This nine-part webpost is oddly remindful of “The Compleat Wrks of Wilm Shkspr (Abridged),” in which three actors deliver all of William Shakespeare’s works in a couple of hours.
There’s nothing particularly novel or new in this series. Aside from the familiar attempts to cast Churchill as occasionally demoniac, it agrees that he “Saved Europe.” But one would do better reading about World War II on Wikipedia—or, if you have time, one of the good specialty studies, like Geoffrey Best’s Churchill and War—or, if you really want to know what Churchill thought, his abridged war memoirs.
The early parts dwell on the sagas of Churchill and Hitler starting in 1932. The story then skips ahead to the bombing of Germany (which he says killed mostly civilians, and on which Churchill was “strangely ambivalent”), and the postwar division of Europe. Much is oversimplified and fails to consider the contemporary reality of fighting for survival—which, after all, is what Britain was doing.
Part 1 recounts the timeworn story of the stillborn Hitler-Churchill meeting, which Hitler’s pro-British foreign press chief, “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, attempted to arrange in Munich in 1932. The account (based on Hanfstaengl’s 1957 memoirs) is reasonably accurate, but concludes that Churchill felt “regret” that the meeting did not take place. Not so. What Churchill wrote was: “Thus Hitler lost his only chance of meeting me. Later on, when he was all-powerful, I was to receive several invitations from him. But by that time a lot had happened, and I excused myself.” (Gathering Storm, 66). This hardly sounds like regret.
In World War II, the author writes, Britain’s premier “conducted a significant portion of government affairs from a horizontal position. Dressed in his red dressing gown, he would lie on his four-poster bed, chewing a cigar and sipping ice-cold soda water, and dictate memos…often titled ‘Action This Day.’”
Of course he dictated correspondence (sitting up) in bed of a morning. It helped him squeeze a day and a half out of every day. He did not conduct the war from his mattress. It’s trivial, but “Action This Day” was a label not a title, and he never drank iced soda water. What he drank was a kind of “scotch-flavored mouthwash.”
The author seems confused over the likelihood of a 1940 German invasion of Britain, first saying it was never planned, then that Hitler was ready to launch it if the Royal Air Force “could be put out of commission first,” then adding: “The Germans felt they stood a better chance of succeeding in May 1941….” (When they were about to invade the Soviet Union?) The imminence of invasion seemed real enough when the Battle of Britain hung by a thread.
Some authors will never get over the idea that Churchill contemplated using “poison gas,” whether he meant tear gas (Iraq, 1922) or the real stuff. Why, he “even toyed with the idea of dropping poison gas on German cities, but his generals objected.” Any source for that? (We know he was willing to use it in battle—if they used it first.)
Understandably Germans felt the horror of the air bombardment of Germany more than anyone else, and the author doesn’t fail to claim that 600,000 died, even Churchill admitting that the bombings were “mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.” This is a bad condensation of Churchill’s views. Dresden, WSC wrote to his Chiefs of Staff Committee and Air Marshal Portal, “remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests rather than that of the enemy…rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive” (Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory, 1257).
Oversimplification is rampant in Part 9, “Churchill’s Role in the Expulsion of Germans from Easter[n] Europe,” accusing him of “ethnic cleansing” in moving Poland west at the expense of German areas like Silesia, to accommodate Stalin’s westerly ambitions. The shift of territory, we are told, required giving resident Germans “a brief amount of time to gather the bare necessities and leave.”
Like the Jews of Warsaw, perhaps.
Leaving to one side how much personal responsibility Churchill bore for the maltreatment of deportees—which often appalled him, whoever was maltreated—one’s heart doesn’t exactly bleed.
A cooler observer might include Churchill’s 1942 comment: “The Germans have received back again that measure of fire and steel which they have so often meted out to others.” Or his memoirs of 1945: “My hate had died with their surrender and I was much moved by their demonstrations, and also by their haggard looks and threadbare clothes.”
Perhaps the short scope of Internet posts prevents deeper analysis, but there is no attempt throughout these articles to consider the reality and complexities of fighting a resolute and formidable enemy while allied with a third party, the Soviet Union, that might flip or flop various ways depending on its interests, or play off the Anglo-Americans against each other—which Stalin freely did.
Seventy years on, we have the luxury to sniff at Churchill’s representing the fate of Silesian Germans with matchsticks, or suggesting “spheres of influence” in Eastern Europe (which saved Greece). We should pause to reflect that war is hell, as General Sherman said, and that nobody knew at the time who would win.
At the end of the war, “the only decision remaining for the Allies was to determine what to do with Hitler and the Germans once they were defeated.” (No worries about the role of the United Nations, decolonization, nuclear technology, or European recovery.) “Churchill vacillated between extremes, between a Carthaginian peace and chivalrous generosity. In the end, Stalin’s and Roosevelt’s ideas prevailed.”
We search for examples of the Carthaginian peace toward which Churchill vacillated. Did he not walk out at Teheran, when Stalin proposed mass executions? Did he not reject the Morgenthau Plan of reducing Germany to an agrarian state, stripped of the industry to support herself? Did he not endorse the postwar Berlin Airlift, and urge rapprochement between France and Germany? Was he not the champion of Adenauer, and as good a friend abroad as Germany ever had?
“Before the Holocaust,” Herr Wiegrefe writes, “Churchill toyed with the idea of banishing Hitler and other top Nazis to an isolated island, just as Napoleon had once been banished to Elba. Or perhaps he was simply tipsy when he voiced this idea.”
Perhaps the author was simply tipsy when he wrote these articles. What we have here is a rough capsule history of the war, along with several clangers and exaggerations. But in the main this account is, as an earlier reviewer once said of a much longer Churchill critique: “Too easy to be good.”