Churchill and the Avoidable War: Outline

Churchill and the Avoidable War: Outline

A read­er who enjoys my book, Churchill and the Avoid­able War, sug­gests that it would appeal more broad­ly if peo­ple knew what was in it (like the Afford­able Care Act). Ever anx­ious to reap the huge mon­e­tary rewards of a Kin­dle Sin­gle, I offer this brief out­line. If this con­vinces you to invest in my lit­tle work of his­to­ry (paper­back $7.95, Kin­dle $2.99) thank-you. Kind­ly click here.

Chapter 1. Germany Arming, 1933-34


“Revi­sion­ists” claim Churchill was “for Hitler before he was against him.” To say he admired Hitler is true in one abstract sense: he admired the Führer’s polit­i­cal skill, his abil­i­ty to dom­i­nate and to lead. With his innate opti­mism, he even hoped briefly that Hitler might “mel­low.” In apprais­ing Hitler, Churchill knew the truth well before most of his contemporaries.

Notable in this chap­ter is a plead­ing let­ter Hitler wrote to Churchill’s friend Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rother­mere. If you ignore Hitler’s ref­er­ences to Aryan suprema­cy, one might almost think it was writ­ten by the Pope.

Strife with Britain was so avoid­able, Hitler wrote All his life he has worked for peace and under­stand­ing between the two dom­i­nant white races. Ger­many and “Eng­land” had lost the flower of a gen­er­a­tion in World War I, and for what?

Rother­mere bought Hitler’s plaints—hook, line and sinker. He sent a copy to Churchill. Churchill’s reac­tion to it was couched in noble words of appre­ci­a­tion for the British democ­ra­cy and Britain’s his­toric role of oppos­ing con­ti­nen­tal tyrants. It was exact­ly what we would expect. It helps to show that in his broad under­stand­ing of Hitler, Churchill was right all along: dead right.

Chapter 2. Germany Armed, 1935-36

It is often said that Churchill sup­port­ed Hitler because of a remark which, tak­en out of con­text, makes him sound like a fan: “One may dis­like Hitler’s sys­tem and yet admire his patri­ot­ic achieve­ment. If our coun­try were defeat­ed I hope we should find a cham­pi­on as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”

This chap­ter pro­vides Churchill’s sur­round­ing words, which give a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture. The British states­man had only loathing for what Hitler’s poli­cies led to. The chap­ter also exam­ines Churchill’s famous and con­tentious essay, “Hitler and His Choice,” in the Strand Mag­a­zine, 1935, lat­er reprint­ed in Great Con­tem­po­rariesand Churchill’s con­sis­tent warn­ings of the per­ils of dis­ar­ma­ment in 1934-35.

Chapter 3. Rhineland: “Act to win,” 1936

Years lat­er, Churchill wrote that Hitler could have been stopped when he marched into the Rhineland in 1936. On the evi­dence, this is true. The French army was over­whelm­ing­ly supe­ri­or. Indeed Hitler had ordered his troops to turn around should they encounter French oppo­si­tion. At the time, how­ev­er, Churchill failed to press the issue. He met and encour­aged French for­eign min­is­ter Pierre Flandin, who came to Lon­don plead­ing for British sup­port in a show­down with the Germans.

Prime Min­is­ter Stan­ley Bald­win turned Flandin down flat. He didn’t know much about the Ger­mans, Bald­win declared, but he knew his own. And the British peo­ple did not want war. Hop­ing for office under Bald­win, who had become prime min­is­ter with a large major­i­ty just four months ear­li­er, Churchill chose not to buck his leader. Know­ing that France was under no such con­straints, Churchill clung to a hope Flandin would return and encour­age French action. But the Paris cab­i­net was divid­ed, and would not move with­out British sup­port. There are legit­i­mate crit­i­cisms of Churchill’s incon­sis­ten­cy in this episode, which belong in the his­to­ry of a missed chance.

Chapter 4. Derelict State: Anschluss, 1938

In March 1938, Hitler pro­claimed an Anschluss, or union with Aus­tria. Churchill did not see this com­ing, though he had warned of the prob­a­bil­i­ty. He was also wrong in believ­ing that the major­i­ty of Aus­tri­ans were against it. I quote reli­able sources show­ing that they were behind it by large majorities.

Iron­i­cal­ly, to quote Man­fred Weidhorn’s review of Churchill and the Avoid­able War, “the per­for­mance of the Wehrma­cht in the Anschluss was out of a Vien­nese operetta.” Mechan­i­cal break­downs were 30%. Offi­cers and men arrived late and untrained. VII Army Corps described its motor­ized vehi­cle sit­u­a­tion as nahezu katas­trophal (almost cat­a­stroph­ic). I quote one account: “Like some great mal­func­tion­ing clock­work, the Wehrma­cht lurched and shud­dered towards the Aus­tri­an cap­i­tal. Only a few parts of it final­ly grat­ed to a halt in the sub­urbs of Vien­na one week later.”

His gen­er­als remind­ed an infu­ri­at­ed Hitler that they had warned him Ger­many was not ready for a major con­flict. Yet, as with the North Viet­namese Tet Offen­sive thir­ty years lat­er, oper­a­tional dis­as­ter did not equate to pro­pa­gan­da dis­as­ter. The Nazi pro­pa­gan­da machine suc­cess­ful­ly con­vinced the world that Ger­many had enjoyed a glo­ri­ous suc­cess. British Intel­li­gence must have had reports of the truth. Yet the facts seemed almost to be a state secret.

Chapter 5: Munich: Mortal Folly

The Munich agree­ment entrenched Hitler in pow­er. It gave him the fat prize of Czecho­slo­va­kia with its out­stand­ing arma­ments indus­try. In the inva­sion of France in 1940, three of the ten panz­er divi­sions were Czech-built. It was a clas­sic exam­ple of wish­ful think­ing and fatal compromise.

Yet over Munich, a curi­ous nar­ra­tive has evolved: that the agree­ment was actu­al­ly wise, since it gave the Allies anoth­er year to arm. Less often remarked is that it also gave Ger­many anoth­er year to arm. Even Ger­man sources agree the Nazis were less for­mi­da­ble in 1938 than they were in 1939-40. What was there about fight­ing them a year lat­er that made this preferable?

Well, goes the argu­ment, Britain and France could not have defend­ed land­locked Czecho­slo­va­kia. This is a bit sil­ly. “It sure­ly did not take much thought,” Churchill wrote, “that the British Navy and the French Army could not be deployed on the Bohemi­an moun­tain front.” There were oth­er avenues open: a block­ade of Ger­many by the mobi­lized Roy­al Navy; French action in the Rhineland. This chap­ter also exam­ines the cred­i­ble 1938 plot to over­throw Hitler. After Munich the plot­ters despaired. Lat­er most were executed.

Chapter 6. “Favourable Reference to the Devil”: Russia, 1938-39

Munich sealed Czechoslovakia’s fate. On 14 March 1939, Catholic fas­cists pro­claimed an inde­pen­dent, pro-Nazi repub­lic of Slo­va­kia. The next day Ruthe­nia seced­ed, only to be occu­pied by Hitler’s ally Hun­gary. Sum­moned to Berlin, Czech Pres­i­dent Emil Hácha agreed to Ger­man occu­pa­tion of the rest of his coun­try. It became the Pro­tec­torate of Bohemia and Moravia—an arrange­ment which “in its unc­tu­ous men­dac­i­ty was remark­able even for the Nazis.”

Churchill and the Avoid­able War here­in exam­ines Churchill’s eval­u­a­tion of the Sovi­et dan­ger ver­sus the Nazi dan­ger; his con­clu­sion that the lat­ter was the greater threat; his urgent efforts, par­tic­u­lar­ly with Sovi­et Ambas­sador to Britain Ivan Maisky, to encour­age an under­stand­ing with Stal­in; and the rebuff his pre­scrip­tions received by the British (and to some extent the Sovi­et) gov­ern­ment. Sad­ly, while Prime Min­is­ter Cham­ber­lain was send­ing low-lev­el diplo­mats to nego­ti­ate with Moscow, Hitler was send­ing his for­eign min­is­ter. Thus the sur­prise announce­ment of the Nazi-Sovi­et non-aggres­sion pact, which left Hitler free to attack Poland.

Chapter 7. Lost Best Hope: America, 1918-41

“Amer­i­ca should have mind­ed her own busi­ness and stayed out of the World War. If you hadn’t entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Ger­many in the Spring of 1917…. There would have been no col­lapse in Rus­sia fol­lowed by Com­mu­nism, no break­down in Italy fol­lowed by Fas­cism, and Ger­many would not have signed the Ver­sailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Ger­many. If Amer­i­ca had stayed out of the war, all these ‘isms’ wouldn’t today be sweep­ing the con­ti­nent of Europe….”

Google this alleged 1936 state­ment and you’ll find a half dozen cita­tions ascrib­ing it to Churchill. That’s a strik­ing rever­sal of his off-stat­ed view that Amer­i­ca was indis­pens­able to win­ning World War I. As World War II approached, these alleged words resur­faced. Churchill sued the per­pe­tra­tor and won.

An oppor­tu­ni­ty to wel­come Amer­i­can sup­port of Britain and France arrived on 11 Jan­u­ary 1938, when Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt sent Cham­ber­lain a mes­sage offer­ing to medi­ate an ease­ment of ten­sions after con­sult­ing with the British gov­ern­ment. A gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty? Cham­ber­lain rebuffed it. Pri­vate­ly he com­plained that the Amer­i­cans “are incred­i­bly slow and have missed innu­mer­able busses….I do wish the Japs would beat up an Amer­i­can or two!” His wish is ful­filled four years lat­er at Pearl Har­bor.

Chamberlain’s rebuff end­ed the last frail chance to save the world from cat­a­stro­phe. Churchill’s mem­oirs were censorious:

That Mr. Cham­ber­lain, with his lim­it­ed out­look and inex­pe­ri­ence of the Euro­pean scene, should have pos­sessed the self-suf­fi­cien­cy to wave away the prof­fered hand stretched out across the Atlantic leaves one, even at this date, breath­less with amazement.

The lack of all sense of pro­por­tion, and even of self-preser­va­tion, which this episode reveals in an upright, com­pe­tent, well-mean­ing man, charged with the des­tinies of our coun­try and all who depend­ed upon it, is appalling. One can­not today even recon­struct the state of mind which would ren­der such ges­tures possible.

Chapter 8. Was World War II Avoidable?

This sum­ma­ry chap­ter con­trasts British, French and Ger­man rear­ma­ment between Munich and the out­break of war, and Churchill’s failed efforts to pro­mote col­lec­tive secu­ri­ty with Rus­sia and the Unit­ed States. It exam­ines the lost year when Cham­ber­lain rebuffed over­tures by Stal­in and Roo­sevelt, and Hitler secured his east­ern flank with a Nazi-Sovi­et non-aggres­sion pact.

Was the war real­ly avoid­able? Yes, it was—at Munich in particular—but with great dif­fi­cul­ty. No one can under­es­ti­mate the prob­lems in the way. And yet, tan­ta­liz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties existed.

“Appease­ment” is not in Churchill and the Avoid­able War. It is far over-used, and broad­ly mis­un­der­stood. It is not pop­u­lar, Churchill wrote, “but appease­ment has its place in all policy….

Make sure you put it in the right place. Appease the weak, defy the strong. It is a ter­ri­ble thing for a famous nation like Britain to do it the wrong way round…. Appease­ment in itself may be good or bad accord­ing to the circumstances…from weak­ness and fear [it] is alike futile and fatal. Appease­ment from strength is mag­nan­i­mous and noble and might be the surest and per­haps the only path to world peace.

There are lessons in Churchill’s Avoid­able War that serve us well today. Will we lis­ten? We rarely have.


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