A review of The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, by Peter Hitchens (I.B. Tauris, 2018).
Here are some facts about the Second World War. In the summer of 1940, the Royal Navy opened fire on French warships, killing 1,300 men. At the same time, Germany were making diplomatic efforts through Sweden and Switzerland to arrive at a peace agreement with Britain. A year later, all efforts at diplomacy coming to naught, the USA rather grudgingly provided Britain with supplies of dried egg, canned meat and beans for the war effort.
Of course, these facts emerge out of a larger context in The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, a lengthy polemic by Peter Hitchens, author and journalist for the Mail on Sunday. For instance, it was Churchill who ordered the hasty attack on the French Navy, who were until then Britain’s allies, because he anticipated that it would soon be under the control of Nazi Germany. German diplomacy, along with Hitler’s restrained threats of invasion, suggested that the Fuhrer had not intended a full-scale invasion of Britain, or indeed a plan to teach English schoolchildren to speak Deutsche. As for the USA, the quality of their shipments to Britain suggests that our friendship with them was anything but moist: the dried egg, the canned meat, the beans represented 2 per cent of what was initially promised by the much-overrated Lend-Lease agreement between the two countries, whose relationship was best described as that of former enemies.
Hitchens’s purpose in writing this book has been, in his words, to dispel the ‘myth… of the benevolent war fought for the good of mankind’, which politicians in post-war Western governments, most especially in the Anglo-American sphere, have used again and again as a pretext for wars of choice. In a long introductory chapter that would have made an excellent stand-alone essay, Hitchens sets out the contemporary concerns which led him to write this book. He argues that Western liberal interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, now war-ridden lands of the Middle East, were driven by a desire to ‘emulate’ the myth of the so-called ‘Good War’ led by Churchill and Roosevelt against the Axis powers.
Far from being a ‘Good War’, it was one that Britain entered into far too early, and for the wrong reasons. An ‘idealistic spasm’ led the British government to declare war on Germany in defense of Poland, without any means or capability of doing so. The guarantee to that country (a country then ruled by an anti-Semitic despotism) was made by forces in the British government that were actively seeking war with Germany at any cost. By making the guarantee to Poland, such a declaration would be inevitable. But after Yalta in 1945, when the Allied powers handed Poland along with Romania and the Baltic states to the Soviet Union, the guarantee in fact proved worse than useless. These were not the policies of a nation acting upon principle.
What soon transpired after Britain’s declaration of war was that the country could not even afford to wage war all by itself, and seek help from across the Atlantic. In one of the best chapters in the book, Hitchens returns to a topic frequent in his journalism: the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Great Britain. Many except Churchill seemed to be unaware (and still do not) that Americans at the time were grouchily indifferent to Britain’s fate. The ‘America First’ movement, now notorious in many respects and deservedly so, were not at that time alone in this. The American taxpayer was exasperated by the thought of another entanglement in a European war, and Roosevelt was adamant that his country would not take part. Fortunately for Britain, Hitler declared war on Roosevelt’s America, and awoke a sleeping military industrial complex more powerful than the world had ever imagined.
But there were consequences for Britain, too. In the end, it was obliged to hand over its remaining imperial privileges, for example its decaying rule of the seas, to its new ally. Britain, Hitchens maintains, was treated with indignity and even spite; what Hitchens calls ‘conditional generosity’. His overall point, I think, is that this would not have been the outcome had Britain restrained itself in September 1939. He writes with the assumption that Britain’s power was a good force in the world (he writes extremely well about his beloved Navy, for which his father was a Commander during the war and is dedicatee of the book), and a power that was relinquished by a stupid, irresponsible, cynical political establishment.
Of that establishment, Winston Churchill is the main target for Hitchens’s iconoclasm. As is proper for all political saints, he details Churchill’s unforgiveable mistakes, caused directly by him, and indefensible by the standards of Churchill’s admirers. We may, for the purposes of a short review, list merely the following: Churchill’s cuts to the Navy in the 1920s, which left it weak and hobbling; his decision to send the HMS Prince of Wales on a foolish suicidal mission that resulted in it being sunk by the Japanese; and his appeasement of Joseph Stalin by, among other things, bombing helpless German civilians (he boasted to Stalin that he would ‘shatter’ every dwelling in every city if need be. And Stalin was impressed).
Here Hitchens’s argument is at its strongest. The two concluding chapters deal with the atrocities committed or enabled by Britain and its allies against German civilians. I know something about the reign of fire brought down upon Hamburg and Dresden by the RAF, detailed at length in a chapter titled ‘Gomorrah’. I knew little of the expulsion of German populations from Czechoslovakian and Polish territory following the war’s end. I urge readers to seek out the book for these chapters alone, because they will be shocked by what they read, and for the better. Hitchens himself confesses shame having learned about what happened during what he calls a ‘racial purge’. If you are the sort of person who smugly overrates Britain’s role in WW2, goodness knows what you will think of this. But it is required reading. A healthy nation confronts past atrocities for which it was responsible, indirectly or otherwise; and forgets those heroic deeds for which it was not.
Towards the end of the book, Hitchens writes: ‘It is my suspicion that the moral shrivelling of Britain since 1945 … the abortion massacre, the general coarsening of culture and the growth of callousness have at least something to do with our willingness to shrug off – or even defend – Arthur Harris’s deliberate “de-housing” of German civilians’.
The reader should not be surprised to discover that Hitchens is a conservative. And, indeed, the most effective way to exercise liberty of thought is to read one’s opponents whom one would otherwise – in less open societies – readily and gleefully have censored. Hitchens, with his intelligent and often fierce and uncompromising conservatism rooted in the Anglican faith and in Edmund Burke, is invaluable reading for any liberal in a time when liberal-leftwing politics is something of a secular faith that retains (despite recent electoral setbacks) strongholds in political and media establishments.
What is most valuable about Hitchens’s latest book is that it diminishes the great myth that Britain’s post-war ego is largely founded upon: that under Churchill Britain stood alone against the mighty conquering forces of Hitler’s war machine; and that we, and our American allies, waged war against Germany in order to save European Jewry from annihilation. The country has been been dining out on these myths for decades and had never stopped to notice what the bailiffs were taking away.
Critics of this book have pointed out, unfairly, that nobody ever thought such things about the war in the first place. But they refer in this case to their peers: historians, academic scholars. Hitchens more than once quotes Prince Charles’s mistaken view that Britain had waged war to save the Jews, and not long after this book was published, a Labour politician misremembered in similar fashion. No doubt this is a general impression by people who haven’t given the subject much thought about what they know and do not take kindly to hearing it challenged. As to the ‘Britain standing alone’ myth, I can myself think of references to it in pop culture (for example, in an episode of Doctor Who), as well as conversations over the years with friends, family and colleagues. Hitchens’s purpose is to make these facts more known among the general public, or at least his own readership, in order that the next liberal interventionist politician cannot escape making the same fatuous comparisons with himself and Churchill, and with the ‘enemy’ an Adolf Hitler. And there has certainly been plenty of that, from the Korean War to the recent sabre-rattling at Putin’s Russia.
Yet if there is a weakness in this book, besides being in need of some tightening, it is that Hitchens overstates his case. He manages, somehow, to simplify the popular myth, which of course makes his own account of the war look even more powerful and revealing. Thus Poland, he claims, is popularly thought of as our ‘gallant ally in the cause of freedom’. Really? I do not think the general public ever thought of Poland as gallant, only pathetic. As for Churchill, his admirers must regard him as a ‘spotless hero and military genius’, so that Hitchens’s revelations about him seem all the more shocking.
This exaggeration, in my view, underestimates the tenacity of the myth. What hero, in history or literature, ever held admiration for his spotlessness? Look, for instance, at Shakespeare’s treatment of Henry V. For Hitchens’s point that Churchill – beside his one heroic act in 1940 – was a deeply flawed politician, cynical, war-mongering, and reckless, is one easily reversed: that despite his flaws (admirers will say), despite his cynicism and war-mongering and recklessness, he was in the end a hero. Myths in this way are able to absorb and include later revisions. And in a declining power with no patriotic lore in its very recent history, no revolution or war of independence to speak of in over three hundred years, the illusions of the Second World War will remained undiminished.