The Good and Bad War

A review of The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion by Peter Hitchens

The Phoney Victory Peter Hitchens“Facts are better than dreams.” – Winston Churchill

The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion by journalist Peter Hitchens is a powerful and unsettling book that aims to correct the historical record surrounding Britain’s involvement in World War II. It casts a cold eye on British decision-making before, during, and immediately after the greatest conflict in human history, and finds that large swaths of the conventional wisdom about the Good War are simply not true.

The argument goes something like this. Britain, wanting to preserve its credibility as a great power, foolishly committed itself to a war it was unprepared to fight. This tragic folly led to a long series of disasters. By June 1940, after the costly evacuation at Dunkirk and the German occupation of the Channel Islands, Britain had lost the war it had declared nine months earlier – chased out of continental Europe and defeated though not conquered by Germany.

The world’s greatest empire was reduced to a bankrupt, marginal power at the fringes of the war, essentially out of the fight in Europe, and had to be rescued by the United States. Why did this happen? The origins of this disastrous situation can be traced back to March 1939, when Britain and France made an unconditional guarantee to protect Poland’s borders and independence, knowing full well they were unable to enforce this pledge militarily. When Hitler invaded Poland in September, they were forced to declare war, although they did nothing practical to help Poland, then or later.

German occupation Guernsey

German occupation of the Channel Island of Guernsey (Source)

In examining the background to the guarantee, Hitchens finds evidence that the Chamberlain government was actually looking for a fight. As he argues:

Far from blundering into a guarantee they did not mean to fulfil, they wanted the guarantee to commit them irrevocably to an idealist war whose practical details interested them very little. For they had resolved to fight such a war that year to reassert their fast-shrivelling power and importance. [Italics in the original]

Hitchens asserts that Hitler needed to be overthrown at some point. His quarrel is with the motives and circumstances of Britain’s ill-timed intervention:

I am saying that we might have done better to follow the wise example of the USA, and wait until we and our allies were militarily and diplomatically ready before we entered that conflict.

The book later delves into “the wise example of the USA,” specifically the cold, harsh calculations of American self-interest that undergirded Roosevelt’s policy towards Great Britain. In a fascinating couple of chapters, Hitchens records how the US took advantage of Britain’s helplessness to strip the empire of its assets and its naval supremacy in exchange for desperately needed aid.

Stalin FDR Tehran

Stalin and Roosevelt in Tehran (Source)

Under the “cash and carry” agreement, a hopelessly indebted Britain shipped its life savings in the form of gold bullion and securities across the Atlantic to pay for war supplies. Much of this loot still remains in Fort Knox. Under the Destroyers for Bases deal, Churchill handed over British territories across the Caribbean, Bermuda and Newfoundland to the US, a humiliating loss of imperial possessions, in return for 50 decrepit ships. The ruthlessness of these bargains is stunning and very damaging to the trope of the Anglo-American “special relationship.”

The Churchill myth also takes a severe beating here. There is no doubt that Churchill was a great leader with many admirable qualities. But as the book reveals, he was also prone to absurd posturing and hubris that led to a number of damaging errors. One of these was his refusal to send reinforcements in time to Malaya, which paved the way for the devastating loss of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Churchill was also bizarrely fixated on Egypt, sending scarce resources to the Mediterranean and Middle East theater at the expense of nearly losing the all-important Battle of the Atlantic. A failed intervention in Greece “was also begun for reasons of prestige, not military ones.”

In the book’s most upsetting chapters, Hitchens addresses the British bombing of German population centers during the war, and the ethnic cleansing of Germans from large parts of central and eastern Europe under the post-war Potsdam Agreement. The first issue tends to ignite strong emotions. Many people believe that the deliberate mass bombing of German civilians in their homes was a justified response to Nazi aggression and was necessary to break the will of the German population.

Operation Gomorrah Hamburg

Effects of Operation Gomorrah (Source)

The chapter titled “Gomorrah” – named after Operation Gomorrah, the carpet-bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 which annihilated ten square miles of the city and killed over 40,000 civilians – dismantles these arguments, showing that the “area bombing” of entire towns and cities was futile and morally indefensible. The bombings had limited military value, and were done mainly for psychological and PR reasons, because they pleased Britain’s ally Stalin, and because, as Churchill put it, they were “better than doing nothing.” Huge numbers of British airmen were sacrificed in the raids, which accomplished little compared to the targeted bombing of industrial and military sites. The suggestion here is that Britain turned to carpet-bombing, a savage and largely pointless policy, because this was one of the few ways it could project power after having blundered into a war it was physically unable to win.

The follies continued long after Hitler self-terminated in his Führerbunker. The chapter “Orderly and Humane” covers the brutal, chaotic transfer of between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans, mainly innocent women and children, out of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia under the aegis of the victorious Allied powers. An estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people died in this process, which is shockingly unknown to most people in the Anglo-American world.

Pointing out these facts is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Hitchens goes to considerable lengths to fortify his book against the predictable misunderstandings. He makes it perfectly clear, for example, that condemning certain actions by the Allies in no way amounts to a defense of Nazi Germany or an argument that the two sides are morally equivalent. The book is also careful to praise the undeniable courage and sacrifice of the men and women who fought in and otherwise lived through the war, even as it shines a harsh light on the political and military decisions that were made by the people in charge.

Not being an expert on WWII, I am in no position to assess the book’s historical claims. My opinion is that Hitchens’s arguments are well supported and have the ring of truth. However, The Phoney Victory has attracted a couple of highly critical reviews, by Sir Richard Evans – described as “arguably the pre-eminent historian of 20th-century Germany” – and by Daniel Johnson, editor of Standpoint magazine (and son of historian Paul Johnson). Hitchens has also responded in detail to these reviews on his blog:

You can judge for yourself whether the above critics have successfully undermined Hitchens’s arguments. In my humble opinion, the book survives these attacks virtually unscathed. The sneering, dismissive article by Professor Evans can be, and is, easily demolished by Hitchens. It’s not clear whether the great academic even bothered to read the book.* Johnson’s review is far more thoughtful and detailed, but also ignores key parts of the book’s argument and veers off into embarrassing Churchill-worship.

I should also note that the book includes a highly entertaining and well-written index, which could almost hold its own as a separate work. Here’s a sample:

Great Britain, moderately important country off NW coast of Europe; its principal concern in 1939 preservation of its standing as a great power, 34; actively obstructs single largest escape route for persecuted European Jews, 34; naval weakness in Mediterranean, 34; seen by many Americans as selfish, mean and bullying, 37 […]

===

*A reader posted the following astute comment on Hitchens’s blog:

Sir Richard’s rant reaffirms my belief that Mr. Hitches is correct about the lingering power of the WW2 myth: it’s striking to witness a historian of his standing react so emotionally and with so little grace; especially the nitpicking that Mr. Hitchens highlights, a common refuge of those who duck and weave around a challenge they’re unwilling to face head-on.

Just as the Great Patriotic War’s been dragooned into service by successive Soviet and Russian governments eager to prop up their ramshackle hold on power, so the Second World War’s been used by successive British governments to mask imperial decline.

===

UPDATE: The book has also been reviewed by Ross Grainger, Dr Nicolas Lewkowicz, and Niall Gooch. And Mr Hitchens has kindly mentioned my review on Twitter:

Peter Hitchens tweet

Rethinking World War II

 

Churchill reviewing American troops

Peter Hitchens has come out with a new book, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, that challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding Britain’s involvement in the unpleasant events of 1939-45. Here, he summarizes the book’s main arguments, most of which will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ column and blog. For many other people, especially in Britain, I suspect some of these ideas will prove seriously unwelcome.

[UPDATE: I review the book here.]

It seems that Hitchens is touching a third rail of politics with this book, which attempts to take an axe to some of the most cherished Anglo-American beliefs about the war. Here’s a sample:

MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’

Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.

The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.

Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.

The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.

This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.

There’s much more in the linked piece. Hitchens has taken a lot of flak in the past for arguing that the British bombing of German population centers was unjustified, an issue that is revisited in the article. A lot of people find Hitchens’ viewpoint on this matter unpatriotic and disturbing because it undermines Britain’s moral standing in the war. This is of course a ridiculous non-argument, but the negative reaction is understandable. It’s very difficult for people to think objectively about events that are charged with personal or emotional significance, and this is especially true of World War II, which has loomed large in the imaginations of whole generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. By the way, I haven’t read the book yet, nor can I vouch for Hitchens’ arguments. All I can say is that Hitchens is a serious writer and thinker and I expect his treatment of the topic to be very interesting as well as controversial. History is complicated and our understanding of past events is fragmentary and distorted, full of yawning gaps and risible falsehoods. There is no reason to believe that history’s greatest conflict would be an exception to this rule.