August 30, 2021

Q. Did Churchill misunderstand Hitler?

A. From Finest Hour Reader

Let me see whether I can start something with three theses (for the sake of the argument I will sharpen them, perhaps oversharpen them):

 1. Churchill completely misunderstood Hitler. For instance, he called WW2 “the unnecessary war.” This is wrong because Hitler wanted war for war’s sake (vide his saying in August 1939: “Hopefully there won’t be someone to turn up with a mediation plan” or something to this effect; vide his disappointment that he was unable to crush Czechoslovakia by military force but had to do it with Munich). War was for Hitler the ultima ratio of life itself. Perhaps (only perhaps) war could have been avoided through military intervention during the Rhineland crisis‹when Churchill was conspicuously silent. From then on Europe was doomed. Another example is that Churchill saw in Hitler the (or at least some) embodiment of Prussian militarism. The reverse is actually true. Hitler crushed Prussian militarism forever. It was no historical accident that it was the truly Prussian element of the German officer corps who staged several attempts on Hitler’s life. Hitler, indeed, established (albeit in a perverted way) civilian control over the military.

2. Churchill’s greatness lies in his defeat if you measure defeat or victory in terms of the declared aims of an individual statesman. He said, “I have not become the King’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” yet he precisely did so. But in the way of doing it he defeated the most evil system of modern times and thus gave to the “liquidation of the British Empire” (one is tempted to say to the Empire itself) a noble meaning. Liquidation became “Their Finest Hour.” There is an element of tragedy in this. But is there greatness without tragedy?

3. Churchill did not and perhaps could not recognize that the British Empire was doomed anyway doomed from what Paul Kennedy calls over-extension. As an aside: it was doomed for this reason from its very beginning. Churchill’s empire-mindedness prevented him from doing Britain the perhaps greatest service he (and at the time probably only he) could have done, i.e. to prepare Britain for integration into Europe. Churchill came, in my view, close to doing so in 1946-48, but he dropped his effort when he realized the implications of such a step for the fading empire.

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A. From Finest Hour Editor

1. Did Churchill’s term “the unnecessary war” have anything to do with whether or not Hitler was bent on war? Didn’t Churchill argue that by timely action, through about 1936, France and Britain could have prevented war (whatever Hitler wanted) by preemptive action, e.g. over Germany’s rebuilding the Luftwaffe, creating the Wehrmacht, reoccupying the Rhineland, etc.?

2. Numberless Chinese, Ukrainians, Balts and central Asians might dispute whether Hitler’s was the most evil system of modern times, although it was unmatched in its genocidal precision. But to the main point, which is very valid: William F. Buckley Jr. makes some parallel comments in our 1994-1995 Proceedings, words which I put among the twenty or thirty best passages about Churchill I’ve ever read: “Mr. Churchill had struggled to diminish totalitarian rule in Europe which, however, increased. He fought to save the Empire, which dissolved. He fought socialism, which prevailed. He struggled to defeat Hitler, and he won. It is not, I think, the significance of that victory, mighty and glorious though it was, that causes the name of Churchill to make the blood run a little faster….It is simply mistaken that battles are necessarily more important than the words that summon men to arms, or who remember the call to arms. The battle of Agincourt was long forgotten as a geopolitical event, but the words of Henry V, with Shakespeare to recall them, are imperishable in the mind, even as which side won the battle of Gettysburg will dim from the memory of men and women who will never forget the words spoken about that battle by Abraham Lincoln. The genius of Churchill was his union of affinities of the heart and of the mind. The total fusion of animal and spiritual energy…”

3. It was Clement Attlee, in the first phase, and Harold Macmillan, in the second, who presided over the dissolution of the Empire. But we often judge past history by present-day standards, not to mention hindsight. It is very clear today that Churchill failed to understand the strength of the anti-colonial movement; the desire of colonial peoples to be governed by their own rascals, even if the latter turned out to be worse than the British civil service; and the endgame of the Europe Unite movement. From WSC’s point of view in the 1940s and 1950s, Britain and the Commonwealth were a viable Fourth World, and based on that mindset he took the view that Britain was “of” Europe, but not “in” it–a benevolent, interested partner, but not a party; and that European Unity depended primarily on the continental powers resolving “the ancient quarrels of Teuton and Gaul.” Yet some historians continue to remark over how, with a remarkable lack of foresight or comprehension, or even perhaps a sense of self-preservation, Britain herself not simply Churchill, but the whole governing establishment allowed her moral and political force to decline. This is to a certain extent John Charmley’s argument in his Churchill’s Grand Alliance.

A. From Dr. Robert J. Caputi

I enjoy the intelligence and collegiality of the Listserv. In reply to Malakand’s statements: It is offered how Britain’s “whole governing establishment” allowed her moral and political force to decline in the postwar period. I submit that the two awful world wars and the crippling Depression era led to the unavoidable losses of both tangible and intangible overseas assets and had much to do with the “decline” of that moral and political force. I do not believe the British Lion relinquished anything willingly; instead, it was forced into a reactive rather than proactive role after V-E and V-J Days. Economics, sadly, played a critical role. The enduring greatness of “Their Finest Hour” was that those immense sacrifices, the dissolution of the Empire and Britain’s great power status, in the long run, was worth it to secure the defeat of the beasts from Berlin.

Q. What is the difference in the history of British intelligence between the “enigma secret” and “ultra.”?

A. “Enigma” was the British codename for the German cypher machine (sometimes erroneously referred to as a code machine) while “Ultra” was the code name applied to intelligence derived from reading the Enigma. This roughly corresponds, in American usage, to the Japanese “Purple” machine and the “Magic” designation of intelligence derived from Purple. The Americans eventually came to recognize “Ultra” as an all purpose designation for sensitive intelligence from communications intercepts and used it virtually interchangeably with Magic during the last couple of years of the war. Breaking Ultra was an enormous coup. Kudos to the Polish, French, and British code breakers who accomplished it. No reputable historian would argue that Ultra single-handedly won the war or anything like that, there is little doubt it shortened the war and saved many, many lives. Churchill deserves much of the credit for recognizing the importance of Ultra, for supporting Bletchley Park and its security requirements, and, ultimately, for its judicious use over the course of the war.

Although Churchill and Hitler never met, I understand that they nearly did so in a German hotel in the 1930s. But Hitler balked at the last moment. This event is portrayed in “The Wilderness Years” (a film documentary starring Robert Hardy as Churchill). Hitler is shown glaring balefully down on Churchill who is sitting in the hotel restaurant, Churchill being unaware of the presence of his future protagonist. Were Churchill and Hitler actually in the hotel at the same time, or did the portrayal in “The Wilderness Years” involve a large measure of artistic license?

They were not in the hotel at the same time and some artistic license was therefore involved. However, the meeting was definitely proposed. The best account of it is in the new biography of Randolph S. Churchill by his son, Winston S. Churchill MP, His Father’s Son, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, published in mid-1996, pages 92-94).

Churchill, researching his life of Marlborough, had travelled to Europe on 27 August 1932 for a tour of Marlborough’s battlefields, following his great ancestor’s march to the Danube and visiting Munich in mid-September. Here Churchill was joined by his wife, son Randolph, daughter Sarah and Professor Lindemann. Randolph Churchill contacted a colleague, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl (a Harvard graduate acting as Hitler’s press secretary) who suggested a meeting. Hanfstaengl wrote about this in his memoirs, Hitler, The Missing Years (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode 1957), quoted at length in His Father’s Son.

 Hanfstaengl attempted to persuade Hitler to join Churchill’s dinner party at Munich’s Hotel Continental, but Hitler was reluctant: “Don’t they realize how busy I am? What on earth would I talk to [Churchill] about?” Hanfstaengl himself joined the party, suggesting that “Hitler might join us for coffee.” It was at this point that Churchill made the famous remark: “Tell your boss from me that anti-Semitism may be a good starter, but it is a bad sticker.”

 Hanfstaengl sniffed at that comment, but was tantalized by another remark by Churchill: “How does your chief feel about an alliance between your country, France and England?” Hanfstaengl wrote that he was “transfixed” at this. (Remember, Hitler had not yet come to power; the quote sheds interesting light on Churchill’s thinking at the time, already intent on preventing another war by a coalition that would presumably redress Germany’s legitimate grievances over the Versailles Treaty.)

 In a last-ditch attempt to get Hitler to change his mind and meet Churchill, Hanfstaengl excused himself and went in search of Hitler, finding him in the stairway of his apartment “in a dirty white overcoat, just saying good-bye to a Dutchman…’Herr Hitler…don’t you realise the Churchills are sitting in the restaurant?… They are expecting you for coffee and will think this a deliberate insult.'” Hitler said he was unshaven and had too much to do. Hanfstaengl suggested he shave and come anyway. Hanfstaengl then returned to the Hotel and played the piano for the Churchills, hoping Hitler would arrive, but he never turned up.

 Author Winston Churchill MP writes: “While it remains one of the interesting ‘Ifs’ of History, it is idle to imagine that, had such a meeting taken place, the course of history might have been changed. Hitler would never have considered an alliance with the French, nor Churchill an alliance without them and, at the time, he was without influence in the House of Commons.” Hanfstaengl and Winston Churchill MP both suggest that Hitler’s refusal to meet Churchill had to do with Hitler’s feelings of lower-class inferiority, Hanfstaengl writing that Hitler did “not have the social guts” to meet Churchill.

Q. Many authorities state that the Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman in 1898, in which Churchill participated, and later romanticized in his brilliant history, The River War, was the last Cavalry Charge in British military history. Was it?

No. We went through this charge-by-charge in Finest Hour during1992-93. Despite several notable charges during World War I, the last significant recorded cavalry charge occurred much later. In a letter to The Times on 9 September 1974, Shamus O.D. Wade wrote: “Surely Sir Winston would have been last to deny greatness to Capt. Arthur Sandeman of the Central India Horse and the Indian Sowars of the Burma Frontier Force, who met their deaths charging the Japanese machine guns at Toungoo in 1942.” 

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