This is a very old debate and one in which I have long taken an interest but I think there are far more important things to talk about today. Nonetheless, the recent issue of two books that raise the question anew does seem to legitimate at least a brief comment from me.
The Leftist book concerned (by novelist Nicholson Baker) is reviewed here and the conservative book (by Pat Buchanan) is reviewed here. I will confine myself to mentioning what I think are the important points that the reviews pass over.
The Baker book seems to center strongly on the flaws in Churchill's actions -- in keeping with the usual Leftist ad hominem style of argument. There is of course no doubt that Churchill was a flawed human being and there are acts by Churchill that I deplore too (the fire bombings, the "repatriation" of the Cossacks etc). Baker however in essence claims that it was only the character faults of Churchill and FDR that caused them to make war on Hitler. He seems to think we would all have been fine if the British and American bombers had stayed home.
That is all deeply unserious, however. You have to look at the political and strategic realities behind the declarations of war if you are to evaluate them intelligently. Blaming everything on the conspiracies of bad men is very Leftist but it betrays no real effort at understanding at all. All it tells us is that the speaker/writer is steamed up about something and is too stupid or lazy to investigate how it really came about. Baker seems to think that a pacifist response to Hitler would have worked in some way. The generally passive response of the German Jews to their persecution should have told Baker how well that worked with Hitler.
So on to the Buchanan book. Sadly, the reviewer there also seems inclined to play the man and not the ball. He is very abusive about Buchanan and is less than fair in evaluating Buchanan's arguments. I think that Buchanan is wrong in his conclusions but he is not so far wrong as to be completely dismissed.
The critic completely dismisses Buchanan's argument that Hitler had no designs on Britain and in fact regarded them as racial comrades -- so Britain had nothing to fear and no reason to go to war. There is no doubt that Hitler himself argued exactly that way. I have myself heard a recording of one of his speeches to that effect. So dismissing the argument out of hand is pretty slapdash history.
I myself think that the jury will always be out on that one. It seems strange that I have to stress it but Hitler WAS a racist and there is no doubt that the Britrish and the Germans are essentially the same race. So the idea that Hitler might have given very favourable consideration to the racial identity of the British is hardly far-fetched. The remarkably benign German occupation of Denmark is even a test-case of sorts.
But, as a good conservative, Churchill was cautious and there was no doubt in his mind that Hitler was an example of that most-disapproved type of person in a British value-system of the time: A man who "goes too far". Churchill saw that Hitler recognized no constraints on his actions and that Hitler's rhetoric was full of anger and hate. And Churchill could not entrust the world to such a man. So Churchill swung British foreign policy into its traditional "balance of power" role and ensured that NOBODY would ever come to dominate the whole of Europe. With what we now know about Hitler, I think we can be glad that Britain found a man who at the last moment activated that traditional British policy.
Note that it was actually Chamberlain who declared war on Germany. But it is Churchill who made it stick.
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