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."

In Patrick Buchanan's view, the British decision to enter the war over Belgium was slick hypocrisy; in fact, he claims that a secret cabal of British diplomats--including a young Churchill, at the time first lord of the Admiralty--had already committed Britain to fight Germany in the event of an attack on France, and that the reason for this was Britain's desire to rid herself of Germany as an economic rival, as well as for British security.

Buchanan apparently deduced this notion from the teachings of the revisionist Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, presently instructing at Harvard, who promulgated it in his book The Pity of War. A contrarian of the Taylor school, Ferguson specializes in what might be called what-if history, and likewise blames the British for starting the war; e.g., "The German invasion of Belgium enabled the British war party to put a high moral gloss on a war they had already decided to fight for reasons of realpolitik."

Buchanan's premise respecting World War I is this: "Britain turned the European war of August 1 into a world war. For, while the wave of public sentiment against the [German] invasion of 'brave little Belgium' swept Parliament over the brink and into war, [the secret cabal] had steered her toward the falls for other reasons." These he lists as the preservation of France, British honor, retention of power, Germanophobia, imperialism, and opportunism. "For Britain," he writes, "World War I was not a war of necessity, but a war of choice."

Okay, but how can he explain this: Nobody had attacked the Germans, but the Germans, in fact, attacked tiny Luxembourg first, then Belgium, and then France, while their idiot Austrian allies were attacking little Serbia. These nations hadn't declared war on Germany until Germany had declared war on them first. Buchanan gets it right when he says: "World War I was not a war of necessity, but a war of choice"--but the "choice" was Germany's to make. If she and Austria had stayed within their own borders and minded their business, there would have been no World War I and, thus, no World War II, either.

But Buchanan will not hear of it. As far as he is concerned, the British trumped the whole thing up out of greed, envy, hubris, fear, and "opportunism," a thesis he supports by gleaning from such writers as Francis Neilson, a quasi-socialist/pacifist who fled England for America during the First World War to evade the draft, only to luck into marriage with a daughter of the Swift meatpacking fortune.

With devastating confusion, Buchanan demonstrates how Britain and its (to him) stooge, France, conspired, lied, provoked, and muddled through the interwar years until they finally painted Adolf Hitler into such a corner that the Germans were again forced against their wishes to attack their neighbors. And as always, Winston Churchill is at the bottom of it: "In 1933, Churchill had in the House of Commons vigorously attacked Mussolini's proposal for a four-power pact, the one comprehensive plan set forth in Europe which might have revised postwar treaties in a peaceful manner and held Hitler in check."

Of course, this quotation describes nothing more than the craven attempt by Mussolini to grab more land for fascist Italy out of the Versailles treaty, and its source is the odious Welsh socialist Emrys Hughes, who was imprisoned in World War I for refusing induction into the British Army. Where does Buchanan find these people?

In Buchanan's opinion, the smart move for Britain and France would have been to take Hitler's outstretched hand and make an alliance encouraging him to attack Stalin's Soviet Union. No weight is given to the fact that the same outstretched hand would have simultaneously snatched two of the greatest democracies on earth down into the sewer where Hitler and his thugs and executioners dwelled. When Hitler grabbed Austria, and then the rest of Czechoslovakia, after the appeasement pact in Munich, most of Britain saw with unflinching clarity what the Germans were up to. But Buchanan's contention is that Hitler only wished to restore to the Reich former German enclaves that had been detached by the Versailles treaty, and entertained no further plans for conquest.

In truth, Germany's whole economy was directly tied to Hitler's huge military expansion program. In order for it to succeed the Nazis had no choice but to feed, shark-like, consuming new territories, looting and enslaving whatever they conquered. It's telling that Buchanan's bibliography does not include a reading of Mein Kampf.

By excoriating Britain and France for having drawn the line for Hitler at the Polish border, Buchanan contradicts his own premise. If these two Western democracies had simply done nothing, he argues, the Nazis would have quickly taken Poland (which he dismisses as insignificant) and then overrun Stalin's Russia, which he claims--with some justification--was a greater evil.

But Buchanan's explanation of what would have come next defies rational interpretation. Does he really believe Hitler would have left France, England, and the rest of Europe alone at his back? Especially when, with the wealth of Russia already in his grasp, all of Western Europe and its riches could have been subdued at his will? The truth lies in what the Germans actually did, which was to steal everything they could lay their hands on and deliver it to Germany.

If the Nazis had conquered the Soviet Union, this would have de facto guaranteed that the United States would never enter the war, because there would have been no war to enter. The Axis, without Soviet Russia to contend with, would have quickly gobbled up the rest of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East--as, indeed, they attempted to do--and the war would have been over.

Fortunately, Winston Churchill saw it clearly. But according to Buchanan, the guilty man responsible for drawing the line at Poland and causing World War II was, in fact, Churchill, to whom (in my view) the world owes an eternal debt of gratitude. Because even after the Germans swept again through Belgium, and then Holland and the Low Countries, and overran France, Churchill held Great Britain steady in the road, and fought the Germans alone, until Hitler did attack the Soviets--and the United States finally sloughed off the America Firsters and got into the fight, bringing an end to the Nazi regime.

Another of this book's cockeyed themes is that, because of Britain's stupidity in entering the war, and the high price it cost her, the British Empire was doomed. But all overseas empires--British, French, Dutch, Belgian--were doomed: The winds of nationalism were sweeping the world, and maintaining colonies was ceasing to be profitable. Even before the war Britain had agreed to let India, her "crown jewel," go and remained there only until the war was over lest the Japanese move in. The war might have shortened the process, but the era of empire-building was over.

The most outrageous, if not despicable, Buchanan assertion is that if Britain, and later America, had not entered the war, most of the Jews of Europe would have been saved. His tortured reasoning is that Hitler used war with the Allies as a pretext to murder Jews wholesale, and suggests that if Hitler had only been let alone after conquering Poland and (presumably) the Soviet Union, the Jews would either have been accorded a place in German society, or exiled. Again, one wonders, has Buchanan read Mein Kampf? And as if this nonsense and hypocrisy isn't enough, he attempts to smear Churchill by painting him as a racist who wanted an England for whites only.

"Had Churchill endured in office," Buchanan writes, "London would look entirely different today." When, in 1955, Churchill retired as prime minister, he "was no longer able to lead a campaign to 'Keep England White'--an astonishing slogan in a day when Dr. Martin Luther King, a disciple of Gandhi whom Churchill detested, was starting out in Montgomery." Only after Churchill left office, Buchanan declares, was Britain "on its way to becoming the multiracial, multicultural nation of today."

What smarmy cheek from the man who has written The Death of the West, bemoaning the doom of Western Civilization because of the population explosion among so-called "dark peoples," and State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, in which he forecasts the end of life as we know it, owing to the flood of immigrants across the Mexican border and from Asia! Winston Churchill had many faults, all of them meticulously scrutinized by serious historians; but his reputation doesn't warrant being besmirched by a goat-roper like -Patrick Buchanan.

But wait--there's more!

Nicholson Baker's last novel, Checkpoint, the plot of which revolves around whether it would be okay to assassinate George W. Bush, was described in a review by no less than the New York Times Book Review as "a scummy little book." Yet Baker remains a darling of the left, in part because, by all accounts, he is a nice, avuncular, balding guy with twinkling eyes and a beard, and a decidedly not-in-your-face demeanor--unlike Pat Buchanan. But he is also either unbelievably cunning or the ultimate na -f.

Human Smoke, Baker's entry into the corpus of World War II literature, floats light as a feather compared with Buchanan's ham-fisted tirade; but it is just as malevolent, reckless, and inane. To prove that Britain and America were wrong in fighting the Nazis and Fascists, Baker juxtaposes anecdotes by and about pacifists and political players during the 20-year run-up to World War II, manipulating his quotations to show that the pacifists had it right all along.

He brings to mind George Orwell's observation that "Pacifism is fine, so long as you're willing to stand the consequences." Some of those consequences are illuminated in Human Smoke when Gandhi provides this stupefying advice in an Open Letter to the People of England:

If these gentlemen [Hitler and Mussolini] choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.

Even Patrick Buchanan probably wouldn't have signed on for that. But unlike Buchanan--who, at least, argues his case--Baker, by arranging his "snapshots" with no context whatever, simply propagandizes the reader in a fashion that is at once dishonest and treacherous to any acceptable standard of historical inquiry.

There would be no problem with either one of these books if they didn't get so much attention, but they do: Buchanan's because he's . â â . â â . well, Pat Buchanan; and Baker's because the media generally regard him as "one of us." Get a load of one gullible critic in the Los Angeles Times gushing that Human Smoke proves that "World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history." Both books plunge the reader into a disagreeable limbo of d j vu / Pr sque vu. The devices may be different, but the message is the same: Churchill was a bloodthirsty warmonger; the Nazis, Fascists, and the Japanese were misunderstood; Britain and America were greedy, racist, stupid, wicked, conniving--well, you get the picture.

Save your money; read the funny papers.

Winston Groom is the author, most recently, of Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte at the Battle of New Orleans.