Previously: Literally Hitler
Book review of Churchill, Hitler and The Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World by Patrick J. Buchanan, 2008.
Executive summary: Churchill and friends ruined Britain by blundering into both world wars.
The claim about the First World War is much less controversial than the Second. In fact, I considered skipping the section on the lead-up to WWI because I’d read a lot about it already. A few pages in, I changed my mind.
Even if you already know enough about the breakfast enjoyer to abhor Darkest Hour, read the whole thing. From his derring-do adventures in Africa that put others at risk through to his incessant war-mongering once in power, he’s a bigger twit than you can imagine.
No wonder neocons love him.
The Great War
Most people understand that the European powers’ rivalries and web of flammable alliances led to the first war, but examining the details makes the mind boggle. You think we’re stupid today? You think our leaders are idiots and nincompoops? Same as it ever was. They blundered and blundered, each passing numerous exit ramps and continuing steadfastly towards the cliff. As Pat quotes:
It’s still a front-runner.
On the British side, perhaps the silliest act was entering into a secret alliance with France, sometimes through staffers acting behind the Cabinet’s back. An alliance is meant to deter attack. Keeping it secret encourages attack and increases the chances of a larger war.
This brings us to Churchill’s essential failing:
“Churchill was the only Minister to feel any sense of exultation at the course of events,” writes biographer John Charmley. On July 28, [Churchill] had written to his wife Clementine: “My darling one and beautiful: Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?”
Later, when war was days away:
“When [the Cabinet] broke for an interval at luncheon time all those I saw looked racked with anxiety and some stricken with grief. Winston alone was buoyant.”
And it only got better for him:
Churchill was exhilarated. Six months later, after the first Battle of Ypres, with tens of thousands of British soldiers in their graves, eh would say . . . “I think a curse should rest on me – because I am so happy. I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet – I cannot help it – I enjoy every second.”
There’s much more of this. It goes on and on, even after his own friends died. I wonder if anyone thought to check his freezer.
If people think poorly of Churchill today, it is most commonly for the Gallipoli disaster or for wanting to hold on to India. These are the least of his sins. In fact, consider the first: strategy aside, Churchill insisted on attacking neutral Turkey after insisting that Britain enter the Great War because Germany attacked neutral Belgium!
I’m with BLM on this one. Tear that bastard’s statue down.
I do not wish to place all the blame for the war on Churchill or Britain – others were just as bad. I focus on him because, for most readers, he’s ‘our guy’ – the Anglosphere’s Big Man in the catastrophe.
We must be careful not to simply blame politicians for the war. The public must share the guilt, especially in democracies. The book frequently describes how easily citizens were manipulated, stirred-up and used as a cudgel against voices of reason. To take just one example:
. . . the public rejected such noble sentiments [for moderate terms of peace] and took up the cry “Hang the Kaiser!” Ever attentive to popular opinion, [Prime Minister] Lloyd George was soon pledging to bring home a peace in which Germany would be made to pay the “full cost of war.” They will pay to the utmost farthing, he roared to one crowd; “we will search their pockets for it.”
The wisdom of mobs.
Readers are familiar with how the inhumanity of the Treaty of Versailles set Europe up for the second war. They may not be aware (as I was not) that Germany was forced into it through a starvation blockade, supported by US warships. Thousands dies after German forces has laid down their arms.
One day, an obscure man with a funny mustache would not let them forget it.
The Second World War
Now we come to the hard sell. We all agree that WWI was insane from start to finish. However, once Hitler was in power and on the warpath, how can we blame Churchill or other Allied leaders for what happened next?
There are two prongs to Pat’s attack – strategic blunders between the wars and then a single, massive blunder once hostilities resumed.
Between the wars
We tend to think of this period as a contest between cucked Chamberlain and based Churchill. The reality is more complex, with Western governments enacting various policies that guaranteed future trouble. Let’s consider some examples.
Little-known fact: Japanese warships escorted Anzacs across the Indian Ocean to Gallipoli. The alliance between Britain and Japan had the effect of reining in the worst excesses of the latter – they were already militaristic by then but needed to play by international norms in order to keep things friendly with the Brits.
Following the war, the Americans claimed that disarmament and untangling alliances were the keys to peace in Europe so they pressured Britain to break from Japan and limit its own naval forces. This left Asia and Australia exposed while offending Japan and undoing restraints on their behaviour – the disastrous outcome of which many predicted at the time.
Then there was the withdrawal of forces from the Rhineland in order to provide political support to the failing Weimar Republic. Other measures with this aim, such as renegotiated war reparations, made sense and indeed should have been much extended, but the whole point of occupying the Rhineland was to make invading Germany easier should the need arise. As it was likely that either the Nazis or Communists would seize total control there in the near future, abandoning this ace would come back to haunt the allies.
There was also the rejection of an alliance with Italy and other dumb moves, but we cannot list them all. Western diplomacy at this point was almost as alienated from reality as it had been in the lead-up to the First World War.
You’ve probably heard the argument about whether the Western powers were right to declare war after Germany’s invasion of Poland or whether this should have been done earlier, perhaps after the invasion of Czechoslovakia or even during Germany’s rearmament.
Pat makes a very convincing point about this: the last opportunity for Western powers to effectively intervene was right after Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland with a few lightly-armed men. Once that line had been tested and the area reinforced, there wasn’t much they could do. Eastern Europe was out of reach.
Despite the enormous war, Poland remained occupied by foreign powers until the 1990s. That, right there, is proof that its alliance with Britain was worthless and that the Allied declaration of war didn’t help Poland in the end. An early declaration of war would have been similarly vain, perhaps more so. From the start, the Allies overpromised and underdelivered. A wiser Poland would have come to terms with its menacing neighbour while it could.
The reader may see modern modern parallels.
So what does Pat propose?
Many who have not read the book like to imagine that he suggests Hitler was the goodie and should have been allowed to rule Europe, or something like that. This is an irresistible accusation to make against a one-time Republican presidential nominee.
His actual proposal, after the long set-up, is hard to refute.
Once the Rhineland was lost, the only sensible option was to accept that war was coming, remain uninvolved for as long as possible, rearm and hope like hell that Hitler first went east. This was a reasonable hope. In Mein Kampf, Hitler made it clear that his main territorial ambition lay in that direction. He had unfinished business with France but perhaps he might leave that for later.
‘Later’ in this case would mean that Hitler would first have to smash his forces against the Soviet Union and be much weakened by the time he got around to settling scores in the west.
As for Britain, there’s firm evidence that he never intended to invade it at all.
The security guarantee with Poland dragged the Allies into the war before they were ready. Without it, the Nazi occupation of France might have been avoided. The Americans might have focussed all their forces in the Pacific and won a swifter victory. The Allies might even have had the strength left over to help the Chinese Nationalists defeat Mao. Imagine if modern China were a giant, friendly Taiwan!
As the fate of the world hung in the balance in the 1930s and 40s, it would have made sense for liberal democracies to let the fascists and communists decimate each other, prepare for a struggle and then taken on the battered survivor.
Pat writes of the situation in 2008 (my emphasis):
As Chamberlain gave a war guarantee to Poland he could not honor, the United States began to hand out NATO war guarantees to six Warsaw Pact nations, the three Baltic republics, and, soon, Ukraine and Georgia. Should a hostile regime come to power in Moscow and reoccupy these nations, we would have to declare war. yet no matter how much we treasure the newly free Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, their independence is not a vital U.S. interest, and never has been. And the threatened loss of their independence cannot justify war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
Since the time of writing this review, much he warns of has come to pass.
Lesson to the Eternal Anglo: stay in your lane.
Lesson to potential allies: be careful.
A further lesson for democracies is that any policy disaster – the Forever Wars, the Covid response – cannot be blamed on government alone. They are an indication of societal rot. We are too easily manipulated and frightened; our minds and morals are weak. For ‘the greater good’, we cheerfully throw innocent people under the bus and are enraged when they are so selfish as to complain. Sometimes ‘dictatorial’ leaders are only so because the people demand it. As unelected despots, they might have been more moderate.
Every easy solution to this problem is wrong. Monarchs can turn out to be just as bad. Religiosity sometimes increases moral certainty when doing the wrong thing, as with Bush the Smaller.
Face it: as a species, we are unable to keep ourselves out of trouble or to act rationally for any length of time. Ideologies that promise otherwise are farcical.