The Churchill Controversy

May 28, 2008

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I’m surprised at the strength of Buchanan’s criticism of Winston Churchill. While conservatives have generally been uncomfortable with total war and recognized the folly of our entry into WWI as a crusade for democracy, WWII has long been, if not sacred, at least widely recognized as a war of national self defense against a totalitarian regime that threatened the security of the world and the integrity of European civilization. Britain’s heroic participation proved necessary to prevent a Russia-dominated Europe. For most conservatives, the flaws of Roosevelt always stood out in greater relief than those of Churchill, because it was Roosevelt who failed to appreciate the similar civilizational and global threat of the ideologically motivated Soviet Union.

I have a few preliminary thoughts. First, the seeds of WWII were indeed laid in WWI, and to the extent Churchill’s nationalistic impulses got the best of him then then he (along with that entire generation of British, French, and also German and Austrian leaders) deserves some share of the blame. But there were many ways the Germans could have responded to Versailles, and Nazism was only one of them. Even if Germans had legitimate desires for the unity of German-speaking peoples in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig, it was certainly legitimate that all of the other European powers take a stand against a massive German expansion eastward to form en empire right in Europe’s backyard, particularly as that empire would be so brutal according to the dictates of Nazi ideology.

Second, any suggestion that Poland’s attempts to have good relations with Germany in the 30s and its very limited participation in annexing ethnic Polish areas of Czechoslovakia in the Munich settlement was the equivalent of the Hitler-Stalin pact is rubbish. Though a military regime, Poland was hardly Hitler’s Germany. For starters, its ethnic minorities were comparatively safe and its ambitions were very limited. The area annexed by Poland under the Munich agreement was a mere 900 square km and was almost entirely Polish. More important, a small and weak nation like Poland must by necessity adhere to one of the great powers that it lies between. Poland under Pilsudski leaned towards Germany (contra the advice of Roman Dmowski), but Poland balked at the demand to give up historical Polish areas stretching back to the 9th Century, just as it balked at participating in any attack or provocation of Russia. Its memories of the war against the Bolsheviks was fresh, and its desire for peace pronounced.

Three, Britain must by necessity be concerned with balance of power politics more than the United States. It is adjacent to Europe. What happens in any part of Europe is its natural concern, just as what happens in the Western Hemisphere is America’s natural concern. It may have been foolish to extend a security guarantee to Poland, but Britain and Churhcill’s concern for traditional Metternichian balance of power politics is wholly legitimate. This has little to do with Churchill’s personality, and the identification of Britain’s role in WWII with Churchill’s personality seems to confuse that era with our own. The war in Iraq was a war promoted by the administration to generate support for what was widely regarded as an unusual “war of choice.”

WWII was more or less inevitable because of the imperial designs of Germany coupled with the peopling of Eastern Europe from the Elbe to the Volga with German settlements. Nazi ideology demanded that Germany proper be reunited with the rest of her people. Hitler’s romantic view of German “destiny” also made Germany pursue a worldwide empire of resources, even though brains and industrial skill were the ascendant economic commodities of global power. In response, Britain and France played a traditional role; Churchill’s rhetoric did not propel Britain in a direction that long habit and realist concerns for order and balance of power would have in any event. While I am not a so-called historical determinist, I do not believe individual actors and personalities should be given excessive blame for their participation in a role which someone else would have had to play, and likely would have played, though without the same panache and inspiring rhetoric as Churchill.

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