Tuesday, June 26, 2012

No Blitz: a Counterfactual Exercise about 1940

I am listening to a book about WW II by British writer Max Hastings, and I am fascinated by an idea that he passes along about German strategy in 1940. Having conquered France, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, but allowed most of the British army to escape at Dunkirk, what should Hitler have done?

What he actually did, of course, was to launch an air war against Britain while making half-hearted plans for an invasion of the island. The result of this was to make Winston Churchill a hero for his steadfast resistance and to unify Britain's people in opposition to Fascism.

But what if, instead, Hitler had done nothing? If he had publicly renounced any desire to invade Britain and taken no measures to do so, while keeping his aircraft at home? If he launched a propaganda offensive proclaiming his desire for peace?

The situation that Churchill faced in the summer of 1940 was that he desperately wanted to contest Nazi domination of Europe but lacked any credible means of doing so. By attacking Britain through the air, Hitler rather perversely gave Churchill a means to fight him, and a cause around which to rally the British people for war. Nothing made the case for war with Germany like the Blitz. Churchill played up the risk of invasion as a way to unify his nation, and he kept this up into 1942, long after the British military knew there was no such risk. Millions of people were recruited into the war effort as air raid wardens, coast guards, volunteer medics, and so on. The "Battle of Britain" was largely a creation of Churchill's propaganda; Hastings found several RAF pilots who were puzzled both by the notion that they were fighting a "battle," and that they had won a great victory when the Luftwaffe finally gave up.

Without the Blitz, what could Churchill have done? Nothing, is Hastings' conclusion. (Which he freely admits is not is own, just an old idea that I had not encountered before.) The war would have drifted along as a repeat of the "phony war" of the winter of 1939-1940 --during which, according to Hastings, public morale in France and Britain was badly sapped by boredom and frustration. The war would have meant nothing but shortages, blackouts, and speeches about sacrifice. Churchill would have looked increasingly a fool, talking on and on about fighting Hitler but lacking any means or opportunity to do so. After months or perhaps a year of this those British leaders who never wanted the war, of whom there were many, would have begun to demand negotiations. Churchill would never have caved in, but he could easily have been voted out of office if the British people soured on his militarism.

By doing nothing, Hitler might really have sapped the morale of the British people; by bombing them, he only made them more determined.

I find this a fascinating notion, and one that has wide application. In particular it reminds me of the current impasse between the US and Iran. Right now the Iranian government wants to stand up to the U.S., but the confrontation has brought their people only shortages, oppression, and rhetoric that grows more tiresome with every passing month. If we attack them, the regime suddenly has a real cause around which to rally their people. Why give them the chance to become heroes? Why not, instead, let them languish as failed militarists whose belligerence is beneath the notice of their would-be enemies?

The principle here seems to be, never attack a nation when you lack the means or the will to fight the war through to the end. Unless we want to invade Iran, overthrow the government, and set up a new one -- which, I would argue, is a completely mad notion  -- we should not start a shooting war.

11 comments:

David said...

The defeat by boredom argument for Britain may be a little glib; France's internal divisions were probably much more important that "boredom" in the ill effects France suffered from the phony war, and Britain didn't have anything like those sorts of ferocious internal hostilities. I'm also a little bemused by your throwaway reference to Churchill's "militarism."

However, the main issue, as I'm sure you're aware, is the internal pressures on Hitler to "do something" about Britain. A lot of this may have come from his own mind, but it seems clear to me that he was really, really bothered by Churchill and the fact that Britain wouldn't give in to him. His wartime "state of the Reich" messages that he gave every year in December seem disproportionately full to me of ranting about Churchill's unreasonableness, his unfairness, etc., throughout the war.

Likewise, internal political pressure may make it very difficult for a US president to avoid attacking Iran, even though such an action would be bound to make things worse (not to mention idiotic, immoral, and probably illegal under both US--unless Congress gives the go-ahead, which they probably would--and international law).

David said...

I would add that, for the British people to truly feel unthreatened, Hitler would also have to have stopped the war on British commerce, and that would probably have simultaneously discredited him deeply in the eyes of the Wehrmacht--the only institution in German life that was still capable of challenging him--and made it that much easier for Britain to stay in the war. And I have trouble believing that the Brits would have left the war before Hitler attacked the Soviets (and I've never bought the argument that Hitler attacked the USSR only as a way to attack Britain).

Overall, it strikes me that a better analogy for Britain in 1940 wouldn't be the phony war, but 1811, when Britain remained at war with Napoleon even though he did not physically threaten Britain or its commerce and even though Britain alone could not defeat him on land.

Of course, I'm making all these arguments in the absence of having read Hastings, so I don't know what he says, and of course he knows a lot more about these issues than I.

John said...

Well, consider this: how could not attacking Britain have gone worse for Hitler than attacking did?

David said...

Given Hitler's personal lack of serious interest in invading Britain or even bombing them very severely, not bombing Britain probably wouldn't have been any worse than bombing. The problem is that Hitler weirdly combined a desire not to be fighting the British with a deep irritation that they wouldn't make peace with him on the basis of his complete domination of the Continent. In any case, I doubt not bombing would have in itself been some kind of war-winning strategy.

Likewise, I think the sanctions-and-diplomacy strategy probably has only a slight chance to get Iran to stop working on a nuclear bomb. As a matter of strategy, I only prefer it to bombing Iran because I think the latter has absolutely no chance of succeeding and a very good chance of making things even worse, in addition to the fact that it would be yet another unprovoked attack based on what someone "might" do, as well as a violation of international law and not the sort of thing I thought we Americans did. Attacking Iran in the present situation is wrong practically and morally, but I don't kid myself that not attacking Iran is somehow a really clever move.

John said...

I think the Blitz did a great damage to Hitler's war effort by mobilizing British public opinion behind Churchill. Today the British notion of their experience in WW II is all about the blitz and their stoic resolve, Keep Calm and Carry On and all that. Without the Blitz, why would ordinary British people have wanted to stay in the war against Hitler? And Britain was much more democratic in 1940 than it had been in 1811.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

For this strategy to work, Hitler would also have had 1) to have ceased all war on British commerce and 2) to have waited until British public opinion changed sufficiently to make peace, BEFORE attacking someone else or making any big changes like formally annexing the Benelux or Denmark. I'm suggesting Hitler would never have done those two things (ceased the commerce war and waited doing nothing aggressive at all, in any direction), especially because I think the British would have taken quite a long time to change their opinion, and I don't see it as at all a sure thing that they would have. Your assuming the British public would have all, in a mass, made some rational decision about letting Hitler have Europe if he didn't attack them, and that, boom, no one except Churchill would have resisted this. Surely you would have seen months, probably years, of debate in Britain. And powerful forces would have said that it was unacceptable to allow Hitler to dominate the continent (not to mention the possible effects of all the range of possible events meantime, and the fact that Hitler wasn't the sort to just sit there and wait); obviously they would have been opposed by equally powerful forces that pushed for peace. But none of this would have happened easily, overnight, predictably, or ultimately for the kinds rational reasons that you're projecting. After all, Britain had no rational reason to oppose Germany in either WWI or WWII, and in both cases, the Germans were flummoxed to explain British motives, except as sheer perversity. (In 1914 the German foreign office tried to reassure the British that all the Germans wanted to do was smash France as a major power and take several of France's colonies; they thought this would reassure the British that Germany meant them no harm, and thus the British wouldn't enter the war. Didn't work.)

If you're saying that Churchill's government needed German aggression as a propaganda tool, that's true. But even without the Blitz, it seems obvious to me that Hitler simply couldn't help but provide Churchill’s government with propaganda fodder. To imagine that he would not is to imagine a totally different German leader who was not a Nazi. And what's the point of that?

Sorry about the deleted comments; I have to remember to proofread before I click the submit comment button.

John said...

Yes, it is a foolish exercise to say that Hitler or Tojo would have done better in the war had he behaved rationally, when unreason was the fundamental basis of Fascist rule.

I am simply fascinated by the notion that not attacking would have undermined British morale in a way that attacking did not. And I think it quite likely that British morale and determination would have been much lower without the Blizt, even if it would not have been low enough to get Britain out of the war.

David said...

I guess I would add that you seem to be suggesting that the blitz was just some sort of little miscalculation, a mistake, like the fed setting interest rates a percentage point too high or low. It seems to me that doing things like the Blitz was precisely what made Hitler who he was and the Nazi regime what it was. Hitler was in power in large part so that he could do extremely aggressive, rules-breaking things, which he thought he had to do to preserve the German Volk and its purity, and realize its destiny as a Heerenvolk. I don't think he had a point-by-point master plan (which is one reason why the Luftwaffe in 1940 was not set up to achieve what he wanted it to in the Blitz). But most of the decisions he made were, so to speak, very Hitler-like; if fact, I think the more opportunistic one is, the more one's decisions are likely to reflect one's deepest nature, rather than rational calculation. In other words, if he hadn't sent his bombers to bomb London, it would have been something else. Indeed, if he had been the sort not to do something that would feed Churchill's propaganda, he would never have attacked Poland either.

David said...

Ah, I see you posted while I was writing the other post. Given what you've just said, I wouldn't have added my last post, which is now redundant.

John said...

I should post more about WW II so we can have more good discussions.