IF WAR SHOULD COME…nothing is more certain than that victor and vanquished alike would glean a gruesome harvest of human misery and suffering.1
—NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, JULY 31, 1939
ON JUNE 18, 1940, Churchill declared in one of his most memorable addresses, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to do our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” One British historian has another perspective on his country in its critical hour:
The plight of the summer of 1940…marked the consummation of an astonishing decline in British fortunes. The British invested their feebleness and isolation with a romantic glamour—they saw themselves as latter-day Spartans, under their own Leonidas, holding the pass for the civilised world. In fact, it was a sorry and contemptible plight for a great power, and it derived neither from bad luck, nor from the failures of others. It had been brought down upon the British by themselves.2
The statements of Churchill and Correlli Barnett do not conflict. The summer of 1940 was among the finest hours of the British people. But they themselves were responsible for their perilous situation.
MILITARY DEATHS, MAJOR POWERS, WORLD WARS I AND II
UK & Dominions
For each dead serviceman, three or four were wounded. Figures do not include millions of dead from the influenza epidemic after WWI or millions of civilian and military dead in nations of Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans fought over by Hitler and Stalin in WWII.
VICTORS AND VANQUISHED
AFTER DUNKIRK, WITH THE FALL of France imminent, Mussolini saw history passing him by: “I can’t just sit back and watch the fight. When the war is over and victory comes I shall be left empty-handed!”3
“Mussolini had long been champing at the bit to grab a piece of French territory as well as a crumb of the glory,” writes Alistair Horne. “He told Marshal Badoglio: ‘I need only a few thousand dead to ensure that I have the right to sit at the peace table in the capacity of a belligerent.’”4
When the French government fled Paris for Bordeaux, Mussolini, still seething over the League of Nations sanctions, declared war on Britain and invaded France, evoking FDR’s riposte: “On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has stuck it into the back of its neighbor.”5
To Churchill, who had lauded Mussolini as “so great a man and so wise a ruler,” Il Duce had suddenly become Hitler’s:
little Italian accomplice, trotting along hopefully and hungrily at his side….
This whipped jackal Mussolini, who to save his own skin has made of Italy a vassal state of Hitler’s empire, goes frisking up at the side of the German tiger with relish not only of appetite—that could be understood—but even of triumph.6
That fall, Mussolini’s armies invaded Egypt and Greece, where they quickly floundered. To rescue his ally, Hitler sent armies into the Balkans and North Africa. Thus, by June 1941, Hitler occupied Europe west to the Pyrenees and south to Crete. These conquests had come about not because of some Hitlerian master plan, but because of a war with Britain that Hitler had never wanted, and an invasion of Greece by Mussolini that Hitler had opposed.
As Hitler’s armies drove deep into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany soon occupied all the lands on which the Kaiser’s army had stood on November 11, 1918. This was the apogee of Nazi power. Except for Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland, almost all of Europe was under either German occupation or a pro-Nazi regime.
Six months after invading the Soviet Union, however, Hitler had been stopped in the east and had declared war on the United States. Nazi Germany was doomed. She would take three years to die and take down millions with her. Germany would be destroyed and Fascism forever disgraced. But the price would be scores of millions dead and the devastation of Europe. And the peace of 1945, Stalin’s peace east of the Elbe, would make Jan Smuts’s “Carthaginian peace” of 1919 appear magnanimous. The true winners of the greatest war in history would be the two powers that continue to celebrate V-E Day.
America. Last of the great powers to go to war, the United States emerged as the first nation on earth, unrivaled in the air or at sea, with the fewest casualties, four hundred thousand dead, relative to her population. Save for Pearl Harbor and the Aleutians, the homeland had been unmolested. Americans had liberated Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, and the Philippines. The battles of Midway and Normandy, of Iwo Jima and the Bulge, would become the stuff of legend. For Americans, it became “the Good War.” Leadership of the West would pass forever from Britain and Europe to the United States and the twentieth century would be the American Century.
The Soviet Union. While Russia lost millions of soldiers and civilians and suffered devastation, Stalin emerged from the war as the most powerful czar in history, with the Red Army occupying Berlin, Vienna, and Prague. In the aftermath, Communist parties loyal to Stalin would vie for power in Paris and Rome and Communist revolutionaries would help tear down the empires of the West. In 1949, Stalin would treble the subject peoples of Communism as China fell to the armies of Mao Tse-tung, converting America’s wartime ally into Stalin’s partner in world conquest. In 1949, too, Stalin’s scientists, with stolen American technology, exploded an atomic bomb.
For almost all the other nations and people of Europe, the war would prove more a disaster than a triumph.
Britain. From Norway to France, to Greece, Crete, to Libya, Britain lost every battle with the Germans—until El Alamein in 1942. She would end the war with four hundred thousand dead and a Pyrrhic victory, and never again be great. Churchill had devoted his life to three causes: the preservation of the empire, keeping socialism at bay, and preventing any hostile power from dominating Europe. By July of 1945, all three had been lost and Churchill dismissed by the people he had led to victory.
“I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” Churchill declared in 1942.7 By 1946, liquidation had begun. By 1947, India, crown jewel of the empire, was gone and Britain had transferred her duties to Greece and Turkey to help stop Communist aggression to Truman’s America. Poland, the nation for which Britain had gone to war, nine other Christian nations, and Albania were now in the death grip of Stalin.
“We killed the wrong pig,” Churchill is said to have muttered.
By 1948, Palestine was gone and Britain was surviving on Marshall Plan aid. In 1956, President Eisenhower ordered Great Britain, which had invaded Suez to overthrow Nasser, to get out of Egypt. Threatening to sink the pound if Britain did not depart, Ike brought down the government of Churchill’s heir, Anthony Eden. By Churchill’s death in 1965, the empire had vanished and Britain was applying for admission to a Common Market dominated by Germans and the France of an ungrateful Charles de Gaulle, who vetoed British entry.
What had all the “blood, sweat, toil and tears” produced?
In Eastern and Central Europe, Hitler’s rule had given way to Stalin’s. Pax Britannica had given way to Pax Americana. And for this the British Empire had sacrificed itself. Yet there was this notable success: Britain had restored Ethiopia’s emperor to his throne. Said one caustic critic, “It has been ironically said that the British brought Hailé Selassié back to Addis Ababa in order to bring the Russians into Vienna, Berlin and Port Arthur.”8
France would be occupied for four years, the Vichy era marked by widespread collaboration. French Indochina would be overrun by Japan. By war’s end, Syria and Lebanon were gone. In 1954, the French, defeated at Dienbienphu, were run out of Vietnam by General Giap and Ho Chi Minh. In 1962, France was driven out of Algeria by the terror tactics of the FALN. North Africa was gone and France’s sub-Sahara empire was crumbling.
Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland would endure four years of Nazi occupation. The Dutch East Indies, lost to Japan in 1941, were taken into receivership by a despotic Japanese collaborator named Sukarno.
Poland, trusting in her war guarantee, suffered hundreds of thousands of dead resisting the Nazi-Soviet onslaught in September 1939. The Polish officer corps would be massacred by Stalin’s NKVD in killing fields like Katyn Forest. Poland would be occupied five years by Nazis and become the site of such horrors as Treblinka and Auschwitz. Poland’s Home Army, at the urging of the Red Army on the far side of the Vistula, would rise in Warsaw in 1944. And as that Red Army looked on, refusing to help, the Polish Home Army and Warsaw’s civilian population would suffer losses as heavy as 9/11 every day for two months, and finally be annihilated by the Wehrmacht and the SS.9
“The cream of Poland’s patriotic and democratic youth had been eliminated,” writes one historian.10 Poland’s Catholic population would be decimated, her Jews virtually exterminated. Poland would lose six million people and fifty years of freedom. Writes historian Norman Davies, “Poland’s reliance on Churchill…proved worthless.”11
The British-French war guarantee of March 31, 1939, that brought Britain, France, and Poland into an alliance against Germany ended in calamity for all three. Britain would have to be rescued and France liberated by the Americans. Poland would be abandoned, first to Hitler then to Stalin.
“The Western Allies entered that war with a two-fold object,” wrote Liddell Hart. “The immediate purpose was to fulfill their promise to preserve the independence of Poland. The ultimate purpose was to remove a potential menace to themselves, and thus ensure their own security. In the outcome, they failed in both purposes.”12 By war’s end, Britain “had become a poor dependent of the United States.”13
Germany would end the war occupied, in total ruin, with millions of civilians dead from the carpet bombing of the Allies and the reprisals of the Red Army. In one of the great exoduses of human history, thirteen to fifteen million Germans would be driven out of lands their ancestors had lived on for centuries. Two million would perish in the long orgy of rape and revenge. The problem of German minorities in European countries would be solved by exterminating some and “ethnically cleansing” the rest. Of the Stalinized states of Central and Eastern Europe it may be said: They were now more ethnically pure than they had been before the war.
Italy would be bombed and invaded by Anglo-American forces and Mussolini executed by Communist Partisans, his body hanged upside down with that of his mistress Clara Pettacci in a Milan gas station. Well before the war’s end, his New Roman Empire had vanished.
The Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, seized by Stalin in June 1940 as his plunder from his pact with Hitler, would suffer untold horrors, with the cultural, political, religious, and intellectual leaders of the three tiny nations disappearing forever in the labor and death camps of the Gulag Archipelago.
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and eastern Germany would end up as captive nations of a new Soviet Empire, ceded to Stalin by Churchill and FDR. They would suffer half a century of tyranny at the hands of the political criminals who ruled Eastern Europe for the Politburo.
Most of the fighting and dying in the bloodiest of all wars, to bring down Hitler’s Reich, was done on the Eastern Front. As Davies writes, “The Third Reich was largely defeated not by the forces of liberal democracy, but by the Red Army of another mass-murdering tyranny. The liberators of Auschwitz were servants of a regime that ran an even larger network of concentration camps of its own.”14
Measured by the size of the armies, the scope of the battles, and the length of the casualty lists, World War II was less a war between Fascism and freedom than a war between Nazism and Bolshevism. Hitler lost, Stalin won.
Of the Little Entente of Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Yugoslavia, which in February 1933 had declared itself the “Fifth Great Power” in Europe, Villari writes: “When it came to a showdown in 1939, the combination utterly failed to save its members from invasion, devastation and wholesale massacre, ending up in slavery for all three under a blood-thirsty Communist regime, of the Stalinist variety in two of them, of a Titoist variety in the third, but both equally oppressive and abominable.”15
There was another consequence of “The Good War.”
FOR WHAT HAPPENED TO the Jews of Europe, Hitler and his collaborators in the unspeakable crimes bear full moral responsibility. The just punishment for people who participate in mass murder is death, be it in a bunker or on a gallows. The Nazi murderers got what they deserved. But was the Holocaust inevitable? Could it have been averted?
Clearly, hatred of Jews was a defining characteristic of the Nazi Party from birth. Mein Kampf, written while Hitler was imprisoned at Landsberg after the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, is saturated in it.
Within weeks of Hitler’s taking power came the Reichstag fire, which led to Dachau and the other camps to hold enemies of the regime. In 1935, Hitler imposed the Nuremberg Laws, discriminating against Jews in every walk of life. Yet though viciously anti-Semitic, Hitler’s Reich had not gone genocidal. Nazi policy had been to make Jewish lives so miserable in Germany that the Jews would leave.
Six weeks after Munich, however, came Kristallnacht. Synagogues were torched, Jewish businesses smashed and ransacked, and Jews attacked, brutalized, and lynched. Before Kristallnacht, half of the Jewish population had fled Germany. Of those who remained, perhaps half fled after the night of terror of November 9–10, 1938. Fortunately, they were gone when the curtain fell on September 1, 1939.
Three months after Kristallnacht, on the sixth anniversary of his assumption of power, January 29, 1939, Hitler, in a speech to the Reichstag, publicly threatened the Jews of Europe. America, Britain, and France, he charged, “were continually being stirred up to hatred of Germany and the German people by Jewish and non-Jewish agitators.”16 Hitler then issued his threat:
In the course of my life I have often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it…. I will once more be aprophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.17
The mass deportations and destruction of the Jews of Europe, however, did not begin in 1939 or 1940. They began after Hitler invaded Russia, June 22, 1941, when the Einsatzgruppen trailed the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union exterminating Bolsheviks, commissars, and Jews. Writes Ian Kershaw, “[T]he German invasion of the Soviet Union triggered the rapid descent into full-scale genocide against the Jews.”18
Not until January 1942, after Hitler had been at war two and a half years, invaded Russia, declared war on the United States, and begun to sense disaster, was the infamous Wannsee Conference held.
In February 1942, after that conference, Goebbels wrote ominously in his Diaries, “World Jewry will suffer a great catastrophe…. The Fuehrer realizes the full implications of the great opportunity offered by this war.”19
On March 7, 1942, the ominous phrase “a final solution of the Jewish question” appears in The Goebbels Diaries.20
On March 27, 1942, after describing the deportations lately begun from Poland’s ghettos, Goebbels writes chillingly, “Fortunately, a whole series of possibilities presents itself for us in wartime that would be denied us in peacetime. We shall have to profit by this.”21
The same day, Goebbels refers back to Hitler’s threat of January 1939, adding, “[T]he fact that Jewry’s representatives in England and America are today organizing and sponsoring the war against Germany must be paid for dearly by its representatives in Europe—and that’s only right.”22
From this chronology, the destruction of the European Jews was not a cause of the war but an awful consequence of the war. Had there been no war, would there have been a Holocaust at all?
In The World Crisis, Churchill, the Dardanelles disaster in mind, wrote: “[T]he terrible Ifs accumulate.” If Britain had not issued the war guarantee and then declared war on Germany, Hitler might never have invaded France. Had he not, Mussolini would never have invaded France or Greece, or declared war on England.
With no war in the west, all the Jews of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece might have survived a German-Polish or Nazi-Soviet war, as the Jews of Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland survived.
But because Britain issued the guarantee to Poland and declared war on Germany, by June 1941 Hitler held hostage most of the Jews of Western Europe and the Balkans. By 1942, after invading Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Baltic states, and Russia, he held hostage virtually the entire Jewish population of Europe.
Yet neither the Allies nor the Soviets were focused on the potential fate of the hostages Hitler held. At Casablanca in 1943, Churchill and FDR declared their war aim was “unconditional surrender.” At Quebec in 1944, Churchill and FDR approved the Morgenthau Plan calling for the destruction of all German industry. Goebbels used the Morgenthau Plan to convince Germans that surrender meant no survival. Annihilation of their hostages was the price the Nazis exacted for their own annihilation.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
LOOKING BACK, WOULD IT not have been better to tell the Poles the truth—that Britain and France could not save them? And hence Beck must decide if it was worth war with Germany to hold a town of 350,000 Germans clamoring to return to the Reich?
Was Danzig worth a war? Was Poland worth a war, if there was no way to save Poland? Comes the reply: The war was never about Danzig. It was never about Poland. The war was fought to stop Hitler, the most demonic ruler ever to walk this Earth, whose crimes are unequaled in the annals of man. To destroy such a monster and eradicate his satanic regime, to prevent his gaining “mastery of the world,” any price, including tens of millions dead and the devastation of World War II, was worth it. The Good War was the great crusade against Nazism and Fascism, and if the British Empire had to perish to end this evil before it consumed the world, the British Empire died in the noblest of causes. So argues Niall Ferguson:
By the time Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, the most likely alternatives to British rule were Hirohito’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich and Mussolini’s New Rome…. It was the staggering cost of fighting these imperial rivals that ultimately brought down the British Empire…. [T]he Empire was dismantled…because it took up arms for just a few years against far more oppressive empires. It did the right thing, regardless of the cost.23
“In the end,” writes Ferguson, “the British sacrificed [their] Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs,” and it was this inevitably Pyrrhic victory that makes the sacrifice of her empire “so fine, so authentically noble.”24
But is this really how it happened? Was the sacrifice of the empire done willingly as an act of martyrdom? Or was it rather the result of British blundering on a colossal scale?
As for “Mussolini’s New Rome,” the British had courted Il Duce for years and had formally recognized Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia and her rights in Libya and Eritrea before the war began. Indeed, before his excoriation of Mussolini for joining Hitler’s attack on France, Churchill had been ever effusive in his praise of the greatness of Il Duce. And Britain did not declare war on Mussolini. Mussolini declared war on Britain on June 10, 1940.
As for Japan, it was as barbarous an empire as modernity had seen. But Japan had been Britain’s ally before London terminated the Anglo-Japanese treaty in 1922, not out of moral revulsion, but because the Americans demanded it. In the mid-1930s, after Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Neville Chamberlain was urging a rapprochement with Tokyo so Britain would not have to fight both Japan and Germany. And Britain did not go to war to bring down Japan’s empire. Japan attacked first—and America crushed Japan. And Japan’s empire—Manchuria, China, North Korea, Indochina—ended up in the empire of Stalin and his heirs, under the rule of Mao, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, and Pol Pot, whose victims would far exceed in number those of imperial Japan.
Britain surely played an indispensable role in bringing down Hitler and liberating Western Europe, but it was a supporting role. It was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Werhrmacht. D-Day in France did not come until three years after Hitler’s invasion of Russia. As Norman Davies writes,
Proportions…are crucial. Since 75%–80% of all German losses were inflicted on the eastern front it follows that the efforts of the western allies accounted for only 20%–25%. Furthermore, since the British army deployed no more than 28 divisions as compared with the American army’s 99, the British contribution to victory must have been in the region of 5%–6%. Britons who imagine that “we won the war” need to think again.25
And before Britain’s declaration of war on Germany brought Hitler’s army west, Western Europe did not need liberating. As for Eastern and Central Europe, they were “liberated” by Stalin.
Had Britain not declared war on Germany, perhaps Hitler, after taking back Danzig, would have turned west and overrun France as he did in 1940, then stormed into Yugoslavia, Greece, and North Africa as he did in 1941. But why? And what would have been lost had Britain and France never given the war guarantee to Poland, but rearmed and waited to see if Hitler would ever attack Western Europe?
Even had Hitler come west after crushing Stalin’s Soviet Union, how could it have been worse than it was for the Jews? Or the Gypsies? Or the Slavs? Or the Christians, tens of millions of whom would die and one hundred million of whom would end up slaves in an empire that was the most brutal and barbaric enemy Christianity had ever known? Had Britain not given the war guarantee, and not declared war over Poland, Western Europe might have avoided war altogether. And was the war worth it? Let us give the last word to Churchill. Three years after the victory, he wrote in The Gathering Storm:
The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of the victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted.26
What did Churchill mean by “even worse perils” than Nazism and Hitler? He meant Stalinism and Stalin, a mass murderer whose victims exceeded even those of Hitler. By 1948, all of Stalin’s promises about elections had been broken and he was crushing all opposition to communist tyranny in the eleven countries now in his grip, including Czechoslovakia, for which Churchill had wanted to go to war, and Poland, for which Churchill had demanded Britain go to war.
If the West faced “even worse perils” in 1948 than in 1939, what had it all been for? Yes, Hitler was dead and Nazism exterminated, but at a cost of 50 million lives. And Britain had lost four hundred thousand men, and was broken and bankrupt. The empire had lost scores of thousands more dead and was collapsing. India, the crown jewel, was already gone. Stalin’s Red Army loomed over Europe. Stalinist parties were grasping for power in Italy and France. Mao’s armies were moving from victory to victory in China. And the Americans had gone home.
On May 13, 1940, in his first address to the House as prime minister, Churchill declared: “You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs.”27 Churchill was true to his word. As we shall see, it was he alone who refused to consider any agreement to end the war at Dunkirk. It was he who rejected Hitler’s offer of peace in July 1940.
On May 21, 1937, according to Churchill, at the German embassy he had warned Ribbentrop, “Do not underrate England. She is very clever. If you plunge us all into another Great War, she will bring the whole world against you like last time.”28
Churchill made good on his threat, holding on until the Americans came in. But that meant the war would last five years after Dunkirk, and all Europe would lie in ashes. Wrote Tory historian Alan Clark in 1993:
The war went on far too long, and when Britain emerged the country was bust. Nothing remained of assets overseas. Without immense and punitive borrowings from the US we would have starved. The old social order had gone forever. The empire was terminally damaged. The Commonwealth countries had seen their trust betrayed and their soldiers wasted.29
“Victory at all costs” proved costly indeed. Yet, horrendous as the cost was, it had to be paid. So we are told. For Hitler, as Henderson wrote, was out to “rule the earth.”30 But if he was out to rule the earth, and war was the only way to stop him, we must ask:
Where did Hitler declare his determination to destroy the British Empire and “rule the earth”? How was a nation of Germany’s modest size and population to conquer the world? Was there no way to contain Hitler but declare a war in which, as Chamberlain told Joe Kennedy, millions must die? What were Hitler’s real ambitions?