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A Polemic Not A History
David FreemanProfessor Freeman teaches history at California State University, Fullerton.
Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, by Patrick J. Buchanan. New York, Crown, 518 pp., $29.95.
Although there is no indication in this book that Pat Buchanan is familiar with the work of the late Harry Elmer Barnes,1 he has nevertheless arrived at many of the same arguments that Barnes first pressed more than fifty years ago. His book is, then, the latest entry in the revisionist canon, recycling old arguments, and using time-worn tactics so familiar that The Churchill Centre long ago added a website section devoted to “Leading Churchill Myths”.
Pat Buchanan, who earlier wrote A Republic, Not an Empire, might have made this book part of a series by entitling it A Polemic, Not a History. He describes it as “a battle of the historians,” but he has done no archival research. Instead he has read the standard popular histories such as Barbara Tuchman’s and William Manchester’s, and the revisionist histories of A.J.P. Taylor, Correlli Barnett, John Charmley, et. al. Conspicuous by omission is David Irving—presumably intentionally. From these purely secondary sources, Buchanan formulates his theses. What are his arguments, and what are we to make of them?
The Lesser of Two Evils
Buchanan’s main argument is summarized by a quotation from A.N. Wilson, cited deep in the text: “The tragedy of the twentieth century is that in order to defeat Hitler, Churchill believed it was not merely necessary but desirable to ally himself to Stalin” (379). Buchanan believes that Nazism and communism were both bad, but that communism was the greater threat. He accepts Hitler’s repeated insistence that the Third Reich never desired war with the British Empire. From here he concludes that Britain and France should have consigned central and eastern Europe to Hitler, hoping that Germany and Russia would destroy one another in a clash of titans, while the democracies held a defensible line in the west.
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin hoped as much too. But his successor, Neville Chamberlain, egged on by Churchill, committed “the greatest blunder in history” by guaranteeing Poland against German attack after Hitler had absorbed the rump Czech state Chamberlain thought he and Hitler had guaranteed at Munich.
Churchill compounded Chamberlain’s error by refusing to make terms with Hitler after the Battle of Britain proved the Empire could not easily be subdued. Thus hundreds of thousands died needlessly, the Empire was “lost,” and Eastern Europe was doomed to a half century of domination by barbarous communism. Churchill was wrong, and those who follow his example today create equally ruinous results.
This argument has been made before and will persist as long as twentieth-century history is studied. Buchanan contends that by 1939, Stalin’s victims already numbered in the millions while Hitler’s as yet numbered only in the hundreds. The Soviet Union founded the Comintern to spread its poison around the globe, while the Fascists considered their ideology unique to their cultures and unsuitable for export. Therefore, the greater danger was clear before the war. Quod erat demonstrandum.
The Real Danger
Like many polemicists, Buchanan cannot resist over-egging the pudding. Any facts that stand in the way of his thesis are tweaked or ignored. But before we come to that, let us consider how Churchill himself addressed the issue of peace with Hitler before the Second World War began.
Speaking to the House of Commons at the time of the Munich Agreement and still before the horror of Kristallnacht, Churchill said:
“You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi Power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.
“What I find unendurable is the sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure. It is to prevent that that I have tried my best to urge the maintenance of every bulwark of defence….We do not want to be led upon the high road to becoming a satellite of the German Nazi system of European domination. In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands with which we shall no doubt be invited to comply. Those demands may affect the surrender of territory or the surrender of liberty. I foresee and foretell that the policy of submission will carry with it restrictions upon the freedom of speech and debate in Parliament, on public platforms, and discussion in the Press.” 2
Churchill, as Buchanan acknowledges, was the first to perceive the evil of both communism and Nazism. Yet, based on his knowledge and experience, Churchill had no doubt which force represented the greater danger at the time. And that really is the key.
We do not know how a Nazi dominated Europe would have played out had Hitler been given a free hand to destroy the Soviet Union, except that the Holocaust would have been immeasurably worse. Stalin’s crimes were vast, but systematic mass murder was not among them: Stalin’s 1932-33 collectivization programs caused the death by starvation of as many Ukrainians as Hitler killed Jews; but Stalin’s aim was to communize, not to eradicate a race of people whose only crime was to have been born. There is a difference.
Buchanan glosses over Hitler’s less spectacular atrocities in an effort to minimize his prewar brutalities: the Night of the Long Knives (30 June 1934) where the victims were Nazis; and Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), a horror but with fewer than 200 dead. Yet Churchill, the furious anti-communist, preferred a Soviet alliance to the prospect of a Hitler-dominated Europe. Why? There were good and sound reasons.
Second Reich (1871-1919)
Buchanan begins with an examination of the origins of the First World War in an effort to show that British policymakers, including Churchill, initiated the fall of Britain’s Empire with the first “unnecessary” conflict. In surveying why Britain went to war in 1914, Buchanan cites Churchill’s remark to Lloyd George: “One cause alone should justify our participation—to prevent France from being trampled down & looted by the Prussian Junkers3 —a disaster ruinous to the world, & fatal to our country” (40). Buchanan does not accept Churchill’s analysis—and it is here that his argument starts to fall apart.
Buchanan’s Second Reich is essentially pacifist. He cites Niall Ferguson’s view that “all the economic clauses of the  September Programme4 implied was the creation—some eighty years early, it might be said—of a German-dominated customs union” (61).
Indeed so. Except that the Germans proposed to implement this under threat of force, at which democratic nations understandably balked. It is Buchanan’s inability to see the difference between the Kaiser’s Germany and the western democracies that reveals his lack of understanding about the Great War, and his appalling ignorance of German history.
Buchanan insists that nineteenth century Britain was more belligerent than Germany. He argues, for example, that the three wars of Bismarck’s Prussia were either inconsequential or instigated by other nations (59). This contradicts the universal view that Bismarck (Germany’s “Iron Chancellor”) cleverly provoked all three wars to achieve the unification of Germany.
The Second Reich was born through military conquest. Yet, the new nation was still beset by centuries-old religious and sectional differences. Military service through universal conscription was the one factor that the male population of the new Germany had in common. Respect for the nation’s military bound the Kaiser’s subjects together, and therein set their doom.
One wishes Buchanan had taken the time to read the work of Gordon Craig, whose Germany 1866-1945 (1978) lays bare the flaws of the Second Reich. Germany’s problem was systemic: its structure of government was simply unsuited to the management of a modern industrialized state. The nation had become a great power before it began to act like one.
In his early chapters Buchanan has the annoying habit of discussing the Kaiser and British monarchs as though they were of equal political stature. Only much later in the book does it suit him to acknowledge that British monarchs were of the constitutional variety. The German emperor was no such thing: he was the nexus of an entire government. He appointed all ministers, independent of the Reichstag: an elective body with no real power. Military appropriations were rubber-stamped; policy input was neither required nor desired. As with the cabinet, the military staffs answered directly to the Kaiser. There was no civilian oversight of the armed forces.
Buchanan tries to portray Wilhelm II as less aggressive than British or French leaders chosen through democratic processes. In truth, the Kaiser was at best an amiable fool quite incapable of managing the machinery of government. In such cases, power defaults to the next level—and in Germany that meant an unsupervised, Junker-dominated military, spoiling for a fight and enjoying the support of most Germans.
France, Britain, Italy and the United States, democracies all, survived the war on the winning side. It was not by chance that the defeated nations turned out to be Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia (which surrendered in 1917 despite having aligned herself at the outset with the side that ultimately won).
Not prepared for the war they got, each of the major combatants had to change strategies during the conflict, and that meant changing both civilian and military leadership. In democratic nations, this could be done peacefully by constitutional means. In the autocratic nations, no change was possible without revolution. Lacking similar flexibility, the autocracies failed catastrophically under the strain of war.
Churchill appreciated this key difference. Professor Paul Addison, in his 2007 biography of Churchill, cites the following incident, described in the diary of Liberal MP Alexander MacCallum Scott: On the evening of 5 March 1917, exiting a darkened Commons chamber, Churchill turned to Scott and said:
“Look at it. This little place is what makes the difference between us and Germany. It is in virtue of this that we shall muddle through to success & for lack of this Germany’s brilliant efficiency leads her to final disaster.”
The Great War (1914-18)
In the run-up to 1914, Buchanan takes pains to portray Churchill as a warmonger. He cites his belligerence during the July 1914 crisis—belligerent for reasons explained in the preceding paragraphs. He cites Asquith’s famous letter from the start of the war:
“Winston, who has got on all his war paint, is longing for a sea fight.…the whole thing fills me with sadness.”
Churchill’s “crime,” the book implies, was to prosecute the war vigorously once it had begun—while the admirable Prime Minister continued to feel guilty, to wring his hands, and to chatter about secret Cabinet discussions to his lady friend. Surely this is the difference between one who is suited to be a war leader and one who is not? Churchill sought to prevent World War I. He failed, but rather than ruminate while war raged, he fought with all his strength, adopting his mantra, “In war: resolution.” Asquith was unsuited to be a war leader and was inevitably replaced by Parliament, just as Chamberlain was replaced in 1940. Troops risking their lives in combat deserve a committed leader: a Churchill, not a vacillating Asquith or a weak Chamberlain.
Buchanan’s unforgivable error is his omission of Churchill’s efforts to avert war. In Churchill’s Cold War (2002), Professor Klaus Larres detailed Churchill’s personal diplomacy with Germany before the “Guns of August.” As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, Churchill proposed a “naval holiday,” whereby Britain and Germany would suspend their blue water arms race by halting construction of new warships. Churchill renewed the proposal in 1913. The German Press and the Kaiser spurned it.
As late as May 1914 Churchill was still trying to arrange a meeting to discuss his proposal with Admiral Tirpitz, a meeting vetoed by Asquith. Even as the July crisis unfolded, Churchill suggested an emergency meeting of the European heads of state as a forum enabling the politicians to work out a peaceful solution. Buchanan mentions none of this. A warmonger he needs Churchill to be, so a warmonger he must be depicted.
World War II (1939-45)
Strangely given the book’s title, Churchill all but disappears for the next eleven chapters, reemerging nearly 300 pages later as the star of the penultimate chapter. In between, Buchanan fulminates against the Versailles Treaty, traces the rise of Hitler and blasts the misguided policies of MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain. In 1939 we reach his central contention, “the greatest blunder in history”: Chamberlain’s guarantee to Poland. (“Greatest blunder”? How do the Germans feel about starting and losing two world wars?)
None of this provides much ground for denigrating Churchill, so Buchanan exaggerates his role by describing him as a virtual one-man opposition, more formidable, apparently, than the entire Labour Party, which is scarcely mentioned. Chamberlain would be surprised to know he was stampeded into the Polish guarantee by Churchill—whom he studiously ignored.
Like many revisionists, Buchanan disregards the political realities with which elected leaders must contend. Poland may have been the worst place to draw the line (as Churchill stated). But politically it was the first place where the line could be drawn. By then experience had convinced the British that Hitler could not be trusted, and that a Nazi continent was unacceptable.
Buchanan insists that Hitler did not wish to fight Britain, citing the insightful Sir Horace Rumbold, British ambassador in Berlin in 1933, who cogently identified Hitler’s world-view (317). But he neglects to mention that Sir Horace warned London that Hitler had no respect for the pledged word, and was not to be trusted. For this offense, Rumbold was recalled and replaced by a more compliant diplomat.
Churchill observed in 1938 that “there never can be any absolute certainty that there will be a fight if one side is determined that it will give way completely.” But the decision not to give way over Poland was made before Churchill was in the Cabinet. Again: an elected government made the decision, and no serious objections were raised except by the Stalinist far left. This point conflicts with Buchanan’s thesis—and is therefore ignored.
Buchanan may have saved himself the trouble of writing this chapter by simply requesting permission from Christopher Hitchens to reprint his notorious hatchet job, published six years ago in the Atlantic Monthly.5 Many of the same errors are repeated: ironically, Hitchens is now among Buchanan’s critics.
First there is the standard litany of all of Churchill’s “blunders”: Antwerp, the Dardanelles, the return to the Gold Standard, etc. All of this is the build-up to what Buchanan considers Churchill’s cardinal error: continuing the war against Germany after victory in the Battle of Britain.
Churchill’s decision, Buchanan says, caused Hitler to attack Russia—not the “greatest blunder in history,” mind you—to show the British that they could expect no help from the Soviets. So Britain had to turn to the United States, and was taken to the cleaners financially as a result. From this followed the “loss” of the Empire and the Stalinization of eastern Europe. It is all so obvious; why don’t we get it?
Like Hitchens, Buchanan argues that it was Churchill who, in desperation, started the terror bombing of civilians, which invites a query: What was the Luftwaffe doing over Guernica, Poland and Rotterdam? Or, for that matter, what were the Zeppelins doing over England in the First World War?
Similarly, Buchanan blasts the Dresden raid in February 1945 as of no military value, omitting that it took place at Soviet request, and did take pressure off of their army, as had been hoped. Finally, Buchanan insists (373) that for Churchill, Poland had never been more than a cynical excuse for going to war: “Did Churchill ever give a damn about Poland?” No mention is made of Churchill’s futile effort to obtain Stalin’s approval for RAF bombers to fly in support of the Warsaw uprising, a plan that could work only if the planes could land and refuel on Soviet-controlled territory.
Buchanan also ignores Churchill’s efforts at Yalta to get the best deal he could for Poland. Using primary sources, Sir Martin Gilbert set out all that Churchill did for Poland in detail in the seventh volume of the official biography, twenty-two years ago
The “Lost” World
Buchanan winds up by describing the Unnecessary War’s consequences: Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and the end of the British Empire. Predictably he overlooks Winston Churchill’s repeated efforts to convince the Americans of strategies that would have kept the Allies deeper in Europe by war’s end. Failing in that, Churchill traveled to Moscow to meet with Stalin and salvage what he could with his famous “naughty document.” This Buchanan does describe, only to label it a “sell-out”—which is also his view of Yalta. No mention is made of Churchill’s perilous trip to Athens over Christmas 1944 to secure Greece against communist control, in accord with the Moscow agreement.
Pat Buchanan must be one of the remaining few (certainly the last Irishman) who deems the British Empire a “loss.” Fact: the major Dominions were self-governing before WW1, and virtually autonomous before WW2. Fact: Britain committed herself to independence for India in 1935; WW2 actually impeded the process. Fact: of the remaining rocks and islands, Suez and the Middle East mandates (which Buchanan confuses for colonies), many were acquired to secure the British route to India, and became expendable when Indian autonomy was guaranteed.
Buchanan believes that outcome was a disaster. Yet in Churchill’s lifetime a British prime minister could famously tell the voters, “You’ve never had it so good.” Fifty years since Harold Macmillan’s expostulation, Britons enjoy their highest standard of living in history. The same can be said for most other former elements of the British Empire, including India—Zimbabwe being the most notable exception at the moment.
It has been said that the Empire never ended but was transformed for the better. From an octopus with a single head and many arms, it became a school of fish—separate but related organisms freely cooperating for the greater good. The key to success has been the institutions of representative democracy and the rule of law imparted by the mother country Churchill loved, and nurtured by her offspring. These traditions, dearly acquired and dearly defended, had no greater champion than Winston Churchill.
1. Harry Elmer Barnes (1889-1968) was the first revisionist historian of World War II. A mainstream supporter of the Allied effort during and after World War I, he later came to doubt that the war had been a battle for democracy or that Germany bore sole responsibility for its instigation. Initially pro-Franklin Roosevelt, Barnes became an outspoken critic when he perceived that the President was moving towards the British view of the Nazis. His books and articles were highly regarded before World War II. Afterward, descrying U.S. involvement in the two world wars, he wrote that the country must “throw off the yoke and menace of globaloney and interventionism.”
2. House of Commons, 5 October 1938. Churchill, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1941, 76.
3. The landed nobility of Prussia and eastern Germany; they controlled the Prussian Army, held leading political influence and social status, and owned immense tracts of land.
4. Germany’s war objectives, announced 9 September 1914 by Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg: annexation of Belgium, northern France, and the Baltic region; a comprehensive “European economic zone“ under Berlin’s control; and a German colonial empire in central Africa.
5. “The Atlantic Takes a Dive,” Finest Hour 114, Spring 2002.