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.