THE PHONEY VICTORY
PETER HITCHENS CONFRONTS MANY OF THE ACCEPTED BELIEFS ABOUT WORLD WAR II
Author: Peter Hitchens Publisher: I.B. Tauris Price: £17.99
Peter Hitchens is no stranger to controversy, having passed from Socialist Workers’ Party militant to outspoken critic of political correctness. In this book, Hitchens has taken it upon himself to launch a frontal assault on the conventional assumptions surrounding Britain’s role in World War II.
The author acknowledges he is treading into perilous territory. The war, as he came to know it as a schoolboy in the late 1950s, was “our moral guide, the origin of modern scripture about good and evil, courage and self-sacrifice”. Yet he pulls no punches in denouncing the Yalta peace settlement as a cynical, “large-scale protection racket”, with Stalin as the racketeer and the Western Allies as his cowed victims. The mass executions of Cossacks shipped off to Russia by the Allies, the “ethnic cleansing” conducted under the Potsdam Agreement, are just two of the grim episodes rarely discussed because, as the author says, they do not accord with accepted beliefs.
Hitchens insists that Hitler and the Nazi regime had to be crushed and that war at some point was inevitable. His argument is that Britain should have followed the example of the US and waited until the
Allied powers were ready to enter the war in a position of military and diplomatic strength.
It was wrong, he says, to give Poland effective control over Britain’s decision to declare war, which he describes as “one of the gravest diplomatic mistakes ever made by a major country”. This was a consequence of the March 1939 Munich Agreement that allowed other powers to dictate and hasten the timing of war in ways that did not suit Britain’s main ally, France. Five months later Britain signed a treaty agreeing to guarantee Polish independence, less than a week before the German invasion.
Poland emerges in the book as a pretext for war, not a reason. As a consequence, the timing of the declaration of war nearly led an unprepared Britain to defeat, which Hitchens says would almost certainly have been the outcome had the USSR been defeated by Hitler. Poland was swiftly conquered and dismantled in the face of unpreparedness and a lack of will by Britain and France to act to save the country. Germany almost as quickly took charge in much of Scandinavia, as a result of Churchill’s disastrous Norway adventure. The German offensive through Belgium and Holland destroyed the French army and expelled Britain from the continent for the next four years.
Yet a war, begun in uncertainty and confusion, continuing in defeat, evacuation and bankruptcy, became in the popular imagination the war that restored goodness to the world. Hitchens criticises this as a simplistic interpretation of reality. He brings to light some of the uncomfortable aftermath – the Stalinist purges, the “atrocious butcher’s bill from Indian partition in 1947”, the transfer of up to 14 million ethnic Germans out of Eastern Europe, mostly agreed to by the Allies, and the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. The blood-soaked uprisings by East Berliners in 1953, the Hungarians in 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 then followed.
Hitchens emphasises that whatever happened after the war cannot be equated to the barbarism of the Nazis. In highlighting these atrocities, he warns against failing to condemn the post-war abuses against humanity.
“HITCHENS INSISTS THAT HITLER AND THE NAZI REGIME HAD TO BE CRUSHED AND THAT WAR AT SOME POINT WAS INEVITABLE”
LEFT: Hitler watching German soldiers march into Poland in September 1939