All Commentary
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”

As a soldier, politician, and writer, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874–1965) made a deep imprint on world history for more than half a century. He is best known for rallying his countrymen during the fateful Battle of Britain when he was prime minister—thereby, many people believe, stemming the flood that was sweeping Adolf Hitler to world conquest. Small wonder that Time magazine named him its Man of the Century, a designation that many other admirers have embraced.

Churchill, however, never waited idly for the world to construct his legend. From the 1890s onward, he strove to put himself in the places, especially the wars, where he would be best situated to advance his fame and realize his ambitions, and as he made his way through a series of adventures, he promptly wrote articles and books about each of them, thus shaping in large degree how others would view his actions. Moreover, he was an excellent writer; his articles and books sold very well, and in 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His sharp wit and dazzling rhetoric enhanced his reputation.

In Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War,” Patrick J. Buchanan seeks to demolish the Churchill myth, along with several related ones, which he does with surprising success. I say “surprising,” not because the myth itself was ever unassailable—excellent historians, including Ralph Raico, long ago pounded Churchill’s feet of clay into dust—but because Buchanan is known primarily as an ideological polemicist. Yet in this book he presents respectably balanced and well-documented arguments for his theses. If he is not himself a professional historian, he has absorbed the works of scores of well-reputed historians, and he carefully assesses a number of counterarguments against his position. Although Buchanan presents no previously unreported facts, he offers abundant evidence expressed in clear, forceful prose. All in all, he makes a persuasive case.

Buchanan correctly views the two world wars as “two phases of a Thirty Years’ War.” He argues that both phases were unnecessary and that Great Britain “turned both European wars into world wars.”

For World War I, he maintains: “Had Britain not declared war on Germany in 1914, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and India would not have followed the Mother Country in. Nor would Britain’s ally Japan. Nor would Italy, which London lured in with secret bribes of territory from the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. Nor would America have gone to war had Britain stayed out. Germany would have been victorious, perhaps in months. There would have been no Lenin, no Stalin, no Versailles, no Hitler, no Holocaust.”

For World War II, he maintains: “Had Britain not given a war guarantee to Poland in March 1939, then declared war on September 3, bringing in South Africa, Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, and the United States, a German-Polish war might never have become a six-year war in which fifty million would perish.”

He argues that the decisive event in the run-up to World War II was not the infamous 1938 appeasement at Munich—because the Germans had good reason to reabsorb the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia—but the 1939 guarantee, which was foolish of the British to make and foolish of the Poles to rely on. It was foolish because Britain had no means of defending Poland. When Hitler attacked in 1939, after Polish leaders refused to return Danzig to Germany, the British could only watch helplessly.

Buchanan begins his narrative at the end of the nineteenth century and ends it at the conclusion of World War II. Churchill occupies center stage in this extended drama because he “was the most bellicose champion of British entry into the European war of 1914 and the German-Polish war of 1939.” Along the way, Buchanan adduces evidence that Kaiser Wilhelm II, a grandson of Queen Victoria and nephew of King Edward VII, did not seek war with Great Britain (in 1910, he “marched in Edward’s funeral—in the uniform of a British field marshal”). Likewise, 30 years later, Hitler wished to avoid war with Great Britain, whose people and empire he admired: “His dream was of an alliance with the British Empire, not its ruin.”

The Lebensraum he sought lay to the east of Germany, not to the west. The Germans did not seek to “conquer the world,” despite frequent claims to that effect, and in any event, they lacked the means to achieve such a conquest.

No short review can depict the breadth, the depth, and the many fascinating details of Buchanan’s book. Read it and see for yourself. It may well challenge your most cherished beliefs about Winston Churchill and the world-shattering Thirty Years’ War of 1914–45.