Saturday 8 June 2019

The lessons of D-Day

The 40th anniversary of D-Day was celebrated on a very big scale because by the 50th anniversary many veterans would have died. It took place the summer I went down from university and seems very recent to me. Mrs Thatcher, Reagan, Mitterand and Pierre Trudeau, who took part, did not seem big figures then, but do now. They have been lucky in being followed by much lesser men and, in the case of Theresa May, a much lesser woman. In Trudeau's case by his very much lesser son.

People said it was unusual and pleasant to see the American, British and French leaders without Helmut Kohl being there. Nor were the Russians, who won the war, invited.

Russia dismissed the ceremonies as a ''pompous propaganda campaign''. Izvestia, the Soviet newspaper, had recently carried an article saying that Hitler and President Reagan shared the ''distorted consciousness of a maniac killer.''

Mrs Thatcher, whatever one thinks of her economic policies, which I opposed at the
time, raised British morale a long way. We shall see what effect Brexit has on it. Reagan did the same for US morale.  The BBC taught me that both were extremists and avant la lettre populists.

Both could be credited with winning the Cold War, though we see now that this victory was inevitable. 

Pierre Trudeau changed his country much more than any of the others, by moving from a European-only to a multiracial immigration policy. He intended thereby to submerge the division between the Quebecois and the rest of Canada, which he did.

Even the Machiavellian Mitterrand looks substantial now, but his legacy is the modern EU and, fatally, insisting to Kohl that
'You can't exclude the country of Plato and Aristotle'
from the Euro.

Ronald Reagan had poor eyesight and made films for the army in the war. Mitterand was a senior official in the Petain government, the one that D-Day was overthrowing. Kohl, who was not invited, was drafted but just too young to see service. Mr Chernenko, the Soviet leader who was also not invited, spent the war as a Communist party official in Siberia and Moscow.

Mrs Thatcher, unlike the Queen who is younger, did not serve in the forces. She was a schoolgirl who went up to Oxford in 1943.

Thursday's 75th anniversary ceremony was attended by Donald Trump, who as a student deferred and then escaped the draft, like Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney. His father pulled strings for George W. Bush to serve in the National Guard safe in Texas, when his student deferment expired. And so it goes.

I heard a retired and ennobled civil servant say on the BBC, on the anniversary day, that D-Day is a lesson in the importance of international cooperation. It could equally well be seen as a lesson in Britain keeping out of Europe.  

As left-wing historian A.J.P. Taylor said, we were at out greatest without allies before 1914, at Dunkirk and in the Battle of Britain. 

Tory historian Maurice Cowling argued that we should have continued our pre-1914 policy of having no European alliances and sat out the Second World War altogether. Another Tory historian, John Charmley, wrote two very thought-provoking books about appeasement and the war that imply a similar position. I reviewed them here.

It could be argued that the lesson we should draw from the Second World War is that we should leave not only the EU, but even Nato.

Was D-Day a good idea or would we have done better to have postponed the invasion until 1945 and allowed the Soviet army to have swept back the Germans?

With hindsight, the French made a great mistake to going to war with Germany in 1939. Had they let Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe it is impossible to know how things would have turned out, but it would have been better than defeat. I suspect it would have led to a Communist Eastern Europe and a Communist united Germany, an outcome not much different from what happened except for the Germans, but to quote Wittgenstein,
'of that whereof we cannot speak, thereof must we remain silent'.


  1. Without detracting from their gargantuan effort, to say the Russians won the war is a gross simplification.

  2. We should never forget what those brave British and U.S. troops on D-day died for:

  3. Was D-Day a good idea or would we have done better to have postponed the invasion until 1945

    By 1944 what Britain wanted was irrelevant. What mattered was what the Americans wanted. And they wanted to dominate Europe. D-Day was militarily of zero consequence since the Russians had already won the war. D-Day was about making sure that as much of Western Europe as possible would be part of the American Empire. By that stage Britain was already an American possession.

    Had Britain stayed out of the war it would have remained a Great Power and an independent nation. It might have been possible for Britain to turn the Empire into an economic bloc capable of challenging the Americans. In 1939 there was still a great deal of goodwill towards Britain on the part of the Dominions. The war changed that goodwill into a kind of pitying contempt.

    Had Britain and France not gone to war what would have happened? Presumably Germany and the Soviet Union would still have gone to war. Britain would still have had the option of assisting the Russians. The Americans would still have aided the Russians (there were more good communists in the Roosevelt Administration than in the Kremlin). So Hitler would still have been beaten.

    And let's be honest. Britain's contribution to beating Hitler was negligible. Britain ruined itself for no-one's benefit, except the Americans.

    1. There is very much truth in what you say. Roosevelt asset stripped the British Empire - Churchill was very naive about Roosevelt and Roosevelt was very naive about Stalin. The lesson to draw is that the Democrats are usually wrong, and have false values, like the Whigs.

  4. This makes very sad reading - people from the wartime generation who do are horrified by modern England. I wish I had spoken to my father more. They are right that our country is much richer than in 1939 but has been ruined.

  5. The Russians also helped to start the war, of course, by signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and then joining in the invasion of Poland. One of the great oddities of 1939 is that we and the French had foolishly guaranteed Poland against invasion, but when the moment came we both declared war on one invader but not the other. It seems as if great Principles can be at the same time all-important and easily shrugged off. What the British establishment wanted was a war with Germany, it was not too bothered by the more evident wickedness of Stalin.