Christopher Hitchens: WW2, a War Worth Fighting

Is there any one shared principle or assumption on which our political consensus rests, any value judgment on which we are all essentially agreed? Apart from abstractions such as a general belief in democracy, one would probably get the widest measure of agreement for the proposition that the second world war was a "good war" and one well worth fighting. And if we possess one indelible image of political immorality and cowardice, it is surely the dismal tap-tap-tap of Neville Chamberlain's umbrella as he turned from signing the Czechs away to Adolf Hitler at Munich. He hoped by this humiliation to avert war, but he was fated to bring his countrymen war on top of humiliation. To the conventional wisdom add the titanic figure of Winston Churchill as the emblem of oratorical defiance and the Horatius who, until American power could be mobilized and deployed, alone barred the bridge to the forces of unalloyed evil. When those forces lay finally defeated, their ghastly handiwork was uncovered to a world that mistakenly thought it had already "supped full of horrors." The stark evidence of the Final Solution has ever since been enough to dispel most doubts about, say, the wisdom or morality of carpet-bombing German cities.

Historical scholarship has nevertheless offered various sorts of revisionist interpretation of all this. Niall Ferguson, for one, has proposed looking at the two world wars as a single conflict, punctuated only by a long and ominous armistice. British conservative historians like Alan Clark and John Charmley have criticized Churchill for building his career on war, for ignoring openings to peace and for eventually allowing the British Empire to be squandered and broken up. But Pat Buchanan, twice a candidate for the Republican nomination and in 2000 the standard-bearer for the Reform Party who ignited a memorable "chad" row in Florida, has now condensed all the antiwar arguments into one. His case, made in his recently released "Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War," is as follows:

Buchanan does not need to close his book with an invocation of a dying West, as if to summarize this long recital of Spenglerian doomsaying. He's already opened with the statement, "All about us we can see clearly now that the West is passing away." The tropes are familiar—a loss of will and confidence, a collapse of the desire to reproduce with sufficient vigor, a preference for hedonism over the stern tasks of rulership and dominion and pre-eminence. It all sounds oddly … Churchillian. The old lion himself never tired of striking notes like these, and was quite unembarrassed by invocations of race and nation and blood. Yet he is the object of Buchanan's especial dislike and contempt, because he had a fondness for "wars of choice."

This term has enjoyed a recent vogue because of the opposition to the war in Iraq, an opposition in which Buchanan has played a vigorous role. Descending as he does from the tradition of Charles Lindbergh's America First movement, which looked for (and claimed to have found) a certain cosmopolitan lobby behind FDR's willingness to involve the United States in global war, Buchanan is the most trenchant critic of what he considers our fondest national illusion, and his book has the feel and stamp of a work that he has been readying all his life.

But he faces an insuperable difficulty, or rather difficulties. If you want to demonstrate that Germany was more the victim than the aggressor in 1914, then you must confine your account (as Buchanan does) to the very minor legal question of Belgian neutrality and of whether Britain absolutely had to go to war on the Belgian side. (For what it may be worth, I think that Britain wasn't obliged to do so and should not have done.) But the rest of the kaiser's policy, most of it completely omitted by Buchanan, shows that Germany was looking for a chance for war all over the globe, and was increasingly the prisoner of a militaristic ruling caste at home. The kaiser picked a fight with Britain by backing the white Dutch Afrikaner rebels in South Africa and by butchering the Ovambo people of what is now Namibia. He looked for trouble with the French by abruptly sending warships to Agadir in French Morocco, which nearly started the first world war in 1905, and with Russia by backing Austria-Hungary's insane ultimatum to the Serbs after the June 1914 assassinations in Sarajevo. Moreover, and never mentioned by Buchanan at all, the kaiser visited Damascus and paid for the rebuilding of the tomb of Saladin, announced himself a sympathizer of Islam and a friend of jihad, commissioned a Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad for the projection of German arms into the Middle East and Asia and generally ranged himself on the side of an aggressive Ottoman imperialism, which later declared a "holy war" against Britain. To suggest that he felt unjustly hemmed in by the Royal Navy's domination of the North Sea while he was conducting such statecraft is absurd.

And maybe a little worse than absurd, as when Buchanan writes: "From 1871 to 1914, the Germans under Bismarck and the Kaiser did not fight a single war. While Britain, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Japan, Spain, and the United States were all involved in wars, Germany and Austria had clean records." I am bound to say that I find this creepy. The start of the "clean record" has to be in 1871, because that's the year that Prussia humbled France in the hideous Franco-Prussian War that actually annexed two French provinces to Germany. In the intervening time until 1914, Germany was seizing colonies in Africa and the Pacific, cementing secret alliances with Austria and trying to build up a naval fleet that could take on the British one. No wonder the kaiser wanted a breathing space.

Now, this is not to say that Buchanan doesn't make some sound points about the secret diplomacy of Old Europe that was so much to offend Woodrow Wilson. And he is excellent on the calamitous Treaty of Versailles that succeeded only—as was noted by John Maynard Keynes at the time—in creating the conditions for another world war, or for part two of the first one. He wears his isolationism proudly: "The Senate never did a better day's work than when it rejected the Treaty of Versailles and refused to enter a League of Nations where American soldiers would be required to give their lives enforcing the terms of so dishonorable and disastrous a peace."

Actually, no soldier of any nation ever lost so much as a fingernail in the service of the League, which was in any case doomed by American abstention, and it's exactly that consideration which invalidates the second half of Buchanan's argument, which is that a conflict with Hitler's Germany both could and should have been averted. (There is a third Buchanan sub-argument, mostly made by implication, which is that the democratic West should have allied itself with Hitler, at least passively, until he had destroyed the Soviet Union.) Again, in order to believe his thesis one has to be prepared to argue that Hitler was a rational actor with intelligible and negotiable demands, whose declared, demented ambitions in "Mein Kampf" were presumably to be disregarded as mere propaganda. In case after case Buchanan shows the abysmal bungling of British and French diplomacy—making promises to Czechoslovakia that could never have been kept and then, adding injury to insult, breaking those promises at the first opportunity. Or offering a guarantee to Poland (a country that had gleefully taken part in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia) that Hitler well knew was not backed by any credible military force.

Buchanan is at his best here, often causing one to whistle at the sheer cynicism and stupidity of the British Tories. In the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935, for example, they astounded the French and Italians and Russians by unilaterally agreeing to permit Hitler to build a fleet one third the size of the Royal Navy and a submarine fleet of the same size as the British! Not only was this handing the Third Reich the weapon it would soon press to Britain's throat, it was convincing all Britain's potential allies that they would be much better off making their own bilateral deals with Berlin. Which is essentially what happened.

But Buchanan keeps forgetting that this criminal foolishness is exactly the sort of policy that he elsewhere recommends. In his view, after all, Germany had been terribly wronged by Versailles and it would have been correct to redraw the frontiers in Germany's favor and soothe its hurt feelings (which is what the word "appeasement" originally meant). Meanwhile we should have encouraged Hitler's hostility to Bolshevism and discreetly rearmed in case he should also need to be contained. This might perhaps have worked if Germany had been governed by a right-wing nationalist party that had won a democratic vote. However, in point of fact Germany was governed by an ultra-rightist, homicidal, paranoid maniac who had begun by demolishing democracy in Germany itself, who believed that his fellow countrymen were a superior race and who attributed all the evils in the world to a Jewish conspiracy. It is possible to read whole chapters of Buchanan's book without having to bear these salient points in mind. (I should say that I intend this observation as a criticism.) As with his discussion of pre-1914 Germany, he commits important sins of omission that can only be the outcome of an ideological bias. Barely mentioned except in passing is the Spanish Civil War, for example, where for three whole years between 1936 and 1939 Germany and Italy lent troops and weapons in a Fascist invasion of a sovereign European nation that had never threatened or "encircled" them in any way. Buchanan's own political past includes overt sympathy with General Franco, which makes this skating-over even less forgivable than it might otherwise be.

On the one occasion where Spain does get a serious mention, it illustrates the opposite point to the one Buchanan thinks he's making. The British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, is explaining why Hitler didn't believe that Britain and France would fight over Prague: "[Hitler] argued as follows: Would the German nation willingly go to war for General Franco in Spain, if France intervened on the side of the Republican government? The answer that he gave himself is that it would not, and he was consequently convinced that no democratic French government would be strong enough to lead the French nation to war for the Czechs."

In this instance, it must be admitted, Hitler was being a rational actor. And his admission—which Buchanan in his haste to indict Anglo-French policy completely fails to notice—is that if he himself had been resisted earlier and more determinedly, he would have been compelled to give ground. Thus the whole and complete lesson is not that the second world war was an avoidable "war of choice." It is that the Nazis could and should have been confronted before they had fully rearmed and had begun to steal the factories and oilfields and coal mines and workers of neighboring countries. As Gen. Douglas MacArthur once put it, all military defeats can be summarized in the two words: "Too late." The same goes for political disasters.

As the book develops, Buchanan begins to unmask his true colors more and more. It is one thing to make the case that Germany was ill-used, and German minorities harshly maltreated, as a consequence of the 1914 war of which Germany's grim emperor was one of the prime instigators. It's quite another thing to say that the Nazi decision to embark on a Holocaust of European Jewry was "not a cause of the war but an awful consequence of the war." Not only is Buchanan claiming that Hitler's fanatical racism did not hugely increase the likelihood of war, but he is also making the insinuation that those who wanted to resist him are the ones who are equally if not indeed mainly responsible for the murder of the Jews! This absolutely will not do. He adduces several quotations from Hitler and Goebbels, starting only in 1939 and ending in 1942, screaming that any outbreak of war to counter Nazi ambitions would lead to a terrible vengeance on the Jews. He forgets—at least I hope it's only forgetfulness—that such murderous incitement began long, long before Hitler had even been a lunatic-fringe candidate in the 1920s. This "timeline" is as spurious, and as sinister, as the earlier dates, so carefully selected by Buchanan, that tried to make Prussian imperialism look like a victim rather than a bully.

One closing example will demonstrate the corruption and prejudice of Buchanan's historical "method." He repeatedly argues that Churchill did not appreciate Hitler's deep-seated and respectful Anglophilia, and he continually blames the war on several missed opportunities to take the Führer's genially outstretched hand. Indeed, he approvingly quotes several academic sources who agree with him that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union only in order to change Britain's mind. Suppose that Buchanan is in fact correct about this. Could we have a better definition of derangement and megalomania than the case of a dictator who overrules his own generals and invades Russia in wintertime, mainly to impress the British House of Commons? (Incidentally, or rather not incidentally, it was precisely that hysterical aggression that curtain-raised the organized deportation and slaughter of the Jews. But it's fatuous to suppose that, without that occasion, the Nazis would not have found another one.)

It is of course true that millions of other people lost their lives in this conflict, often in unprecedentedly horrible ways, and that new tyrannies were imposed on the countries—Poland, Czechoslovakia and China most notably—that had been the pretexts for a war against fascism. But is this not to think in the short term? Unless or until Nazism had been vanquished, millions of people were most certainly going to be either massacred or enslaved in any case. Whereas today, all the way from Portugal to the Urals, the principle of human rights and popular sovereignty is at least the norm, and the ideas of racism and totalitarianism have been fairly conclusively and historically discredited. Would a frightened compromise with racist totalitarianism have produced a better result?

Winston Churchill may well have been on the wrong side about India, about the gold standard, about the rights of labor and many other things, and he may have had a lust for war, but we may also be grateful that there was one politician in the 1930s who found it intolerable even to breathe the same air, or share the same continent or planet, as the Nazis. (Buchanan of course makes plain that he rather sympathizes with Churchill about the colonies, and quarrels only with his "finest hour." This is grotesque.) As he closes his argument, Buchanan again refuses to disguise his allegiance. "Though derided as isolationists," he writes, "the America First patriots kept the United States out of the war until six months after Hitler had invaded Russia." If you know anything at all about what happened to the population of those territories in those six months, it is rather hard to be proud that America was neutral. But this is a price that Buchanan is quite willing to pay.

I myself have written several criticisms of the cult of Churchill, and of the uncritical way that it has been used to stifle or cudgel those with misgivings. ("Adlai," said John F. Kennedy of his outstanding U.N. ambassador during the Bay of Pigs crisis, "wanted a Munich.") Yet the more the record is scrutinized and re-examined, the more creditable it seems that at least two Western statesmen, for widely different reasons, regarded coexistence with Nazism as undesirable as well as impossible. History may judge whether the undesirability or the impossibility was the more salient objection, but any attempt to separate the two considerations is likely to result in a book that stinks, as this one unmistakably does.

Join the Discussion