Peter Hitchens has been threatening for some time to write a book on the Second World War. The Phoney Victory: The World War 2 Illusion is as provocative and unsettling as you would expect.
I’ve read a great deal on this subject so much of what he has to say comes as no great revelation to me but Hitchens does make a couple of important points that I hadn’t come across before.
The first is that World War One not only left Britain broke, she has never actually paid for that war. Britain ran up enormous debts to the United States which have never been paid. In fact no payments at all have been made since 1934.
The second point is his claim that far from being a doddering old fool who cravenly tried to avoid war Chamberlain was actually a doddering an old fool who actually sought war and was determined to get it. Hitchen’s contention is that the infamous and disastrous Polish Guarantee of 1939 (a guarantee that Britain shamefully never intended actually to honour) was a cynical and dishonest ploy to bring about war.
The details of the Poles’ own cynicism and folly are certainly not new to me but Hitchens’ demolition of the myth of Plucky Little Poland will doubtless come as a shock to many readers.
The third crucial point is that the Second World War was actually two separate wars. The first war began when the British and the French declared war on Germany in September 1939 and ended less than a year later with the total defeat of Britain and France. They were not merely defeated. They were destroyed forever as Great Powers. Henceforth both countries were minor powers of no consequence.
The second war was fought and won by the Soviet Union with some assistance from the United States. Britain played no significant rôle.
The intention of the book was to demolish the many myths that make up the average Briton’s understanding of the Second World War. As Hitchens explains it has long been common knowledge among historians that most of the official story of the war was a collection of myths but these myths are remarkably persistent.
One of the myths at which the author takes aim is the one that surrounds U.S. policy before and during the war. He makes the point that there was nothing particularly immoral about U.S. policy. It put America’s interests first. Britain’s interests were not considered at all. Of course no government has any obligation to consider the interests of foreign states. The problem was that people in Britain, including many who should have known better, convinced themselves that the Americans really did see them as cousins. In fact the U.S. regarded Britain as a troublesome rival that ideally should be stripped of its power and its empire. But the propaganda of the time stressed the fantasy that Britain and America were two branches of the same family and that propaganda is still believed today.
Hitchens doesn’t claim to have undertaken any original research. As he explains, everything in the book has been well known to professional historians for decades. Well known to professional historians but unknown to the general public. The war’s dirty little secrets have been hidden in plain sight. More seriously, the myths surrounding the Second World War are still being used by politicians and the media to manipulate the public into acquiescing in dangerous and futile foreign policy adventures.
The most upsetting parts of the book for many people will be the chapters dealing with the Battle of Britain and the strategic bombing of Germany. Of all WW2 myths none is more sacred than the Battle of Britain myth but Hitchens points out that it really was largely a myth. Hitler never had the slightest intention of attempting an invasion of Britain.
On the bombing offensive Hitchens pulls no punches. It was barbarism, pure and simple. And it was not even effective barbarism.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Winston Churchill emerges as a man not only entirely lacking in honour and decency but equally lacking in good sense.
Perhaps just upsetting will be the account of the ethnic cleansing of millions of Germans from eastern Europe in 1945, which cost the lives of between half a million and one-and-a-half million people, the vast majority of them women and children. It was a tragedy but it was no accident. It was a deliberately planned and entirely unnecessary act of savagery.
The most important point which is made again and again is that you cannot use one evil to excuse another. You cannot even use a great evil to excuse a slightly lesser evil. Evil is evil. The fact that Britain’s leaders were willing to commit acts of unequivocal evil is in Hitchen’s view part of the reason for Britain’s postwar moral decline (and the evils committed by the other victorious allies have also doubtless contributed to their moral decline as well). It is not just the acceptance of evil that has been the problem, but the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the lies and the deceptions.
What makes it all worse is that the final victory was, for Britain, no victory at all. Poland was not saved. The British Empire was lost. Britain was reduced to the status of a third-rate power and an American vassal. The country was bankrupted. The world was not made safe for democracy. Postwar Britain looked more like a defeated nation than a victor.
The book will doubtless will be greeted with howls of outrage. It is important to note that Hitchens deserves no pleasure from demolishing these myths. It is an unpleasant but necessary task since these very same myths continue to be the basis for British foreign policy.
A book that I recommend very highly indeed.