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Winston Churchill on board HMS “Prince of Wales” during his journey to meet Roosevelt for the Atlantic Conference

From Boadicea’s chariot to Britannia’s trident, the British have always been fond of martial metaphors. That is not the same as a “national obsession” with “war-worship”, which David Cameron’s former speechwriter Clare Foges, writing recently in The Times, blamed for “leading us to Brexit and the mess we are in”. She claims that our constant references to the Second World War and “the casual elision of evil bastards back then with earnest bureaucrats today” have “been poisonous to relations with Europe”. As evidence for this, Ms Foges cites the former German ambassador, Peter Ammon, who said that back in Berlin they could not believe that the British saw Germany as dominant in the EU, adding that “if you focus only on how Britain stood alone in the war, how it stood against dominating Germany, well, it is a nice story, but it does not solve any problem of today”.

For my own part, I find it revealing that someone so close to the prime minister who accidentally precipitated Brexit is still so naive about Germany’s role in the EU that she accepts such an artful gambit at face value. Mr Ammon knows perfectly well that his country’s political and economic (but not military) dominance in Europe is taken for granted by the elites of every one of the EU’s 28 member states, including his own. To admit as much in public would be a faux pas for a postwar German diplomat, but not for a British one: Sir Paul Lever, ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2003, has written an entire book on the subject with the self-explanatory title Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way. Sir Paul isn’t anti-German; he merely seeks to explain how the EU works. Only last month it emerged that Brussels broke its own rules by installing Martin Selmayr as Secretary-General of the European Commission. Will he now be removed from office? Of course not: Dr Selmayr is perhaps the most ardent living exponent of the ideology of European federalism, which has been an article of faith for every German chancellor since Adenauer and is now largely enshrined in EU law. Many Continental Europeans accept this fait accompli as the natural order of things. As far as they are concerned, Berlin rules OK.

What, though, about the war, and the part played in it by Britain — what Ambassador Ammon called “a nice story”? Is it really no more than that? Are we deluding ourselves with our habit of “war-wallowing”, to which Ms Foges cheerfully pleads guilty? Have we, in fact, constructed our entire national identity on the basis of a convenient untruth, a necessary fiction — or even a deliberate lie?

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of a new book by Peter Hitchens: The Phoney Victory: The World War II Delusion (IB Tauris, £17.99). Dedicated to his father, a Royal Navy commander, this white-hot polemic is intended to expose those who unnecessarily plunged the British people into a catastrophic war for which they were unprepared and for which they paid the price: a pyrrhic victory that bankrupted the economy, reduced a global empire to an American satellite and sacrificed much that had made Britain great.
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Patrick Heren
October 30th, 2018
6:10 PM

October 18th, 2018
7:10 PM
A few points of detail need clarifying. HMS Cossack did enter Norwegian territorial waters to rescue British prisoners from the Altmark but the Germans had already violated international law by seeking to carry prisoners of war through the waters of a neutral state so Cossack's action was justifiable. There were five Queen Elizabeth class battleships not four so the legacy of the Churchill of the First World War to that of the Second was that bit greater. The Revenge class were not modernised which is why the Admiralty did their best in WW2 to keep them away from the enemy. Churchill probably did over-estimate the deterrent effect of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse but the key error that led to their loss was the failure of Admiral Phillips to summon air cover from Singapore as soon as his ships were spotted by a Japanese scout plane. No-one really knows when Hitler decided on a policy of genocide against the Jews but the fact that he could publicly make a comment that was effectively a threat of such a policy early in 1939 tends to make you think his intention long predated August 1941.

Lawrence James
October 7th, 2018
9:10 AM
An excellent article which says all that needs to be said on World War II: Hitchens's polemic is selective and can be ignored whilst AJP Taylor wrote when large swathes of evidence were not available. Churchill's post-war remarks on an united Europe must be taken in context, for they were made when he was sure that the British Empire would survive for the foreseeable future. It did not and, by 1970, it was clear that Britain would have to to seek compensation by an alignment with what was then the Common Market.

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