January 1, 1970

Finest Hour 156

By Richard M. Langworth

The Hitler chapter in Great Contemporaries, like the rest of the book, was derived from a previous article. In this case the original was “The Truth about Hitler,” in The Strand Magazine of November 1935 (Cohen C481). Ronald Cohen notes that Strand editor Reeves Shaw, who paid him £250 for the article, wanted Churchill to make it “as outspoken as you possibly can… absolutely frank in your judgment of [Hitler’s] methods.” It was.

Two years later, when Churchill was preparing his Hitler essay for Great Contemporaries, he characteristically submitted it to the Foreign Office, which asked that he tone it down. Preferring that he not publish it at all, they were somewhat mollified by the result. (See Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, London: Heinemann, 1991, 580-81). Nonetheless, the belief has persisted that Churchill wrote approvingly of Hitler, in either his book or his article—or in other writings for the British press.

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“Government by Dictators”

On 10 October 1937, six days after publication of Great Contemporaries, Churchill published an article, “This Age of Government by Great Dictators,” his seventh installment in the series “Great Events of Our Time” for News of the World (Cohen C535.7). Here he traced the evolution of British democracy from the feudal ages, the destruction of continental monarchies during the Great War, and the rise of the Bolsheviks, Fascists and Nazis. His Hitler paragraphs in this piece are mainly—but not wholly—from his Great Contemporaries text.

In his opening about Hitler, Churchill retained the language from his 1935 Strand article which he had combed out of Great Contemporaries, speaking of Hitler’s “guilt of blood” and “wicked” methods. He then inserts two sentences from the Strand which are omitted from his book. (This article is available from the editor by email):

It is on this mystery of the future that history will pronounce Hitler either a monster or a hero. It is this which will determine whether he will rank in Valhalla with Pericles, with Augustus and with Washington, or welter in the inferno of human scorn with Attila and Tamerlane.

Were those words from his Strand piece retained in defiance of the Foreign Office’s wishes? Or were they there because Churchill was too good a writer not to re-use good words carefully composed two years earlier? Whatever the reason, they do not materially change Churchill’s view of Hitler—and his considerable doubt that history would come to regard Hitler in a positive light.

“Friendship with Germany”

Churchill’s critics sometimes quote sentences which they think came from these articles or Great Contemporaries:

One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.

In fact this passage is from Churchill’s foreign affairs article in the Evening Standard, 17 September 1937: “Friendship with Germany” (Cohen C548), subsequently reprinted in Step by Step (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1939, Cohen A111).

Churchill wrote: “I find myself pilloried by Dr. Goebbels’ Press as an enemy of Germany. That description is quite untrue.” He had made many efforts on Germany’s behalf in recent years, Churchill continued, but it was his duty to warn against German rearmament: “I can quite understand that this action of mine would not be popular in Germany. Indeed, it was not popular anywhere. I was told I was making ill-will between the two countries.”

Then Churchill adds something that is perhaps relevant to present-day situations:

I drew attention to a serious danger to Anglo-German relations which arises out of the organisation of German residents in Britain into a closely-knit, strictly disciplined body. We could never allow foreign visitors to pursue their national feuds in the bosom of our country, still less to be organised in such a way as to effect our military security. The Germans would not tolerate it for a moment in their country, nor should they take it amiss because we do not like it in ours.

Pleasing No One

Churchill was right to declare that his writings about Hitler satisfied neither the Nazis’ defenders nor their critics. One of the defenders was Lord Londonderry, an appeaser who complained that Churchill’s Evening Standard piece would prevent a decent understanding with Germany. On 23 October 1937, Churchill replied to Lord Londonderry (Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, 581):

You cannot expect English people to be attracted by the brutal intolerances of Nazidom, though these may fade with time. On the other hand, we all wish to live on friendly terms with Germany. We know that the best Germans are ashamed of the Nazi excesses, and recoil from the paganism on which they are based. We certainly do not wish to pursue a policy inimical to the legitimate interests of Germany, but you must surely be aware that when the German Government speaks of friendship with England, what they mean is that we shall give them back their former Colonies, and also agree to their having a free hand so far as we are concerned in Central and Southern Europe. This means that they would devour Austria and Czechoslovakia as a preliminary to making a gigantic middle-Europe bloc. It would certainly not be in our interest to connive at such policies of aggression. It would be wrong and cynical in the last degree to buy immunity for ourselves at the expense of the smaller countries of Central Europe. It would be contrary to the whole tide of British and United States opinion for us to facilitate the spread of Nazi tyranny over countries which now have a considerable measure of democratic freedom.

It is possible now, with hindsight knowledge of what Hitler really was, to scoff at Churchill for failing to go all out against him in his writings of 1935-37. In fact, he had told the truth about Hitler from the beginning, but tempered his later writing in an effort to meet the wishes of the Foreign Office—which was certain that Hitler could be handled, if only they didn’t upset him. Nevertheless, as Sir Martin Gilbert wrote: “neither the toned-down essay [in Great Contemporaries] nor the conciliatory article in the Evening Standard marked any change in Churchill’s attitude….”

When Churchill writes about buying immunity from a “gigantic bloc” marked by brutal intolerance, one is reminded of certain parallels with the policies of Western democracies toward similar fanatics in our own time.

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