“If necessary, alone”…
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The first book in Churchill’s massive six-volume history of the Second World War, this covers the period from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the day when Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. The series, among his other writings, won Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature, although the liberal intellectual snobberati like to suggest that that was out of gratitude for his wartime leadership rather than for its literary merits. The snobberati, as usual, are wrong. This is a superbly written account of the period from one man’s viewpoint – that man happening to be one of the handful of important men who decided the fate of the world for the second half of the twentieth century at least.
Despite recent attempts at revisionist history, it is still, I think, generally accepted that the conditions that allowed for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis were seeded in the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the First World War, and then fertilized by the failures of the Allies, mainly the US, France and Britain, to act at an early stage to prevent Germany from re-arming. Exhausted from WW1 and with no appetite for further war, appeasement seemed the easier option, and the old men who ran the world dithered as Hitler began to forge a massive fighting machine and revived German pride and resentment at their treatment by the victors of the 1914-18 war. Churchill was the main opponent of appeasement, arguing consistently that Germany must be dealt with before they became too powerful for the Allies to control. Alas! How different history may have been if only his views had prevailed in the mid-1930s.
Of course, in this book Churchill shows that Churchill thinks Churchill was right all along, but I tend to agree with him about that so his bias in his own favour didn’t become an issue. He is remarkably personally generous to those individuals with whom he disagreed, even as he condemns their weakness and failure to act. He tries to give their side of the arguments as fairly as he can, considering that they were proved wrong time and time again.
But he is pretty brutal about failures of the national policies of the WW1 allies, especially the US’s self-interested and isolationist position of neutrality. He points out that the Allies reluctantly agreed to Wilson’s League of Nations after WW1, only for the American government then to refuse to ratify it, immediately making it a toothless tiger. He talks about the damage done, economically and politically, by the reparations forced on Germany, and how the US was unwilling to cancel debt to allow the German economy to recover, not to mention the economies of America’s erstwhile allies.
But France and Britain come in for plenty of criticism too, for continuing to attempt to mollify and compromise with Hitler’s Germany long after, in Churchill’s opinion, such attempts were obviously dangerous. He talks in depth about Germany’s open and secret build-up of their army, naval power and, most frighteningly, air force, while Britain and France lagged behind, hoping that somehow war could be avoided. He barely hides his disgust at the Munich agreement and the betrayal of the Allies’ commitment to Czechoslovakia.
For the French Government to leave her faithful ally Czechoslovakia to her fate was a melancholy lapse from which flowed terrible consequences. Not only wise and fair policy, but chivalry, honour, and sympathy for a small threatened people made an overwhelming concentration. Great Britain, who would certainly have fought if bound by treaty obligations, was nevertheless now deeply involved, and it must be recorded with regret that the British Government not only acquiesced but encouraged the French Government in a fatal course.
He shows how he argued forcefully for the Allies to take a military stand before Germany overtook France and Britain in terms of military force, but to no avail. And therefore, when even the appeasers finally agreed that Germany must be stopped, the Germans had built up a huge military advantage; and the British, quickly left alone as one ally, France, was defeated, and the other, the US, sat on its haunches doing nothing, had to try to fend off an invasion long enough to allow for a massive expansion in manpower, munitions, and the vital air power – defensive and offensive – that had been allowed to fall so badly behind.
Although the story is told from a personal perspective, with Churchill more than most the personal is political, and so this reads like a formal history far more than a personal memoir. Churchill claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that he asked other people to rigorously check the facts in the book, so that there is a solid historical foundation below the upper layer of Churchill’s own opinion. One sees his mastery over detail, his ability to look at the full chessboard of war, his willingness to throw away a pawn or two to capture the queen, his courage to be open about the dangers ahead, his inspirational belief in Britain’s eventual ability to prevail which meant so much to the national psyche during the war’s darkest days. We see him pull all the political levers at his command, all the contacts and loyalties he had built up over his already long lifetime in the spotlight on the world’s stage, to bring people and nations round to his views – a long task and often seemingly futile, but he never weakened or turned away, never decided to let his reputation rest on his past achievements as many men of his age may have done. Was he perfect? Absolutely not. Opinionated, demanding, a risk taker, an imperialist to the core – I imagine the people around him found him maddening and exhausting. But he also commanded deep personal loyalty and respect from those who worked closely with him, and was admired and increasingly revered by a large majority of the general public for his steadfastness and patriotism in these early days of the war. He was the right man at the right time, and how often does that happen?
A few feet behind me, as I sat in my old chair, was the wooden map-case I had had fixed in 1911, and inside it still remained the chart of the North Sea on which each day, in order to focus attention on the supreme objective, I had made the Naval Intelligence Branch record the movements and dispositions of the German High Seas Fleet. Since 1911 much more than a quarter of a century had passed, and still mortal peril threatened us at the hands of the same nation. Once again defence of the rights of a weak State, outraged and invaded by unprovoked aggression, forced us to draw the sword. Once again we must fight for life and honour against all the might and fury of the valiant, disciplined, and ruthless German race. Once again! So be it.
I really thought this might be a turgid read, but it’s actually a first-rate history with just enough of the personal to bring out the emotional drama of war. I also realised while reading it how influential it must have been on the early interpretations of the history of the period, since it chimed in almost every particular with what I was taught about the war in school in the 1970s. I will certainly go on to read the other five volumes in the series.