This month the world observes the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two. A contribution by Patrick Buchanan in Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture raises the question whether the war was necessary.
By March 1939, he asks, after Hitler had broken the Munich agreement and taken Czechoslovakia, what was the evidence that he wanted to conquer the world? Everybody said, “Hitler must be stopped!” But what was the concrete evidence that he wanted to conquer Britain, Africa, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, South America, India, Asia, Australia? Why did he spend three years building that hugely expensive Siegfried Line to protect Germany from France? Why did he start the war with no surface fleet, no troop transports? How do you conquer the world with a navy that can’t get out of the Baltic Sea? Why did he not build strategic bombers? Why did he let the British get out of Dunkirk? Why did he offer the British peace twice – after Poland fell, and again after France fell?
Because, Buchanan believes, Hitler wanted to end the war in 1940, almost two years before the trains began to roll to the camps.
Buchanan pays special attention to Poland. Hitler did not want war with Poland, he says, but an alliance with Poland, such as he had with Francesco Franco, with Benito Mussolini, with Miklas Horthy, and with Father Josef Tizo of Slovakia. Poland, he says, was governed by a junta of colonels. Why didn’t they negotiate with Hitler, as Father Tizo had? Hitler had even hinted at an offer to the Poles of Slovakian territory, in exchange of Danzig, a 95% German city that even British leaders felt should be returned. But the Poles refused. They had an unsolicited war guarantee giving them the power to drag Britain into a second war with the most powerful nation in Europe. These are Buchanan’s words.
What is new in Buchanan’s article is the argument that if the Polish colonels, who were ideologically not far removed from Hitler, had joined the Nazi bloc and had yielded Danzig, which was administered by the League anyway, and if the British had not given them an unnecessary guarantee, there might not have been WWII.
One might support his position with additional arguments. The two major purposes in Hitler’s polemics during his rise to power were: (1) to undo the Treaty of Versailles; and (2) to fight communism. By March 1939 Hitler had effectively dismantled Versailles. Moreover, he had decisively dealt with the communists in Germany and in the annexed territories; they were no longer a danger to him. True, he demanded Lebensraum – living space – in the east, but there is no evidence that he actually intended at that time to invade the USSR. He may have thought he could achieve his aim through negotiations with Stalin. Five months later he did stun the world by negotiating with him.
Chamberlain and the English appeasers thought one could negotiate with Hitler. Many of them went further and hoped for England later to join Hitler in an anti-Bolshevik crusade.
Buchanan quotes Churchill’s remark that WWII was “an unnecessary war.” No doubt Churchill meant that Hitler could have got everything he wanted by peaceful means.
The reason why Buchanan’s argument collapses is that Hitler chose to achieve his aims not by peaceful means but by violent means, as he made clear when he invaded Poland in the face of the British and, for that matter, the French guarantees. (Mourir pour Danzig? was the pathetic question asked in Paris at the time.) By September 1st, when the German army crossed the Polish border, Britain and France decided, not that there was evidence Hitler wanted to conquer the world, but that they could no longer live with a regime headed by a violent outlaw.
On September 3 they declared war.
In June 1940, after the fall of France, as Buchanan points out, Hitler made his second offer of peace to England. He had let the British army escape at Dunkirk presumably because he really did want England to accept.
Before September 1939, proud and defiant, and in total disregard of their military position, the Poles, whatever their right-wing ideology, had acted honorably, with disastrous consequences for themselves and the whole world.
Now Churchill, in his turn proud and defiant, refused to negotiate, just as the Polish colonels had. Lord Halifax and the other appeasers wanted him to accept.
But he made the correct calculations.
Or should we say – he was lucky?