This is a guest post by Marko
Anyone who follows the politics of the ‘anti-war’ left will long ago have learned that the Iraq War is The Most Evil Thing That Ever Happened. The Nazi Holocaust; Stalin’s terror-famine and mass purges; Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution; the Rwandan and Darfurian genocides – all are viewed as fairly minor misdemeanors in comparison to the US’s invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein without UN Security Council authorisation. Even the former Most Evil Thing That Ever Happened – the US intervention in Indochina – is now sometimes viewed in a relatively rosy light, as Lindsey Hilsum made clear when, in the pages of the New Statesman, she favourably compared Henry Kissinger’s brand of foreign policy to that of George Bush and the neocons.
Now, however, the New Statesman’s former editor, Peter Wilby, has taken the anti-war reinterpretation of history to new levels in his article, on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’, entitled ‘The last excuse for the Iraq war is founded on a myth: Seeing the Second World War as a pure struggle to defeat an evil dictator has led us into foreign policy traps ever since’. Wilby’s main argument is that Britain’s decision to go to war with Nazi Germany in 1939 should not be seen in such a positive light, because it was taken for reasons of self-interest rather than morality: ‘Britain fought Germany for the same reason it had always fought wars in Europe: to maintain the balance of power and prevent a single state dominating the continent.’
This argument is tedious even to summarise. Partly because everybody already knows that Britain went to war with Nazi Germany for reasons of self-interest; the existence of the ‘myth’ that Wilby describes is what some would call a ’straw man’. And partly because, whether you believe Britain went to war with Germany for altruistic or for selfish motives, this has absolutely no bearing on whether the war was worthy of support. Perhaps one day someone will write their PhD dissertation on the reasons why stoppers and other ‘anti-war’ types are so repetitive in making the point that Western leaders are motivated by self-interest rather than altruism. I think it has something to do with the moral legacy of Protestantism, whereby what matters is purity of inner belief rather than outwardly appearing to do good: salvation through faith alone, rather than salvation through good works.
So far, so mind-numbingly, nob-shrinkingly, bed-wettingly boring, as Rick out of the Young Ones might have said. What makes Wilby’s article stand out is his attempt to square his rejection of the case for Britain’s war against Nazi Germany with the fact of the Holocaust:
Would the Holocaust have happened if there had been no war or if the western democracies had acted against Nazi Germany earlier? We can never know – though it is likely that, if Britain had made peace in 1940 after the fall of France, the Jews would have been sent to Madagascar. What is certain is that the war prevented any concerted attempt at rescue.
Resources used to help Jews would be diverted from the war. Any mass movement of refugees ran the risk of the Germans planting agents among them. Oil supplies were too vital to Britain to risk upsetting Arabs by evacuating them to Palestine. Any of the suggested swaps – Jews for German PoWs, for example – might suggest allied weakness. Besides, why should the allies assist Hitler to rid Europe of Jewry? The best we could do, as Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, observed in 1944, was to “hope that the German government will refrain from exterminating these unfortunate people”.
Wilby appears to be saying that the outbreak of World War II ensured that nothing could be done to help Europe’s Jews; and that once the war had broken out, they would have been better off had it ended in mid-1940, as they might have got off with simply being deported by the Nazis to Madagascar. This, of course, presupposes British collaboration with the deportation, since as the dominant world naval power, Britain controlled the sea route to Madagascar. So Wilby is essentially arguing that Britain should have made peace with Nazi Germany, or avoided fighting it altogether, so as to allow the Nazis to deport Europe’s Jews to Madagascar.
Wilby does not, of course, consider just how many of the Jews would have perished on the voyage to Madagascar or after arriving there. Holocaust historian Laurence Rees writes of the Madagascar Plan in his book Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, that ‘it is important to remember that this plan, like all the other wartime solutions to the “Jewish problem”, would have meant widespread death and suffering for the Jews. A Nazi governor of Madagascar would most likely have presided over the gradual elimination of the Jews within a generation or two.’
However, Wilby’s real error is to assume that it was Britain and France that were the cause of World War II, and that Nazi Germany wanted nothing more than to live in peace with the rest of Europe. This is what left-wing ‘anti-war’ types, in fact, think: war is always the fault of the democratic West; Hitler, Stalin, Galtieri, Saddam and Milosevic wanted nothing more than to live in peace.
In reality, had Britain made peace in 1940 after the fall of France, Hitler would undoubtedly have gone on to attack the Soviet Union. And the Holocaust, it should not be forgotten, properly began with the mass slaughter of Soviet Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen. In two orders issued by the SS leadership in July 1941, the Einsatzgruppen were ordered to execute all those behind the German lines who might have organised resistance, including Communist officials and Jews, and to execute certain categories of Soviet POWs, including Jews. The executions initially targeted only adult male Jews, but from about mid-August 1941, the genocide encompassed women and children as well. Some Holocaust historians, such as Rees, have suggested that the mass murder of the Soviet Jewish women and children was motivated by the desire to free the Reich from the burden represented by a section of the population that, after the elimination of its menfolk, had no means of support of its own. Others, such as Christopher Browning, have suggested that the Nazis took increasingly murderous measures against the Jews in response to their triumphs on the Eastern Front; thus, the huge German battlefield victory over the Soviets at Kiev in September 1941 was followed by the infamous Babi Yar massacre of Kiev’s Jews.
What is certain is that the genocide of the Soviet Jews was an integral part of the Nazi war against the Soviet Union, and was linked to genocidal crimes against other sections of the population. Millions of Soviet POWs were starved to death in Nazi captivity. Millions of non-Jewish Poles, Ukrainians and others were killed by the Nazis in order to pacify the conquered territories of the Slavic east, with the ultimate aim being to clear vast areas of their inhabitants so that they might provide lebensraum for German settlers.
In other words, if the British had made their peace with the Nazis in mid-1940, it would not have meant that the Nazi genocide would not have happened, merely that it might have taken a slightly different form. In all likelihood, it would have made the eventual Nazi genocide in the East more likely to have succeeded, and on a bigger scale – involving up to tens of millions of assorted untermenschen.
I wonder just how many of these victims would have been saved by the ‘concerted programme of rescue’ that Wilby imagines might have happened had Britain not declared war on Germany ? I wonder also if today’s ‘anti-war’ types would be looking back and praising Neville Chamberlain for peacefully colluding in the Nazi genocide instead of declaring war ?
That is, in the unlikely event that freedom of speech still existed in Britain two-thirds of a century after the Nazi victory.