Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


  The Phoney Victory

The World War II Illusion


Peter Hitchens


London: I.B. Tauris, 2018

Hardcover. 240 pages. ISBN 9781788313292 $29.50


Reviewed by Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho

New York




The history of Britain’s pre-Second World War diplomacy has historiographically speaking gone through several renditions. From the damning of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Halifax as the ‘Guilty Men’ (employing the title of Michael Foot, et. al., infamous attempt at character assassination) in the period running from roughly 1940 to the mid-1960s, to the rise of a revisionist school, which partially based upon the newly opened primary source documents, argued that ‘Appeasement’, per contra to Churchill’s argument that it brought about the ‘the unnecessary war’, was in fact a sophisticated policy by Britain to postpone a war which Britain and France could not possibly have won in 1937-1938(1).  With some of the revisionists (John Charmley, Maurice Cowling, Simon Newman) arguing that in fact Britain should not have gone to war at all. Or at the very least, not to have gone to war over Poland in 1939. That the war that Britain eventually did fight had the end result of exhausting Britain’s economic and material resources to such a degree, that within less than twenty-year’s time, the British Empire was no more.  And that it was the United States, rather than the United Kingdom which truly could be said to have ‘won’ the Second World War(2).  More recently (and in line with normal historiographical trends), a ‘post-revisionist’ school has argued that while there were valid reasons for some aspects of Appeasement policy, au fond, many of the Realpolitik reasons advanced for Chamberlain’s policy were not founded upon solid empirical evidence(3). A similar sort of historiographical evolution can be seen in the historiography of Britain’s Second World War experience. 

Into this complex set of histories comes Peter Hitchens, the Eurosceptic and conservative journalist and young brother of the late Christopher Hitchens.  In his book, The Phoney Victory : The World War II Illusion, Hitchens argues that both Britain’s pre-war diplomatic history and the history of its Second World War require extensive reconsideration and demythologising. That a false, patriotic image of the so-called ‘Good War’, from 1945 onwards has led Britain to replicating a series of errors in its foreign policy, from the Suez in 1956 to the war in Iraq in 2003. Based entirely upon a limited number of secondary source material, Hitchens book appears to be aimed at a popular, non-academic audience. Running over nine chapters and a conclusion, Hitchens argument is not that appeasement was wrong or immoral, but on the contrary it was not tried long enough and correctly, by Chamberlain and Halifax, stating that his book

reveals a country that….deliberately sought a war of choice over a bad issue and at a bad time, when it could have avoided it till circumstances were more favorable. It did so, or rather its leaders did so, mainly in the vain hope of preserving a Great Power status its rulers knew in their hearts It had already lost. As it happened the resulting war ended that Great Power Status forever [26].    

For him, it is not that per se the decision to go to war with Hitler’s Germany was a mistake. Indeed he argues per contra to those like John Charmley, that war with Hitler’s Germany was inevitable. Where Hitchens differs with the anti-appeasers is his argument that:

the war with could have been fought differently and that the British guarantee to Poland, by consciously giving Warsaw control over our decision to declare war, was one of the gravest diplomatic mistakes ever made by a major country.  [22] 

For Hitchens the guarantee of Poland by the British and the French was an error of the first magnitude. Relying primarily upon the work of Simon Newman, the guarantee Hitchens argues was a result of a British Foreign Office which for ‘idealist and emotional, rather than nationalist or strategic’ motives, decided that the issue of Poland’s integrity and independence was sufficient grounds to go to war with Germany [33]. For Hitchens this error opened the floodgates of a whole series of errors and humiliations for the British: from the disastrous defeats by the Germans in 1940 to the near bankruptcy of British finance in the fall of the same year, which led the then British Ambassador to Washington, Lord Lothian tell American journalists: ‘well, boys, Britain’s broke; it’s your money we want’ [86]; to the sinking of the warships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by the Japanese on the 8th of December 1941; to the catastrophic defeat of British forces by the Japanese at Singapore. And, finally the Suez fiasco of 1956 and the Iraq War fiasco of 2003. As per Hitchens all of these catastrophic events were caused by Britain’s adherence to ‘an almost suicidal commitment to an idealist general war, Utopian and even self-damaging in nature’ [99].   

With the same lack of reasoning evident in Churchill’s interaction with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and in Britain’s post-war vision of itself as a Great Power. For Hitchens’ all of this is of a piece: at bottom Britain was trying to play a role in International affairs that it no longer had the resources, the power and the wealth to uphold.  For Hitchens events which have been celebrated by the British public, such as Dunkirk, and the Battle of Britain are pure myths in nature. Dunkirk being for Hitchens an unmitigated defeat and the Battle of Britain, having much less significance since for Hitchens, Hitler never intended in the summer of 1940 to invade Britain in the first place. Hitchens finishes the book with the final two chapters dealing with the British air campaign against Germany in 1942-1945 and Britain’s role in the ethnic cleansing of German and other peoples in the immediate aftermath of the war in Central and Eastern Europe.

What is one to make of Hitchens’ opus? I for one while not very impressed with his use of sources, nor with his sometimes questionable assumptions and interpretations (as for example, I do not believe that the Second World War mythos, contrary to Hitchens’ assertion, influenced David Cameron’s decision to intervene in Libya in 2011), I am impressed with the novelty of his overall argument.  It is not an argument that I per se adhere to or believe is entirely correct. Since for example, Hitchens seems to ignore in his discussion of Newman’s book that the primary reason why Halifax and the Foreign Office were so insistent upon the Polish guarantee, is that they were concerned that if Poland was left unsupported, it would quickly become Germany’s junior partner. With the end result that Germany would possess a near hegemonic position on the European continent as the smaller powers in Central and Eastern Europe gravitated into Berlin’s orbit(4).  It could be argued, ex post facto that this analysis was a mistaken one. Perhaps. But it certainly was not a policy derived from ‘idealist’ or ‘utopian’ premises.

Similarly, Williamson Murray thirty-years ago made a very good argument why the Munich Agreement was from the Anglo-French perspective a strategic error of the first magnitude(5). However, I can only applaud that Hitchens’ has the courage and intelligence to try to bring to the general public his overall thesis. This is especially the case in the chapter dealing with Britain’s role in approving at the Potsdam Conference the ethnic cleansing of upwards of ten-million German speakers from Central and Eastern Europe. Something that ordinarily plays little role in most narrative accounts of Britain’s Second World War. The greatest oddity of Hitchens’ book is that as a confirmed Eurosceptic, it seems strange that Hitchens would dispense with almost the entire ‘Britannia alone’ mythology which plays so important a role in the pro-Brexit argument(6).  Overall, I believe that Hitchens’ unusual and iconoclastic argument more than makes up for its various deficiencies. It is on those grounds that I can recommend people reading it. They certainly will both enjoy it and hopefully be provoked into delving deeper into the various subjects that Hitchens discusses.



(1) See: Michael Foot, et. al., Guilty Men (1940). For the revisionist school, see: Simon Newman. March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland (1976); Maurice Cowling. The Impact of Hitler : British Politics and British Policy (1975); John Charmley. Neville Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (1989); Gerhard Weinberg. The Foreign Policy of Hitler’s Germany : Starting World War II (1980). The first serious revisionist work based upon newly opened official documents was Keith Middlemas. Diplomacy & Illusion : The British Government and Germany, 1937-1939 (1972). For a good preliminary discussion of this topic, see: “J. L. Richardson, “New Perspectives on Appeasement: Some Implications for International Relations”. World Politics (April 1988) : 289-315.


(2) See: John Charmley. Churchill : The End of Glory (1993) & Churchill’s Grand Alliance, 1940-1957 (1995). See also: Robert Skidelsky. Interests & Obsessions : Selected Essays (1993), especially 390-398 and passim.


(3) The following three books are very much post-revisionist in their findings: R.A.C. Parker. Chamberlain and Appeasement : British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War (1993); Robert Self. Neville Chamberlain : A Biography (2006); Zara Steiner. The Triumph of the Dark : European International History, 1933-1939 (2011).


(4) See: Newman, op. cit. : 219 & passim. Steiner, op cit. : 733-741 and passim.  Donald Cameron Watt. How War Came : The Immediate Origins of the Second World War (1989): 83-84, 168-185.


(5) See: Williamson Murray. The Change in the European Balance of Power : The Path to Ruin, 1938-1939 (1984).


(6) See: Hitchens, op. cit. : 222, where there is a cryptic reference to the European Union as “the continuation of Germany by other means”. For a recent statement by Hitchens on Brexit, see: “Jay Staker, “Peter Hitchens Talks Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and the Tories”. The Oxford Student (14 January 2019).



Cercles © 2019

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.