January 1, 1970

Finest Hour 139

Riddles, Mysteries, Enigmas

Did he want a deal with Stalin?

While it is beyond question that Churchill’s leadership of embattled Britain during 1940-41 prevented the war from being lost, don’t you think that some sort of arrangement with the Soviet Union before August 1939 could have checked Hitler’s designs and saved mankind much misery? True, he was not at the head of affairs then, but did he try to influence his Party to move in that direction? Or was his hatred of communism too strong for him to see the opportunity? Could you kindly let me know if you have published anything on this subject?
—Manmohan Singh, London ([email protected])

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Good question. Churchill did favour a Soviet alliance, or at least an understanding, in the period you mention—and for several years leading to it. He was convinced that Stalin’s reach was confined to Soviet borders, while Hitler’s ambitions were at least pan-European.

The problem was that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who by then was pretty much his own foreign secretary, was not convinced, and Churchill had less influence with Chamberlain at this time than the Labour Party. The Prime Minister sent low-level diplomats to talk to Moscow, while the Germans sent their foreign minister, and the outcome was the Nazi-Soviet Pact of late August 1939. Stalin was convinced the British weren’t serious, and saw major advantages in a deal, however temporary, with Hitler. Churchill had no influence in this period.

It’s impossible to say what Churchill would done had he been in charge. Were he in charge in 1939 he might have applied personal diplomacy, as he did with Stalin, Roosevelt and de Gaulle in 1941-45. Had he been in charge in 1938, he might have gone to war with Hitler over the Czech Sudetenland—Russia or no Russia. All this makes for fascinating speculation, but we can draw no real conclusions.

For material on the subject see Winston S. Churchill, by Martin Gilbert, vol. 5 (London: Heinemann, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), which is very thorough on the topic; check references to the Soviet Union, Maisky, Stalin, etc.

For instance, on 20 April 1936, Sir Martin writes:

[Chamberlain adviser Maurice] Hankey also told [Minister for the Coordination of Defence Sir Thomas] Inskip of a “fantastic plan” which Churchill had explained to him in detail for sending part of the British Fleet to the Baltic “to ensure superiority over Germany in that sea. It would stay there permanently, based on a Russian port of which we should obtain the use under this plan….In view of the danger from Germany he has buried his violent anti-Russian complex of former days and is apparently a bosom friend of [Soviet ambassador] M Maisky. Until quite recently he has been inclined to believe in the strength of Russia. He has, however, been seriously shaken in this…” (723-24)

See also Ivan Maisky, Memoirs of a Soviet Ambassador (London: Hutchinson, 1967; New York, Scribners 1968). Encouraged by a member of the government, Robert Vansittart, Churchill maintained a friendly relationship with the Soviet ambassador and through him Litvinov, the Soviet foreign minister (until the latter was replaced by a harder-line successor). Both Russian diplomats had relatively positive inclinations toward Britain, and distrusted Germany. There are numerous examples in Maisky’s book (and also in the Companion Volume Part 3 to Gilbert’s Volume V, The Coming of War 1936-1939) attesting to Churchill’s wish for an Anglo-Soviet common front in the face of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Finally, use the “search” feature on our website and enter key words, such as Maisky, collective security, Russian alliance, Molotov-Ribbentrop, and so on. You will find links to many useful articles.


I am seeking a quotation, I believe from Violet Bonham Carter, but can only remember a bit of it: “Churchill had no antenna.”

Violet Bonham Carter’s apt comment that Churchill had vision but lacked antennae appears in her memoir, Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode & Collins, 1965; London: Reprint Society, 1965; London: Orion, 1995, paperback). The American title is Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1965; New York: Konecky, 1995).

Bonham Carter is a “standard work”: an insightful insider’s account with many deft judgments on WSC’s life and character. From the American edition, 22-23 (English ed., 21-22):

The trouble with Winston Churchill was that no one ever knew what he was going to say—or do. The unpredictable is rarely popular. More often than not it is mistaken for the unreliable. The public like getting what they expect. They resent surprises and prefer being lulled to being startled.

I am not of course suggesting that in that first summer of our early friendship any of these reflections, forecasts or analyses crossed my mind. But I knew that politics depend above all else upon the power of persuading others to accept ideas. I was disturbed to find among so many people a blank and blind refusal to recognize Winston Churchill’s rare and dazzling quality. And I sometimes felt amazement and alarm at his own seeming unawareness of their reactions to himself. Though he had vision he appeared to lack antennae, to ignore the need to feel his way about other minds. I remembered, with some reassurance, the lines of Blake:

“Does the Eagle know what is in the pit
“Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?”

The poetry is from William Blake (1757-1827): the first two lines from The Book of Thel, the first of Blake’s prophetic books (Chambers Encyclopedia of English Literature, vol. II, 718).                                         

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