Peter Hitchens reveals eight myths about the Second World War which we grew up on. He details in a section of his new book why we didn’t win the war.
As The Anglophilic Anglican, and a Blighty Boy to boot, I have a huge amount of respect, appreciation, and admiration for all things British, and that includes the valor and determination of the British and Crown (Commonwealth / Empire) Armed Forces during World War Two. But as an historian, I am also interested in not only the conduct of that war, but its origin, causes, and the implications of its outcome for today’s world.
Peter Hitchens is an English journalist and author, and an Anglican Christian. He has published eight books, writes for The Daily Mail (UK), and is a former foreign correspondent in both Moscow and Washington. Like me, his father fought bravely in World War Two, a decorated combat veteran; like mine, his veteran father came to question certain aspects of that war. This background gives a certain poignancy to Hitchens’ take on the war, and its origins.
Hitchens notes that “the Second World War, like all events that have become myths, has become a dangerous subject. As a nation, we are enthralled by the belief that it was an unequivocally ‘Good War’, a belief that has grown with extraordinary speed. Yet I did not have to look far to see a rather different picture…
“The uncomfortable truth is that from the very beginning, it was Britain which sought a conflict with Germany, not Germany with Britain. Hitler’s real targets lay elsewhere, in Ukraine and Russia, and he was much less interested in us than we like to think…
“Poland was a pretext for that war, not a reason – as was demonstrated by the fact that we did nothing to help Poland when Hitler invaded. It was an excuse for an essentially irrational, idealistic, nostalgic impulse, built largely on a need to assert Britain’s standing as a Great Power.”
This is not the first time I have heard or read that it was actually Britain that sought to provoke a war with Germany, not the other way ’round. But it is interesting – and lends further credence to the idea – to hear it from a British author. The accounts I have heard tend to blame Churchill and his antipathy, bordering on hatred, for the Germans. While it seems likely that this played some significant part, the argument that it was also done in an attempt to shore up a flagging Empire’s Great Power status opens a new perspective on the situation.
“Nor did we go to war, as many like to believe, to save or even help the endangered Jews of Europe… Britain simply did not declare war in 1939 to save Europe’s Jews – indeed, our government was indifferent to their plight and blocked one of their main escape routes, to what was then British-ruled Palestine. We also did nothing to help Poland, for whose sake we supposedly declared war.”
Once again, I am familiar with the idea that Poland was a convenient excuse. Britain, if Hitchens and others are correct, was looking for a reason to go to war with Germany; France had a centuries-old rivalry with the Germans – in origin dating to the break-up of Charlemagne’s empire, and perhaps even further, to the late Roman Empire – and which in its more modern incarnation went back past the “Great War” (WW I) to at least to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and even further, to the Napoleonic era, when Blücher’s cavalry had helped to seal Bonaparte’s doom.
For both Britain and France, the invasion of Poland provided the perfect pretext to declare war on Germany – and it is interesting that neither declared war on Stalin’s Soviet Union, which was busily invading Poland from the East while Germany did so from the West. This is a point which is often either unknown, or conveniently ignored, by students of World War Two. If protecting Poland was the real reason for war, should they not have held both invaders equally responsible? But they did not.
And of course, it doesn’t seem as if anybody particularly cared about the Jews, at least until after the war, when the victorious Allies (at least in the West) were overcome with a belated sense of collective guilt (the misapplication of which in the present era is contributing to the Islamification of Europe… but I digress). Prior to the war, they were mostly ignored, much as Middle Eastern Christians are today. But again, I digress!
“Forget, too, the ‘special relationship’ with the US: America was a jealous and resentful rival to whom we ceded our global status and naval supremacy. And Washington’s grudging backing came at a huge price – we were made to hand over the life savings of the Empire to stave off bankruptcy and surrender.”
I have posted previously about the heavy cost to Britain of American aid during the Second World War – shamefully heavy, for a nation which is our mother country, and with which we have long claimed to have a special relationship.
On the other hand, setting aside the personal affinity between Churchill and FDR, we had even less reason to go to war with Germany than Britain did. If Hitler had not decided to support his Axis ally and declare war on us following Pearl Harbor, we might have ended up devoting our full efforts to Japan, leaving Britain (and Stalin, a despicable and bloodthirsty dictator whose alliance of convenience with Britain and the U.S. is one of the more repugnant elements of the whole war) to deal with Germany.
This is just from the introduction! Hitchens’ eight “myths” (I’m not fond of that use of the word myth; I prefer “fallacies,” since I interpret “myth” in the scholarly sense of “a narrative which may or may not be factually or historically true, but which expresses a deeper truth about the nature of reality”) are yet to follow. But I will not comment on them further. I strongly encourage you to read the whole article; it is thought-provoking and, if you have not yet encountered these ideas, may be enlightening.
As Hitchens points out,
“What began as a phoney [sic] war led in the end to a phoney victory, in which the real winners were Washington and Moscow, not [Britain] – and an unsatisfactory, uncomfortable and unhappy peace. It led to a permanent decline in our status, and a much accelerated, violent and badly managed collapse of our Empire…
“Beyond doubt there were many acts of noble courage by our people, civilians and servicemen and women during that war. It is absolutely not my purpose to diminish these acts, or to show disrespect to those who fought and endured.
“But the sad truth is that [Great Britain] deliberately sought a war in the vain hope of preserving a Great Power status our rulers knew in their hearts it had already lost. The resulting war turned us into a second-rate power.”
That is a sad truth, indeed!