PETER HITCHENS: If we hadn't fought World War 2, would we still have a British Empire?
31 August 2009
Stop the film. We've seen it so many times before: the toothy, simpering features of Neville Chamberlain and his bit of paper, an unbalanced Hitler waving his arms about and shouting, the German troops pouring across the Polish border, columns of smoke over Warsaw, more columns of smoke over Dunkirk, German troops marching through Paris, the Battle of Britain, flames across London, a dogged Churchill poking through the ruins, El Alamein, the turning point, our 'Finest Hour', Spitfires soaring over Kent. And so on, until triumphant victory six years and tens of thousands of lives later.
The story is all wrong. If it were as good and as right as that, and if we won it, how come we look back on the Second World War from conditions we might normally associate with defeat and occupation?
We are a second-rate power, rapidly slipping into third-rate status. We have a weak currency and shrunken armed forces, deployed as auxiliaries in wars that are not in our interest, and we are largely governed from abroad.
Our Parliament is a bought and paid-for puppet chamber. Our culture and customs have been debauched and our younger generations corrupted, as subject populations are, with drink, drugs and promiscuity.
We are compelled, like an occupied people, to use foreign measures to buy butter or meat, and our history is largely forgotten or deliberately distorted in the schools to suit anti-British dogma. Those schools are unable to educate most of our children up to the levels of our main rivals, so ensuring that we provide no challenge to them. Our country has been Balkanised into provinces and regions.
Our language is invaded by foreign words and expressions. Our food and most of our consumer goods are imported, along with our TV programmes and films.
The remaining veterans of the supposedly glorious struggle, far from being gratefully honoured, often live in pinched poverty, scared of feral youths, or die neglected in squalid hospitals in a country many of them no longer recognise as their own.
Yet 70 years ago, as the Germans moved to their start-lines on the Polish border, we were the world's greatest empire. Half the globe used our currency, we controlled vast resources and owned enormous foreign investments. We fed ourselves, dug our own coal, made our own steel, controlled our own fisheries and built our own ships, trains, cars and aircraft.
We possessed an enormous Navy, a modern Air Force and, at the same time, the most advanced welfare state in the world. We were competently administered by a small but efficient civil service. Parliament was a genuine national chamber and the Monarch a truly revered head of state. We were modestly but fiercely proud of our traditions, history and literature.
Our only rival for global power was a jealous America, to whose lofty attacks on our Empire we justly responded by pointing at their cruel segregation across the South.
We had then, as we have now, no substantial interests in Poland, the Czech lands, the Balkans or - come to that - France, Belgium or the Netherlands. Much of the Continent, not just Germany and Italy, lay under the rule of various kinds of despot or dictator, none worse than the unhinged and heavily armed regime of Josef Stalin in Moscow, with his empire of torture chambers and concentration camps. In Spain, a savage military had just defeated an equally intolerant and merciless Communist-backed coalition.
Many of us might have regretted these sad conditions, but we did not really think it was any of our concern how they ran their affairs.
What is more, we had been badly burned the last time we had involved ourselves in a Continental quarrel.
We had gained little and lost much to defend France, our historic enemy, against Germany. In a strange paradox, we had gone to war mainly to save our naval supremacy from a German threat - and ended it by conceding that supremacy to the United States, our ally.
Most of us were far from enthusiastic about the Versailles Treaty, which was the main reason for the new threat of war, and felt Germany had been treated with needless and counterproductive harshness.
We had stayed out of the two great and decisive conflicts of the late 19th Century: the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, and come to no harm as a result.
Rewind the film a little. Imagine we had been hard realists instead of sentimental romantics. If we had found a way, as we so very nearly did, to divide Hitler and Mussolini, so avoiding a threat to our Mediterranean sea-routes and bases. Imagine that we had chosen splendid isolation instead of active intervention over the quarrels of Eastern and Central Europe. It is not as if we saved the Czechs or the Poles from their various enemies by getting involved. And if we were really trying to save the borders of the Versailles Treaty, we made a pretty poor job of it.
Now the great floods of war and cold war have receded, what do we see?
Under the 1985 Schengen Treaty, the borders of continental Europe have ceased to exist, from Calais all the way to Bucharest. Schengen has cancelled Versailles after all, and a giant reunited Germany dominates Europe all the way from Londonderry to the Balkans. Beyond the German sphere of influence, an authoritarian Russia takes over. What was it we went to war for again, exactly?
If we had stayed out, think what might - and might not - have happened. Would France have risked war with Hitler if we had sat on our hands? In that case would there ever have been a war in Western Europe at all?
Might Poland have handed over Danzig and its corridor? Would Germany then have been interested in a pact with Stalin? Or would Stalin - whose aggression against Finland is now forgotten - have started a war with Germany years earlier, perhaps beginning by invading Finland and then by seizing the Baltic republics?
However such a war ended, we would have been untainted by support for either side, and strong enough to maintain our independence in whatever sort of Europe resulted.
What about the Holocaust? There seems to be a common belief that we went to war to save the Jews of Europe. This is not true. We went to war to save Poland, and then didn't do so. After Dunkirk, we lost control of the war, ceding it first to the USSR and then to America, and had little say in its eventual aims.
When, in 1942, the Germans began their 'Final Solution', reliable reports of the outrage were disbelieved or sat on. Later, when the information was beyond doubt, we turned down the opportunity to bomb the railway lines that led to Auschwitz. It is certainly hard to argue that the fate of Europe's Jews would or could have been any worse than it was if we had stayed out of the war.
So the ripples spread. No Blitzkrieg, no occupation of France or the Low Countries, no war in North Africa. But quite possibly a long war between the two worst tyrants in the world, far away from us, and giving us the chance to strengthen and modernise our armed forces in case it spread.
No desperate expenditure of our last remaining resources to pay for war, no handover of British gold reserves to the United States, no Lend Lease, and no irresistible US pressure to pay for it by handing over bases to the US Navy, or abandoning our empire.
And then no war with Japan either, since the three European powers in Asia - Britain, France and the Netherlands - would all have been in a position to defend themselves - as they were not in 1941, being either conquered or busy elsewhere. Japan might have concentrated on fighting Russia - taking advantage of Stalin's war with Hitler - and maintained its forces in China, possibly preventing the rise to power of Mao and the communists.
Britain's greatest military defeat in modern history - at Singapore in 1942 - would never have taken place.
Probably there would have been no Pearl Harbour either, and America, like us, would have remained above the battle. In which case it would never have built the huge armies and air forces it created after 1941, the foundation of the modern US economy. The atom bomb might well have not yet been invented.
In that case, too, the independence movements of India and Burma, both hugely strengthened by our defeat at Singapore, would have been far less ambitious and would have settled for much less. Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian pro-independence leader who won the support of Japan, would have been eclipsed by Gandhi and Nehru, who sought dominion status rather than full independence.
In that case, no partition of India, no Pakistan. And that would mean no scuttle from Palestine, no state of Israel, a Middle East quite different from what we see now. The Suez episode would never have happened.
South Africa might have stayed under the dominance of General Smuts and his United Party, so no Apartheid, which was the creation of the anti-British Nationalists. The rest of Africa, unswept by 'winds of change' would probably have remained under largely European rule. No Robert Mugabe. No Idi Amin. No Bokassa.
At home, our cities would have been unbombed and undamaged, depriving greedy developers of the excuse to destroy them completely. Our welfare state and public health services, already extensive but not centralised, would have continued to grow. Nationalisation, already applied to electricity supply and the national airline, would still almost certainly have extended to the coal industry and the railways, but not much further.
Imagine: no European Union, probably no Nato, no United Nations, no courts of Human Rights, no Starbucks, no McDonald's, no kilograms, no mass migration, no terrorism. Who knows? Certainly no 'Special Relationship'. One great change of direction can have so many effects, a fair number of them completely unpredictable.
The great undercurrent of conflict throughout the 20th Century was between Britain and the United States, with America determined to break into Britain's protected markets, push Britain out of the Pacific and supplant British naval power with its own.
Perhaps by now the great Anglo-American war, so many times predicted and so many times averted since the uneasy peace signed between the two countries in Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814, might actually have broken out. More likely, the two nations, too closely related to want war, would have reached a settlement, but one far more advantageous to Britain than the current arrangements.
Perhaps it is because of Iraq and Afghanistan, but many of us are learning to separate our respect for the valour and stoicism of our armed forces from admiration for the politicians who so grievously mislead them.
The great cult of Churchill-worship, with which I and millions of others grew up, has been most gravely damaged by the tawdry attempts of George W. Bush and Anthony Blair to dress their wars in Churchillian clothing. Of course, they look ridiculous, like children who have raided a dressing-up box.
But they have also made me - and I suspect millions more - wonder if the 'Good War' was really as good as we have long believed.
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