The Long View: Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War

John J. Reilly covers a lot of ground here. I’ll post this comment as inducement to read the rest:

The book delivers less than its subtitle promises. A study that used the world wars to explain the evaporation of colonialism between the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the Bandung Conference of 1955 would be really useful. This is not that book.

Churchill, Hitler, and
“The Unnecessary War”
How Britain Lost Its Empire and
the West Lost the World
By Patrick J. Buchanan
Crown Publishers, 2008
518 Pages, US$29.95
ISBN 978-0-307-40515-9

Over the years, there has been a steady expansion in the scope of columnist and polemicist Patrick J. Buchanan’s area of attention, if not necessarily in the range of his thought. His book A Republic, Not an Empire, was chiefly a historically based argument for American isolationism. A little later, in The Death of the West, he moved beyond nationalism to consider the state of Western Civilization as a whole. Now, in Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War,” the United States is mentioned only occasionally: its fate is largely subsumed in that of its civilization, whose well-being was mortally compromised by, as the author would have it, the catastrophic miscalculations by that civilization’s principal figures in the first half of the 20th century.

The book delivers less than its subtitle promises. A study that used the world wars to explain the evaporation of colonialism between the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the Bandung Conference of 1955 would be really useful. This is not that book. What we do get is a compilation of every popular history of the era of the world wars that you’ve ever read, with heavy emphasis on the revisionist ideas of Correlli Barnett, John Charmley, A.J.P. Taylor and, for some purposes, Niall Ferguson. Mr. Buchanan’s analytical tools have not become sharper. There is still no definition of “vital interest,” even though a vital interest is apparently the only reason that Britain or the United States may legitimately make a security commitment, though their peers and opponents are understood to be making policy in the less exacting light of their own advantage. The author refutes his own principal thesis about four-fifths of the way through. Nonetheless, this book has a certain interest as an exercise in counterfactual speculation.

We can dispose of the moral equivalence issue quickly. Winston Churchill was impulsive, cynical, agnostic, and unthinkingly racist. He was also a great deal more than those things but, as several counterfactual histories have demonstrated, it would not have been hard to recast Winston Churchill as a lifelong villain had the Second World War turned out differently. This book does not quite do that; neither does it cast Churchill and Hitler as equally bad in the same ways. Nonetheless, the author chooses to condemn Hitler in these terms:

Crushing Poland to restore land and people to the Reich and to realize Germany’s manifest destiny was no more immoral to him than riding down Dervishes at Omdurman was to Churchill.

Actually, in this books telling, the greatest villain of the 20th century, or perhaps merely the greatest fool, was British Foreign Minister Edward Grey, who in 1914 chose to make good on Britain’s informal guarantees to France regarding British cooperation in the event of a German invasion in the West. Mr. Buchanan endorses absolutely Niall Ferguson’s assessment that British entry into the First World War was a terrible mistake. This is Mr. Buchanan’s counterfactual projection of the Happy Alternative:

Russia would still have been defeated, but the dismantling of Russia’s empire was in Britain’s national interest. Let the Germans pay the cost, take the casualties, and accept the eternal enmity for breaking it up. A triumphant Germany would have faced resentful enemies in both France and Russia and rebellious Slavs to the south. This would have presented no problem for the British Empire. The Germans would have become the dominant power in Europe, with the British dominant on the oceans, America dominant in the Western Hemisphere, and Britain’s ally, Japan, dominant in Asia...

Once again we see Mr. Buchanan espousing something like Carl Schmitt’s model of a world of Grossräume, of three or four great powers, each with a sphere of strategic preponderance rather like that claimed by the United States under the Monroe Doctrine. There are several things wrong with this class of model, not the least of which is that it is an “end of history” model without even the Hegelian attraction of an eschaton that embodies universal reason. The particular problem with this book’s version of it is that “the oceans” are not a sphere of influence. They are a way to reach imperial territories, not one of which would any longer be secure in this scenario, starting with the British Isles.

This book is not the first to point out that the European Union is a little like the Hohenzollern Empire without the Kaiser. To that one might say: no doubt a Europe in a timeline in which the Schlieffen Plan succeeded would have been a little like the European Union, but that is very different from saying that they would have been equivalent. Most especially they would not have been equivalent from Britain’s point of view, and the question Mr. Buchanan usually asks is, “What course was in Britain’s best interest?” He asks this familiar question:

...There would have been no Hitler and no Stalin. Other evils would have arisen, but how could the first half of the twentieth century have produced more evil than it did?

The first half of the 20th century could have produced worse evils if the relatively liberal (in the 19th century sense) influence of Great Britain had early been eclipsed. That is exactly what would have happened if Britain had stood aside in 1914. If the scenario of a quick war in Europe had played itself out in the way that this book endorses, then Britain would not have found itself in the position of “splendid isolation” of 1900, when it was without European allies because it had no immediate need for any. It would have left Britain in a situation in which there would have been no possible allies, while a whimsical autocracy would have had at least implicit control of the Channel ports. Britain’s rulers have understood for centuries that, no matter how large its navy, the home country is indefensible in certain circumstances. In this scenario, those circumstances would have arrived. This development would be unlikely to have produced a happier outcome than the history we know. It would have been unlikely to have produced an outcome as happy.

Niall Ferguson has made the case that the First World War was not just unnecessary but also accidental, the product of blunders rather than of malicious grand design. Regarding the Second World War, however, he falls into line with mainstream historiography. Yes, the war was necessary and inevitable, because there was a grand design, or several of them, in Germany and Japan and Italy. Nonetheless, in a fashion some readers may find appalling, Mr. Buchanan tries to apply Ferguson’s critique of the origins of the First World War to the Second. He argues that the outbreak of a Great War was the product of confusion and misunderstanding created by Hitler’s Quixotic attempts to right the wrongs of Versailles regarding the placement of German minorities in shabby Slavic countries.

There is a sense in which this is true. Hitler did not intend a long Great War, but a series of short Blitzkriegs, in the course of which Germany would acquire the mass necessary to act as a genuine world power. Through most of his argument, Mr. Buchanan assumes the conventional wisdom that, among Hitler’s goals, was the creation of a Greater Germany in the East, particularly in Russia. In this the conventional wisdom is surely correct. One could argue that these plans were demonstrably goofy, but that’s not to say that they did not influence everything Hitler did. In his discussion of Hitler’s ambitions, Mr. Buchanan balks at the thesis that Hitler had ultimate goals beyond the drive to the Eurasian Heartland; he insists repeatedly that Hitler never posed a threat to the United States. Again, that may well be true with regard to the 1940s, but Hitler’s own words make it hard to say the same about the following generation.

Towards the end of the book, the author seems to realize that his concession of the reality of Hitler’s Russian project is incompatible with the thesis that the Second World War was an avoidable accident. This is true no matter how opportunistic the course may have been that Hitler followed through the 1930s as he went about annexing neighboring territories. Then there is the fact that Hitler did actually invade Russia, when it might seem he already had enough to worry about. Mr. Buchanan deals with this by adopting, without preamble, the argument that the invasion of Russia was actually just another improvisation, this time directed against Britain:

Lukacs agrees. Hitler’s ultimate purpose in invading Russia in 1941, Lukacs writes, was not Lebensraum, or eradicating Jewish-Bolshevism,” or preempting a Soviet attack. the June 1941 invasion of Russia was a preemptive strike to remove Britain’s last hope of winning the war.

Well, yes, that too, but the important point here is that, with Russia eliminated, Britain would have had no hope. That was also true in 1914. It was still true in the late 1930s, this despite some ill-considered speculation in Britain’s government and press about how wonderful it would be if Hitler went East, in the end the British (and French) were sane enough not to encourage him to do so. He would probably have won, and the position of France and Britain would have become untenable, even without an invasion.

Mr. Buchanan himself is of the opinion that it would have been better if Hitler had been allowed to pursue his Heartland adventure. Certainly, he says, it would have been better for the United States:

...Hitler never remotely represented the strategic threat to the U.S. homeland that a nuclear-armed Russia did during forty years of Cold War.

That’s right, he didn’t, but this is a comparison of oranges with orangutans. The proper comparison would have been 40 years of confrontation with Fascism triumphant from the Atlantic to the Urals. This confrontation might not have been nuclear: given no US involvement in the war, then maybe no Manhattan Project in the US (the Germans never had a serious atomic bomb project; they were more interested in nuclear-powered submarines). That would have meant confrontation across the Atlantic, not necessarily peaceful, with conventional weapons. That would have been far more disruptive of American society than the Cold War was. Moreover, as this website has noted before, the winner in any contest spanning continents is going to exercise a great deal of ideological attraction to the rest of the world, even if the winner is not much interested in gaining converts. Part of the attraction of Communism in the West, maybe most of the attraction, was that Communism for several decades appeared to be winning. In the world Mr. Buchanan prefers, it would have been very difficult for the US to have avoided the temptation to restructure itself along Fascist lines.

Ours many not seem to be the best of all possible worlds, but is instructive once in a while to consider the others.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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