To go by the outpouring of unthinking patriotism and nationalism in these Brexit times, the 75th anniversary of VE Day provided people across the UK with a welcome opportunity to momentarily forget the ravages of Covid-19, forget the criminal negligence of a prime minister in Boris Johnson for whom Winston Churchill is his guiding light, forget the ravages of Tory austerity visited on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and instead lose themselves in a wave of national consensus over Britain’s intrinsic ‘good’.
‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’, Oscar Wilde helpfully reminds us, however, and the truth, the unvarnished truth, when it comes to World War II is that just as with its predecessor, World War I, it was a war for empire not democracy. Indeed and in fact, as A.J.P. Taylor avers, ‘The Second World War was, in large part, a repeat performance of the First’.
The official mythologised history of Britain’s role in WW2 is that of a doughty island race existing under the shadow of looming Nazi invasion after the Fall of France in June 1940 and the miraculous escape of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk. It is a reductionist rendering of a period that was far more fluid and complex.
Firstly, Britain’s engagement with Nazi Germany up to 1939 had been that of facilitator rather than opponent. Whether it was London’s refusal to intervene on the side of the democratically-elected Spanish Republican government between 1936 and 38, when it was engulfed in a fascist insurgency supported by Hitler and Mussolini, or whether it was the Munich Agreement of 1938, when along with France London was party to the offering up of Czechoslovakia to the tender mercies of Nazi occupation, the British political establishment with few exceptions viewed Hitler as a man it could do business with, especially when it came to holding back the rising tide of communist ideas that were abroad at the time.
Further still, it was and remains unconscionable that Britain would go to war against Hitler on a guarantee of Poland’s integrity in 1939. This, after all, is the same country that in 1938 joined in the destruction of Czechoslovakia, taking advantage, with Hitler’s permission, of the latter’s demise to seize some Czech territory for itself. In his remarkable work, The Phoney Victory, Peter Hitchens quotes at length from Simon Newman’s March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland:
There was sense in fighting for Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the German Army could scarcely put half a dozen trained divisions on the Western Front, when the French with nearly sixty or seventy divisions could most certainly have rolled forward across the Rhine or into the Ruhr. But this had been judged unreasonable, rash, below the level of modern intellectual thought and morality.
Diplomacy not military opposition had been the preferred means of engagement with Hitler throughout the portentous 1930s, and nowadays it is commonly held to have been a shameful lapse into appeasement. The consequent demonisation of diplomacy in international affairs has poisoned public discourse and politics in Britain ever since, leading the country into disastrous conflicts around the world at devastating cost.
With the benefit of historical hindsight major events take on the character of a morality play, replete with one-dimensional heroes and villains. Thus we have Neville Chamberlain, today held up as a monument to cowardice and lily-livered backsliding in the face of evil, while Winston Churchill is the dogged and gruff redoubtable warrior-king, who almost single-handedly inserted a fighting spine down the back of a political class that was about to roll out the red carpet for Hitler and his fascist hordes down the Mall.
Back we go to Peter Hitchens:
The closing scene of The King’s Speech shows crowds converging on Buckingham Palace as King George VI nobly rallies the nation to its stern task of defeating Hitler at the outbreak of war. No such crowds in fact converged. What did happen, 11 months earlier, was roughly the opposite. The nation rallied at the palace, it is true, but it rallied against war, and in favour of a negotiated peace with Hitler.
Who could be surprised, given that the country was in the 1930s still to heal from the deep and devastating wounds of the First World War, that Chamberlain’s willingness to go the extra mile for a negotiated peace with Hitler should enjoy such support and traction at home? Further still, Churchill, the man behind the disaster of Gallipoli, was justifiably regarded as a marginal reckless and self-serving adventurist and warmonger, holding no loyalty to anything other than his own prestige.
It remains one of the more remarkable ironies of history that the same Winston Churchill could, while First Lord of the Admiralty, be responsible for the disastrous Norwegian campaign in April 1940, when a British invasion force was destroyed by the Germans, and be propelled into the office of prime minister as a result. Talk about being rewarded for failure.
It is true, yes, that Churchill spent most of the 1930s warning of the threat posed by Hitler and Germany’s rapid re-armament programme at his behest and calling for the British equivalent. But a main motive in doing so was the security of an Empire that was a source of misery for the millions around the world who were in its grasp. And it is no accident either that the Left in Britain at the time was broadly opposed to the country’s rearmament, fearing that it would used against the Soviet Union. Here it should be borne in mind that Winston Churchill was the man who, in his first incarnation as First Lord of the Admiralty, dispatched British troops to Russia in 1919 as part of the international effort to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution in its cradle.
In his notorious memoir and programmatic bible, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler made clear his goal of an alliance with England (Great Britain) against Russia. He was a fervent admirer of Britain’s colonisation and exploitation of India, viewing it as the model for Nazi Germany’s colonisation and exploitation of Eastern Europe. And just as Nazi imperialists viewed the Slavs of Eastern Europe as unpeople, so British imperialists, including Churchill, viewed the indigenous population of India as such. In her 1996 biography of Albert Speer, meanwhile, Gitta Sereny reveals that Hitler once told his Minister of Armaments and War Production that the English are ‘our brothers. Why fight our brothers?’
That Hitler had to be stopped by force is not in doubt. And neither is the courage of the men and women in uniform who served in the war. But behind the ‘Good War’ narrative lies the horrific atrocities that were inflicted on German civilians during the carpet bombing of German towns and cities, which was of dubious military need and justification.
Hitler was in every way a product of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which under its terms imposed a Carthaginian peace on Germany. It’s why the 75 million dead of WWII lies at the feet of the same politicians who were responsible for the 40 million dead of WWI. Both were wars over empire and imperial possessions, while the fascism which had Europe and South East Asia in its grip in the 1930s and 40s was a child of capitalism not evil.
Finally, for the Union Jack waving Brexiteer faction, those for whom VE Day is reaffirmation of British exceptionalism, hark these words of Churchill in 1938:
The conception of a United States of Europe is right. Every step taken to that end which appeases the obsolete hatreds and vanished oppressions, which makes easier the traffic and reciprocal services of Europe, which encourages its nations to lay aside their threatening arms or precautionary panoply, is good in itself, is good for them and good for all.
One can only wonder whether if in the wake of WWI serious steps towards European integration would have seen Europe and the world follow a different historical road rather than the one which led to WWII and all its attendant horrors.
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