March 15, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 49

By Richard M. Langworth

Churchill and Company, by David Dilks. I.B. Tauris, hardbound, illus., $35, member price $28.

A Swiss student, Cindy Kläy, recently asked: “According to what I have read, Chamberlain seemed -to hope World War II could be avoided, while Churchill thought war was unavoidable. Who was right? With access to all the history, it is easy to say that war could not have been avoided. But was that so obvious in the 1930s?”

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That is a very incisive question. To answer it I referred Miss Kläy to the final chapter of Churchill and Company: “‘Historians are Dangerous’: Churchill, Chamberlain and Some Others.” What may we judge from this? Perhaps that until 1937, Chamberlain and Churchill both hoped or thought war might be avoided—but pursued their hopes differently.

Chamberlain, prudent and pragmatic, thought first that Germany’s grievances could be met short of war. Churchill, equally pragmatic, thought addressing those grievances must be preceded by collective security and major rearmament. Both were frustrated in their hopes, for different reasons. Chamberlain was blamed for Appeasement, which Britons supported through 1938. Yet Britain was rearming under Chamberlain, and even Baldwin. If she were not, there would have not been enough aircraft to win the Battle of Britain in 1940. The question about rearmament was one of degree.

Chamberlain acted reasonably, according to his lights, to avoid another war. Unfortunately, he was up against a less reasonable opponent who had wanted war from the start. When war came, Hitler was elated, while Chamberlain felt that everything he had worked for had failed.

Churchill believed British rearmament should have been more robust, particularly in the air, and doubted the abilities of those Chamberlain placed in charge of it. He had good reason, being quietly advised (with Chamberlain’s knowledge) by inside sources about Hitler’s hectic rearmament. But contrary to his prewar image as a warmonger, Churchill believed for some time that peace might yet prevail. In his 1937 article, “Will There Be War?” (last issue), he was still searching for peace through a “coalition of the willing.”

For support Churchill looked first to France, then to America, then to Russia. But France had no real will to fight, America remained aloof, and Stalin opted for a pact with Germany— perhaps because Chamberlain sent low-level negotiators to Moscow, while Hitler sent his foreign minister.

After the war, in his famous 1946 speech at Fulton, Missouri, when Churchill was warning of the new Soviet threat, he called WW2 “the unnecessary war.” But as Miss Kläy astutely suggests, that was his opinion after the fact. At the time, from 1937 on, Churchill like Chamberlain found war much harder to avoid because the things he strove for never came to be.

“I doubt whether Chamberlain believed in any consistent way, at any rate from 1937, that Germany’s grievances could be contained without war,” Professor Dilks wrote to me. “He hoped that such grievances could be met in a way which would not involve a second disaster in twenty years, and which would not invite Italy and Japan to join in the fray; but he knew perfectly well that disaster might occur. Which is why the British government by the later 1930s was spending enormous amounts of money on warlike preparations—far more than had been thought necessary by Churchill’s Liberal colleagues before 1914.” (For Churchill’s views on pre-WW1 preparedness, see Christopher Beckvold’s article, page 36.)

Thoughtful readers of Churchill and Company may conclude that both Chamberlain and Churchill have one-dimensional images: Chamberlain as an appeaser to the point of national suicide; Churchill as an unredeemed warmonger. While respecting Churchill’s views, Dilks provides perspective on Chamberlain’s and Baldwin’s policies that is not widely understood, yet must be considered.

The same balance obtains in this book’s eight other essays: Churchill’s politics, his view of Britain and the Commonwealth, his affinity for France, Anglo-French postwar rivalries, Eden and Stalin, Britain and Poland, and the “Unthinkable Operation”—rearming the Germans for a possible showdown with Russia in mid-1945.

These essays, Dilks writes, are “intended to illuminate Churchill’s activities among friends and enemies”— two hard-to-separate categories. For instance: “Churchill thought of Stalin as a friend or at least a comrade-in-arms, and only with extreme reluctance did he come to look upon the new Czar of all the Russias as an enemy. He regarded Roosevelt with admiration and gratitude, whereas the balance of the evidence suggest that the President felt less warmly towards him, especially from 1943.”

Our free-thinking author challenges preconceived notions. The much-feared onrush of the Red Army in 1944-45, for example, was owed to more than Anglo-American supineness at Teheran: “…if the attempt on Hitler’s life in July [1944] had succeeded, or if the Allies had been able to break out more swiftly and decisively from their bridgehead in Normandy, [the war’s end would have found] the Red Army far to the east of the line which it eventually reached” (202). As for WSC’s Russian approach: “In public and in private, [Churchill] was far more favourably disposed towards Stalin and Russia than ever Chamberlain had been to Hitler” (261).

Cynics might wonder if absent Hitler, those wonderful Prussian generals would have come straight to the peace table. They might also point out that the zones of occupation had been pretty much agreed at Teheran in 1943. But other cynics might reply that the military situation on the ground trumps everything. It’s part of the fascination of history—or alternate history.

David Dilks can teach you more about how to appreciate Winston Churchill than most, because he makes you think. Circumstances do matter. Things then were not so straightforward as we imagine in hindsight. Judging the past by what we know now, we are obliged to consider how the players of those times had to look at things, based only on what they knew then.

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