WASHINGTON — Sept. 1 was the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s blitzkrieg into Poland and the beginning of World War II. Fifty million people died. Western Europe was devastated. Eastern Europe was more thoroughly devastated and subjected to communist tyranny that for decades seemed invincible and a threat to the Free World, which remained armed and vigilant. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt emerged from that war as legendary heroes who saved our civilization. Almost immediately, there were skeptics. Some claimed that both were responsible for the war. Some claimed that Roosevelt provoked the Pearl Harbor attack and failed to notify our doomed soldiers and sailors. These skeptics were, of course, cranks.
Yet now there is another generation of skeptics sounding off, and one might well wonder whether they, too, are cranks. Or have these skeptics developed evidence against Churchill and Roosevelt that was heretofore unknown?
On Sept. 1, the distinguished debating organization Intelligence Squared teamed up with the London Evening Standard to afford America’s most famous Churchill critic, Pat Buchanan, the opportunity to argue that Churchill was “more of a liability than an asset to the free world.” Actually, if I have read Buchanan accurately, he holds Churchill responsible for the war. As he writes on his Web site, “Hitler wanted to end the war in 1940.” Churchill and Roosevelt’s policy of unconditional surrender caused it to drag on to May 1945. They also are responsible, if I read Buchanan accurately, for the Holocaust. As Buchanan said the night of the debate, “No war, no Holocaust.” On his Web site, he claims that Hitler wanted to end the war “almost two years before the trains began to roll to the camps.”
At the debate, which took place in London, Buchanan faced a formidable team of historians — Antony Beevor, Richard Overy and Andrew Roberts — all widely published experts on, among other matters, World War II. On his side, Buchanan had distinguished scholars, also — Norman Stone and Nigel Knight — neither of whom seemed completely in sync with Buchanan. They were critical of Churchill for other issues. I was not at the debate, but my agents were, and when Buchanan said that the killing of the Jews did not begin until January 1942, I would like to have seen the looks on his teammates’ faces. Even better, I would like to have seen the look on Buchanan’s face a few minutes later, after Roberts enunciated the places where the Nazis killed more than 1.5 million Jews before the first month of 1942. Really, Pat, “no war, no Holocaust”?
Buchanan’s point seems to be that Hitler had limited geopolitical aims and that the excitable Churchill overreacted. Buchanan doubts that Hitler “was out to conquer the world,” because Hitler did not build a military with the strategic reach to conquer the world. What is more, he let the British army evacuate from Dunkirk, France, and he built a defensive line between Germany and France, the Siegfried line. That Hitler was a racist lunatic and military incompetent escapes Buchanan’s notice.
So does the word “Lebensraum” escape Buchanan’s notice. Lebensraum was the Nazi name for Germany’s policy of aggression. Developed when Hitler was in Landsberg Prison in 1924 — counseling with such theorists of Lebensraum as professor Karl Haushofer — Hitler explained the whole rapacious policy in “Mein Kampf.” If the Lebensraum policy of conquering other lands for the security and economic well-being of the Nazi state was not “world conquest,” as Buchanan puts it, it was a sufficient threat to the Western democratic order for Western alarm. It is easy to be nonchalant about old Adolf today. But back in the 1930s, thugs such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were frisky, and I think we all should be grateful that Churchill sounded the alarm — and Roosevelt, too.
I can understand what motivated the early critics of Churchill and Roosevelt. I have read enough of their criticism to mark them down as simply perverse and in some cases very stupid. But what motivates Buchanan and our contemporary critics?
Consider boredom. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that boredom is one of the most underestimated motives behind human action. It has been behind reform movements that spring up almost unbidden. It has been behind great debates, for instance, this one over Churchill’s value to the Free World. Very few people are fetched in the least by Buchanan’s argument. In an audience of some 1,800 people, only 181 agreed with Buchanan, but Pat can be very entertaining. He amuses others, and he amuses himself. He knows how to beat boredom. Apparently, C-SPAN agrees. Before the month is out, I am told, the network will air this entire debate. Watch for it, particularly if you are bored.