Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Was World War Two just as pointless and self-defeating as Iraq, asks Peter Hitchens

 It makes me feel like a traitor to write this. The Second World War was my religion for most of my life.

Brave, alone, bombed, defiant, we, the British, had won it on our own against the most evil and powerful enemy imaginable.

Born six years after it was over, I felt almost as if I had lived through it, as my parents most emphatically had, with some bravery and much hardship in both cases.

With my toy soldiers, tanks and field-guns, I defeated the Nazis daily on my bedroom floor.

I lost myself in books with unembarrassed titles like Men Of Glory, with their crisp, moving accounts of acts of incredible bravery by otherwise ordinary people who might have been my next-door neighbours.

I read the fictional adventures of RAF bomber ace Matt Braddock in the belief that the stories were true, and not caring in the slightest about what happened when his bombs hit the ground. I do now.

After this came all those patriotic films that enriched the picture of decency, quiet courage and self-mocking humour that I came to think of as being the essence of Britishness. To this day I can't watch them without a catch in the throat.

This was our finest hour. It was the measure against which everything else must be set.

So it has been very hard for me since the doubts set in. I didn't really want to know if it wasn't exactly like that. But it has rather forced itself on me.

When I lived in Russia at the end of the Soviet era, I found a country that made even more of the war than we did.

I even employed a splendid old Red Army war veteran to help me set up my office there: an upright, totally reliable old gentleman just like my father's generation, except that he was Russian and a convinced Stalinist who did odd jobs for the KGB.

They had their war films, too. And their honourable scars.

And they were just as convinced they had won the war single-handed as we were.

They regarded D-Day as a minor event and had never heard of El Alamein.

Once I caught myself thinking: "They're using the war as a way of comforting themselves over their national decline, and over the way they're clearly losing in their contest with America."

And then it came to me that this could be a description of my own country.

When I lived in America itself, where I discovered that the Second World War, in their view, took place mainly in the Pacific, and in any case didn't matter half as much as the Civil War and the Vietnam War, I got a second harsh, unwanted history lesson.

Now here comes another. On a recent visit to the USA I picked up two new books that are going to make a lot of people in Britain very angry.

I read them, unable to look away, much as it is hard to look away from a scene of disaster, in a sort of cloud of dispirited darkness.

They are a reaction to the use - in my view, abuse - of the Second World War to justify the Iraq War.

We were told that the 1939-45 war was a good war, fought to overthrow a wicked tyrant, that the war in Iraq would be the same, and that those who opposed it were like the discredited appeasers of 1938.

Well, I didn't feel much like Neville Chamberlain (a man I still despise) when I argued against the Iraq War. And I still don't.

Some of those who opposed the Iraq War ask a very disturbing question.

The people who sold us Iraq did so as if they were today's Churchills. They were wrong.

In that case, how can we be sure that Churchill's war was a good war?

What if the Men of Glory didn't need to die or risk their lives? What if the whole thing was a miscalculated waste of life and wealth that destroyed Britain as a major power and turned her into a bankrupt pensioner of the USA?

Funnily enough, these questions echo equally uncomfortable ones I'm often asked by readers here.

The milder version is: "Who really won the war, since Britain is now subject to a German-run European Union?"

The other is one I hear from an ever-growing number of war veterans contemplating modern Britain's landscape of loutishness and disorder and recalling the sacrifices they made for it: "Why did we bother?"

Don't read on if these questions rock your universe.

The two books, out in this country very soon, are Patrick Buchanan's Churchill, Hitler And The Unnecessary War and Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke.

I know Pat Buchanan and respect him, but I have never liked his sympathy for "America First", the movement that tried to keep the USA out of the Second World War.

As for Nicholson Baker, he has become famous only because his phone-sex novel, Vox, was given as a present to Bill Clinton by Monica Lewinsky.

Human Smoke is not a novel but a series of brief factual items deliberately arranged to undermine the accepted story of the war, and it has received generous treatment from the American mainstream, especially the New York Times.

Baker is a pacifist, a silly position open only to citizens of free countries with large navies.

He has selected with care to suit his position, but many of the facts here, especially about Winston Churchill and Britain's early enthusiasm for bombing civilian targets, badly upset the standard view.

Here is Churchill, in a 1920 newspaper article, allegedly railing against the "sinister confederacy" of international Jewry.

I say "allegedly" because I have not seen the original. I also say it because I am reluctant to believe it, as I am reluctant to believe another Baker snippet which suggests that Franklin Roosevelt was involved in a scheme to limit the number of Jews at Harvard University.

Such things today would end a political career in an instant.

Many believe the 1939-45 war was fought to save the Jews from Hitler. No facts support this fond belief.

If the war saved any Jews, it was by accident.

Its outbreak halted the "Kindertransport" trains rescuing Jewish children from the Third Reich. We ignored credible reports from Auschwitz and refused to bomb the railway tracks leading to it.

Baker is also keen to show that Hitler's decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe came only after the war was fully launched, and that before then, although his treatment of the Jews was disgusting and homicidal, it stopped well short of industrialised mass murder.

The implication of this, that the Holocaust was a result of the war, not a cause of it, is specially disturbing.

A lot of people will have trouble, also, with the knowledge that Churchill said of Hitler in 1937, when the nature of his regime was well known: "A highly competent, cool, well informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism."

Three years later, the semi-official view, still pretty much believed, was that Hitler was the devil in human form and more or less insane.

Buchanan is, in a way, more damaging. He portrays Churchill as a man who loved war for its own sake, and preferred it to peace.

As the First World War began in 1914, two observers, Margot Asquith and David Lloyd George, described Churchill as "radiant, his face bright, his manner keen ... you could see he was a really happy man".

Churchill also (rightly) gets it in the neck from Buchanan for running down British armed forces between the wars.

It was Churchill who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, demanded deep cuts in the Royal Navy in 1925, so when he adopted rearmament as his cause ten years later, it was his own folly he was railing against.

Well, every country needs men who like war, if it is to stand and fight when it has to. And we all make mistakes, which are forgotten if we then get one thing spectacularly right, as Churchill did.

Americans may take or leave Mr Buchanan's views about whether they should have stayed out, but the USA did very well out of a war in which Britain and Russia did most of the fighting, while Washington pocketed (and still keeps) most of the benefits.

Surveying Buchanan's chilly summary, I found myself distressed by several questions.

The First and Second World Wars, as Buchanan says, are really one conflict.

We went to war with the Kaiser in 1914 mainly because we feared being overtaken by Germany as the world's greatest naval power. Yet one of the main results of the war was that we were so weakened we were overtaken instead by the USA.

We were also forced, by American pressure, to end our naval alliance with Japan, which had protected our Far Eastern Empire throughout the 1914-18 war.

This decision, more than any other, cost us that Empire. By turning Japan from an ally into an enemy, but without the military or naval strength to guard our possessions, we ensured that we would be easy meat in 1941.

After the fall of Singapore in 1942, our strength and reputation in Asia were finished for good and our hurried scuttle from India unavoidable.

Worse still is Buchanan's analysis of how we went to war.

I had always thought the moment we might have stopped Hitler was when he reoccupied the Rhineland on March 7, 1936. But Buchanan records that nobody was interested in such action at the time. Nobody? Yes.

That includes Churchill, who said fatuously on March 13: "Instead of retaliating by armed force, as would have been done in a previous generation, France has taken the proper and prescribed course of appealing to the League of Nations."

He then even more wetly urged "Herr Hitler" to do the decent thing and withdraw.

Buchanan doesn't think that Britain and France could have saved Czechoslovakia in 1938, and I suspect he is right.

But this is a minor issue beside his surgical examination of Britain's guarantee to help Poland in March 1939. Hitler saw our "stand" as an empty bluff, and called it.

The Poles were crushed and murdered, and their country erased from the map. Hitler's eventual defeat left Poland under the Soviet heel for two generations.

We then embarked on a war which cost us our Empire, many of our best export markets, what was left of our naval supremacy, and most of our national wealth - gleefully stripped from us by Roosevelt in return for Lend-Lease supplies.

As a direct result we sought membership of a Common Market that has since bled away our national independence.

Would we not have been wiser to behave as the USA did, staying out of it and waiting for Hitler and Stalin to rip out each other's bowels?

Was Hitler really set on a war with Britain or on smashing the British Empire?

The country most interested in dismantling our Empire was the USA. Hitler never built a surface navy truly capable of challenging ours and, luckily for us, he left it too late to build enough submarines to starve us out.

He was very narrowly defeated in the Battle of Britain, but how would we have fared if, a year later, he had used the forces he flung at Russia to attack us instead?

But he didn't. His "plan" to invade Britain, the famous Operation Sealion, was only a sketchy afterthought, quickly abandoned.

Can it be true that he wasn't very interested in fighting or invading us? His aides were always baffled by his admiration for the British Empire, about which he would drone for hours.

Of course he was an evil dictator. But so was Joseph Stalin, who would later become our honoured ally, supplied with British weapons, fawned on by our Press and politicians, including Churchill himself.

By Christmas 1940, Stalin had in fact murdered many more people than Hitler and had invaded nearly as many countries.

We almost declared war on him in 1940 and he ordered British communists to subvert our war effort against the Nazis during the Battle of Britain.

And, in alliance with Hitler, he was supplying the Luftwaffe with much of the fuel and resources it needed to bomb London.

Not so simple, is it? Survey the 20th Century and you see Britain repeatedly fighting Germany, at colossal expense.

No one can doubt the valour and sacrifice involved.

But at the end of it all, Germany dominates Europe behind the smokescreen of the EU; our Empire and our rule of the seas have gone, we struggle with all the problems of a great civilisation in decline, and our special friend, the USA, has smilingly supplanted us for ever. But we won the war.


  1. A very good summary of Buchanan's book, which I have read. It washed away the last vestiges of my belief that the First and Second World Wars were (a) what they now seem, (b)just and (c) wisely entered into. Now Hitchens and Buchanan just need to go that step further and recognise (a) that the 'Holocaust' was not what it seemed, (b) that the deportation of Jews was not simply the product of a diseased mind, (c) that Jews, collectively, aligned their interests with those of the allies to create the Holocaust story, and (d) that Jews, collectively, gained immense power from that story, are now using that power to arrange the world in the way they want it, and are thereby putting the whole world in great danger.

  2. Paradoxically, Hitchens P, opponent of the Iraq war and of the Kosovo war and who visited Iran and has written sympathetically about the people (not the regime) is also an ardent Zionist, so I can't see him questioning the Holocaust, even without the need to protect his position at the Daily Mail. Does his Zionism spring simply from the Hitchens brothers need to each violently oppose everything the other stands for? I don't know.

    Buchanan, on the other hand is probably a closet revisionist. He worked hard to help and support John Demjanjuk, and has criticised the claims that diesel exhaust could have been used to kill people.

  3. Interesting article. As the son of German immigrants to the USA, born 12 years after the war its interesting to compare his outlook to mine.

    Mr. Hitchens writes "Born six years after it was over, I felt almost as if I had lived through it, as my parents most emphatically had, with some bravery and much hardship in both cases." It was probably only in the last twenty years that I realized how soon I was born after the war. The war might have been a century ago the way I thought about it for many years.

    He writes "When I lived in Russia at the end of the Soviet era, I found a country that made even more of the war than we did...They had their war films, too. And their honourable scars. And they were just as convinced they had won the war single-handed as we were." I visited the Baltic countries in 2002, 2003, 2004 and Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg, East Prussia in 2008). The Russians still play old WW II movies and I found myself enjoying them. I think because it reminded me of when I was a child.
    Oh, and in the USA many Americans think they won the war single handedly.

    Mr. Hitchens writes "Well, I didn't feel much like Neville Chamberlain (a man I still despise) when I argued against the Iraq War." I don't despise Chamberlain; I despise Churchill.

    He writes "I had always thought the moment we might have stopped Hitler was when he reoccupied the Rhineland on March 7, 1936." Amid the every day media discussion of WW II thirty or forty years ago I mentioned this to my mother and she said "that's our land, why shouldn't we be able to put our troops there?" I don't know if she said it at the time or if I thought of this years later, but how can you "reoccupy" land in your own country. I think that claim about the Rhineland shows who the aggressors were.

    Czechoslovakia and Poland were created in 1919, largely from German and Austrian territory. Czechoslovakia had never existed as a country before. Millions of Germans lived in both these new countries on lands that had been historically German or Austrian. The allies had as much business fighting Germany over these countries that Germany would have in attacking Great Britain to "free" Northern Ireland and then perhaps to expel all the Brits from there as the allies did to over 14 million Germans from eastern Europe.

    Referring to the outbreak of the war in 1939 he writes "Its outbreak halted the "Kindertransport" trains rescuing Jewish children from the Third Reich." I would love to here someone give me a reliable figure of how many Jews were killed by NAZIS before September 1939. Garmany had approximately 500,000 Jews when Hitler took power in 1933. Some left (perhaps quite a few) due to his discriminatory policies, but relatively few Jews were killed by NAZIS before September 1939. I would guess Kristallnacht was the worst episode. According to the very Jewish and allied friendly (regarding history) wikipedia, "At least 91 Jews were killed in the attacks." Millions were killed in the Soviet Union in the 1930's. I wonder how many Indians did the British kill in the 1930's?

    Many of us have come a long way in our thinking and I agree with the comment above. Now Buchanan and Hitchens have to go a step further.

  4. both "great" wars were those of bloody gangster empires against one another, like one mafia group exercising territorial rights over another...churchill was a racist swine and naturally, a hero to the british folk just as american mass murderers have been transformed into generous and dedicated workers for global peace...except for their mad racism toward jews, nazis were just the right wing of capital,and jews more often its left...

    in an interview in 1917, lenin was asked if he thought the usa would enter the first "great" war and he said - paraphrasing - of course since it was assuming a position on the world stage after it had industrialized its military during the civil war and become a "player" in the global military imperial fact, he added, it was only a matter of time until it would engage in war with japan over what he called a "carve-up of the pacific"... this was 24 years before the fairy tale about pearl harbor being a shocking attack, unexpected by the poor defenseless usa..and so all the war stories go so that children can play bang bang games and their fathers can die in these mass slaughters in support of private profit, at enormous public loss...