Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a five part series that takes a closer look at Patrick J. Buchanan's Churchill, Hitler, and the "Unnecessary War" released in May of 2008. Further analysis of Buchanan's book can be found here.
Military historian John Keegan once said that historians "are committed to controversy as a way of life." Patrick J. Buchanan, the man who referred to the 1992 Democratic National Convention as the "greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history," is certainly no stranger to controversy. And with his most recent foray into historical interpretation, Churchill, Hitler, and the "Unnecessary War", he has certainly lived up to his reputation.
Unfortunately, Buchanan's political agenda gets in the way of providing an accurate portrayal and analysis of historical events. As part of his efforts to criticize the Bush Administration and Iraq war supporters who liken Bush's conduct to Winston Churchill, Buchanan hastily assembled this book to "prove" that Churchill was overrated, Hitler was not a significant threat to Britain or the United States, and that World War II itself was unnecessary. While taking a different angle on firmly held beliefs concerning historical events can be a useful contribution, Buchanan's methods in this book do a disservice to those who seek to understand the first half of the 20th Century. His research is riddled with errors, omissions, faulty analysis, and conflicting arguments. He uses a hacksaw on history to sway readers from firmly held beliefs. The result is a thinly veiled propaganda piece disguised as legitimate history.
Buchanan blames Churchill and British politicians for World War I
Buchanan begins his efforts to discredit Churchill with an overview of events leading up to the First World War. While mainstream historical analysts tend to view Germany as one of the prime belligerents, Buchanan's Germany is portrayed as a pacifist nation that simply wanted a navy of their own, but was confronted and thwarted every step of the way by conniving British politicians.
In pushing his view, Buchanan uses several tactics that he continues to use throughout the book. First, he glosses over inconvenient facts by simply disposing of them without elaboration. For example, despite significant evidence that Great Britain pursued an alliance with Germany, Buchanan washes over this fact by stating the "Kaiser let the opportunity slip." Buchanan gives the impression that Britain made one half-hearted attempt to form an alliance. In reality, this "slipped opportunity" lasted for four years (1898-1901) with various British diplomats pursuing Germany for an alliance through private and public channels. In each instance, Germany refused, not Great Britain.
Buchanan's next tactic is to jumble the timeline. Again, in regards to Germany's diplomatic efforts to ally with Great Britain, Buchanan quotes the Kaiser Wilhelm II saying, "We ought to form an Anglo-Germanic alliance, you to keep the seas, while we would be responsible for the land." But Buchanan gives no date for the Kaiser's statement. Doing so leaves the reader to assume that the statement was made after the "Kaiser let the opportunity slip," when it was actually made during 1901 when Great Britain was still actively seeking an alliance with Germany to no avail. Ignoring the timeline and ignoring inconvenient facts become standard tactics throughout Buchanan's book.
Next, Buchanan glosses over the 1905 and 1911 Moroccan crises -- international incidents caused by Germany -- by mentioning them only by date. He also completely omits the 1908 crisis when the Austrian-Hungary Empire, with the backing of Germany, threatened Russia with war unless they recognized their recent annexation from the Balkans. By giving no details on these and the other crises leading up to the First World War, the reader is left with the impression that Germany didn't drive a wedge between herself and other European countries. Instead, Buchanan pushes the theory that British and French diplomats were making backroom deals against a misunderstood, pacifist Germany that only wanted to build a fleet to protect its colonies.
Buchanan continues to defend the Kaiser by correctly quoting Churchill reflecting after the war that "history should incline to move to the more charitable view and acquit William II of having planned and plotted the World War." Here is where Buchanan is masterful in his manipulation. He focuses dozens of pages on vindicating the Kaiser and quotes Churchill as though he is in complete agreement. Yet, Churchill's statement was meant for the Kaiser alone. When Churchill reflected on Germany's years of spurning an alliance with Britain along with the crises of 1905, 1908, and 1911, he proclaimed:
Ah! foolish-diligent Germans, working so hard, thinking so deeply, marching and counter-marching on the parade grounds of the Fatherland, pouring over long calculations, fuming in new-found prosperity, discontented amid splendour of mundane success, how many bulwarks to your peace and glory did you not, with your own hands, successively tear down!
To comprehend what would cause Churchill to publish such a drastic statement, consider this: In 1887, the only country hostile toward Germany was France. Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria were all friendly toward Germany. In 1890, the Kaiser renounced Germany's treaty with Russia. Russia then allied with France in 1894. By 1914, after years of spurning alliances offered by Britain and causing tensions with other European countries, the only reliable ally Germany had left was Austria-Hungary.
After clearing the Kaiser of wrongdoing, Buchanan identifies Churchill as the main culprit that led Great Britain into the First World War. When Churchill took over the Royal Navy in 1911, he immediately began increasing the production of ships to stay ahead of Germany's increased production. Buchanan focuses on Germany's right to build a navy and makes no mention of Churchill's three attempts to implement a naval holiday in which both Britain and Germany would stop ship production entirely. The Kaiser rejected the proposals outright believing the whole thing was a political stunt.
But if there was ever any doubt in Churchill's sincerity to halting the naval arms race, one should look at Churchill's desire to personally meet with Admiral von Tirpitz, the head of the German Navy. On May 20, 1914, Churchill asked permission from his Prime Minister to attend Kiel Week, an annual sailing event in Germany. He believed if he could meet with von Tirpitz, that "a non-committal, friendly conversation, if it arose naturally and freely, might do good, and could not possibly do any harm." Churchill wanted to discuss a reduction in the number of ships being built or at least a reduction of their size. He also wanted to discuss ending all secrecy concerning ship building. He believed that such an effort would "go a long way to stopping the espionage on both sides which is a continued cause of suspicion and ill feeling."Letter sent to Prime Minister Asquith and Sir Edward Grey from Winston Churchill on May 20, 1914.
Churchill did not get approval to meet with von Tirpitz, but he was able to send part or his fleet to Kiel Week. When Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, officers of the Royal Navy could be found side-by-side with officers of the German Navy. These men who would be at war with each other for the next four years were for involved in an experience where there "were races, there were banquets, there were speeches." These men partied together and even attended the funeral of a German officer who had been killed while flying a British seaplane.
Buchanan leaves out any reference to Churchill's attempts to ease tension between the British and German navies. This is likely because it would be tough to depict Churchill as a warmonger when he worked to halt the naval arms race. These were not the actions of man itching to go to war with Germany.
Buchanan sees Belgium's neutrality as an excuse
Buchanan wants us to believe that Churchill was "lusting" for war and he used the neutrality of Belgium as an excuse to join the fight. When Ferdinand was assassinated, Churchill and the British Cabinet continued dealing with domestic issues. Even on July 24, nearly a month after the assassination, when Churchill learned that Austria delivered its ultimatum to Serbia, Churchill did not foresee Britain's role being elevated to more than that of a spectator. On the night of July 24, Churchill was asked by a confidant of the Kaiser what Britain would do in the event that Austria and Germany went to war with Russia and France. Churchill said he could not say for sure, but that Germany should not assume that Britain would stand by on the sidelines. Then Churchill "implored him, almost in tears, not to go to war." On July 31, Churchill wrote his wife saying "There is still hope," but he cautioned his optimism with "although clouds are blacker & blacker. Germany is realising I think how great are the forces against her & is trying tardily to restrain her idiot ally. We are working to soothe Russia." Finally, when Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, Churchill believed with certainty that Germany was going to attack France and violate Belgium neutrality.
By ignoring Churchill's attitude and actions for more than a month after Ferdinand's assassination, Buchanan depicts Churchill as a man who only wanted war. Buchanan states that Churchill cared little for the Belgians and quotes a historian concerning Churchill's disgust over how King Leopold II raped the Congo, but he leaves out the fact that Leopold II was no longer king. Buchanan even downplays the 1839 treaty in which Britain and other countries guaranteed Belgium's neutrality. He refers to it as the "seventy-five-year-old treaty" and points out that it did not require the guarantors to fight if Belgium offered no resistance, thus giving the impression that the treaty was too old to hold any value and Belgium was going to roll over. However, the neutrality of Belgium was not a last-minute excuse to join in the fight, Belgium gave every indication they would resist anyone who violated their independence, and Britain had told Germany and France on numerous occasions that Belgium's independence was a war that Britain would fight. The neutrality of Belgium was more than a last-minute reason for Britain to join the war; it was a policy that had been observed and guaranteed by Britain, France, Russia, and Germany for 75 years.
Buchanan portrays Churchill as "geared up & happy"
Throughout these pre-World War I chapters, Buchanan quotes bits and pieces of statements and private letters from Churchill as he prepared the Royal Navy, attempting to portray him as a warmonger. For example, he provides a portion of a letter that Churchill sent to his wife saying, "I am interested, geared up & happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?" The more complete context of the quote is,
I am interested, geared up & happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity. Yet I would do my best for peace, & nothing would induce me wrongfully to strike the blow. I cannot feel that we in this island are in any serious degree responsible for the wave of madness which has swept the mind of Christendom. No one can measure the consequences. I wondered whether those stupid Kings & Emperors could not assemble together & revivify kingship by saving the nations from hell but we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance. As if it was somebody else's operation!
Buchanan says Churchill "looked forward with anticipation" to the war, yet on July 31, Churchill wrote his wife again saying that he believed "there is still hope." When Germany's invasion of Belgium became inevitable, so did Churchill's belief that Britain would join the war. Churchill made preparations for the event, but he did not want it and certainly did not "lust" for it.
Buchanan incorrectly blames Churchill for starving Germany
After laying the blame of the First World War at the feet of Churchill, Buchanan jumps to its aftermath. Convincing the reader that the Treaty of Versailles paved the way for the rise of Hitler is a simple task. I have yet to read a historian that argues to the contrary. This was a treaty designed to keep Germany weak and dependent on other countries so as to prevent her from becoming a great power ever again. However, Buchanan leaves out the severity of Germany's treaties imposed on France in 1871 and on Russia in 1917. This is by no means a case for two wrongs (or three) making a right, but for the historical record, it should be noted that the politicians at Versailles had Germany as an example to follow when finalizing the terms imposed on a defeated foe.
One man who thought the approach at Versailles was wrong from the beginning was Winston Churchill. Buchanan leaves out any mention of Churchill's stance during 1918 and 1919 that there should be moderation when composing peace terms with Germany in hopes of not driving the government into an extreme position. Instead, Buchanan quotes Churchill in 1945 as though he finally came to the realization that the treaty "gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer onto the vacant thrones." Buchanan is again masterful by quoting Churchill reflecting 26 years later with the same view he held at the time of the events.
In a previous article, I detailed how Buchanan misquoted Churchill's speech on March 3, 1919 to give the impression that he was celebrating the starvation of Germans due to the blockade imposed by the Allies. In reality, he was calling for an end to the blockade. Buchanan goes to the extreme of displaying a map of Germany that plots all the food riots and labeling it "Churchill's Starvation Blockade." Buchanan neglects to mention that Churchill's involvement with the Blockade of Germany ended in May of 1915 when he resigned from the Royal Navy. Churchill was not involved in the blockade of Germany for the final four years of its existence.
So far, I've shown how Buchanan utilizes the art of selective quoting and ignoring events to give a different spin on history. The next article in the series will show how Buchanan uses the same tactics to portray Churchill as weak during Hitler's rise to power.
Buchanan, Patrick J. "PJB: 1992 Republican National Convention Speech." Patrick J. Buchanan - Right From the Beginning. http://buchanan.org/blog/1992/08/1992-republican-national-convention-speech (accessed January 2, 2009).
Churchill, Randolph S. Winston S. Churchill Volume II Companion Part 3, 1911-1914. London: Heineman, 1969.
Churchill, Winston S. The World Crisis, vol. 1: 1911-1914. London: The Folio Society, 2007.
Gilbert, Martin. The Challenge of War: Winston S. Churchill, 1914-1916. London: Minerva, 1990a.
Gilbert, Martin. World in Torment: Winston S. Churchill, 1917-1922. London: Minerva, 1990b.
Manning, Scott. "Belgium's Neutrality was More than a 'Scrap of Paper.'" Digital Survivors. http://www.digitalsurvivors.com/archives/belgiumsneutrality.php (accessed April 8, 2009).
Manning, Scott. "Buchanan is Wrong. Churchill had No 'Starvation Blockade.'" Digital Survivors. http://www.digitalsurvivors.com/archives/churchillblockade-buchanan.php (accessed February 24, 2009).
The Times, "Secret Papers of Tirpitz V - Mr. Churchill," October 29, 1924.