Was WW2 Avoidable?

Was WW2 Avoidable?

con­tin­ued from pre­vi­ous post…

Churchill and the Avoid­able War


This book exam­ines Churchill’s the­o­ry that “time­ly action” could have forced Hitler to recoil, and a dev­as­tat­ing cat­a­stro­phe avoid­ed. We con­sid­er his pro­pos­als, and the degree to which he pur­sued them. Churchill was both right and wrong. He was right that Hitler could have been stopped. He was wrong in not doing all he could to stop him. The result is a cor­rec­tive to tra­di­tion­al argu­ments, both of Churchill’s crit­ics and defend­ers. Whether the war was avoid­able hangs on these issues.

Chap­ter 1. Ger­many Arm­ing:  Encoun­ter­ing Hitler, 1930-34

Adolf Hitler, Rednerposen“There is no dif­fi­cul­ty at all in hav­ing cor­dial rela­tions between the peoples….But nev­er will you have friend­ship with the present Ger­man Gov­ern­ment. You must have diplo­mat­ic and cor­rect rela­tions, but there can nev­er be friend­ship between the British democ­ra­cy and the Nazi power….That pow­er can­not ever be the trust­ed friend of the British democ­ra­cy.” —Churchill, 1934

Some 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.” But in his broad under­stand­ing of Hitler, Churchill was right all along: dead right.


Chap­ter 2. Ger­many Armed: “Hitler and His Choice,” 1935-36

Recent­ly [Hitler] has offered many words of reas­sur­ance, eager­ly lapped up by those who have been so trag­i­cal­ly wrong about Ger­many in the past.  —Churchill, 1935

It is wide­ly stat­ed that Churchill admired Hitler, to the point of sug­gest­ing that if Britain had been defeat­ed it could have ben­e­fit­ted from some­one like him. Here­in we exam­ine Churchill’s con­tentious essay, “Hitler and His Choice,” in the Strand Mag­a­zine, 1935. We also eval­u­ate Churchill’s mid-1930s warn­ings of the per­ils of disarmament.


Chap­ter 3. The Rhineland :“They had only to act to win,” 1936

Mr. Bald­win explained [to French For­eign Min­is­ter Flandin] that although he knew lit­tle of for­eign affairs he was able to inter­pret accu­rate­ly the feel­ings of the British peo­ple. And they want­ed peace. M. Flandin says that he rejoined that the only way to ensure this was to stop Hit­lerite aggres­sion while such action was still pos­si­ble.” —Churchill, 1948

Churchill lat­er stat­ed that Hitler could have been stopped when he marched into the Rhineland in 1936. This on the evi­dence is true. At the time, though, Churchill failed to press the issue. Hop­ing for office under Bald­win, who had become prime min­is­ter once again, he chose not to buck his party’s leader, cling­ing to a hope that the French would act alone; but they would not move with­out tac­it British support.


Chap­ter 4. Derelict State: The Aus­tri­an Anschluss, 1938

            Europe is con­front­ed with a pro­gramme of aggres­sion, nice­ly cal­cu­lat­ed and timed, unfold­ing stage by stage, and there is only one choice open, not only to us, but to oth­er coun­tries who are unfor­tu­nate­ly concerned—either to sub­mit, like Aus­tria, or else to take effec­tive mea­sures while time remains….” —Churchill, 1938

In 1935 Hitler assured Aus­tria of her inde­pen­dence. In Feb­ru­ary 1938 he sum­moned the Aus­tri­an Chan­cel­lor in Feb­ru­ary 1938, demand­ing appoint­ment of a Nazi Inte­ri­or and Secu­ri­ty Min­is­ter. In Lon­don, The Times stat­ed that “no one but a fanat­ic” would believe this meant a “Naz­i­fied Aus­tria.” A month lat­er, Hitler pro­claimed an Anschluss, or union with Aus­tria. Churchill did not see this com­ing, though he had warned in a gen­er­al sense, and his pre­science was jus­ti­fied. Czecho­slo­va­kia, he pre­dict­ed, would Hitler’s next conquest.


Chap­ter 5. Munich’s Mor­tal Fol­lies, Octo­ber 1938

            Silent, mourn­ful, aban­doned, bro­ken, Czecho­slo­va­kia recedes into the darkness….I do not grudge our loy­al, brave peo­ple, who were ready to do their duty no mat­ter what the cost….but they should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and defi­cien­cy in our defences; they should know that we have sus­tained a defeat with­out a war, the con­se­quences of which will trav­el far with us along our road.” —Churchill, 1938

The Munich agree­ment, which entrenched Hitler in pow­er and gave him Czecho­slo­va­kia with its mil­i­tary fac­to­ries, is held today the clas­sic exam­ple of fatal appease­ment. Yet a curi­ous nar­ra­tive has evolved that Munich was actu­al­ly wise, since it gave the Allies anoth­er year to arm. Less often remarked is that it also gave Ger­many anoth­er year, and even Ger­man sources agree the Nazis were less for­mi­da­ble in 1938. What was there about fight­ing them in 1939-40 that made it prefer­able? Was it Hitler’s erad­i­ca­tion of Poland in three weeks, the Low Coun­tries in six­teen days, France in six weeks? This chap­ter also exam­ines the cred­i­ble 1938 plot to over­throw Hitler. After Munich the plot­ters despaired. Most were lat­er executed.


Chap­ter 6. “Favourable Ref­er­ence to the Devil”:

The Russ­ian Enig­ma, 1938-39

"Rendezvous," September 1939. David Low in the Evening Standard.
Ren­dezvous, 20 Sep­tem­ber 1939. Hitler: “The scum of the earth, I believe?”….Stalin: “The bloody assas­sin of the work­ers, I pre­sume?” David Low in the Evening Standard.

            “I can­not fore­cast to you the action of Rus­sia. It is a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enig­ma: but per­haps there is a key. That key is Russ­ian nation­al inter­est. —Churchill, 1939

As Churchill pre­dict­ed, Munich sealed Czechoslovakia’s fate. In mid-March 1939, Czech Pres­i­dent Emil Hácha, threat­ened with the bomb­ing of Prague, agreed to Ger­man occu­pa­tion of the rest of his coun­try, which was renamed the Pro­tec­torate of Bohemia and Moravia—an arrange­ment which “in its unc­tu­ous men­dac­i­ty was remark­able even for the Nazis.” This chap­ter exam­ines Churchill’s eval­u­a­tion of the Sovi­et ver­sus Nazi dan­ger; his con­clu­sion that the lat­ter was the greater threat; his urgent efforts to encour­age an under­stand­ing with the Rus­sians; and the rebuff his pre­scrip­tions received by the British (and to some extent the Sovi­et) government.


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

            “Amer­i­ca should have mind­ed her own business….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.”

Google this alleged 1936 quo­ta­tion and you’ll find a half dozen cita­tions unques­tion­ing­ly attribut­ing it to Churchill—a strik­ing rever­sal of his off-stat­ed view that Amer­i­ca could not avoid “world respon­si­bil­i­ty.” As World War II approached these alleged words resur­faced. Churchill sued the per­pe­tra­tor and won. How he han­dled this pecu­liar case illus­trates his con­sis­tent belief that the Unit­ed States could not iso­late itself—and that with Amer­i­can sup­port the war could have been prevented.


Chap­ter 8. Was World War II Preventable?

“Embalm, cre­mate and bury—take no risks!”

“Here is a line of mile­stones to dis­as­ter. Here is a cat­a­logue of sur­ren­ders, at first when all was easy and lat­er when things were hard­er, to the ever-grow­ing Ger­man pow­er. But now at last was the end of British and French sub­mis­sion. Here was deci­sion at last, tak­en at the worst pos­si­ble moment and on the least sat­is­fac­to­ry ground, which must sure­ly lead to the slaugh­ter of tens of mil­lions of peo­ple.” —Churchill, 1948

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


 Sum­ma­ry: What Churchill Teach­es Us Today

            The word ‘appease­ment’ is not pop­u­lar, 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. Appease­ment from weak­ness and fear 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.” —Churchill, 1952

            To her father’s admir­ers the late Lady Soames would always offer a com­mand­ment: “Thou shalt not say what my father would do today.” Mod­ern sit­u­a­tions are vast­ly dif­fer­ent. The threat today is dif­fuse; in its total­i­ty it is by no means com­pa­ra­ble to that embod­ied by Nazi Germany.

Was Churchill right that World War II was pre­ventable? The answer is prob­a­bly “yes—but with great dif­fi­cul­ty.” Was he right that it is fool­ish to put off unpleas­ant real­i­ty “until self-preser­va­tion strikes its jar­ring gong”? Undoubt­ed­ly. The prob­lem for lead­ers today is to judge when dis­cre­tion should take pri­or­i­ty over action, when diplo­ma­cy is yet a fea­si­ble option—and when and how to deploy a bluff.


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