In a cold and high-ceilinged room at a Sussex preparatory school in the winter of 1959, I work intensely on my model of the HMS Cossack destroyer. Such models come in spooky cardboard boxes illustrated with images of airplanes, tanks and warships, in the midst of scenes of fiery melodrama, pistols that emit orange streaks of fire and the smoke of battle. With this and our imagination, we seek to recreate the emotion of the war that we have just lost, in which our parents fought and our mothers endured hardships.
This is a war just on the horizon of the time in which we wish to have taken part, and which dominates our childhood minds above all things. Courage after goodness, in front of a terrible enemy, was what we most believed. Even the Crucifixion paled and vanished into the eerie light of the aerial bombardments and the great columns of burning oil at Dunkirk.
But World War II, like all events that have become myths, has become a dangerous issue. As a nation, we are captivated by the belief that it was a "Good War". unequivocally, a belief that has grown at an extraordinary speed. However, I did not have to look very far to see a quite different image. My parents were united by the storm of that war and were marked by it for the rest of their lives.
Celebration: British troops celebrate the news on May 8, 1945, that the war in Europe has ended
My father, Commander Eric Hitchens, who served in the Royal Navy for 30 years, was never entirely sure who had won. Neither he felt that he lived in a victorious country nor did he feel that he had rewarded him with justice. I remember very well how, sometimes, in the late afternoon, I looked thoughtfully into the distance and said: "Oh, well, we won the war … do not we?"
My mother, too, who had served in the Royal Naval Service of Women and endured the bombing, experienced the peace time of victory as a disappointment, in which the ghosts of a more inspiring past sometimes got quite involved.
Enough time has already passed for us to admit that the military and political conduct of the war by our leaders was not always as good as it should have been, that the "Good War" I used to be fought incompetent, with obsolete equipment, by a country in decline. The events of war, often minimized or avoided in popular or school histories, reveal a country that seeks to be more important, richer and more powerful than it was, and which fails in all cases.
The myth that everything was glorious, and that saved the world, is an old and comforting silencer that keeps at bay the damp blots of economic failure and political weakness.
Even today, the self-proclaimed fantasy that we won it, and the absurd but common belief that we did it more or less alone, still leads to absurd economic and diplomatic policies based on a huge overestimation of our true meaning as a country. One day, this dangerous fable of the glorious antifascist war against evil can destroy us simply because we have a government too vain and inexperienced to contain itself. That is why it is so important to dissipate it.
His hero: Peter and his brother Christopher in 1955 and his father Eric, an officer of the Royal Navy, in 1950
Myths go back to the beginning of the war. The uncomfortable truth is that from the beginning, it was Great Britain that sought a conflict with Germany, not Germany with Great Britain. Hitler's real goals were elsewhere, in Ukraine and Russia, and he was much less interested in us than we like to think.
Nor did we go to war, as many like to believe, to save or even help Jews in danger of Europe. Veteran Labor MP Frank Field said in his recent letter of resignation that "Great Britain fought World War II to banish these [anti-Semitic] views of our policy "is the most recent example of this common but erroneous belief.
Britain simply did not declare war in 1939 to save the Jews of Europe; in fact, our government was indifferent to its plight and blocked one of its main escape routes, to what was then Palestine ruled by the British. Nor did we do anything to help Poland, for whose cause we supposedly declared war.
Forget, too, of the & dquo; special relationship & # 39; with the United States: The United States was a jealous and resentful rival to whom we gave our global status and naval supremacy. And Washington's begrudging endorsement had a huge price: we were forced to deliver the life savings of the Empire to avoid bankruptcy and surrender.
Even the threat of a German invasion was never a reality, plus a convenient idea that suited the propaganda purposes of Hitler and Churchill. What began as a fake war ultimately led to a false victory, in which the real winners were Washington and Moscow, not us, and an unsatisfying, uncomfortable and unhappy peace.
This led to a permanent decline in our state, and to an accelerated, violent and poorly managed collapse of our Empire.
I recently obtained, long after his death, the medal that my father should have received for his service in the Russian convoys while he was still alive. It came in a cheap plastic box, like a tourist trinket, emphasizing our decline in the long years since then. Beyond all doubt there were many acts of noble courage on the part of our people, civilians and military during that war. Definitely it is not my purpose to diminish these acts, or to show disrespect to those who fought and lasted.
Eric Hitchens appears in the first row, second on the left, as a naval officer in Malta around 1950
But the sad truth is that this country deliberately sought a war in the vain hope of preserving a state of Great Power that our rulers knew had already lost in their hearts. The resulting war turned us into a second-rate power.
MYTH 1: THEY WERE FORCED IN WAR BY THE GERMANS
Great Britain actively sought a war with Germany from the moment that Hitler invaded Prague in March 1939. Even before, there were powerful voices in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling for the need to affirm us as a Great Power.
Poland was a pretext for that war, not a reason, as demonstrated by the fact that we did nothing to help Poland when Hitler invaded. It was an excuse for an essentially irrational, idealistic and nostalgic impulse, based largely on the need to affirm Britain's position as a Great Power.
This goes against everything that we have been taught to believe. But the behavior of the Foreign Office between March 1939 – when Great Britain undertook to guarantee Polish independence in the Anglo-Polish alliance – and the declaration of war in September 1939 strongly support it. Lord Halifax's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contrary to the myth that it was a nest of appeasement, had been interested for some time in a confrontation with Germany, despite our grave military weakness. During this period, the British bureaucracy descended to frantic childhoods for unsubstantiated scares about the nonexistent German invasions of several European countries.
One of those scares could have given Hitler the idea of threatening Czechoslovakia, until then it was not one of his main objectives. Then he began, for the first time, to seriously consider such a policy.
As for Poland, the military government of Warsaw had, since 1934, surprisingly good relations with Hitler. And many in Britain feared that there was a real possibility that Poland could reach an agreement with Germany, leaving Great Britain without an immediate reason to go to war in Europe.
At the end of March 1939, it was reported that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was "uneasy" that our ambassador in Warsaw could not obtain information on the progress of negotiations during this time between Germany and Poland. Simon Newman, in his March 1939 book, The British Guarantee to Poland, records that Chamberlain told the cabinet on March 30, 1939 about his fears that Polish negotiators would give way to Germany. The British government, often portrayed as anxious to get out of the war, feared that it would be deceived to get out of a confrontation that it wanted to have.
The British people, who had mostly supported the Munich descent in September 1938, and had assembled by the thousands to cheer him up, were now convinced that the war was at least a tolerable policy. This was achieved with the dubious claim that we must remain firm on Poland or lose all honor.
How strange, in retrospect, that the US UU They stayed away from all this and left the war stronger and richer instead of (as we did) weaker and weaker, and rarely, if ever, was their honor challenged by waiting until they were ready to fight. Could we, too, have done better to wait?
The Polish guarantee transformed Britain from a nervous spectator of Central European diplomatic maneuvers into an active participant, reluctantly but resolutely accepting the necessity of war.
MYTH 2: POLAND WAS A BASE OF DEMOCRACY
From the outbreak of the war to the surrender of Warsaw in 1939 and the disappearance shortly after the entire Polish nation, we did nothing to help the Poles. Cabinet minutes before the declaration of war reveal a refusal to discuss the fact that British forces were completely unable to come to the aid of Poland in case they were attacked. Why? Because, although we wanted the war, we never had the intention to fight.
Poland did not care about the government. Great Britain had no important interests in Poland, which was not a particularly democratic or free country. Since a violent military coup in May 1926, Poland had been an authoritarian state without real free elections.
In 1939, it was not the hero martyr nation, champion of freedom, justice and democracy, of the myth of propaganda. It was deeply anti-Semitic in practice. Far from being the "small and brave Poland", the military junta of Warsaw selfishly joined the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia after Munich.
The truth is that our government, so sure of itself and ill-informed, believed that the blockade and the numerical and economic superiority of France and Great Britain would teach Germany a lesson about the limits of power and force Hitler to negotiate. However, our supposedly moral position implied knowingly giving a false promise to a country that we did not like or that we do not trust much.
MYTH 3: WE FIGHT TO PROTECT THE JEWS
The industrial mass murder of European Jews did not begin until after the war had begun. It may even have been easier at night and the fog of the secret that war makes possible.
For years before the war, the persecution of Jews in German territory was obvious to the world and no one doubted that the Nazi state was directly responsible. However, we did not go to war or we even broke diplomatic relations.
Even the complete unmasking of the murderous intentions of the Nazis towards the Jews of Europe during the pogroms of the Kristallnacht from 9 to 10 November 1938 does not offer explanations of the British, French or American changes of foreign policy towards Germany.
Great Britain and other free countries welcomed very few Jews who fled, even in the celebrated Kindertransport program. In fact, he had severely restricted Jewish migration to Palestine following Arab and Muslim pressure, just when they most needed that refuge.
No one could have known that this would end in the extermination camps. However, when confronted with undoubted evidence of the Holocaust, later in the war, Britain and the USA. UU They did not take any direct action to prevent it. The official opinion remained at all times that the best response to this horror would be to win the war, which was what the various governments involved were already trying to do anyway.
MYTH 4: CHAMBERLAIN WAS NOTHING, BUT AN APICULTURAL
On the left he still likes to think that it was his outrage against Hitler that finally led the appeasers, including Chamberlain, into action.
But it was Chamberlain's conservatives who rearmed the country and maneuvered Great Britain in her first People's War. Despite the Munich Agreement of 1938, when Chamberlain returned to London to enthusiastic crowds after a peace negotiated with Hitler, he had already begun an ambitious rearmament program, including the development of radar capabilities.
In the summer of 1939, he was absolutely certain of the war because, strongly influenced by the other so-called pacific pacifier, Lord Halifax, he had decided to carry it out. To reaffirm the Great Power status of Great Britain, there must be war or, at least, a declaration. Undoubtedly, I expected and expected it to be brief or static, confined to the high seas. Fundamentally, rearmament was not intended for a continental land war, but for imperial and national defense. But without that, we would have sunk.
Spending in the Navy increased from £ 56,626,000 in 1934-5 to £ 149,339,000 in 1939-40. The shipbuilding program from 1936 to 1939 included six capital ships, six aircraft carriers, 25 cruisers, 49 destroyers and 22 submarines.
Army spending increased from £ 39,604,000 in 1934-5 to £ 227,261,000 in 1939-40. The expense of the RAF increased from £ 17,617,000 to £ 248,561,000 in the same period. All these figures are equivalent to many billions now. The Laborists opposed almost all this rearmament of the time, only later claimed the high moral ground.
MYTH 5: WE REMAIN ALONE AGAINST THE NAZI MENACE
The entire edifice of patriotism and modern British pride is based on the belief that Britain stood alone against the Nazi threat after the fall of France. But it is a romantic myth. Not only did the French and Belgian troops (often totally disinterested) help the British troops escape through Dunkirk, but Britain also had a large and loyal Empire behind it throughout the war. And the part we played after 1940 is much less than we would have liked. Just nine months after it began, Britain had lost the war it declared. He had been expelled from continental Europe, penniless and stripped of most of his military equipment.
The British troops would no longer be in contact with the main body of the main enemy for four whole years, in a six-year war. Our role on earth, between 1940 and 1944 in colonial or fair wars on the fringes of the conflict and even after D-Day, was like an increasingly younger partner of the United States. UU And the USSR.
The prospect of peace with Germany in humiliating terms would remain an unpleasant smell until the Battle of Stalingrad and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the eventual German defeat secure. In the end we were rescued by others, and we are still being rescued, perhaps more rescued than many of us would like.
MYTH 6: THE LOVING SHADOW OF INVASION
The threat of the German invasion was never a reality, but served as propaganda, which suited both Hitler and Churchill at that time.
For Hitler it was a way to persuade a battered and unhappy British population to press their leaders to give up. For Churchill, with more success, it was a way to raise morale, production and military efficiency by creating an atmosphere of tension and danger.
Despite their power on land, the Germans in 1940 did not possess a single landing craft, as we understand the term. His small army had been devastated by the Norwegian campaign, losing ten destroyers in two battles in Narvik. There were never enough concentrations of German troops in France for such a large operation. Hitler's famous directive of July 16, 1940, sounds threatening because of his use of the deeply shocking phrase "occupy" [England] completely & # 39; But it is subtly prudent, clearly intended to persuade Britain to "come to an agreement."
Hitler was good with respect to an invasion, and the serious plans for an attack through the channel were imprecise. The main forces were never assembled or trained for such a huge and risky operation.
But appearances must be maintained. In the months after Dunkirk, Germany attacked coastal convoys, military industries and, finally, population centers.
British pilots, and allies of many nations, fought with extreme bravery in the air in 1940. But the belief that it was an all-or-nothing fight in which all tendons tensed is undermined by the fact that in September In 1940, 30 hurricanes, with their pilots, were ordered to Khartoum in the Sudan.
It is also revealing that Churchill's private secretary, Jock Colville, heard the prime minister allude to the "great invasion scare" in a conversation with Generals Paget and Auchinleck in July 1940, and imply that he was fulfilling a useful purpose.
Later actions that we took, especially the bombing of German civilians from 1942 to 1945, are often justified on the grounds that our very existence was in danger, when it was not then. Hitler's real goal, especially after 1941, was the conquest of Ukraine and Russia.
MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK YOU FOR THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP & # 39;
Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the United States, far from being a friend of this country, was hostile and jealous of the British Empire. In fact, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as Britain continued to appear before the Americans as a selfish, petty and intimidating Great Power capable of taking care of itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting that it was running out of money, came to the doors of the United States as a penniless petitioner, offering the United States the opportunity to save the world.
The extraordinary (and almost unknown) transfer of gold from Britain to the United States throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate and harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The elimination of Britain's life savings was a huge event.
Convoys of warships were rushing across the Atlantic loaded with Britain's gold reserves and replete with negotiable paper values, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for security, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become a US pensioner UU., We had to prove that we had nothing left to sell.
The "Lend-Lease" system, which provided limited US material assistance to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity that Churchill proclaimed. Even the bill of the Americans had a rejoicing and anti-British touch, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
The Base Destroyers Agreement was also quite spiteful. It led to 50 decrepit destroyers of the First World War who were handed over in exchange for obtaining bases in several British territories on the western side of the Atlantic.
This surprising surrender of sovereignty indicates that Britain was, piece by piece, delivering naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolizes the true relationship between EE. UU And Great Britain in the months after Dunkerque, unlike the sentimental fable that is still believed.
MYTH 8: THE GERMAN BRITISH PUMP WAS JUSTIFIED
MANY believe that the British bombings in World War II killed German civilians only by accident, in what would now be called "collateral damage". But documents and recorded comments reveal that this was not the case.
The policy of bombing German civilians, mostly opponents of the working class of Hitler into poor and densely populated housing, was adopted after a confidential report showed that the RAF simply could not bomb accurately at night. The bombing was not limited to moments like the fire storms of Hamburg and Dresden, but it remained and went to almost all major German cities.
None of the justifications for this policy is lifted. He made surprisingly little damage to the German war production. It was incredibly wasteful for the brave and young crew, who had no other choice in the matter, who died in dreadful numbers night after night.
It did not save us from the invasion. The large-scale systematic bombing did not really begin until March 1943, at which time Hitler was retreating in the east and was not in a position to invade Britain.
While it attracted arms and planes from the eastern front, the same effect would have been achieved by attacks on military and industrial sites, which were highly effective when attempted, and would have ended the war much more quickly.
It also eliminated vital aircraft from the Battle of the Atlantic, in which the Royal Navy confronted German submarines and was dangerously close to defeat. This is not hindsight. Powerful voices were raised against him at that time, some on moral grounds, some pointing out that it was militarily unjustified. But they were over-ruled and mocked.
MYTH 9: GREAT BRITAIN HEROIC WON THE WAR
Britain played a surprisingly small role in the overthrow of Hitler. It was not the British troops who broke into Hitler's bunker or planted their flag in the ruins of the Reichstag.
Chamberlain and Daladier, the French prime minister, began a war that Stalin and Roosevelt would later take and end. It destroyed the Third Reich and created a new order in Europe in which Great Britain and France would be second-rate powers.
It may be the only case in the history of a second-hand war taken by other belligerents and used for their own purposes. Certainly, Britain and France did not achieve their goal by declaring war. Both sought to remain in the club of the Great Forces and were forced to leave.
The devastating cultural revolution of the last 50 years would not have happened in a country where the victorious ruling classes were safe and secure. And our absorption into the EU, which is the continuation of Germany by other means, is not the fate of a dominant winning nation.
MYTH 10: WE ARE GLORIOUS IN VICTORY
The general impression is that the end of hostilities brought a new era of optimism illuminated by the sun in a devastated continent. However, the victory quickly led to a appeasement of Stalin at least as bad as our appeasement of Hitler in 1938, with nations delivered bound and gagged to the regime of the secret Kremlin police. And the following months and years brought death to a colossal scale, of which today we know almost nothing.
Under the Potsdam Agreement, between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. We will never know how many died: estimates vary from 500,000 to 1.5 million. The majority were women and children, defenseless civilians. In one incident, 265 Germans, including 120 women and 74 children, were killed by Czech troops. They took them from a train, shot them in the back of the neck and buried them in a common grave that they had been forced to dig.
These disgusting massacres were not the result of enraged citizens taking revenge on former oppressors, but instead being state-sponsored and centrally controlled. There are many more examples, but most of them, recorded in the heartbreaking and harrowing book of Professor R. M. Douglas Orderly And Humane (the phrase comes from the Potsdam Agreement) are known, at least in this country, only for professional historians.
A whole page of horror in European history, of which we have much to learn, has been erased. And, as so often happens in these matters, those who raise these issues can expect to be falsely accused of minimizing the crimes of the Nazis, as some in Germany have tried to do. But this is a stupid lie.
As Professor Douglas says: "What happens after the war can not be equated with the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans during the war, and the suggestions to the contrary are deeply offensive and historically illiterate." But the fact that a respectable academic has to make this point illustrates how difficult it is still, almost 80 years later, to look objectively at World War II.
Later still, as our diminished power and influence became evident in many ways, the ghost of our defeat in 1940 – and the necessary but reluctant compromises we had to make in order to survive – still pursues our lives.
The most popular film in the British cinemas of the summer of 2017 was Dunkirk. But he made no attempt to explain to a new generation why the entire British army was standing in their armpits in salt water, being machine-gunned by the German air force, having destroyed, burned or thrown weapons and equipment worth billions in today's money.
Nobody wants to know. Maybe it's time for them to do it.