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Joel Fishman on Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World and Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:1-2 (Spring 2009)

The two titles above may be non-fiction, but they are not legitimate history-writing. Both are based on facts, but facts that each of the authors has carefully selected with an eye to conveying his own personal message: that the Second World War was an unnecessary, wasteful, senseless, and barbaric endeavor which did not save Western civilization but instead dealt it a major setback. This literature, ostensibly relating to events of the past, is closely linked to the mood of the present, particularly the larger debate in the U.S. about its place in the world. In its broadest context, the question is whether the U.S. should continue to assume its exceptional role as a super-power or conduct a foreign policy similar to that of Europe, or perhaps Canada, one based more on “soft power” – persuasion and international consensus. In the background, there seems to be a consensus of public opinion that the intervention in Iraq was mismanaged, even if this policy may have protected the country against terrorist attacks in the post-9/11 era. During the recent election campaign, it was repeatedly asserted that America’s intervention abroad and foreign aid program had misdirected its resources and attention. It would have been preferable, some asserted, for the U.S. to turn inward and cultivate its own garden. Each following his own distinct logic, Patrick Buchanan, an ultra-conservative (a genuine old-con) politician and author, and Nicholson Baker, a fashionable contemporary writer and pacifist, present arguments compatible with the sentiments described above.

The main problem is that in order to prove their theses with regard to the Second World War the authors needed first to establish that Western civilization was not in danger, that Hitler’s Germany did not represent a lethal threat, and that there would have been a realistic chance to make a deal with him. Such assertions belong to a not-so-honorable American historical tradition.[1] They date back to the interwar era in the U.S., during which the Isolationists and Americans of pro-German sympathies unsuccessfully tried to block American intervention in the Second World War. Indeed, Nazi propaganda agents and their American collaborators actively propagated this message. The complete argument, which these authors state only in part, and which currently remains dormant, is the ugly accusation that the Second World War was a “Jewish War.” This is an old message, which was discredited long ago. That is not to say that some of the authors’ views are totally lacking in originality. Rather, we are not dealing with something new, or an innocent and theoretical historical problem, but the type of issue which has the potential for great ugliness. It would not take much to wake this sleeping dog.

One does not have to dig deep to find this continuity, at least in the case of Patrick Buchanan’s book. In one reference, he describes the members of the America First movement as “patriotic” because they succeeded in preventing America from entering into the Second World War “until six months after Hitler invaded Russia.” Separately, he describes Winston Churchill’s rough language with regard to blacks and other minorities and adds that this put him somehow in the same category as Father Charles Coughlin, except that Churchill could get away with it because he was a dedicated Zionist (402). For readers unfamiliar with him, Father Coughlin was a radio priest who spread hatred against the Jews on the airwaves and a bitter opponent of President Roosevelt. It was generally understood that Coughlin was silenced as part of Roosevelt’s agreement to permit Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli’s tour of the U.S. in 1936. This visit paved the way for establishing diplomatic relations between America and the Vatican.[2] Placing Winston Churchill in the same category with Father Coughlin is mean-spirited and inappropriate.

Beyond this, it is necessary to appreciate the implications for the present of another one of Buchanan’s big ideas: that the U.S. should not intervene abroad unless its vital interests are directly endangered. In his view, American intervention in the Second World War was not justified, and now the country is overextended.

The principle is sensible, but the manner in which he applies it is open to challenge. For example, Buchanan opposes the American commitment to Israel’s security as a matter of principle and, during the summer of 2008, he argued against an American intervention on behalf of the Republic of Georgia.

Before relating directly to the books, one must ask whether “counter-factual history” is legitimate. Since the principle of freedom of speech is assured, thought and expression should not be restricted. Nonetheless, the danger persists that certain types of assertions, based on unproven facts, may pass for legitimate history. Our age has produced junk science, and it has a counterpart in the form of counterfeit scholarship, including junk history. The functional Wikipedia definition of junk science may easily be applied to the writing of non-fiction:  “A 1985 United States Department of Justice report by the Tort Policy Working Group noted: “The use of…invalid scientific evidence (commonly referred to as ‘junk science’) has resulted in findings of causation which simply cannot be justified or understood from the standpoint of the current state of credible scientific or medical knowledge.”[3]”

The same problem exists in the writing of counter-factual history. We are confronted with findings of causation which simply cannot be justified or understood from the standpoint of the current state of credible historical factual knowledge. This type of writing fits with the spirit of an indulgent age which seeks to satisfy every desire. Further, totalitarian regimes engage in the rewriting of history, and indeed the historical past has become a battleground. More recently, the proponents of certain politically correct views, who also have totalitarian tendencies, portray the West and the spread of Western civilization unfavorably, and by such efforts endeavor to shift the political and intellectual consensus.

The British historian A. J. P. Taylor, author of the controversial classic The Origins of the Second World War, argues that the time has come to deal with the Second World War as history and go beyond the conventional wisdom of the generation which had experienced the war firsthand. Some of his views are shocking, but Taylor defends them aggressively. In the foreword to his book, he states that “…historians often dislike what happened or wish that it happened differently. There is nothing that can be done about it. They have to state the truth as they see it without worrying whether this shocks or confirms existing prejudices. Maybe I assumed this too innocently….”[4] Taylor is only restating the wisdom of the great Prussian historian, Leopold von Ranke (1797-1886), that the historian’s obligation is “not…to judge the past, nor to instruct one’s contemporaries with an eye to the future, but rather merely to show how it actually was.”[5]

Nicholson Baker’s book, Human Smoke, consists of a series of citations, printed usually one per page, which date from about 1892 to December 1941. His method is to use the citations in order to produce the cumulative impression that war is senseless and amoral, and that there the Allies and Axis powers were equivalent. While his book makes quick reading, it lacks context and reflects little more than the personal Schmerz of a narcissistic pacifist. In a pretentiously righteous manner, Baker dedicates his book to the memory of American and British pacifists. Basic physical survival is a human need, but Baker does not suggest any useful idea as to how this can be assured in the face of a determined, strong, well-disciplined, and technically capable enemy with genocidal intent. In short, this modest offering represents an example of cultural despair. Nicholson Baker’s contribution is basically out of touch with reality, like Plato’s cave dwellers, to the extent that it propagates the impression that passivism represents an alternative to assuring one’s own survival; in this respect the work is misleading and lacking in merit.

In Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War Buchanan argues that Imperial Germany was really a peaceful country, and that the origin of the problem was the policy of Great Britain and its leaders based on preventing Germany from attaining its place in the sun. It was, therefore, a mistake that from the beginning of the twentieth century Great Britain had favored France instead of cultivating Imperial Germany. Thus Buchanan faults the British who, in 1906, signed a secret agreement with France to become allies in the event of a war with Germany. He also finds fault with Britain’s decision to go to war in 1914, after Germany violated Belgian neutrality, even though it was not completely bound to do so by the terms of the 1839 agreement which regulated the separation of Belgium from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Further, if there were no Great War, the Germans would not have sent Lenin and his friends to Russia in a sealed train. Thus, there would not have been a Communist Russia.

Among other things, Buchanan writes that after Munich Britain made a grave mistake by forging an alliance with Poland to enter a war on its side if it were invaded. He would have preferred England’s (and America’s) passive acquiescence to a Nazi German invasion of Eastern Europe and a war against the Soviet Union. Buchanan contends that the outcome might have been more to the advantage of the West if Hitler were permitted to carry out his aggressive plans in the East. In addition, he singles out Winston Churchill for special opprobrium as a warmonger both in the First and in the Second World War. In contrast, he views Kaiser Wilhelm as a conciliator, a gentle man of peace who made sincere but unsuccessful efforts to prevent the outbreak of the Great War.

Rather than join the debate on the authors’ terms, as other critics have done, mainly by identifying the internal contradictions of these publications, this reviewer has chosen to base the discussion on the current state of credible historical knowledge: that is, to consider the basic facts in their historical context. In any case, it would be futile to try to untangle the intricately spun cobwebs of counter-factual history.

The great problem with which Buchanan and Baker are unable to cope is the reality of Germany in the twentieth century. Buchanan gives a complex and unlikely interpretation, and one should first ask the common-sense question: why accept a complicated interpretation when a simple explanation will do? Why not apply the Law of Parsimony, known as “Occam’s razor,” a principle attributed to the fourteenth-century English logician and Franciscan friar, William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349)? The essence of this line of reasoning is that “‘[a]ll other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.’ In other words, when multiple competing theories are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions….”[6]

Indeed, this method has been applied with great advantage to the present historical problem. In a recent essay entitled “Ethics and National Security in an Age of International Terrorism,” Barry F. Cooper, a Canadian political scientist, stated bluntly that “[u]nprovoked attack is always understood as a legitimate causus belli.” Although he did not mention the revisionists or name names, his remarks apply to the books at hand. One example which he offered was the issue of responsibility for the First World War, which is directly relevant to this discussion. Cooper relates a famous story which Hannah Arendt once told about a conversation between Clemenceau and an envoy from Weimar: “…[s]hortly before his death,…the French wartime leader Georges Clemenceau was discussing the question of responsibility and thus guilt for the outbreak of the Great War. What, the envoy from Weimar asked, did Clemenceau think historians would make of this complex, troubling, and controversial question. “This I do not know,” he replied, “but I do know for certain they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.”[7]

Cooper then comments: “…[o]ne must begin with some brute facts, not with a sophisticated theory into which the facts are slotted or hung, like socks on a clothesline. One must begin with the simple factual truth, that on the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the Belgian border. Likewise South Korea did not invade North Korea on June 25, 1950 and the United States did not invade Japan on December 7, 1941.[8]”

Our discussion of the current state of credible historical knowledge should also include the overview of Dr. Frank McDonough, reader in international history at Liverpool John Moores University. McDonough produced a brief, sophisticated survey of the current state of historical research, entitled Hitler, Chamberlain and Appeasement.[9] Tracing the development of the field, he points out that “the great turning point in the historical debate on Chamberlain and appeasement came in 1967, when the British government, led by Harold Wilson, allowed access by historians, under the ‘30-year rule,’ to key government documents on the foreign policy of the National government of the late 1930s.”[10] Subsequently, a new generation of historians formed a new assessment of Chamberlain. McDonough writes that “[i]t has now become commonplace to view Chamberlain not as a weak and ineffective leader following a morally bankrupt policy, but as a complex and able leader with a clear-sighted approach to foreign policy.”[11] Thus, with the availability of new documents, some historians have endeavored to rehabilitate the reputation of Neville Chamberlain. McDonough added, however, that the same historians failed to place the debate within the broader context of world affairs and to take German intentions into account: “An even more glaring omission in most revisionist studies is a detailed discussion of British intelligence reports, which provide a great deal of information about the plans of the Nazi regime. These intelligence reports, which Chamberlain and leading Foreign Office officials read, all pointed to the conclusion that Hitler’s aims were not limited to revision of the Treaty of Versailles, but headed on the path of an attempt to dominate Europe by force.[12]”

In addition, McDonough explains that several respected historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, have argued that Hitler had a carefully planned program of aggression. He writes that “the idea of Hitler following a pre-existing plan in foreign policy, implemented in stages (known as the doctrine of ‘limited objectives’), has been strongly endorsed in many subsequent studies.”[13] One example which he gives is that of the German historian, Klaus Hildebrand, who suggested that Hitler was following a premeditated “stage by stage plan” (Stufenplan – literally, a step-by-step plan), whose primary objective was gaining Lebensraum in Eastern Europe through a war of conquest against the Soviet Union.[14] According to McDonough, the bottom line is that “in spite of the extensive research undertaken by the revisionists, they have failed to disprove that Hitler’s foreign policy was the consistent implementation of his aims in a stage-by-stage process.”[15]

Beyond this discussion, a relatively new primary source relating to Hitler’s intentions has become available: Hitler’s Second Book, a document from 1928, which explicitly presents his objectives. After the war, the historian Gerhard L. Weinberg discovered this manuscript in an American archive of captured German documents. The main reason that it was not originally published was that sales of Mein Kampf were weak and Hitler’s publisher, the Eher Verlag, did not want to launch a competing publication. Weinberg explains that after Hitler came to power, “[t]he open endorsement of a new war to conquer huge areas and the continually recurring disavowal of the 1914 borders as the goal of German foreign policy could have made Hitler, particularly in the years after 1933, see a publication of his ‘foreign policy position’ as inopportune.”[16]

The following statement from Hitler’s Second Book contains several important and recurring ideas, upon which Hitler would later act. These were the view that he was engaged in a continuous struggle; that each victory would be the prelude to the next battle; and that he envisaged an aggressive war against the USSR as very likely: “I know without a doubt that even our best success will not bring 100 percent happiness…. Furthermore, I also know that no success can be attained without sacrifice, just as no victory can be achieved without casualties. But the recognition of the incompleteness of a success will never be able to prevent me from preferring such an incomplete success to certain complete demise. I will then commit myself [to] attempting to offset that which is lacking in the probability or degree of success with greater determination, and to transmitting this spirit to the movement I lead…. We measure our own sacrifices, ponder the size of the possible success, and will stride toward attack, regardless of whether it will come to a halt ten or a thousand kilometers behind our current lines. Because wherever our success ends, that will always be the starting point of a new battle.[17]”

This primary source makes it clear that the chances of Western leaders reaching any kind of accommodation with Hitler were slim. Indeed, it supports the consensus of historians, based on their own independent research, with regard to Hitler’s war aims. Hitler planned to dominate Europe by force or, as historian Omer Bartov succinctly summed it up, “Hitler meant what he said.”[18]

Buchanan’s book also contains some serious problems of workmanship. While it would be simple to list many, let us confine ourselves to two: one sentence which contains several egregious misstatements and another which contains a serious omission of context. Buchanan writes that “[a]fter Belgium had been torn from the carcass of Napoleon’s empire, Britain had extracted a guarantee of Belgium’s neutrality” (Buchanan, 31).

Wrong! At the time of Napoleon’s defeat, Belgium did not exist. By the terms of the Treaty of Vienna (1815), which followed Napoleon’s fall, the former Austrian Netherlands, whose population was largely Catholic, were combined with the largely Protestant Northern Netherlands under the reign of King William I, the former prince of Orange-Nassau, to form the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. After the Revolution of 1830 in France, the population of the Southern Netherlands, mainly in Brussels, rose in revolt, and the Dutch could no longer maintain control. Consequently, the great powers of the time, England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, convened a conference in London which first met on 4 November 1830. Through their deliberations, the new state of Belgium received legal standing and the terms of its separation were drawn up.

Indeed, there is much more to the history of Belgium and its neutrality than Buchanan glosses over in his oversimplified statement. The French representative to the London Conference, Prince Talleyrand, who may have shaded the truth slightly, wrote that in the session of 20 January 1831 he and Lord Palmerston succeeded in winning recognition for the principle of Belgian neutrality. We also know from the report of the Prussian plenipotentiary, Baron Heinrich von Buelow, that Palmerston told him that he adopted the Swiss model for Belgian neutrality. He hoped that this neutrality would mean that Belgium would no longer be an object of jealousy and hatred to France. (Buelow also reported that Talleyrand fought to have this neutrality extended to Luxemburg, but the Conference opposed it.) One should bear in mind that the great powers of this era considered France to be the potential aggressor and intended Belgian neutrality in the first instance to serve as a barrier against France.[19]

Similarly, Buchanan writes about Lord Londonderry: “In 1938, Lord Londonderry, back from a meeting with Hitler wrote to Churchill, ‘I should like to get out of your mind what appears to be a strong anti-German obsession'” (Buchanan, 20). The only problem here is that Buchanan forgets to mention, or assumes that all of his readers already know, that Lord Londonderry was the scion of one of Britain’s wealthiest families and the only British cabinet member to support the Nazis openly. He was “Hitler’s leading apologist in Great Britain,” and actually entertained Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to England, as his house guest.[20]

Both Buchanan and Baker transmit similar messages and express idealistic but confused sentiments. At best, these writers have reshuffled and restated known facts, but neither presents solid new evidence which would result in a fresh historical interpretation. These publications are out of touch with the current state of credible historical knowledge, and their findings of causation can neither be justified nor understood. Accordingly, they do not measure up to the benchmark of responsible historical scholarship. While they make good airport reading, they fall into the category of junk science.

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[1]. For background information, see particularly John Roy Carlson (pen name for Arthur Derounian), Under Cover (New York: Dutton, 1943).

[2]. John Cornwall, Hitler’s Pope (New York: Viking, 1999), 176-177.


[4]. A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 7.

For an additional perspective see: 200046701 Defamation – Libel – Ruling on meaning – Defence of justification – Defamation Act 1952 s 5 – Irving v Penguin Books Ltd & anr – Queen’s Bench Division – Gray J – 12.04.00.

[5]. (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist).

[6].’sOccam’s_razor and

[7]. In David B. MacDonald, Robert G. Patman, and Betty Mason-Parker, The Ethics of Foreign Policy (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 54.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Frank McDonough, Hitler, Chamberlain and Appeasement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[10]. Ibid., 81.

[11]. Ibid., 83.

[12]. Ibid., 84.

[13]. Ibid., 77.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Ibid., 80.

[16]. Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, ed. Gerhard L. Weinberg, trans. Krista Smith (New York: Enigma, 2003), xxv.

[17]. Ibid., 46-47.

[18]. Omer Bartov, “He Meant What He Said: Did Hitlerism Die with Hitler?” review of Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, The New Republic, February 2004, 25-33.

[19]. J. S. Fishman, Diplomacy and Revolution: The London Conference of 1830 and the Belgian Revolt (Amsterdam: Chev, 1988), 92-93.

[20]. Ian Kershaw, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry, the Nazis and the Road to War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), passim; Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), 67-68. Quoting D. C. Watt, Olson wrote that such visitors to Hitler became the “unpaid servants of German and Nazi foreign policy.”

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Dr. Joel Fishman is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and chairman of the Foundation for the Research of Dutch Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is author of “Ten Years Since Oslo: The PLO’s ‘People’s War’ Strategy and Israel’s Inadequate Response,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 503, 1 September 2003 and coauthor (with Efraim Karsh) of La guerre d’Oslo (The Oslo war) (Paris: Editions de Passy, 2005).