Winston Churchill on Peace with Hitler

Winston Churchill on Peace with Hitler

Q: Peace or Armistice in 1940?

It is argued, strong­ly in John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glo­ry, that Churchill’s sin­gle­mind­ed obses­sion with Hitler blind­ed him to the longterm impli­ca­tions for Britain. He had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to back away from the Hitler war, goes the argu­ment. But alliance with the Sovi­ets after Hitler’s attack on Rus­sia in June 1941 led to the end of Empire and Britain’s decline. What do you think? —R.H., Plano, Texas

A: “You’re only saying that to be provocative…”

The peace option in 1940 is a long-run­ning debate. Pro­fes­sor Charmley’s was one of the best defens­es of it. Hitler was cer­tain­ly Churchill’s obses­sion. Was it a good obses­sion to have? Giv­en the sit­u­a­tion at the time, there is a good argu­ment that it was.

A rec­ol­lec­tion by Churchill’s last pri­vate sec­re­tary, the late Sir Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne, con­tains what may have been his best response to this ques­tion. I first heard it when Sir Antho­ny addressed our Churchill din­ner at the Hotel Savoy in 1985. It lat­er appeared in his book, Long Sun­set, 1995:

In the autumn of 1955, I dined alone with [WSC] for 17 evenings. Those evenings alone with an octo­ge­nar­i­an were utter­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. All sorts of curi­ous pieces of infor­ma­tion came out…. Con­cern­ing 1940, I played the Devil’s Advo­cate. Leav­ing aside the appalling issue of the exter­mi­na­tion camps, which was then not evi­dent, would it have been bet­ter if we had joined the New Order, as a sub­stan­tial part of France was then inclined to do?

Would the mon­strous tyran­ny of Stal­in­ism have been brought to an end? Hitler most cer­tain­ly would have attacked Rus­sia and, unha­rassed in the West, almost cer­tain­ly would have won. Would the equal­ly mon­strous tyran­ny of the Nazi regime have been mit­i­gat­ed or abbre­vi­at­ed by British influ­ence? Hitler had always respect­ed Britain. Would we have kept our Empire and our finan­cial strength?


Churchill’s reply was brief:

You’re only say­ing that to be provoca­tive. You know very well we couldn’t have made peace on the heels of a ter­ri­ble defeat. The coun­try wouldn’t have stood for it. And what makes you think that we could have trust­ed Hitler’s word—particularly as he could have had Russ­ian resources behind him? At best we would have been a Ger­man client state, and there’s not much in that.

Inci­den­tal­ly, this is also a good reply to his­to­ri­ans who insist that Churchill always placed Britain’s inter­ests first. In 1940, he clear­ly act­ed in the inter­ests of the world, and of civ­i­liza­tion. (See “Churchill: What We Mean by Civ­i­liza­tion.”)  

Of course, as some thought­ful his­to­ri­ans would say, Churchill was as will­ing to trust Stalin’s word at Teheran and Yal­ta as, say, Cham­ber­lain was to trust Hitler’s word at Godes­berg and Munich. But that is anoth­er and more com­pli­cat­ed story.

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