The Independent (UK)
April 25, 1999
Was the Second World War worth 56 million lives?
We had grown used to having a prime minister who was ignorant, but now a much more worrying thought occurs. Has he gone mad? Perhaps this is a question that only doctors could answer. But Tony Blair's recent self-justifying speeches, delivered with laryngitic, manic jerkiness persuade me that war is almost always an act of madness. And the rhetoric that he has chosen to employ, with its pseudo-Churchillian echoes and its allusions to the Second World War, provoke disturbing, unwelcome thoughts, not merely about the conflict in Kosovo, but about the whole of 20th-century history, and the brave sorrows which our parents' generation underwent. Blair's speeches about war make me think that all war, even the war against Hitler, is and was worse than pointless.
The German culture minister, Michael Naumann, recently deplored the fact that Hitler's war continues to obsess the British. Over the last few weeks one sees not merely that Herr Naumann is right but that the British way of viewing the Second World War is deeply dangerous.
Tony Blair now seems to be by far the most hawkish of Nato's leaders. The German peace proposals, which would have involved bringing in the Russians to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table, have been dismissed by Blair as not enough. Blair wants blood, toil, sweat and tears; he wants Bill to give him the tools and we'll finish the job.
The early identification of Milosevic with Hitler was bizarre. Milosevic has shown no desire for territorial expansion, let alone world domination. The unending story of minor, nasty warfare in the Balkans is part of the story of the last 1,000 years. It is quite unlike the resurrection of German nationalism in the 1920s as a reaction against the unjust Versailles Treaty. Britain went to war against Hitler not because he was persecuting the Jews, as Blair implies every day, but because of treaties designed to check German expansionism.
The treaties to "protect" Czechoslovakia were quietly forgotten - some said to Britain's shame. The treaty to protect Poland was observed, and it was because Hitler invaded Poland that Chamberlain declared war. As AJP Taylor caustically observes in The Origins of the Second WorldWar: "In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six-and-a-half million Poles were killed. Which was better - to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?"
When we consider the 56 million people - most of them civilians - who died during the Second World War we of a younger generation can understand why those who watched their comrades die in it were obliged to tell themselves not only that it was an inevitable conflict, but that it was the only noble way of defeating an evil tyranny. Even this way of thinking only leads to more intolerable thoughts - namely that Poland, Czechoslovakia, and all the Eastern bloc countries were "liberated" only in the sense that they were taken away from the Nazis and given into Soviet slavery at the insistence of Stalin, who outstripped Hitler in the numbers he killed.
The one fact about Hitler which nobody believed during the Second World War was that he meant what he said about the Jews. The British Foreign Office and the BBC consistently refused to believe the stories of extermination as they began to come through from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and elsewhere in the middle years of the war. Only in 1945 when people watched the newsreels of Belsen did the extent of the Nazi atrocities become clear. And of course - another intolerable thought - this slaughter only began after the outbreak of war. Could it be - intolerable question - that it was the cover of war alone which made the massacres possible?
For Tony Blair to liken Milosevic to Hitler is to trivialise every one of those 56 million deaths between 1939-45 and to miss the point which, tragically, they make. It is not an easy thought. It is literally unbearable, but it must be thought if politicians are not to go on repeating the mistakes of the past. It is this.
If the Second World War had never been fought, not only would those 56 million, most of them, have died in their beds; not only would the beautiful cities of France, Germany, Italy and Poland, which were destroyed, have remained intact, but Hitler and his crazy regime would almost certainly have been overthrown in the fullness of time by his own people.
Yet Blair tells us that the Second World War was "a war started by a dictator visiting racial genocide on his people". He tells us that. "You have to come down to the simple clear choice, to act, or not to act." This isn't even pseudo-Winston Churchill. It is government by Biggles. Blair's and Nato's decision to "act" has escalated a war which, in the three years previous to 25 March 1999 had killed between two and three thousand people. To act or not to act. There are so many actions other than bombing - to increase aid, for example, to flood a distressed or war-torn region withhospitals, schools, foreign observers who, if they can't stop the fighting, can at least ensure that the atrocities are kept to a minimum. The bombing raids have provided the biggest possible cover for acts of genocidal slaughter.
When one thinks of the war memorials all over Europe, and the stories of self-sacrifice which they embody, and the unselfish bravery of our parents' generations, one hardly dares to write these words. But the lesson they teach is that war never works, that the notion of a just war is a political con. God help us if our world order is now in the hands of those whose history books are closed and whose moral values are conceitedly summed up by the doctrine that whatever Blair thinks and does is right and whatever anyone else does is "evil".
View some war propaganda posters from the Second World War.
See also Anti-War Links.