September 1 marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The day was marked with solemn remembrances from governments and survivors. They recalled the unprovoked German invasion of Poland that led to Britain and France honoring their defense guarantees, which plunged the planet into its second great conflict in as many generations.
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan acknowledged the day a little differently.
“Pitchfork Pat” wrote a column in which he reiterated his long-held contention that Adolf Hitler did not want to start a general war, that he was only trying to unite the German-speaking peoples of Europe, and that he was generally misunderstood in his intentions toward France and Great Britain.
He has also insisted over the years that we’re missing something about the Holocaust. What we’re missing is that the whole thing was just a big mistake. The Nazis didn’t mean to kill millions of Jews; it just kinda happened accidental-like:
The Holocaust was not a cause of the war, but a consequence of the war. No war, no Holocaust.
And then there’s this monumental dishonesty about the Final Solution:
Not until midwinter 1942 was the Wannsee Conference held, where the Final Solution was on the table. That conference was not convened until Hitler had been halted in Russia, was at war with America and sensed doom was inevitable. Then the trains began to roll.
What Buchanan fails to mention — or more likely is just plain ignorant of — was that the SS was already all over Poland and eastern Russia by the fall of 1941, with death squads (the dreaded Einsatzgruppen) who were conducting mass executions of Jews. They had even been inventing a special truck that would direct the exhaust into the rear of the vehicle that the SS would stuff to overflowing with Jews. The means of genocide had not been perfected yet, as it took too long for the victims to die and it wasted precious fuel in the process. The poison Zyklon B, which was used to gas death camp inmates, was a few years down the road from being suggested.
The simple point: the Holocaust may not have been a “cause” of World War II, but Hitler’s obsession with Lebensraum was. His plans were to enslave the Slavs and murder the Jews. This was proven at Nuremberg as the “big fish” Nazis were convicted of coldly planning “aggressive war” against humanity in the 1930s.
What was the proof? Millions of documents were found after the war in salt mines, caves, and other hidden enclaves that contained the whole shocking story. Nazi party archives, Wehrmacht files, personal papers of Hitler subordinates — an unprecedented event in world history (and a godsend for historians) where the secret deliberations of a government’s workings were known in a near contemporaneous time frame. Nothing like it happened again until the archives were thrown open when the Soviet Union collapsed. And nowhere near the access was granted when that occurred.
Pat Buchanan’s faulty, ludicrous notions of the history of that time are bad enough. But it is his curious, depressing revisionism of Adolf Hitler’s motives for starting the conflict that make him stand out from other revisionists, some of whom have added substantially to the debate over the origins of World War II. There have been thoughtful reassessments of the role the British played in the tangle of European politics prior to World War I that have enriched our understanding of the century’s two great convulsions. But Buchanan’s analysis of British motivations and especially Winston Churchill’s role in history have not added much value to the discussion.
Buchanan’s anniversary piece is chock full of rhetorical questions, many of which he tried to answer in his 2008 book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. In that book, the polemicist tried to play historian and was roundly criticized for his effort. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in his thumbnail review of the book in Newsweek, Buchanan’s thesis about German innocence in starting World War II depends entirely on ignoring most of the rest of history of that time:
[I]n order to believe his thesis one has to be prepared to argue that Hitler was a rational actor with intelligible and negotiable demands, whose declared, demented ambitions in Mein Kampf were presumably to be disregarded as mere propaganda.
Not giving Hitler’s actions much context is what ultimately doomed Buchanan’s controversial contentions about Germany’s motives. What follows are just a few of the more jaw-dropping errors of fact that Buchanan has included in his article, as well as the answers to some of the many questions that he should have known before even asking them.
After Munich in 1938, Czechoslovakia did indeed crumble and come apart. Yet consider what became of its parts. The Sudeten Germans were returned to German rule, as they wished. …
How could they wish to return to a place that in the entire thousand-year history of that enclave had never belonged to Germany in the first place?
From the 13th century on, the Sudeten Germans (making up about 25 percent of the population of the Sudetenland) had been ruled by the Habsburg Empire. The old Austria-Hungarian province of Bohemia claimed most of the land, and when the empire disintegrated following World War I, the Sudetenland was annexed by the new nation of Czechoslovakia.
Churchill tried without success to get Chamberlain to stop referring to the “return” of the Sudetenland to Germany in order to refute Nazi propaganda which was claiming otherwise. In effect, Buchanan is parroting the Nazi party line on the Sudetenland by claiming that Germany was only threatening war because they wanted their territory back.
The German-Polish war had come out of a quarrel over a town the size of Ocean City, Md., in summer. Danzig, 95 percent German, had been severed from Germany at Versailles in violation of Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination. Even British leaders thought Danzig should be returned. Why did Warsaw not negotiate with Berlin, which was hinting at an offer of compensatory territory in Slovakia?
Buchanan might have a point — if he ignored what had gone on the previous year with Hitler’s ranting, raving, bullying, and spiteful campaign against Czechoslovakia. No doubt the Poles were grateful for the guarantees, but it was the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia that hardened their position.
The story of the Munich surrender has a postscript that will go down in the annals of Western civilization as one of the most bizarre occurrences in history. After gobbling up large parts of Czechoslovakia with the assistance of Chamberlain, the remainder rump state appeared to be relatively safe. “I want no Czechs,” Hitler was supposed to have spat out contemptuously. This was apparently enough to convince Chamberlain (and Buchanan) of Hitler’s good intentions.
Less than six months later, Hitler disabused Chamberlain of his comfortable assumptions (although apparently not Buchanan) by massing several divisions on the border of Czechoslovakia and inviting its aging president, Emil Hácha, for a little talk. What followed has no parallel of which I’m aware in modern diplomacy:
In the evening of 14 March, Hitler invited President Hácha to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler deliberately kept him waiting for hours, an ordeal he referred to as “Háchaizing.” Finally, at 1:30am on 15 March 1939, Hitler saw the President. He told Hácha that as they were speaking, the German army was about to invade Czechoslovakia. All of Czechoslovakia’s defences; barbed wire and pillboxes, were now under German control following the Munich Agreement in September of the previous year. The country was virtually surrounded by Germany on three fronts. Hitler now gave the President two options: to cooperate with Germany, in which case the “entry of German troops would take place in a tolerable manner” and “permit Czechoslovakia a generous life of her own, autonomy and a degree of national freedom … ” or face a scenario in which ” … resistance would be broken by force of arms, using all means.” By four o’clock, and after suffering a heart attack induced by Göring’s threat to bomb the capital, Hácha contacted Prague, effectively “signing Czechoslovakia away” to Germany. French Ambassador Robert Coulondre reported that by half past four, Hácha was “in a state of total collapse, and kept going only by means of injections.”
The treatment of Hácha was widely known in diplomatic circles at the time and as far as Hitler’s promises, it was as plain as the nose on your face that nothing — absolutely nothing — the man said could be relied upon.
And Buchanan wonders why the Poles refused to negotiate away Danzig?
But if Hitler was out to conquer the world — Britain, Africa, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, South America, India, Asia, Australia — why did he spend three years building that hugely expensive Siegfried Line to protect Germany from France? Why did he start the war with no surface fleet, no troop transports and only 29 oceangoing submarines? How do you conquer the world with a navy that can’t get out of the Baltic Sea?
First, as Toland, Shirer, and other historians have pointed out, Hitler’s mind never quite made it much beyond Europe. He was a conqueror of opportunity who had no grand strategic design to “conquer the world” as Buchanan avers. And it was a landlocked mind that rightly viewed Germany’s surface fleet with military contempt and correctly saw the potent weapon the U-boat could be.
Since the bulk of German military expenditures went to the army and air force during the illegal German re-armament, the navy’s building plans were not scheduled for completion until 1943-45, outlined by Hitler in 1937 when he first made his aggressive war plans known to his generals. He was forced to move up the timetable when Britain and France began to arm after Munich.
If Hitler wanted the world, why did he not build strategic bombers, instead of two-engine Dorniers and Heinkels that could not even reach Britain from Germany?
The state of the technology in 1939 made it very difficult. Nobody knew how to build planes with that range except the United States, whose B-17 had the longest range of any plane in the world at the time. The short answer to Buchanan’s question is that they couldn’t. As if to prove that point, German efforts later in the war to build a long-range bomber failed utterly.
Why did he let the British army go at Dunkirk?
According to Mac Coffman, the spectacular success of the Wehrmacht in driving the BEF across the breadth of France frightened the paranoid Hitler because the army was the only institution in the country that was a threat to him. Accordingly (with some lobbying from Goering), he tasked the Luftwaffe with the job of finishing the Brits off at Dunkirk. Goering failed because of a combination of bad management and the courage of remnants of the French army who fought hard to keep the perimeter around Dunkirk safe. It wasn’t a question of Hitler “letting the British go,” but rather the British and French working together to affect an escape.
Why did he offer the British peace, twice, after Poland fell, and again after France fell?
What would have possessed Great Britain to believe a man who had never kept one single promise he had ever made to any head of state in Europe?
More interesting questions: Why would Pat Buchanan believe Hitler’s cries for “peace” were genuine? Why would anyone ascribe motives to Hitler that have no basis in his behavior or public pronouncements?
Why is Pat Buchanan defending Adolf Hitler?