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Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World

James R. Thompson

By Patrick J. Buchanan. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008. xxi + 518 pages. Index, footnotes, illustrations. ISBN 978-0-307-40515-9. Hardcover. $29.95.

Patrick Buchanan has undertaken to write a critique of the life of Winston Churchill. In many ways, it could be argued that he has done little more than update and coarsen the earlier works of the late A. J. P. Taylor. The book may come as a shock to American readers who have been raised on the idea that Churchill was the Man of the Twentieth Century. However, outside the United States, England, and Israel, Churchill generally has a bad reputation as a treacherous imperialist and a man of limited insight as a military strategist or diplomat. There can be no doubt that he was ready to fight to the last Pole, Australian, Canadian Sikh, Rajput, or American in order to advance his goal of saving the British Empire. His bloodthirsty brutality in war rivaled that of his First World War associate Lord Kitchener, who had starved Boer women and children in concentration camps as a successful attempt to terrorize their menfolk into submission (with the assured long-term demographic destruction of the Boers in South Africa).

When it comes to Machiavellian Realpolitik, Buchanan is closer to Churchillian ethics that he realizes.

In the First World War, Churchill designed the harebrained Gallipoli campaign that was both inept and wasteful of Australian and New Zealander (Anzac) lives. He promoted starvation as a weapon to force the Germans into total capitulation after the Armistice of 1918, and he firebombed German civilian centers into oblivion during the Second World War (35 percent of civilian dwellings in Germany were destroyed). In the Second World War, when the Australians on their way to Suez asked to turn their troop ships (commanded by the Royal Navy) around to defend Australia following the attack of the Japanese, Churchill refused. Finally, he organized a strategy, ostensibly based on defense treaties with Poland, which insured that that poor country would suffer fifty years of occupation by a power whose brutality has not yet sunk in with the American public. Without intending to do so, Churchill made Stalin the big winner of the Second World War.

For all these reasons, it is hard to fault Buchanan in his attacks on Churchill. But, like the barroom brawler he has often appeared to be, Buchanan reaches out for his barstool to strike at innocent persons and nations almost casually and en passant. He particularly does not like the Poles.

In a “quote of a quote,” he gives the description of Polish foreign minister Józef Beck as having “the sort of face you might see in a French newspaper as that of a ravisher of little girls.” This is the kind of low journalese worthy of Julius Streicher and his crack reporters from Der Stürmer.

Buchanan argues that the Anglo-French pledge to attack Germany on the fifteenth day after any attack on Poland was preposterous, because there was no way to put British or French troops on the Baltic coast or bring them in through Romania. The fact is that at that time, the German western front was defended by ten divisions of First World War reservists. The Anglo-French had more than fifty divisions ready to go against this force. It was not silly for Beck to believe the British and French had the power to fulfill their obligations; it was apparently naive that he believed that they would do so.

Buchanan chides the Poles for not being willing to surrender control of Danzig/Gdańsk to Berlin. But Płsudski and Beck both recalled that, twenty years earlier, when it looked as though Poland would lose the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920, Ludendorff offered to bring the Frei Korps to Poland’s aid only if the Poles would give Poznania to Germany. Inviting a German incursion that could be a dagger against Polish control of its Baltic coast was not a good option in 1920, nor subsequently, for Poland.

Without intending to do so, Churchill made Stalin the big winner of the Second World War.

Buchanan then blames the Poles for not joining Germany‘s Anti-Comintern Pact, which would have developed into a two-pronged attack on the Soviet Union with the Germans, Poles, and Hungarians attacking from the west and the Japanese from the east. Had Beck known that Poland’s alliance (an alliance that had not been sought by the Poles but was proffered by the English and French) was an empty letter, perhaps he might have shaken hands with the German devil and signed the pact. But this is speculation. What Beck knew at that time was that in 1914 Britain had the record of honoring its commitment to defend little Belgium from attack. In the more remote past, Wellington had taken up the seemingly impossible task of saving Portugal and Spain from Napoleon’s grasp. “Perfidious Albion” had historically not always been perfidious. Between trusting the British and French or trusting Nazi Germany, Beck picked the more civilized side. It proved disastrous for the British and French that Great Britain and France did not honor the alliance in the time frame they had set, allowing the Germans to deal with their opponents one at a time.

But the most disastrous consequences of the Anglo-British “alliance” with the Poles were suffered by the Poles. In 1914 the British diplomat Sir Edward Grey stated, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Whereas this was an overstatement for the British in 1914, for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 1939, it was on target. The Polonophobe Jan Tomasz Gross gives statistics in the first edition of Revolution from Abroad that indicate being under Soviet control was incredibly worse for Polish Catholics than being under German control (229), and Soviet control lasted for fifty years. In 1939 adults in Poland generally did not live to see the rebirth of freedom that occurred on June 4, 1989. Fifty years of wasted lives.

The slogan “For your freedom and for ours,” stated by the author of America’s victory at Saratoga, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and repeated by Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Wilson Reagan, rings hollow to Buchanan’s ears, but it is one of the richest parts of Poland’s heritage, stretching back even before King Jan Sobieski’s 1683 defeat of the Muslim invasion of Austria. It is a part of America’s heritage as well. One remembers that it was the American aviators M. C. Cooper and Cedric Fauntleroy who founded the Polish Air Force in 1919 and stopped the juncture between Tukhachevsky and Budienny at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920.

When it comes to Machiavellian Realpolitik, Buchanan is closer to Churchillian ethics than he realizes.

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