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It is not an entirely original perspective: revisionist historians have been challenging the “finest hour” narrative ever since the war, and Hitchens acknowledges his debt to, among others, A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War — a notoriously perverse and discredited work which sought to prove that Hitler was a traditional statesman who had not caused the war. Where Hitchens is on well-trodden ground, he is often persuasive — even if he allows hindsight to tip the scales a little too much. On the question of whether Hitler ever seriously intended to invade Britain, for example, he makes a good case to suggest that, even before their defeat in the Battle of Britain, the Germans soon realised that the problems of logistics and geography were insuperable, quite apart from their failure to establish superiority in air and naval power. At the time, however, this wasn’t so obvious on the English side of the Channel, and Hitchens goes too far when he claims, on the basis of remarks reported by Churchill’s private secretary Jock Colville, that the Prime Minister never believed in a German invasion, but used the threat as a scare tactic to stiffen resistance. One quotation from a single source is insufficient to discount the mass of evidence that the threat was taken seriously, not least the hugely expensive efforts made to repel an invasion throughout the summer of 1940. True, Colville’s account shows that Churchill gradually learned from Ultra decrypts that the threat was receding, but that was because the Germans had expected British morale to collapse and Churchill to be replaced by a Pétain figure who would sue for peace. Without Churchill’s epic oratory, which was only one aspect of his supreme mastery of the art of prosecuting war, such a collapse might well have happened — and Hitchens concedes that Churchill’s refusal to sue for peace with Hitler, as some of his Cabinet colleagues demanded, was of crucial importance. Churchill grasped the fact that Hitler was not a conventional political leader, but a genocidal megalomaniac who must be defeated if Western civilisation was to survive.

Churchill, then, emerges as the decisive war leader; and hence it is on Churchill that Hitchens turns his guns. Apart from his brief moment of glory in the summer of 1940, Churchill is depicted throughout The Phoney Victory as a vain, arrogant and self-deluding old man, whose judgment was usually wrong, who ignored expert advice but then evaded responsibility for his mistakes, and who for much of the time was fighting the last war. Much of the blame for what Hitchens sees as the mythology of the war is laid at Churchill’s door: the exaggeration of American generosity and British military success at the expense of the Russians, who broke the Nazi war machine virtually single-handed. Hitchens cannot blame British unpreparedness on Churchill, but he does blame him for failing to use resources wisely once they became available, for example by prioritising the war in the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the expense of the Battle of the Atlantic. He blames Churchill for the what he sees as the humiliation of the Atlantic Charter, in which he claims Roosevelt forced the British to agree to principles that meant the end of their Empire. Hitchens also holds Churchill responsible for the humiliation of the British by the Japanese in the Far East, and for the bombing of German civilians, which he regards as a crime — and, worse, a mistake.
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Lawrence James
October 7th, 2018
9:10 AM
An excellent article which says all that needs to be said on World War II: Hitchens's polemic is selective and can be ignored whilst AJP Taylor wrote when large swathes of evidence were not available. Churchill's post-war remarks on an united Europe must be taken in context, for they were made when he was sure that the British Empire would survive for the foreseeable future. It did not and, by 1970, it was clear that Britain would have to to seek compensation by an alignment with what was then the Common Market.

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