Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010
1940-2010 Seventy Years On: A Landmark in History
By Yoav J. Tenembaum
Dr. Tenembaum ([email protected] )is on the faculty of the Diplomacy Program, Social Sciences Department, Tel Aviv University. His previous contribution to FH was “The Last Romantic Zionist Gentile,” in issue 102, Spring 1999, downloadable from our website.
On May 10th seventy years ago, Winston Churchill became prime minister of Britain, his lifelong ambition, fulfilled in dire circumstances. A political rival within his own party during the momentous 1930s, three-time Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, once said that Churchill would make an ideal wartime premier. He turned out to be right.
In a sense, that day in 1940 was a landmark in British and world history. The previous policy of appeasement had failed; Britain was now headed by a leader who had warned about the consequences, and was as prepared as he was anxious to deal with its repercussions.
It would be unfair to lay the blame for the start of World War II on Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy. Adolf Hitler and the German nation must be blamed; Chamberlain (as Churchill would generously say later) was responsible for believing he could avert war by appeasing Hitler, particularly at the expense of democratic Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain hoped to avoid another world war and the horrors entailed, by granting Hitler’s wishes, without fully grasping the extent of them.
Hitler succeeded in the 1930s by carrying out a policy supposedly founded on western democratic principles. His 1938 demands for Germany to annex first Austria and then the Czech Sudetenland, an area mostly inhabited by Germans, were based on the principle of self-determination. Who could object to that? Even the unilateral move by German troops in 1936 into the demilitarized Rhineland, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty, was passively accepted by western elites. After all, they argued, the Germans were just marching home.
So long as Hitler demanded territories inhabited by Germanic peoples, the western democracies were ready to acquiesce. To be sure, there was this caveat: Germany must attain its objectives by peaceful means. This entailed a logical paradox: if Britain and France were not prepared to oppose Hitler’s demands, why would he need to resort to force?
Hitler’s diplomacy was a mixture of violent threats aimed at intimidation and empty promises designed to assuage. He found in Chamberlain an ideal partner, ready to accept through pro-active diplomacy what his predecessors were prepared to yield passively. Of course, Neville Chamberlain’s larger objective was to settle all outstanding disputes with Germany, achieving “peace in our time,” as he put it after Munich.
Chamberlain’s appeasement was wrong, Churchill maintained, because Hitler didn’t merely want redress of the supposed wrongs done to Germany after World War I, but rather a dominant position in the international system. This was unacceptable, Churchill argued: a threat to be challenged, not an obstacle to be overcome.
There was something tragic and yet uplifting as Churchill became premier seven decades ago. His country faced an existential threat; yet he was precisely the right person at the right time. Churchill demonstrated that individuals can shape history, in his case not so much through strategic decisions, but through the way he managed to inspire the nation. Here was a leader with the singular ability to lift Britain’s sagging spirits—the personification of resistance and endurance.
Seventy years ago Winston Churchill had been in the political wilderness for a decade, holding no political office until September 1939, when Chamberlain had appointed him First Lord of the Admiralty. But those years had endowed him with a rich political experience which served him and his country well. With his deep sense of history he assessed the present within a larger historical framework. He believed in the old-fashioned concept of the balance of power, traditionally embraced by Britain, whereby no country could be allowed to dominate Europe. He also had faith in parliamentary democracy, and alliances based not only on shared interests but also on common values.
A new chapter in British and world history opened that day a lifetime ago. A new concept in leadership emerged: an example that many a leader in parliamentary democracies would do well to emulate in the face of today’s threats to the values and interests of their nations.
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