Max Hastings, the Repentant Europhile

The military historian and former editor has belatedly renounced his European faith. Can we expect further recantations?

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First man standing: Max Hastings, complete with camouflage paint and helmet, arrives in Port Stanley during the Falklands crisis in 1982 (PA)

Max Hastings is becoming something of a moral example to British national journalists and popular historians, and as his former employer, I am beaming proudly. It is not for me to minimise either the grace of conversion or the purgative value of confession. But with Max’s recent announcement in the Daily Mail of his lapsed and renounced faith in Europe, like Stephen Daedalus’s confession, there still need to “ooze out, sluggish and filthy” a few more self-reflections.

It is not true, as Max claims, that he “deplored Brussels’ follies as much as anyone”. He treated his colleagues at the Daily Telegraph newspapers who were Eurosceptic as “lunatics”. He scoffed at concerns about excessive dirigisme, because, he endlessly repeated as if in a trance, “Europe is a good thing”, and he was convinced that any British dismissal would make his frequent holidays in Italy more complicated. He conducted a ferocious intramural defence of Maastricht 20 years ago and leader conferences on the subject were re-enactments of the first day of the Somme.

He needed almost daily restraint from undercutting Margaret Thatcher, and was, I believe, the original source for the political insight that John Major tucked his shirt inside his underpants. (By my reckoning, next to Lady Thatcher, who should be universally recognised for her prescience and courage over Europe, John Major now seems, in policy terms, Britain’s best peacetime prime minister since Salisbury, and a good war premier too.) After he left us, Max became an unpaid booster of the Labour Party. 

Max is a great natural journalist and was a strong leader of the editorial department. All who loved the Daily Telegraph owe him much. But we paid a price for his simplistic views, whim of iron, and ten-second attention span. He came back from five days in South Africa all for effectively throwing the whites out of the country, and from two days in Ulster championing a “troops out” approach. His first book, after he briefly lived in the United States in the Sixties, predicted the complete and imminent self-immolation of that country. He had some pretty arbitrary views on the Middle East too, but these may have been moderated after he married a Jewish wife. These problems arose in smaller matters too; according to Max, Dame Shirley Porter was instantly a thief (no she wasn’t). Similarly, a deceased schoolmaster of Max’s was an evil sadist. Maybe he was, which might explain a few of Max’s foibles, but was it necessary for him to put it in an obituary that brought the grieving and raving widow down on me? I thought not.

Max Hastings reminds us of the dangers of a strong but impressionable editor, clangorously proclaiming and trying to impose his instantly formulated opinions, and only revisiting the subject with sincere regret many years later.

Yet he must be happily welcomed back, and commended for his insight and his honesty, and encouraged to make a clean breast of it on other subjects too. And perhaps he could apply some of his demiurgic energies to solutions, and not just the palliatives he put out in the Daily Mail. If Europe can’t get back to a self-replenishing birthrate and maintain a rate close to 50 per cent of the population in the workforce, achieve flexible labour markets and a tax system conducive to work and investment, it will perish, whatever political scaffolding is piled on top of it. The Commission is incapable of reform, and the constitution confected by Giscard d’Estaing and others is an abomination that cannot be amended to workability; it should be scrapped like those of the first four French Republics. The leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Italy, unfeasible though they may seem as individuals, should form an executive committee and try to write a new constitution and build from there, with member countries free to take back whatever jurisdiction they want, as long as a fair common market survives. But that does not mean a money-massaging, back-scratching and log-rolling slush fund dispensed by an infestation of pompous and unanswerable tinkerers in Brussels, therapeutically sublimating the frustrations of being from little countries.

Not a penny should have been spent propping up Greece or Ireland or Portugal. They filed false prospectuses on entry into the euro in order to monetise over-generously the national historic guilt of Germany and exploit Chancellor Kohl’s sincere desire for “a European Germany and not a German Europe”. Countries that fail should be allowed to default on payments and restructure debt as best they can; the battle must be fought at the level of the private sector banks that were suckered into bankrolling this innumerate fantasy. The shareholders go to the wall and the depositors and legitimate creditors must be protected. Europe has to overcome its phobia about social unrest and discontent, stop paying Danegeld to labour unions and small farmers, and pretending that all life is an annuity. 

But there should not be a stampede to give the bum’s rush Max proposes to the countries that have never had a hard currency in 3,000 years; doing so would raise the cost of a Mercedes-Benz in the United States by $75,000, which illustrates the hypocrisy of  some of the German opposition. This whole tangle of problems will require finesse (not Max Hastings’s strong suit). None of this will come as news to Max, who will recall hearing these opinions throughout his time at the Daily Telegraph.

Very talented journalists and editors like Max Hastings, who are also very opinionated hip-shooters, unless restrained, can have a baneful influence on public opinion. There were countervailing forces at the Daily Telegraph; who will absolve the BBC when it finally desecrates the memory of Lord Reith and acknowledges a few of its chronic errors?

To give Max Hastings full credit, he has launched a parallel movement as a historian. His book Winston’s War was the beginning of the abandonment of the wobbling battlements of British historians who had held that Churchill, Brooke and others were conducting a strategy tutorial for naive Americans through most of World War II. This theory started with Arthur Bryant, who began the war praising Hitler’s “Cromwellian qualities” in his Unfinished Victory (i.e. Hitler’s unfinished victory over, inter alia, Britain) and ended the war as chief myth-maker, from the Brooke diaries, of the giveaway of eastern Europe to Stalin by Roosevelt.

Max played a seminal role in reorienting the conventional British historical wisdom away from this fraud and debunked the unsustainable British attachment to a Mediterranean strategy and the nonsense of an attack up the “armpit” of the Adriatic and through the (non-existent) Ljubljana Gap to take Vienna (while Stalin took all Germany and crossed the Rhine). 

Roosevelt correctly foresaw that once the Western Allies crossed the Rhine, the Germans would fight to the last woman and child in the east but surrender compulsively in the west. He was not afraid of another bloodbath in northern France and Flanders, as he was sure that unlimited quantities of American tanks and aircraft could prevent that, and he was opposed to any demarcation of occupation zones in Germany, because he thought the West could take almost all of Germany. He was correct, and the zones agreed by the European Advisory Commission were adopted by the British and Russians over American objections.

It was Churchill who assigned Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria to Stalin on the “naughty piece of paper” in Moscow in October 1944, over Roosevelt’s objections (though the Red Army was taking over those countries anyway), and Yalta promised democracy and independence for Poland and all of eastern Europe. The Western Allies achieved all they wanted at Yalta and if it had been a bad agreement for them, Stalin would not have violated every clause of it. The durability of the Yalta myth has been a scandal.

The focus should always have been on how the combined genius of Churchill and Roosevelt brought the world from the desperate summer of 1940 in five years to the Western occupation and reorientation of Germany, Italy, Japan and France to be prosperous democratic allies, while leaving Russia, which took over 90 per cent of the casualties fighting the Germans, comparatively inferior strategic assets in the east, an astounding achievement that leaves plenty of credit for everyone. Max Hastings may be some years collecting the credit he deserves for his Dunkirk-like evacuation of British history from its previous Americophobic fabulism.

Hastings is headstrong but honest and forceful, and could have a golden after-burner in his career as a revisionist journalist and historian. Undismayed that he did not follow my last piece of career advice to him (not to leave the Daily Telegraph for the Evening Standard), I suggest that he consider a serious reassessment of all the piffle that he and others have written about Israel and the Palestinians, as if Israel had not already demonstrated a perfect willingness to hand over settlements (in Sinai and Gaza) to the Arabs as part of a real peace agreement. He might start from a recognition of Britain’s substantial responsibility for this open sore by selling the same real estate twice in 1917, and give more emphasis than he was ever willing to do graciously when he was with us, that the Palestinians have been used as cannon fodder by the corrupt Arab governments for 60 years, and could have peace tomorrow if they would accept as they promised to do at Oslo, the existence of Israel as a Jewish state (which Abbas recently renounced at the United Nations) and stopped agitating for a right to swamp Israel with allegedly returning Arabs.

After that, Max might revisit the glories of ANC government in South Africa, a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. Max is, at his best, a capable historian, and might now wish to explore the interesting question that British military historians of World War II have tended to dance around, of whether Montgomery’s escapade in Market Garden caused the suspension of the advance of Patton, Simpson and Hodges in the Central Army Group to the point that the Ardennes offensive was rendered possible, and whether, if the northern offensive had not been launched, the Western Allies could have crossed the Rhine in strength in 1944.

Max Hastings in pursuit of current or historical facts is a vehement and implacable force. He could render great service far beyond the inspiriting and liberative pleasures of confession.