There is much to disagree with in Pat Buchanan’s latest book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War and his subsequent defense of its controversial premise. But there is one issue I must take issue with; a claim made in both the book and repeated in his latest syndicated column. According to Buchanan, had there been no American or English involvement in the Second World War, there would have been no Holocaust. This isn’t, in fact, an original line of argumentation—his is a thinly sourced, weakly reasoned, and extreme adaptation of the “functionalist” position. That is, unlike the “intentionalist” historians, who believe that Hitler always intended to wipeout European Jewry, the “functionalists” argue that while persecution of the Jews was integral to Nazi ideology, it was a function of the war that led to the large-scale, industrialized killing of Jews. (I spent my last two years of university looking at this debate, and ultimately writing my undergraduate thesis on Daniel Goldhagen's embarrassingly reductionist book, Hitler's Willing Executioners and came out the other side believing a mild version of the functionalist critique.)
So for Buchanan, because the Nazi regime commenced with the meticulous and industrialized killing of Jews after America entered the war and because there had been no genocide during the prewar years, it correlates that without a war, there would have been no Holocaust. And because England, in Buchanan’s view, provoked the war, then he presumably holds Churchill responsible, to some unknown degree, for the fate of European Jewry. Again, it should be reiterated that this should be categorized as an extreme functionalist position.
Here is Buchanan, writing in his latest syndicated column, on the Holocaust: “[F]or two years after the war began, there was no Holocaust. Not until midwinter 1942 was the Wannsee Conference held, where the Final Solution was on the table. That conference was not convened until Hitler had been halted in Russia, was at war with America and sensed doom was inevitable. Then the trains began to roll.”
Beyond the absurdity of implicitly blaming Churchill for the Holocaust—because that is what he is really saying when he writes “no war, no Holocaust”—Buchanan ignores an enormous amount of evidence that contradicts his position. What he is really arguing is an issue of scale, for the attempted destruction of European and Soviet Jewry via the concentration camp system began in 1942. But none of this was surprising; none of it a simple reaction to America’s entry into the European war in December 1941 (recall too that it was Germany that declared war on America).
Immediately after invading Poland in September 1939, the invading Germans commenced with the elimination of racial enemies. The murderous Einsatzgruppen, Wehrmacht General Walther von Brauchitsch informed his fellow commanders two weeks after the invasion, were to engage in “certain ethnic tasks” that were not under the purview of the army. According to German historian Wolfram Wette, “It was in Poland that the Germans initiated their policy of enslavement and extermination…and not in the Soviet Union as is often assumed.” Wette is correct that the murderous groundwork was laid in 1939 and 1940. Under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich, the SS began “testing three different gassing technologies” during the months of September and October 1941, according to historian Christopher Browning. At Babi Yar, outside of Kiev, on September 29 and 30, 1941, Einsatzgruppe C shot, according to their own figures, 33,771 Jews. All of this was before Wannsee and before America entered the war.
And what about Hitler’s famous January 30, 1939 “prophecy” of extermination; a speech delivered before England had guaranteed Poland, before the commencement of hostilities, before American entry into the war (Buchanan mentions, though doesn’t analyze, the speech in his book; he also misdates the address). Speaking to the Reichstag on the sixth anniversary of the party’s machtergreifung, he bellowed: "Today I will be once more a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" Some historians—like Hans Mommsen—have argued unconvincingly that this statement must be seen in "context," and should not be seen as an acknowledgement of an early plan to massacre Jews. But Hitler publically returned to his Reichstag “prophecy” dozens of times, repeatedly castigating European and Russian Jews for not heeding his warning. (See Jeffrey Herf’s book The Jewish Enemy for the countless of the instances in which Hitler and Goebbels returned to the “prophecy.”)
But what is really mystifying is Buchanan’s contention that if Hitler had been left alone in the East to gobble up Poland and fight an annihilation war against Stalin, the Holocaust never would have come to pass. In a March 1942 diary entry, Goebbels described “A rather barbaric procedure, which I won’t describe in more detail,” noting that “the prophecy [of] the Fuehrer…is now being realized in a more frightful manner. One cannot allow any sentimentality in these matters.” He then explained that it was only under the cover of war against Russia that Germany could achieve its genocidal goals: “Thank God that now, during wartime, we have a whole series of opportunities that would be closed off to us in peacetime. Hence we need to use them.” Buchanan quotes this passage in his book (though in slightly different translation), but doesn’t explain how this supports his case. Indeed, it greatly undercuts it. How further appeasement by England and a Roosevelt non-response to Hitler’s December 11, 1941 declaration of war on America could have prevented the destruction of Jews in the East is left unexplained.
Also Pat, it’s the Westwall—or Siegfried Line—not the “Western Wall,” which is in Jerusalem.