WW2 Abridged: Too Easy to be Good

WW2 Abridged: Too Easy to be Good

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.

Churchill’s Meth­ods

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.

Oper­a­tion Sea Lion

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.

Bomb­ing Germany

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).

“Eth­nic Cleansing”

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.”

One thought on “WW2 Abridged: Too Easy to be Good

  1. mr lang­worth set the record straight. . when too much is writ­ten about cer­tain sub­jects thing become misleadings.

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