Could World War II have been prevented?
I HAVE CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF World War II: the drone of distant night bombers in formation (coming from America? heading to Germany? I don’t know); the skittering contrails of a “dog fight” in a clear blue sky; great Wehrmacht-obstructing concrete blocks littering the road from the South Coast (Worthing, Bognor Regis) to London; Canadian soldiers bivouacked in the house opposite; then, one morning, gone. Gone to the beaches of Normandy; not seen again by me. Meanwhile they had made, especially for me, a cut-down, child-sized army uniform, and I was so proud to wear it.
I saw one of those V1 “doodlebugs” — pilotless planes with an engine like an unsilenced motorbike — making its guttural way across the Surrey skies toward the North Downs. The engine stopped, and there was a thirty-second silence. Then the plane (a flying bomb) exploded two or three miles away.
And I remember my mother saying, repeatedly, “Oh, before the war…” How different everything had been. She was recalling a lost age. And it was lost.
World War I became known as the Great War — although not approvingly. Now, some refer to World War II as “the good war.” Very much approvingly.
I wonder, though. Has enough time passed to raise the question whether it really was the good war? I hope so. From Britain’s point of view I believe it was not a good war. The country became mere Britain, no longer Great. For America the war had its advantages (but not for the 417,000 who were killed). And certainly the war was good for the Soviet ruling class. The whole of Eastern Europe fell under Communist domination for 45 years. Without the war it wouldn’t have happened.
I have been reading Patrick J. Buchanan’s book Churchill, Hitler and “The Unnecessary War,” and it is an informative and courageous work. On its face, it may seem odd to call a book courageous that questions the need for a war in which 50 million people died. But support for the war has been so sustained and the denunciations of its critics so vehement that something must be said.
Buchanan’s book is not about the war itself but about the events leading up to it. I shall focus on two events in particular. The first was the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The second, Neville Chamberlain’s war guarantee to Poland in March 1939. A lunch discussion of that guarantee, held in London at the time of Sir James Goldsmith’s funeral and attended by Buchanan, was the inspiration for the book. In addition, the historians Andrew Roberts and Paul Johnson and the politician and diarist Alan Clark joined in that discussion.
The armistice that ended World War I was based on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Germany had triumphed in the east and its troops still occupied France. So it accepted what seemed to be reasonable terms. Britain’s David Lloyd George at first opposed any “vengeance and avarice.” But the popular press in London whipped up the public and a spirit of retribution soon consumed all the parties (Georges Clemenceau of France in the thick of it). New points were added to Wilson’s 14. Germany was to surrender all its colonies and possessions and was saddled with the cost of British military pensions and many other burdens.
The Versailles terms became ever more onerous as the meeting progressed, but Germany, facing a naval blockade and starvation, signed on the dotted line. It was a belated conquest dressed up as a treaty. Herbert Hoover, then involved in famine-relief work, called the post-armistice “food blockade” of Germany “a wicked thrust of allied militarism and punishment,” and a “black chapter in human history.”
John Maynard Keynes said that the “peace” of Versailles, in which Germany had been deliberately humiliated, would last for 20 years. He was spot on.
After Versailles Germany lost Danzig, among other territories. It was 95 percent German, and Germany had a strong historical claim to the port. But it had been transferred to Poland, along with a linking corridor, to give that country a port on the Baltic. The 350,000 Danzigers were agitating for a restoration to Germany.
“If Warsaw would consent to Germany’s building of an extra-territorial road and railway line across the Corridor,” Buchanan writes, “Berlin would leave Warsaw in control of the economic and railway facilities in Danzig and guarantee Poland’s frontiers.”
A deal was expected. Hitler wanted Poland in his “anti-Comintern Pact,” and “the fiercely anti-Bolshevik, anti-Russian, Catholic Poles seemed natural allies in a crusade to eradicate Communism.” It’s of interest that in the prewar period Hitler and Churchill did agree on one thing: the menace of Bolshevism.
But the Polish foreign minister Jozef Beck rebuffed the German offer. He had delusions of grandeur. In 1920 the Poles had rolled back the Red Army and briefly considered themselves a great power. They forgot, as the British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote, that they had gained their independence in 1918 “only because both Russia and Germany had been defeated. Now they had to choose between Russia and Germany. They chose neither. Only Danzig prevented cooperation between Germany and Poland.”
The British “cared nothing for Danzig,” Taylor added, or if they did, “they sympathized with the German case.” “Die for Danzig?” That become the rallying cry of British war-skeptics.
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