Saturday 4 March 2017

Chamberlain, Churchill and the End of Glory

If I am to manage to continue reading books I probably have to give up fiction. Having taken almost two years with 'War and Peace' (do read it if you haven't), I returned with relish to John Charmley's 'Churchill: the End of Glory'.

The book caused great controversy when it appeared 25 years ago because it portrayed Churchill in a new and unflattering light. It is sceptical about Chamberlain and Deladier's decision to go to war with Germany in 1939 and the British cabinet's decision not to find out the details of Hitler's peace overtures after the fall of France in 1940. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax wanted to. Churchill, the new Prime Minister, and the Labour leader Attlee convinced the (all-party) war cabinet not to do so.

Having been lucky to evacuate the army from France in time and having ruled out negotiations, Churchill had no plan for defeating Germany nor any means of doing so.

As Professor Charmley points out:
The Americans were not about to enter the war in December 1941, as Churchill's despair in November showed. They came in because they were forced to, just as the Soviets had done; only the British and the French were mad enough to volunteer for war.
I followed 'Churchill: the End of Glory' with Professor Charmley's 'Chamberlain and the Lost Peace', which dissects the way in which England came to go to war.

Neville Chamberlain and Benito Mussolini at the Führerbau building in München, Germany, 19 Sep 1938, photo 2 of 2:
Neville Chamberlain and Benito Mussolini at Munich, 19 September 1938

I recommend both books very highly.

They tell a very sad story about the end of British greatness.

I admire Churchill as a great Englishman, comparable with Nelson, Wellington and Dr Johnson. I have come to think, however, that Neville Chamberlain and Halifax were wiser statesmen.

Yet it was they, not Churchill, who took us to war.

The crucial decision that led to war was the decision to give a guarantee to Poland and, oddly, Romania. It was taken by Chamberlain in March 1939, under pressure from Halifax, after Germany seized the Czech lands.

Halifax's already bad reputation as a 'guilty man' and arch-appeaser was further sabotaged by Andrew Roberts in his masterly but intensely hostile biography, 'The Holy Fox', but Halifax more than any other man is responsible for England going to war. 

He acknowledged to the Foreign Policy Committee the obvious fact that there was 
probably no way in which France or ourselves could prevent Poland and Rumania from being overrun. 
Nevertheless he thought that if the choice was between 
doing nothing or entering into a devastating war
the latter was the lesser evil.

He by then saw that Hitler had 'Napoleonic ambitions' and thought war morally necessary.

Chamberlain took a different view. He believed or at least hoped that the guarantee to Poland would prevent a German invasion of Poland, though it would not necessarily preclude changes to Polish borders or the status of Danzig.

The Poles and Romanians rejoiced and the Poles, unaware that England had no intention of coming to their defence, ignored attempts by Hitler to secure boundary changes and an alliance directed at Bolshevik Russia.

Over and over again, I am struck by how much better read, more cultured and possibly more intelligent English politicians were in the 1930s than either now or at any time since the 1950s.

For example R.A. Butler, speaking of Churchill in 1939, laments that
the good clean tradition of English politics, that of Pitt as opposed to Fox, had been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history. 
Would any British politician say something like that now?

Unlikely. Though Messrs. Gove, Johnson or Hague might.

I had the same impression reading something Viscount Maugham, the Lord Chancellor, said in cabinet in support of keeping out of war in 1938. Lord Maugham told his colleagues there were two conditions laid down by Canning and 'approved by Disraeli' which should govern any British intervention abroad: first, that 
British interests were seriously affected; secondly, that we should only intervene with overwhelming force.
Were those two conditions met in 1939?

The second clearly was not. I wonder what Disraeli or Canning would have done.

Maugham seems not to have used these arguments again in 1939. He retired when war broke out.

Most people in England expected war to start during the Czech crisis in 1938. My father did so and joined the Territorials. Despite A.J.P. Taylor's 'Origins of the Second World War' published in 1961, almost everyone, when I was at university, thought Chamberlain betrayed Czechoslovakia at the Munich conference. 

Nowadays though, as we start to see things more dispassionately, it is hard for an open-minded person not to conclude that Maugham was right to oppose declaring war in 1938. 

There were so many reasons for not going to war in 1938, starting with the fact that we had no Spitfires and the fact that France, which unlike England was Czechoslovakia's ally, had no intention of doing so.

I am struck that in 1938 cabinet government really worked as it should. The cabinet and the House of Commons decided things. Chamberlain had to report closely to the cabinet and before his visit to Munich strict conditions were imposed by the cabinet on what he would or would not say. 

Things were different under Margaret Thatcher and very different under Tony Blair. 

Churchill said in November 1942 
I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire
but this is what he did. 

Professor Charmley thinks that, unlike Roosevelt and Stalin, Churchill thought only about winning the war, not on what came after.

Hitler was certainly an evil dictator set on dominating central and Eastern Europe. Joseph Stalin, who allied with Hitler, was another evil dictator and ended up ruling half of Europe. 

England did not of course go to war because Hitler was an evil dictator, but because he invaded his neighbours. Stalin invaded his neighbours too, though. And the Allies had no plan for waging war. Hitler improvised one and thereby conquered France.

He in fact improvised constantly. He had almost no plans for what to do with a conquered Poland and that the vision of a new German empire in central and eastern Europe had to be devised on the hoof.

Chamberlain and Halifax may have been right in thinking Hitler mad. It seems mad of him to have invaded Poland knowing that this meant war with Britain and France, yet it led him swiftly to conquer France. A.J.P. Taylor by contrast said that
Hitler was a rational, though no doubt a wicked statesman.
I understand Chamberlain's, Halifax's and Taylor's points of view. 

Stalin was eminently sane, though certainly a psychopath. 

Britain did not go to war for fear that Hitler would eventually conquer us or Western Europe, nor was such a fear realistic. As Richard Overy said in his 2010 book '1939: Countdown to War', most historians now agree that Hitler did not intend to turn on the West or to dominate the world. 

Britain did go to war to protect the British empire from the threat of a continent dominated by Europe, but also because we had done so in 1914 and because, although we had neither the means to deter Hitler nor any means of defeating him, it seemed the necessary and sadly inevitable thing to do. 

As a result we were almost bankrupted, reduced to being an American satellite and in the end became part of a European Union dominated by Germany. The alliance with Stalin led to public opinion moving markedly to the left and after 1945 fairly disastrous socialist rule and the sad story of post-war Britain.

Could Britain have avoided war? Yes. Should we have done so? Professor Charmley presumably thinks so, though he does not say so. 

But had we avoided war in 1939 it would probably have been only for a time. Tragedies are problems that have no solution and end in inevitable disaster. 

As William Faukner said,
The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.
The myths of the Second World War dominate post-war history, led to the Cold War and the invasion of Iraq and are used by people who fear that Vladimir Putin is a grave threat to the West.


  1. "The alliance with Stalin led to public opinion moving markedly to the left and after 1945 disastrous socialist rule and the sad story of post-war Britain."

    That may be partly so, but the usual analysis of the result of the 1945 election is that the Conservatives had been in power for far too long and were seen (quite rightly) as having made a hopeless mess of everything since they got back in.

    With the great benefit of hindsight, I do believe we should have kept out of the second world war completely but having got into it should have got out in 1941.

    A lot is said about 1938 and 1939, I'm much more interested in why there's still a huge blanket of secrecy over the Hess mission of May 1941. Even now, almost everything about it is still mysterious.


    1. Chamberlain lost the 1945 election from the grave - people understandably though wrongly blamed him and the Conservatives for the war. The war coalition and Churchill were seen as non-party.

  2. Mr. Wood

    How was selling Czechoslovakia out moral?

    Or good policy?

    Because that is what you must believe to think that Britain and France should not have gone to war. The real problem is that instead of going to war in 1935 when Germany broke the Treaty of Versailles they waited until Germany had rearmed!

    Of course Hitler didn't have plans he was an opportunist, that's why even though he didn't have plans to dominate Europe he did it anyway. The idea that Britain and France could just sit out while country after country was devoured is madness. And the idea that he wasn't going to do that is also madness.

    Britain stopped being a great power because it liked Socialism more than's it's Empire. Couple that with the debt of two world wars, the depression and general mismanagement. It was not something that happened because of one event.

    Mark Moncrieff
    Upon Hope Blog - A Traditional Conservative Future

    1. 1. Czechoslovakia was a fake country which is why it collapsed at the end of communism.

      2. Poland also took a piece of Czechoslovakia

      3. Bohemia and Moravia would have probably fallen to communists had the Germans not made it a protectorate.

      4. It was entirely reasonable for Germany to break the insanely unjust Treaty of Versailles which they only signed because the British blockade was starving their people.

      5. Worst case scenario if the British had not gone to war Hitler would have taken Poland. But in the long term he would have likely gone to war against the USSR. This would have been a big positive.

      Going to war in 1939 was the most catastrophic error Britain ever made. Yet we had many chances to pull back from that mistake even after we had declared war and if we had someone else other than Churchill we would have done. He was the worst possible leader we could have had at the worst possible time. Britain and America lost WWII. Today Brits and American live under the same Iron Curtain of multiculturalism, death spiral demographics and thought control as the Germans do. All people of European descent (born or unborn) were the losers of World War II. Marxism and Liberalism were the victors. Globalism was the victor. The non-white, non-Christian world was the victor. That’s who has been empowered over us everywhere you look. And its all ultimately thanks to Churchill.

    2. Mr. Man with a name

      1. Even if Czechoslovakia was a fake country it still wasn't Germanys right to destroy it.

      2. Poland should not have done so, nor should Hungary, but neither of these states destroyed Czechoslovakia.

      3. You must have secret knowledge know to noone else as I have never heard anything like this before at all, and nor do I believe it.

      4. It was reasonable for Germany to renegotiate the Treaty of Versailles, but it was not reasonable for Germany to do that by destroying other nations. Further, with or without the naval blockade Germany had no choice but to sign whatever was put in front of them in 1919, they had lost and were totally exhausted.

      5. Ohhh yes how lucky Britain and France would have been when Hitler controlled Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia! And the idea that Hitler would have been satisfied with Poland goes against every scrap of eveidence of his actions before 1939 and all of his afters after.

      "The non-white, non-Christian world was the victor."

      Your entire last paragraph shows that while you don't even understand our current enemy. And you think it could have been avoided, but our fate, the one both you and I want to avoid was written by Liberalism centuries before WWII.

      Mark Moncrieff
      Upon Hope Blog - A Traditional Conservative Future

    3. I sympathise with your view but, as I said in my article, we had no Spitfires. Munich gave us a year to continue re-arming. And I do not believe that France would have gone to war in 1938. But had Britain and France done so what would have been the result? France falling in the autumn of 1938 perhaps? A Battle of Britain in which we had no Spitfires? How would that have helped Western Europe or Czechoslovakia or Poland?
      And the British hoped that Hitler would not have further demands - of course he did. But remember people expected a world war to mean the destruction of British cities - to a much greater extent than in fact happened. Baldwin had said 'the bomber always gets through'.

  3. "How was selling Czechoslovakia out moral?

    Or good policy?

    Because that is what you must believe to think that Britain and France should not have gone to war."

    Of course that's what I believe and I gave two very cogent reasons in my article but there are many more.

    Even had we thought it in British interests to go to war for Czechoslovakia in 1938 what could we have done to prevent Germany conquering it?

    A.J.P. Taylor once asked this question: "In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six and a half million Poles were killed. Which was better – to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?"

    1. Mr. Wood

      As I said, Britain and France should have gone to war in 1935 when Germany through the Treaty of Versailles out.

      And did throwing Czechoslovakia under the bus stop war? No it lead to an even bigger one. And if they had done nothing about Poland would that have ended it? Of course no, it is simply bizarre that anyone can think there is a way of war....unless they intend for Britain and France to always agree with nazi Germany.

      Mark Moncrieff
      Upon Hope Blog - A Traditional Conservative Future

    2. I think you mean in 1936 when Germany occupied the Rhineland. As Prof. Charmley points out in his Chamberlain book, even Churchill thought the Germans justified on that one.

      But you are absolutely right - we should certainly have acted then. Hitler thought he would have been overthrown had we done so. But public opinion had been persuaded that the Versailles settlement was unjust to Germany. Bad understanding of history is to blame for so much. As Andrew Roberts and I said the peace settlement was not nearly harsh enough on Germany which should have been split into several states as before 1870.

      Had we done nothing about Poland the next target might have been Communist Russia. And Russia might have defeated Germany, as happened in reality. In any case the fall of France was the result of going to war.

      The Allies won in the end only because Russia and America entered the war when Hitler attacked Russia and declared war on the USA. Had he not done so Germany would have continued to rule or dominate the continent, though we would have remained independent.

      Things are not as simple as you and many others think.

    3. Mr. Wood

      I mean 1935!

      Because it was in 1935 that Germany reintroduced conscription, formed the Luftwaffe and declared it's intention to start building U-Boats. All of which was in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Which was still International law, but instead of enforcing International law the Allied countries instead rewarded Germany for breaking it's word.

      Everything that happened afterwards was due to this, often forgotten, failure.

      France in 1939 had suffered 3 years of a Popular Front Government. It would have been much better if war had started before that defeatist and divisive Government had come to power. Maybe France would have done as badly as it did in 1940, but I tend to think that 3 years made a big deference.

      As for Spitfires, in 1935 Germany didn't have any warplanes, nor panzers, nor U-Boats, nor any pocket-battleships.. The 4 years between 1935-39 meant that Germany was allowed to rearm and was in fact encouraged to do so.

      Imagine WWII were Germany has no Messerschmitt's, Heinkels, Dorniers, Bismarcks, U-Boats or Panzers!

      If Germany had sort to renegotiate the Treaty of Versailles it would have gotten a sympathetic hearing, but it did not seek to do that. Because what it sort was to break the International order not to preserve it. WWII broke out because of the 7 great states in the world in 1939, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, Japan and the USA. Only Britain and France wanted to preserve the International Order, Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and Japan wanted to overthrow it and the USA thought it lived on a separate planet.

      Mark Moncrieff
      Upon Hope Blog - A Traditional Conservative Future

    4. The world order that Germany sought to preserve was one dominated by the British Empire. Nothing could be more clear from Hitler's recorded statements that he wanted the British empire preserved and strengthened. The USA and the USSR on the other hand wanted it gone.

      Britain's behaviour was a bit like the woman who continually turns down the rich handsome suitor who offers her everything, in favour of the thug who steals all her money leaving her pumped and dumped, in hospital.

  4. Agreed with all the points. Note: typo near the end, you wrote Charley. I always thought Churchill was sanguine about the transfer of power to the USA because his mother was American

  5. Paul,
    I commend the works of the Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs to you. His books (most quite short) on Churchill, Hitler, Hitler & Stalin, and the outbreak of the war pop to mind. He is also, by the way, an exceptionally fine writer. His insights on these personages and events defy easy categorization.

    And is Putin a threat to the West? As a geopolitical leader, somewhat; as a safe harbor for anti-liberal (Western/Enlightenment) thinking? Yes.

    1. “And is Putin a threat to the West? As a geopolitical leader, somewhat; as a safe harbor for anti-liberal (Western/Enlightenment) thinking? Yes.”

      I was delighted when the Baltic States joined NATO but now I wonder. However they are in the EU so being in Nato arguably makes sense. Putin might be a threat to the Baltic states and the evidence that he recently tried to kill the Montenegrin Prime Minister is very alarming. The EU and the US are certainly right to impose sanctions on Russia for her invasion of Ukraine but still I see no reason why Russia is a grave threat to the UK, the US or the EU.

      Mass migrations of people into Europe are a much bigger problem - the large influx of refugees from Libya Syria etc should be seen, in my opinion, as a serious defence threat.

      You remind me of the right-wing people who see Putin as a Christian conservative, a sort of Franco-light. I am not convinced. I see him as a red and a kleptocrat not a white.

      What do you mean when you say he rejects liberal/Enlightenment thinking? Some modern liberal thinking should be rejected. But his or any other leader’s ideology is not a reason for seeing them as a threat so long as they remain within their borders. Salazar and Franco rejected enlightenment and liberal values but posed no threat to the West, were thoroughly part of the West. The same was true of the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council.

      Anne Applebaum hit the nail on the head when she said the trouble is not that Trump likes Putin but that he thinks like him.

    2. And is Putin a threat to the West? As a geopolitical leader, somewhat; as a safe harbor for anti-liberal (Western/Enlightenment) thinking? Yes.

      If Putin has made Russia a safe harbour for anti-liberal (Western/Enlightenment) thinking then that's a reason to admire him.

  6. Is that quote Butler quote about ‘Pitt as opposed to Fox’ from Chips Channon?

    Thanks for your kind remark about The Holy Fox, which funnily enough I don’t think was at all hostile!

    Needless to say, I think you are wildly exaggerating how bad things were in 1945. We were not bankrupted, we were very poor having put ½ ou national wealth into buying the untarnishable glory of having fought alone against the most evil dictator in history. We were not a satellite state of the USA, otherwise we would have joined in his war in Vietnam. We did not join the EU out of wartime bankruptcy; by 1973 the war had been over for a quarter of a century. You spoil your argument by unnecessary hyperbole in my opinion. Whether to go to war in 1938 is neatly balanced, but by the time Hitler had invaded Poland after everything else he had done, we had absolutely no choice. A Europe dominated by him would inevitable have posed a mortal threat to us and he DID have ambitions in the West; revenge for 1918-19 was his ultimate dream.
    I hope this finds you well
    Best wishes

    1. The ‘Pitt as opposed to Fox’ quote's from 'Jock' Colville's diary.

      I loved The Holy Fox, one of the best books I ever read, but I thought it written from loathing for the man.

      Bankrupt was not meant literally. Satellites do not always do what they are told - Ceausescu condemned Brezhnev's invasion of Czechoslovakia and other examples are legion.

      The Second World War was at one level the result of Russia dropping out of the European system after the Bolshevik revolution and the dissolution of Austria Hungary. There was no architecture in place to restrain German aggression nor can I imagine how there could have been. The statesmanlike course in 1919 would have been to have split Germany into separate states, as before 1870.

    2. Yes, I've always been in favour of destroying Germany as a country at Versailles. Far from it being a Carthaginian peace, it wasn't tough enough

  7. There's much that I agree with here, but not that Churchill was a great man. I'd say he was a lucky opportunist who managed to be in the right place (or to some degree constructed it) at the right time. Andrew F.

  8. Charmley's Churchill’s Grand Alliance: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57 is also a must-read.

    1. So many books so little time. "Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

  9. Truly excellent article. I've long thought Chamberlain lambasted with the benefit of hindsight and wondered why (answered in your article) we had a treaty with Poland. Something else hard for 21st century Brits to appreciate is that in 1938/9 Europe had been subject to a thousand years of regular wars and alliances, so despite the proximity of WWI, I doubt many people imagined what was going to happen. Dominic Johnson

  10. Great Britain really had no choice ultimately due to Hitler's determination to dominate continental Europe which was a goal that would inevitably lead to British resistance. The only real error was probably the timing which was forced upon Great Britain due to their unwise pledge to defend Poland. It was unwise in the sense that they had no means by which to come to Poland's aid being primarily a naval power as Britain always had been historically. It would take quite a while to muster a land force of any significance. Victor Keith

    1. "Great Britain really had no choice ultimately due to Hitler's determination to dominate continental Europe which was a goal that would inevitably lead to British resistance."

      Well yes they did. They could have chosen not to follow their own stupid made-up rule of having resist any country that tried to dominate continental Europe.

      Hitler actually had no interest in dominating the whole of Europe, or taking over any country in Western Europe. At the most he wanted only part of Eastern Europe. The ones who wanted to dominate Europe were the Bolsheviks and the rise of Hitler was a response to the realisation that Bolsheviks wanted to impose their own murderous misery on the rest of Europe. Churchill, before he realised that another pointless war with Germany could revive his dead career understood this too. Read Zionism vs Bolshevism.

  11. Britain's "unwise pledge to defend Poland... unwise in the sense that they had no means by which to come to Poland's aid."

    I see your point, but think the perspective is a bit narrow.

    Why is an alliance or a declaration of war only "wise" IF you have the immediate means to act on it?

    Britain may not have IMMEDIATELY aided Poland (during the "Phony war"), but who can argue that mutual war support became real over the course of the larger war?

    A relevant example and trivia question: What is the last country that the U.S. FORMALLY declared war on?

    Believe it or not: Romania 1942.

    Now, did the U.S. have the "means" to pursue that declaration of war? Not directly. But so what?

    1. Britain may not have IMMEDIATELY aided Poland (during the "Phony war"), but who can argue that mutual war support became real over the course of the larger war?

      So during the war what actual assistance did Britain give to Poland?

      Britain declared war to save Poland from a brutal totalitarian dictatorship and ended up handing Poland over to a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.

    2. Yes indeed. You might like this by Peter Hitchens who agrees with you.

  12. Stalin's response to his unloved son attempting suicide by shooting himself was to say "Hah! You can't even shoot straight." Dominic Johnson

  13. In late summer 1938 the Wehrmacht was just completing the first stages of its rearmament programs. It had just three armoured divisions which were only equipped with light tanks, obsolete even by standards of the time. One year later, it would possess six panzer divisions supplemented by Mark III and IV medium tanks.

    The Germans found the Czech tanks they seized in March 1939 very useful. Three of the ten panzer divisions that invaded France in May 1940, including Rommel’s 7th Division, were equipped with Czech tanks. Those ten panzer divisions would just manage to break through the French defences in the Ardennes so it is hard to envisage how the three divisions of light tanks could have achieved that quick victory in either autumn 1938 or spring 1939.

    While in a strategic sense the Czechoslovak position seemed hopeless their country was far more defensible than Poland would prove the following year, surrounded as Czechoslovakia was by major mountain chains. Moreover, Czech equipment was much more up-to-date than that of the Poles, while, as pointed out, the German army was smaller and less robust than it would be the following year. In 1938, the Germans would have had barely enough divisions to launch a major campaign against Czechoslovakia with only a handful available to defend against a likely French offensive, and the Poles might also have intervened. Czech defence industries such as the Skoda Works, and Czech stockpiles of raw materials and foreign exchange, would significantly aid the Germans in their continued armament efforts.

    The Luftwaffe and the Kreigsmarine were even less prepared for war in 1938.

  14. "Britain declared war to save Poland and Eastern Europe from invasion by a brutal totalitarian dictatorship and ended up handing Poland and Eastern Europe over to a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. "

    That has more to do with Britain's conduct of the was Churchill's fixation on the 'soft underbelly of Europe' (that wasn't soft) and his reluctance to engage in a cross-Channel invasion that held back D-Day until June 1944. If the British had been more willing to take their lumps and invade, say, in the summer of 1943, when the German front line was still deep in the Ukraine and Belorussia, then the Western Allies might have me the Soviets on the Vistula, not the Elbe. (See John Grigg's "1943: The Victory that Never Was").

    Stewart M.

  15. As to the overall topic, a better question is "why not a fight over Czechoslovakia"? Anyone knowledgeable about Hitler's war aims (undeniable now since we have all the documentation) would know that Hitler was determined to reach for war aims incompatible with 'English' or even American interests. The Czechs probably could have put up stiffer resistance than the Poles.

    Moreover, insofar as even Poland was concerned, stiffing the Soviets' offer of help to defend Poland was rather stupid. Western intransigence over working with the Soviets was a big reason why the early war period went as badly as it did.

  16. It is a complete Canard to suggest that we gained time to produce Spitfires between Munich and Sept. 1939. This is a propaganda overhang from as far back as WW2. Where is your evidence that the production was increased during that period, or that the Air Ministry placed more and larger orders, than they had already planned do to do? Now of course, there were more front line squadrons equipped with, mainly Hurricanes in Sept. 39 than autumn 38; this was simply because the modernising and re-arming process was further advanced. In addition, and more importantly, the world's first intranet (Radar, visual observation, analysis, and vectoring of fighter squadrons to intercept) was nearly ready. This concept that Munich gained us a vital year in which extra re-armament took place is frankly a fantasy.