Nothing in this article is intended to demean the valour and sacrifice of the men who fought in the Second World War. This physical and moral courage was found on both the side of the United Nations and of the Axis. There was wrongdoing on both sides though rather more on the Axis side.
The United Kingdom ought not to have declared war on Germany in 1939. The dominions (South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Canada and Australia) all chose to support the Mother Country in this war. The colonies did not – they did not run their own foreign policy and the declaration of war applied to them too. The Irish Free State chose to remain neutral in this horrendous conflagration. Eamonn de Valera was a loathsome man but on this decision, certainly at that time, he made the right choice. He spared Eire the travails of war – the grieving mothers, widows and children; the penury and the anguish. As a man who brought bloodshed to Ireland he would know something about the woes of conflict.
Think of Europe in the 1930s. One large country had an economy that was rapidly recovering from the ravages of the Great War and the Great Depression, it had almost no unemployment – its armed forces were being beefed up at an alarming rate; it was run by a megalomaniac who thought nothing of sending tens of thousands of his compatriots to the firing squads and hundreds of thousand to penal servitude for mere dissent or being born into the wrong ethnic community. He was hell-bent on world conquest – on imposing his own grim world order – on extirpating every last vestige of freedom. He was abetted and appeased by the traitorous and the craven. His regime took bad faith to new heights, breaking every convention it ever signed – fomenting violence in foreign lands. This monstrously cruel regime knew no humanity or compassion. It was the greatest system of savage injustice ever wreaked upon mankind. I speak of course of the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Surely the most important thing was to prevent this bloodthirsty tyrant from enslaving the world.
The Nazi Government in Germany was cruel too. By 1939 it had murdered thousands of its own people. However, this was small fry compared to what had gone on in the USSR. The Third Reich had no hostile intentions towards the United Kingdom. It is dubious whether they were hostile to France.
Let me affirm yet again the Holocaust. The Holocaust happened. It was the organised mass murder of Jews approximately 6 000 000 were killed. They were murdered by gassing, shooting, starvation, exposure, exhaustion, insanitary conditions and the lack of any medical care. Gays, Gypsies, Poles, Soviet POWs, resistance fighters, the mentally ill, the disabled, Jehovah’s witnesses, Quakers pacificists and other dissentients were also killed in this way. Even the despicable David Irving accepts the Holocaust now.
The mass murder of Jews only began after the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. Jews had been murdered by the Third Reich before this – thousands of them. This ghastly crime was later far surpassed by industrial scale killing of defenceless people. The killings were carried out on the express order of the Third Reich Government and especially Adolf Hitler.
The UK did not prevent this. Had not the UK intervened it would have run its course – so goes the argument. The UK saved some lives it is said.
If one takes the Second World War as lasting from 1939 to 1945 then about 60 000 000 were killed.
France had a treaty with Poland, Czechoslovakia and other eastern European states. These were mutual defence pacts. Since 1870 France had fought an ally in the oriental part of Europe to balance the might of Germany. With Russia gone Communist and no longer having a frontier adjacent to Germany this meant that France was impelled to find an alternative partner in Eastern Europe.
The UK had no such treaty obligation to Poland or any other state in the region.
The UK felt no qualms about not intervening in the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia in the 1930s. The United Kingdom did not perceive any reason why she should embroil herself in an armed conflict in Latin America. Why should she wade in to another dispute that did not concern her in Eastern Europe?
In Hitler’s pronouncements public and private he expressed no hostility towards the UK until the war had begun. Even then he repeatedly offered peace. He did not finish off the BEF on the beaches on Dunkirk although there were some tactical reasons for standing back as his supply lines were overstretched. Adolf Hitler was utterly untrustworthy and very inconsistent. His guarantees of non-aggression always ended being guarantees OF aggression. As Alan Clark said the whole notion of trust is a redundant concept when dealing with Mr A. Hitler. One has to look at his self-interest.
I do not contest that the Third Reich behaved appallingly in Poland. Many Germans were horrified at the inhumanity meted out to the Polish population. However, the UK was in no position to prevent that and indeed did not. This article is not denying that not a few agents of the Third Reich behaved in the most wicked fashion. Hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians were killed by Third Reich forces.
It is an uncomfortable fact that the Red Army was the force that primarily defeated the Third Reich. Three-fourths of the Wehrmacht was engaged in the struggle in the Eastern Front.
What did the United Kingdom lose by fighting in the Second World War? 400 000 servicemen – 60, 000 civilians; a quarter of her national wealth and much goodwill.
Yes, the war was fought in an ethical cause. The Third Reich was beastly but that does not mean one should be beastly to the Germans as the Noel Coward song rang. 2 000 000 German civilians were killed in that war. They are as human as anyone else. War cannot happen without casualties. If we will be honest with ourselves for a moment – no war has ever been fought without civilian casualties, especially a modern war involving bombers. The fact that so many German civilians were killed ought to give one pause for thought about how righteous the war was. Yes, many of them were killed by the US Army Air Corps and the Red Army but the Royal Air Force slew its fair share of innocent Teutons. We should not shy away from the full horror of this. Confront if you can the spectacle of children and geriatrics blown apart. It matters not what their nationality or the turpitude of their government. I do not denigrate the courage or skill of the RAF. Some felt guilty about doing what they rightly saw as their duty. I merely use this issue to shed a little light on the rectitude of the decision to declare war.
In order to win the war all sorts of moral compromises had to be made. The barbarity of the Soviet gangsters had to be overlooked.
The UK lost her pre-eminent position in Africa and Asia. This was much to the detriment of the African and Asiatic races themselves. They fell under the heel of a knot of anti-colonial tyrants.
What did the UK win? Some would say moral authority, self-respect and so forth. The UK did emerge much weaker than she had gone in. That moral authority has been much ignored by others and was compromised by concessions made to US and Soviet opinion in the immediate post bellum period due to the United Kingdom’s much enfeebled standing not least in the financial field. The UK was strong armed into handing over anti-Communist freedom fighters to the USSR and to allowing excessive Jewish immigration into Palestine. The UK militarily occupied Iceland during the war. This was despite the protestations of the Icelandic Government. She and France came within an ace of invading Norway but the Third Reich got their first. Iran was invaded by the UK and the USSR. The very principles on which the morality of the entire war was founded – non-aggression, national sovereignty – all these were cast aside for reasons of state. It was necessary to do this to shorten the war and thus save hundreds of thousands of lives. However, it does seriously reduce the moral purity of the Allied cause.
Perhaps not all of that was quite so blatant at the time. The UK went into this fight with decidedly less zest than she had charged into battle with in 1914. A war against a highly mechanised and martial people such as the Germans would be no cakewalk.
The UK did not win the Second World War but was fortunate enough to be on the winning side. The war was primarily won by the USSR. The US also made a major contribution through arms manufacturing, winning the Battle of the Atlantic and by bombing Germany to smithereens.
The Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany was bound to be much less effective in 1939 than it had been in 1914 for the simple reason that Germany had a great deal more friendly territory adjacent to her through which she could trade. The Reich bordered Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, the USSR, Lithuania and Latvia. In time some of these were either Axis occupied or voluntarily members of the Axis.
One may argue that this war was not fought for gain. It was fought in defence. To defend the UK from what? The Third Reich had taken no offensive action against the UK. It is true that Hitler had torn up the Treaty of Versailles but His Majesty’s Government and the French Government had acquiesced in this. No one was bothered about that any more. It was a damp squib. The Polish Government was a military dictatorship although a fairly popular one.The Polish Government was hardly innocent when it came to international law having seized Vilnius from Lithuania although Poland did have an arguable case on that one. Moreover, she had participated in the partition of Czechoslovakia – taking Teschen. This was in collusion with the Reich in 1938. The Third Reich had a strong case for annexing Danzig given that over 90% of its people were ethnic Germans and most voted for the Nazis on the explicit understanding that they wished to return to the Fatherland. This was in full accord with the principle of national self-determination.
Admittedly the Third Reich did not intend to take only those areas where Germans were the majority but to subjugate the whole of Poland. That is what she did.
The UK had no debt of honour to Poland and ought to have stayed out of it. Would Poland have come to the rescue of the United Kingdom? That is, to say the least, very doubtful.
The Third Reich staged a false flag incident on the border as a causus belli. An attack was faked against Gleiwitz radio station. The UK did not know for sure that this was a falsehood. It was reasonable to believe that it was a genuine Polish attack on Germany, admittedly a very small and very stupid one.
The ostensible motive for declaring war on the German Reich was to save Poland. Was she even saved? She lost close of half her territory to Stalin’s murderous minions. Poland was then under the thumb of Moscow – prowled by the Red Army. Admittedly the Red Army killed far fewer people in Poland after 1945 than the Wehrmacht had in the previous 6 years. It is often overlooked that there was armed resistance by the Polish Home Army against the Red Army for a couple of years after the war.
Indian nationalists had long exhorted the UK to take a firm stand against the Japanese invasion of China. When she did so many Indian separatists exploited the situation to try to advance their own political goals rather than to form a united front against fascism.
Yes, the world is a better place without the Nazi Party. Was the cost worth it? It is possible that Nazism would have wound down as Soviet Communism did. I think that it is generally worth taking a chance on peace.
No one execrates Sweden for having remained neutral in that war. She looked after herself and cannot be blamed for this.