Wiegrefe: “The Compleat Wrks of Wnstn Chrchl (Abridged)”

Wiegrefe: “The Compleat Wrks of Wnstn Chrchl (Abridged)”

The Compleat Wrks (Abridged) by Klaus Wiegrefe

Some things on the web live a long time. “How Win­ston Churchill Stopped the Nazis” by Klaus Wiegrefe was pub­lished ten years ago, but we still get queries about it. This review is there­fore repub­lished for your amuse­ment or forgiveness.

This nine-part arti­cle is odd­ly remind­ful  of “The Com­pleat Wrks of Wilm Shk­spr (Abridged).” In that work, three actors cri­tique all of Shakespeare’s works in a cou­ple of hours.

There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly nov­el or new in Der Spiegel‘s series. Attempts to cast Churchill as demo­ni­ac have been going on long before 2021—as bad as today’s stuff is. Wiegrefe does admit that Churchill “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 own abridged war memoirs.

“Putzi” and Hitler’s dinner date

The ear­ly partss dwell on sagas of Churchill and Hitler start­ing in 1932. The sto­ry then skips ahead to the bomb­ing of Ger­many. (Wiegrefe says this killed most­ly civil­ians, and Churchill was “strange­ly ambiva­lent” about it.) There fol­lows the post­war divi­sion of Europe. Much is over­sim­pli­fied and fails to con­sid­er the con­tem­po­rary real­i­ty of fight­ing for survival—which, after all, is what Churchill and Co. were doing. You make a lot of mis­takes doing that.

Part 1 recounts the time­worn sto­ry of the still­born Hitler-Churchill meet­ing. Hitler’s pro-British for­eign press chief, Ernst “Putzi” Han­f­s­taengl, attempt­ed to arrange this in Munich in 1932.  The account (based on Hanfstaengl’s 1957 mem­oirs) is rea­son­ably accu­rate. But Wiegrefe 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.

(Putzi him­self had regrets. He bare­ly escaped with his life lat­er on, when Goebbels & Co. decid­ed he was a deplorable. Safe in Amer­i­ca, he advised Roo­sevelt about Nazi psychology.)

Functioning prone?

In World War II, Wiegrefe con­tin­ues, 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. He pinned it to notes on which he want­ed fast respons­es. Churchill nev­er drank iced soda water. What he drank was a kind of “scotch-fla­vored mouth­wash.” I thought every­body knew this by the turn of the last century.

Herr Wiegrefe seems con­fused over the like­li­hood of a 1940 Ger­man inva­sion of Britain. First he says it was nev­er planned, then that Hitler was ready to launch it if the Roy­al Air Force “could be put out of com­mis­sion first.” Next: “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.

Gas, bombs and razzmatazz

Some authors will nev­er get over the idea that Churchill con­tem­plat­ed using “poi­son gas,” whether 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 the ene­my used it first. To their cred­it, they didn’t.)

Under­stand­ably, Ger­mans felt the hor­ror of the air bom­bard­ment of Ger­many more than any­one else. Wiegrefe claims that 600,000 died. A schol­ar­ly study claims 410,000. Either way, it was trag­ic. We are told that Churchill admit­ted that the bomb­ings were “mere acts of ter­ror and wan­ton destruc­tion.” But this is too brief a con­den­sa­tion of Churchill’s views. Dres­den, he wrote to his Chiefs of Staff Com­mit­tee, “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).

Whose ethnic cleansing?

Over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is ram­pant in Part 9, “Churchill’s Role in the Expul­sion of Ger­mans from Easter[n] Europe.” Wiegrefe accus­es him of “eth­nic cleans­ing” in mov­ing Poland west at the expense of Ger­man Sile­sia, to accom­mo­date Stalin’s west­er­ly ambi­tions. The shift of ter­ri­to­ry required giv­ing res­i­dent Ger­mans “a brief amount of time to gath­er the bare neces­si­ties and leave.”

Like the Jews of Ger­many, 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 searcher for the truth should con­tem­plate 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.” And then his vis­it to Berlin in 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.” These two sen­ti­ments are not too com­mon among politicians.

Sniffing at the trivial

There is no attempt through­out these arti­cles to con­sid­er the real­i­ty and com­plex­i­ties of fight­ing a res­olute and for­mi­da­ble ene­my. Let alone with an ally, 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.

Eighty 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). War is hell, as Gen­er­al Sher­man said. And Churchill’s daugh­ter Mary often remarked, “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, Stal­in, 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.”

“Perhaps he was simply tipsy”

We search for exam­ples of the Carthagin­ian peace toward which Churchill vac­il­lat­ed. Did he not walk out at Teheran, when Stal­in pro­posed mass exe­cu­tions? And reject the Mor­gen­thau Plan of reduc­ing Ger­many to an agrar­i­an state, stripped of indus­try? Did he not endorse the post­war Berlin Air­lift? Cer­tain­ly he urged rap­proche­ment between France and Ger­many. Was he not the cham­pi­on of Ade­nauer, and as good a friend abroad as post­war 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 Churchill once said about Britain and the Axis gang­ing up against Rus­sia: “Too easy to be good.”

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