Peter Hitchens, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, I.B. Tauris 2018.
Hardcover 288 pages
In Public Library system.
$27 online. Kindle edition $19.98
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Peter Hitchens knows this book will create controversy. His basic argument is that World War 2 was not a simple victory for the ‘Good Side’: it was both more complex than that and more ambiguous.
Hitchens is a journalist, the brother of the late and more famous Christopher Hitchens, who, unlike Christopher (author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) has made the journey from atheism to faith. The focus of this book is to make moral judgements about a war that has been lauded and romanticised as a victory over evil.
He cites the fire-bombing of German cities, Rostock, Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin, as an example of the moral wrong committed by Britain. He shows that killing many human beings was the explicit, if secret, policy of the War Cabinet.
He demonstrates that, as a tactic to improve the chances of victory, it was a failure. Even British high command after the war rated the bombing as ineffective. British bombs were both inaccurate and the German people, like the British, were not so easily cowed. In any case, the bombers targeted poorer areas, where resistance to the Hitler regime was most likely to reside.
Hitchens worries that people will respond, ‘Well, it wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust,’ as if comparing it to a worse evil justifies the action. Hitchens clearly believes that the deliberate slaughter of 6 million Jews is immorality at its very worst, but that doesn’t make the deliberate murder of hundreds of thousands of others good.
Hitchens salutes the bravery of the men who operated the bombers: it is their superiors who conspired in their headquarters to fire-bomb cities whom he censures.
Similarly, the British were complicit in the forcible removal of Germans from Central Europe after the war. Many hundreds of thousands of German women and children died in this act of essentially ethnic cleansing. Some were even forced into Auschwitz two weeks after its liberation. Some were simply lined up at the edge of villages and shot.
Hitchens also debunks the myth of the ‘special friendship’ between the USA and Britain. In fact, the United States demanded that Britain’s gold should be shipped to the States. All of Britain’s reserves ended up in Fort Knox! The USA consistently acted in its own interests and stripped Britain of its imperial power.
Even the Resistance fighters and their supporters in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) played little part in the winning of a war. At the most, the SOE was a declaration that Britain was still in the fight. Hitchens laments the romanticisation of the SOE in much contemporary fiction, not to doubt the bravery and skill of individual operatives, but because of their irrelevance to victory.
While Churchill’s determination to fight the evil of Nazism is recognised, Hitchens is clear-sighted about other decisions of Churchill: the disastrous withdrawal from Malta, his insistence on keeping troops and boats in the Mediterranean and refusing all help to Singapore. It was certainly not Churchill and the British who kept the Japanese enemy out of Australia!
‘Learning of these events after decades of ignorance, I felt deep shame, combined with immense gratitude for the fact that I live on an island which has for many centuries been safe from invasion, subjugation and arbitrary rule. It is this fact that has kept me safe from suffering and from committing the crimes of war, not any virtue of my nation. It should not keep me from acknowledging that the 1939-45 war was morally far more complicated and compromised that I – a more than usually well-informed citizen – had been led or allowed to believe.’ (219)
Hitchens’ honesty will not be greatly rewarded, but we learn from history only when we know it to be truth. Britain needs to have a complete, not romantic, understanding of its relationship with Europe as it withdraws from the European Community.
The lesson of the book is that all of us need to question war: there may be times when war is necessary, but it is never good. And it is only all of us acting together as an informed citizenry that can call our leaders to account for their false narratives of good versus evil.
A courageous book, accessible in style and well worth reading.