How Wrong Was Churchill?

Churchill: Strategy and History

by Tuvia Ben-Moshe
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 397 pp., $45.00

Bound in Duty: The Memoirs of a German Officer, 1932-45

by Alexander Stahlberg, translated by Patricia Campbell
Brassey's, 410 pp., £17.95

The New Year had scarcely dawned in London when the Times1 carried a review of a book identifying a new culprit responsible for Britain’s decline. It was Winston Churchill’s fault. The reviewer was Alan Clark, a former junior minister of defense, who resigned when Margaret Thatcher was deposed, and who in appearance is a brutalized version of his famous father, Kenneth Clark.2

Churchill, he says, had forgotten that the Conservative Party exists to conserve, and the conservation of the British Empire should have been his first priority. Obsessed by his hatred of Hitler, he refused to hear what Hess had to say when Hess flew to Scotland in 1941. He should have made a “stand-off agreement” with Hitler in the spring of 1941, insisting on a demilitarized Norway and a demilitarized coastline from Holland to Spain. Then he could have sent the Fleet and the Spitfires to the Far East to preserve the Empire and forestall Pearl Harbor. Churchill did not do so because he wanted Japan to attack America. So he licked Roosevelt’s boots, and the war ended with Britain destitute, a client state, and its colonies ripe for revolt.

This twaddle has been evoked by a book of revisionist history written by John Charmley, who by a stroke of irony is this year a visiting professor at Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill had made his speech in 1946 warning that an “iron curtain” was falling in Europe.3 Aged thirty-seven, Charmley prides himself on not carrying the cultural baggage that impedes those who lived during the war. (He considers them therefore debarred from criticizing him.) Britain, he implies, should have cultivated Goering and persuaded him to get Hitler to stand down. That Goering was every inch a Nazi but had little influence with Hitler; that to abandon Europe to the Nazis would have been to install brutality and tyranny in every country; that a negotiated peace would have lasted only for as long as Hitler considered necessary, none of this troubles Charmley a whit.

Clark and Charmley remind one of clever schoolboys who have discovered what fun it is to shock their teachers by praising Realpolitik. Neither seems to realize that for the British people the war had a moral dimension without which they would never have accepted the need to fight. Churchill’s crucial political strategic decisions cannot be faulted. German hegemony over Europe had to be opposed; whatever its ideology and past behavior, the USSR had to be accepted as an ally because its army alone could wound, and perhaps destroy, the German army; and the Anglo-American alliance was Britain’s best hope of preserving Western civilization.

Serious revisionist history about the Second World War, however, continues to be written and it is a relief to turn to the work of an Israeli historian, Tuvia Ben-Moshe, who is a stern critic of Churchill’s military strategy.

Churchill was not a warmonger but he came after 1937 to believe war was inevitable. For him it also fulfilled a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.