British journalist Peter Hitchens is a great controversialist. His most famous work remains his 1999 Abolition of Britain, which lamented the decline of Britain since the 1960’s, focusing particularly on the decay of morals and the rise of pop culture. Since then Hitchens has written books critical of numerous aspects of modern British society including the decline of religious faith, liberal ideas on crime and policing, and the modern Conservative Party.
His latest book is perhaps his most controversial as it challenges what one commentator described as the “founding myth” of modern Britain. This is the myth of the “Good War” in which Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany winning a glorious victory that saved the world from tyranny. Hitchens states, “This war, we believe, was so good that men constantly seek to fight it again, so that they can bathe in its virtue.” It is constantly invoked to justify new wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, and everyone from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin is called a new Hitler.
Hitchens admits a strong affection for the myth and states how hard it was for him to write the book. Son of a naval officer who served in the war, Hitchens’s schoolteachers were veterans of its major campaigns, and he grew up reveling in heroic stories of the conflict. Hitchens does not doubt that Britain needed to fight this war and was right to reject peace terms with Germany in 1940. And yet the way the war is invoked by modern politicians is precisely why long-standing myths need to be dispelled. The war led to a massive decline in Britain’s power and prestige, yet it “still leads to foolish economic and diplomatic policies based on a huge overestimate of our real significance as a country.” He writes,
One day this dangerous fable of the glorious . . . war against evil may destroy us simply because we have a government too vain and inexperienced to restrain itself. That is why it is so important to dispel it.
Hitchens is clear in stating his conviction that Britain should not have remained neutral during the war. He questions whether September 1939 was the right time and the invasion of Poland the right issue to precipitate British entry into the conflict. Hitchens argues that in 1939 Britain was unprepared for war:
Our army was pitifully small and much of our air force . . . still unmodernised. The defensive radar chain on the south coast was barely ready and our anti-aircraft defences almost comically weak. Our military industries were not in full capacity. Naval rearmament was still only beginning. The forces were in any case designed and deployed to defend the empire and the home islands, not to wage an aggressive European land war.
Hitchens argues that the war guarantee to Poland was a strategically bad decision, and as subsequent events showed neither Britain nor France had any intention of defending that country. Hitler knew this, and the guarantee was no deterrent to him. But Britain and France felt guilty about the Munich Agreement, and the Polish guarantee was their way of saying “something must be done.” The Polish government of the time was a territorially aggressive military dictatorship which had taken part in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. However, as Hitchens asserts,
It was the desire to have a moral position, worthy of the great power we still thought we were, and of finding something to do, which overcame all else. And yet the supposedly moral position involved knowingly giving a false promise to a country we did not much like or trust.
As it was, Poland ended up being freed from Nazi tyranny only to have communist tyranny imposed upon her, with the agreement of those who were supposed to be her allies. The guarantee to Poland was given because of guilt over the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. But as A.J.P. Taylor noted after the war, when both nations fell under communist domination, “Which was better—to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?”
Where Hitchens most trespasses into sacred territory is in his questioning of how far Britain really was threatened with invasion in 1940. He argues that Hitler never had much interest in invading Britain, and that a German invasion would have been extremely difficult and impractical for the German armed forces. Germany had not a single landing craft as we would today understand the term. Her navy had suffered heavy losses during the Norwegian campaign, and her army and naval commanders could not come to any agreement about how an invasion should be implemented. By September 1940 Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain had been abandoned “until further notice” and was never revived through the next four and a half years of the war. Through the bombing of London and other cities, Hitler’s chief aim appears to have been to demoralize the British in the hope that they would accept terms before America could enter the war. That the British government did not take the threat of an invasion too seriously can be seen in Churchill’s decision at the height of the Battle of Britain to move a third of Britain’s tank strength and other “scarce land and sea forces to the comparatively unimportant defence of Britain’s position in Egypt.” It can be witnessed even more starkly in the statement of foreign office minister Rab Butler in August 1940: “The invasion is hooey. Hitler is going east.” Nonetheless, the idea that Britain was threatened with imminent invasion had to be maintained for propaganda purposes by both sides.
Hitchens is deeply skeptical about Britain’s “special relationship” with America, which was supposed to have manifested itself so splendidly in this war. He contends that the relationship was largely an exploitative one and argues this convincingly, showing that Britain was forced to hand over vast amounts of gold and securities and grant the U.S. the right to establish military bases in Britain’s Caribbean possessions, which Hitchens calls a “shocking surrender of sovereignty by what had been the world’s greatest empire.”
Two of the most powerful chapters in this book deal with the most morally problematic aspects of how the war was waged and its aftermath. The first deals with the bombing of German cities, and the second with the forced removal of millions of Germans from their homes in Eastern Europe. While revering the British pilots who risked their lives, Hitchens believes that the end did not justify the means. Hitchens reveals some shocking quotes from Air Ministry documents giving instructions on who should be targeted for bombing. A draft directive targeted German workers: “Continuous and relentless bombing of these workers and their utility services . . . will inevitably lower their morale, kill a number of them and thus appreciably reduce their industrial output.” The director of Air Intelligence welcomed an attack on “the livelihood, the homes, the cooking, heating, lighting and family life . . . of the working class.” Of course, the Germans had wrought terrible damage on British cities, but, argues Hitchens, “If it was uncivilised for the Germans to do it, and it was, it was uncivilised for us to do it.”
Finally, Hitchens turns to the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945 which called for the “orderly and humane” transfer of the German populations of Eastern Europe to Germany. It was anything but orderly and humane, as Hitchens shows. Between 12 and 14 million people were expelled from their homes, of whom some 500,000 to 1.5 million died. Those most affected were women and children under 16. While denying moral equivalency between this and the Nazi atrocities, Hitchens nonetheless relates scenes startlingly reminiscent of those same crimes. He recounts a massacre by Czech troops of 265 Germans, including 120 women and 74 children who had been removed from a train near Prerov, Czechoslovakia. The victims were shot “in the back of the neck, and buried . . . in a mass grave that they had first been forced to dig . . . ” Hitchens ends his description of these horrors with a humbling statement:
Learning of these events after decades of ignorance, I felt deep shame, combined with immense gratitude for the fact that I live on an island which has for many centuries been safe from invasion, subjugation and arbitrary rule. It is that fact that has kept me safe from suffering and from committing the crimes of war, not any virtue of my own or . . . my nation.
Hitchens has witnessed much suffering in his career, having been a journalist in the Eastern Bloc during the communist era and having reported on wars in Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. It is perhaps this experience that allows him to portray vividly the miseries of war. This book contains many poignant descriptions and powerful laments at what Hitchens sees as Britain’s decline as a world power.
The book is well sourced, contains a detailed Index, an excellent Bibliography, and a highly useful chronology of events. In addition to that described above, a fascinating section details the British left’s hypocrisy in demanding action against Germany while opposing rearmament. Hitchens’s central case, that Britain’s World War II victory was a hollow one, is argued persuasively and powerfully. It will be hotly debated for years to come.
[The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, by Peter Hitchens (London and New York: I.B. Tauris) 240 pp., $29.50]