ONLINE ONLY: A Pacifist at Hitler's Side
The case gives a good idea of Baker’s mode of argument, and of the evidence actually available to sustain his insinuations. Churchill did advocate the use of gas against Iraqi tribes in 1919, after pessimistic British field commanders had requested resort to such weapons. It is not clear that the British actually used any such gasses in Iraq, although Baker implies otherwise, and there is some evidence that they didn’t, but it is also clear that Churchill thought that the attraction of such methods was that they would kill very few people. Baker quotes a remark indicating that Churchill argued for gas without intending to inflict mass death, but in the same section implies that Churchill must have been lying, or engaging in gross and culpable self-deception. Here is Churchill writing something Baker does not quote, from the same source: “It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas… The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum… gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.” Hitler, by contrast, did not gas his imagined enemies because he thought the method would kill very few of them.
Some readers may suspect that the implied comparison has other difficulties. In Poland, German imperialism directly or indirectly caused the death of 6m over six years, in Russia of perhaps 26m in around half that time, and another million Yugoslavs over the same period. At Amritsar, of course, British officials may have understated the number of dead, but they are unlikely to have done so by scores of millions. You can throw in the British contribution to the horrific Bengal famine of 1943 to try to pump up the numbers, but even with the worst will in the world it is hard to depict either the toll or the motives of Churchill’s imperialism as plausibly comparable to the Nazi version. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is idiocy to try: as the Marxists used to observe, at some point a quantitative difference becomes qualitative.
What about Churchill’s RAF targeting civilians via strategic bombing? Baker’s focus on strategic bombing is in some respects disingenuous, of which more below, but for now, how strong is this part of his case if we assume that it is an argument put in good faith? Baker seems to share in the most common delusion about strategic bombing, thinking it did nothing to secure an Allied victory, so that it was simultaneously a vast crime and a fabulous blunder. Almost all professionally competent historical scholarship, however, holds precisely the contrary view, at least on the score of blunder: while the RAF may have failed miserably at undermining civilian morale, and even that is debatable, it nonetheless made an unintended but extremely effective contribution to winning the war. The German authorities deployed 2m people in defense against air attacks, committing 10,000 of their famously effective 88mm artillery pieces and perhaps 70 per cent of the Luftwaffe’s to home defense. The 88s were the same gun tubes used as tank and antitank weapons; every 88 deployed in Germany meant one less facing Allied soldiers. Every fighter plane and pilot used in home defense was one less helping to conquer the world, and both the Red Army’s counter-offensives and the Allied invasions of Western Europe would have been far more costly and hazardous if the Luftwaffe had been present in greater strength on those fronts. (On D-day there were only 300 Luftwaffe fighters to oppose the Allied landings in France, and only 500 on the Eastern Front). Strategic bombing thus saved an incalculable but vast number of lives, both Allied and Axis. There may have been an effective alternative approach, at least by early 1945, but for Baker the question of alternative military approaches cannot arise, because he is passionately opposed to any use of force at all.