Marchwood Village News – Winter 1998
By Julian Lewis
For many years the role of the historian was to set out past events and explain why they had happened. In the era of large payments for controversial books, a new type of writer has become prominent – the "counter-factual" historian.
He or she specialises in arguing about what would have happened, if events had been different from what they actually were.
A few years ago a revisionist historian called Dr John Charmley made a name for himself (and not a little money) by arguing that Britain would have been better off doing a deal with Hitler near the start of World War Two and letting Germany dominate the Continent. His thesis went on to claim that Churchill was mistaken to place so much emphasis on our "Special Relationship" with America as the war progressed, and that he should have made more concessions to Stalin's wish to dominate Central and Eastern Europe after Hitler's defeat.
All this was challenged by another historian, Niall Ferguson, in 1995. He ridiculed comparisons between American and Soviet post-war aims, rightly contrasting the democracy of the USA with the dictatorship of the USSR. Ferguson concluded that
"Charmley's alternatives to Churchillian policy – whether peace with Hitler or cuddling up to Stalin – would almost certainly have led this country to a slavery far worse than the indignity of post-war decline."
So far so good. However, three years later, as Britain marks the anniversary of the Armistice which ended the terrible slaughter of World War One, it is Niall Ferguson's turn to produce a controversial piece of revisionist history. Readers of the Daily Mail, who lost parents or grandparents in the First World War, will have been distressed by an article in the newspaper on 24 October by Niall Ferguson suggesting that more than 700,000 British deaths between 1914 and 1918 were "a needless sacrifice" because "Britain need not have been drawn into this devastating conflict".
Only when one reads the small-print of this article can it be seen that his preferred course for Britain in World War One closely resembles Charmley's view about World War Two, which Ferguson himself rejected. He freely admits that:
"If the British Expeditionary Force had never been sent, there is no question that the Germans would have won the [First World] War".
He claims, however, that if Britain had opted out, the triumphant Germans would have been content with grabbing colonies and creating "common customs treaties" – which he describes as "the Kaiser's European Union".
In his opinion, Belgian neutrality could have been preserved, the collapse of Russia into communism perhaps averted and the spread of American influence in Europe held in check. Unfortunately, the game is given away at the end of the article when Ferguson notes that:
"With the Kaiser triumphant, Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter and a fulfilled old soldier in a German-dominated central Europe about which he could have found little to complain."
There were, indeed, frightful blunders in World War One. Military tactics which had clearly failed were tried remorselessly again and again with huge loss of life. In the run-up to the war, a failure to state clearly that German aggression on the Continent would lead to British involvement, weakened our prospects of deterring the Kaiser. And, at the end of the war, when Germany was militarily beaten, our failure to impose unconditional surrender (as we did in 1945) sowed the seeds of future conflict with an enemy which refused to acknowledge the reality of defeat.
It is always possible, in the short term, to avoid sacrifices by letting one's enemies have their own way, as Messrs Ferguson and Charmley urge with regard to the First and Second World Wars respectively. The fact that the states of Western Europe are all now peaceful parliamentary democracies shows, nevertheless, that the dreadful price of defeating German militarism twice this century was not paid in vain.