When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, many years ago, my tutor for 20th-century European history, Martin Gilbert – who was about to become Churchill’s official biographer – set me a question that I found unexpectedly difficult to answer. Why, he asked, did Britain go to war in 1939 to save Poland, a country under an anti-Semitic, authoritarian and aggressively military regime; a country, moreover, whose obsolete military equipment and open northern and western borders on the plains of central Europe made it very difficult to defend? Why Poland when Britain did not go to war the year before to save Czechoslovakia, a liberal, democratic state with modern, well-equipped armed forces and (as he pointed out, showing me one of the maps of which he was so fond) an easily defensible mountainous border with Germany?
What made the question difficult was not really the comparison. It wasn’t hard to conclude that foreign policy was, then as now, about national interest as seen by the government of the day and not about morality. It was clear from the documents Martin set me to read that public opinion in Britain in 1938 was vehemently opposed to war, making it impossible for the government to declare one. By September 1939 it was equally clear that British public opinion had swung round decisively in favour of a war with Germany, making it hard, to say the least, for the government not to.
The reason for this shift was also obvious: the incorporation of the German-speaking Sudetenland into Hitler’s Reich was justifiable in terms of the principle of “national self-determination” that lay at the foundation of the peace settlement at the end of the First World War, a principle that seemed, unfairly, to apply to every country in Europe except Germany. Hitler’s occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, however, could not be defended in this way; indeed, it demonstrated conclusively that the Nazis were intent not just on revising the 1919 peace settlement but actually on conquering the whole of Europe.
What caused the difficulty in answering my tutor’s question was the fact that Britain wasn’t in a position to help either Poland or Czechoslovakia. British national interest, we concluded in the end, demanded that it had to be made clear to Hitler that his drive to conquer Europe, a drive that would threaten British independence and Britain’s place in the world, would be vigorously resisted, even if nothing could be done about this in the short term.
In this brief essay, the journalist Peter Hitchens argues that September 1939 was the wrong moment for a war against Germany, not least because Britain was not prepared for it. He does not say when the right moment would have been, although he does concede, confusingly, that at some unspecified point it would have been necessary for Hitler to be stopped.
Why? After all, he is scathing about what he sees as the common view that the war, on the British side, was “utopian” and “idealist”, fought for ideological reasons. Yet, he observes correctly, it was not about stopping the Nazis from exterminating the Jews, a policy that only began to be implemented some two years after the war had begun (but no serious historian has ever claimed that it was). Still, he seems to think that Hitler should have been stopped for moral reasons, because his regime was “repulsive”. But that’s not the reason at all. The reason was Hitler’s obvious drive for European and eventually world conquest, which has been docu-mented from innumerable sources. The Führer is too often the ghost at the feast in British popular histories of the Second World War such as this one.
Hitchens leaves all of this completely out of his account and unfortunately relies on a handful of off-beam, eccentric studies of prewar diplomacy, like the work of the Europhobe and climate change denier Richard North, instead of using standard modern works such as Zara Steiner’s two magisterial volumes on interwar diplomacy in the Oxford History of Modern Europe.
This leads him into one error after an-other. He suggests, for example, that Chamberlain had decided to bring about a world war in 1939. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this contention, and abundant evidence to the contrary; even at the beginning of the war the British prime minister was trying to arrange for the Italian dictator Mussolini to intervene to stop the fighting, and had to be overruled by his cabinet. The problem with arguing, as Hitchens does, that Britain should have waited to declare war until rearmament had created a military that was effective enough to defeat Nazi Germany is that Nazi Germany was rearming even faster than Britain was.
Similarly, he is flying in the face of many years of research by German historians when he claims that the German armed forces in the war were fighting for military objectives that would have been regarded as legitimate by the democratic governments of the Weimar Republic that pre-ceded Hitler’s rise to power: it is very doubtful indeed whether Weimar’s foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, would have approved the invasion of France, Denmark, Norway or even Czechoslovakia, let alone the Soviet Union.
As for Dunkirk, Hitchens wrongly says Britain and France knew in advance from captured plans about “the German attack through Belgium and Holland” that “destroyed the French Army” and drove out the British. Actually, no: a plane carrying a German staff officer with the plans on board crashed on Belgian territory and he was arrested before he could burn them. The Germans, of course, were aware of the crash when the plane did not return and had to change the plan. This led to the famous surprise attack through the valleys of the Ardennes forest, directly into north-eastern France, that destroyed the French Army.
Hitchens also asserts the common belief of Eurosceptics that joining the EU meant Britain’s “absorption into the European Union – the continuation of Germany by other means” without presenting any evidence in support of this bizarre contention (we should remember for instance that Margaret Thatcher, who seems to have become something of an unperson among Tory Europhobes, was largely responsible, among other contributions, for the creation of the single market). Even stranger is his apparent belief that the UK was bankrupted by the war, leading to a collapse in living standards, whereas in fact a mere decade and a half later, largely as a result of sloughing off the huge expense of maintaining a useless overseas empire, Britain was entering the boom years of the Sixties, with rapidly rising living standards.
In Hitchens’s world, Britain needlessly surrendered its sovereignty to other powers – the Americans, the Russians, the Europeans. All of this was “humiliating” for the British, “as cession of sovereignty always is”. But pooling sovereignty is necessary in the modern, globalised world: isolationism leads to impoverishment and marginalisation, as North Korea has discovered. Attacking what he says are the ideas “we” hold about the Second World War, Hitchens picks some easy targets – the strategic bombing campaign, including the huge raids on Hamburg and Dresden for example, or Hitler’s largely propagandistic threat to invade Britain in 1940. But who has ever believed, for instance, that “Bomber” Harris did not target civilians? And for years historians have known that Hitler’s invasion plans were not serious.
The word “we” occurs innumerable times in this book, denoting the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, who apparently hold firm to the false memory of Britain standing alone, fighting a “good war” against Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945, when the war was in fact morally ambiguous to say the least, and disastrous for British sovereignty in its outcome. Hitchens’s “we” in truth, I suspect, means mainly elderly readers of the newspaper he writes for, the Mail on Sunday, and this book is really only for them.
Richard Evans is provost of Gresham College and former regius professor of history at Cambridge. His books include “The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914” (Penguin)
The Phoney Victory: The World War II Delusion
IB Tauris, 240pp, £17.99
This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis