Great) of Germany being "encircled" by her enemies (meaning France and Russia) and used this as an excuse to raise a five-million-man army.

The powder keg exploded in June 1914, when a Serbian fanatic shot and killed the heir to the throne of Germany's ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrians presented Serbia with a furious ultimatum, and when the Serbians complied, the Austrians attacked them anyway, bombarding Belgrade. In response to this, Russia, which had strong ties to the Slavic people, ordered a partial mobilization of her army, which prompted the Germans to issue Russia an ultimatum to stop mobilizing, or else. When she did not, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, and two days later on France as well.

The overarching tragedy lay in a war plan the Germans had relied on for years in case hostilities broke out, the Schlieffen Plan, which called for an immediate German attack through Belgium on France, never mind that Belgium had declared herself a neutral since 1839, or that Britain and France were pledged by treaty to honor Belgium's neutrality. On August 3, Britain finally delivered an ultimatum of her own, giving the Germans until midnight to quit invading Belgium. When the ultimatum was ignored, a state of war was declared, prompting the melancholy observation of the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."