Der Spiegel’s “The Man Who Saved Europe,” a nine-part web-post by Klaus Wiegrefe, oddly reminds me of “The Complete Wrks of Wilm Shkspr (Abridged),” in which three actors present the audience with all of 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 duel between Churchill and Hitler, from 1932 through 1941. Wiegrefe then skips ahead to the bombing of Germany (which he says killed mostly civilians, and on which Churchill was strangely ambivalent), and the division of Europe after the war. Much is oversimplified and fails to consider the contemporary reality of fighting for survival—which, after all, is what both sides were doing.
Hitler and Churchill Not
Part 1, which seems to be getting most of the publicity, recounts the timeworn story of the stillborn Hitler-Churchill meeting, which Hitler’s pro-British foreign press chief, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, attempted to arrange in Munich in 1932. Weigrefe’s 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.” (The Second World War, Vol. 1 The Gathering Storm, London: Cassell, 1948, 66.) This hardly sounds like regret.
Once he gets to the war, Wiegrefe suggests that Britain had “probably never been governed in such a bizarre way, by a prime minister who 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 to his secretary, memos that were often titled ‘Action This Day.’” Colorful, but not quite right.
Of course Churchill dictated correspondence (sitting up) in bed of a morning—it was part of his routine of getting a day and a half out of every day. But he did not conduct the war from his mattress. Trivial as it may be, “Action This Day” was a label not a title, and everyone knows he avoided iced drinks and soda water. What he drank was a kind of “scotch-flavored mouthwash,” as an aide described his weak whisky-and-water.
The author appears confused over the likelihood of a 1940 German invasion of Britain, first saying there was not even the threat of one, then admitting that Hitler considered one “if the British Air Force could be put out of commission first,” and 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 to Britons in the summer of 1940, when the RAF was flinging its last fighter squadrons into the sky and 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 (re the Iraqis in 1922) or the real stuff in World War II: “Churchill,” Wiegrefe writes, “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.) We do have a source we can prove: real poison gas was introduced in World War I, by the Germans.
Understandably Germans feel the horror of the air bombardment of Germany more than anyone else, and Wiegrefe doesn’t fail to mention that 600,000 died, most of them civilians: “When Dresden was destroyed near the end of the war, in February 1945, even Churchill admitted that the bombings were “mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.”
But that is a bad distortion of Churchill’s words and views. Over Dresden—which Martin Gilbert long ago proved was firebombed at Soviet request while Churchill was traveling, the Prime Minister later wrote to his Chiefs of Staff Committee and Air Marshal Portal:
“The destruction of Dresden 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. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.” (Martin Gilbert, Road to Victory, London: Heinemann, 1986, 1257).
Oversimplification is rampant in Part 9, “Churchill’s Role in the Expulsion of Germans from Easter [sic] Europe,” which accuses 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, Wiegrefe writes, required giving resident Germans “a brief amount of time to gather the bare necessities and leave.” In the process, “several million people were ultimately rounded up, robbed and expelled, and tens of thousands died during the forced marches.”
Leaving aside the question of how much personal responsibility Churchill bore for the maltreatment of deportees—which usually appalled him, whoever was maltreated—one’s heart doesn’t exactly bleed, given what the Nazis had meted out to the Jewish population of Europe.
A cooler observer might conclude, as Churchill did in 1942, that “The Germans have received back again that measure of fire and steel which they have so often meted out to others.” Yet ten years later Churchill recalled that 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.”
Perhaps the short scope of Internet posts prevents deeper analysis, but there is no attempt throughout these articles to consider the reality and complexities facing Churchill and Roosevelt. They were fighting a desperate 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 in fact frequently 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 to Stalin with his “naughty paper” in 1944 (his successful attempt to save Greece). We should pause to reflect that war is hell, as General Sherman said; and consider the words of Churchill’s daughter Lady Soames: “I daresay he had to do some pretty rough things—but they didn’t unman him.”
At the end of the war, Wiegrefe concludes, “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, the dispensing of nuclear technology, the recovery of Europe?
Regarding the Germans, the author continues, “Churchill vacillated between extremes, between a Carthaginian peace and chivalrous generosity. In the end, Stalin’s and Roosevelt’s ideas prevailed.”
I wrack my brain 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,” 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 Herr Wiegrefe was simply tipsy when he wrote these sentences. He has provided a reasonably accurate capsule history of the war, along with a few clangers and exaggerations. But this account is, as an earlier reviewer once said of a much longer Churchill critique, “too easy to be good.”