Taking Christopher Hitchens apart over Churchill
I still don't know why so many conservatives are going ga-ga these days over Hitchens - frankly I don't trust his conversion to reason one bit.
by Andy Roberts
Volume 14 Issue 1 Spring 2002
I’m surprised that The Atlantic Monthly should have published an article so studded with factual inaccuracies. For example:
1 Norman Shelley did not broadcast Churchill’s speeches. The BBC have gone into this in tremendous detail and have discovered that the original recordings were mis-labelled. (See BBC History Magazine for the full story.)
2 The idea that Churchill was a hopeless alcoholic, ‘incapacitated by drink’, is quite wrong. As he put it himself, alcohol was his servant not his master. We know precisely how much was consumed at Chequers and once it is divided by the large numbers of guests he invited it is not excessive. Furthermore, his private secretaries all attest that he greatly watered down his whiskies and brandies.
3 The point that the Germans did not have detailed plans for the invasion of Britain in no way lessens the heroism of the British Empire’s decision to fight on, because we did not know that no such plans existed. And plans were being drawn up feverishly by the German High Command between May and September 1940.
4 The RAF was not the first air force to bomb a capital city. Warsaw, the capital of our ally Poland, was repeatedly bombed by the Luftwaffe in September and October 1939. Other cities in the West such as Rotterdam also suffered severe bombing before the RAF attacked Berlin.
5 Far from exhibiting ‘ruling-class thuggery against the labour movement’, Churchill’s actions at Tonypandy were non-violent (though not reported as such) and during the General Strike he pressed for a fair deal from the mine-owners, but was overruled. Martin Gilbert – which Hitchens acknowledges as ‘the Ur-text’ of Churchillian studies – goes into this in some detail.
6 Far from being ‘vulgar and alarmist’, Churchill’s ‘constant drumming on the subject’ of rearmament was desperately needed and came almost too late. How can one be too ‘alarmist’ about such a phenomenon as the rise of Hitler?
7 Far from it being ‘easy to imagine’ the RAF taking part in Hitler’s invasion of Russia, it is in fact completely impossible to imagine any such thing. If the British Government were unwilling to risk losing six squadrons in the Battle of France in 1940, they would hardly have committed anything to aid Hitler in dominating the entire European land.
8 To state that Churchill’s ‘pure ambition’ actuated his opposition to German expansionism in the Thirties is to ignore the great mass of his writing - his books, journalism and speeches - in support of the concept of European Balance of Power over forty years. (See, for example, Marlborough and The World Crisis.)
9 Churchill did not turn his back on the Duke of Windsor ‘only a short while’ after the Abdication, but a full four years later when the Duke and Duchess’s outrageous behaviour after the Fall of France forced him to reprimand them severely.
10 It is completely wrong to say that ‘more than once Churchill favoured limited negotiations with Hitler’ as any careful reading of his actual words in context will show. (See chapters 21-23 of my biography of Lord Halifax, The Holy Fox.)
11 The fact that Churchill ordered the Channel Islands to be evacuated has no bearing on anything, except that a single glance at the map will show that they could not be defended.
12 India might have been a more ‘faraway country’ than Czechoslovakia, but Britain had the most intimate ties of imperial responsibility for India, whereas she had no treaty obligations to Czechoslovakia.
13 Britain did not ‘mortgage’ the Caribbean islands to America; she granted 99 year leases on some bases there. This in turn freed up Royal Naval vessels for service in the North Sea.
14 Why should it be ‘unbelievable’ that Britain expected a Nazi invasion via Ireland? In the past Ireland had been considered by James II, Napoleon and Wilhelm II as the ideal route via which to attack Britain.
15 If Mr Hitchens thinks that Churchill’s Oran oration to the House of Commons ‘is one speech that has not come down to us by way of the Churchill school of historians’, he ought to read Martin Gilbert’s ‘Finest Hour’ p.641. (Back to the Ur-text.)
16 Churchill was not to know that Vichy, whose precise relationship with Nazi Germany had not yet been established, would not hand over her fleet. Mr Hitchens might be willing in 2002 to believe in the French assurances, but he was not responsible for Britain’s safety in 1940.
17 When he says that Churchill chroniclers prefer to ‘skate over’ the Oran incident, ‘or, where possible, elide it altogether’, Mr Hitchens is simply talking rubbish. The episode is gone into by Martin Gilbert (in no fewer than 27 pages), Roy Jenkins, Geoffrey Best, Norman Rose, A.L. Rowse, myself and of course Churchill himself in volume two of his memoirs, as well as many other biographers.
18 The accusation that Churchill was responsible for sinking the Lusitania is pure tripe, and I’m surprised that someone not known for his belief in absurd conspiracy theories would entertain it.
19 Ditto the idea that Churchill had prior knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbour but failed to warn Roosevelt. It is true that Britain had broken the Japanese naval codes, but the crucial fact is that the Japanese fleet maintained radio silence throughout the journey to within 200 miles of Pearl Harbour.
20 Far from his retirement being ‘a protracted, distended humiliation of celebrity-seeking and gross overindulgence’ Churchill published his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which were acclaimed by academic historians and are still a publishing phenomenon forty years later. After the Second World War, Winston Churchill had little reason to ‘seek’ celebrity!
21 Far from weakening Hitler, the appeasers’ attempts at ‘a compromise or holding operation’ greatly strengthened his regime. The only time conspirators came close to deposing him was in the days just before before Munich; after the West appeased him there he was safe.
22 Although the Final Solution itself did not begin until war was declared, Hitler made his ‘extermination’ speech in January 1939, by which time the fate of the German Jews was sealed. Dachau had been in existence since 1933. The only sure way of saving European Jewry was to eliminate Nazism from the planet as soon as possible, which was Churchill’s policy and too few others’.
23 The Tory majority did not want to save the Empire by ‘becoming dependent upon the Nazi’s goodwill or pleasure’ because if they had they would not have voted for the guarantee to Poland in April 1939, which would precipitate a war for reasons entirely unconnected with any threat to the Empire. Laying that European tripwire for Hitler proves that Imperial considerations could not have been uppermost in Tory minds.
These twenty-three substantial errors – quite apart from Mr Hitchens’ bileful rhetorical devices and ‘straw dog’ arguments – serve to destroy his central thesis. Contrary to your front page headline, Churchill’s reputation suffers no fall.