Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 194
15th June 2010
Linking url: http://www.seangabb.co.uk/flcomm/flc194.htm
Available for debate on LA Blog at
Chamberlain, Churchill and World War II:
Reflections on Factual and Counterfactual History.
A Speech to the 2010 Conference of the
Property and Freedom Society
by Sean Gabb
This is not actually the speech that I gave in Bodrum. That was a shorter affair and was given without this text in front of me. I am not very good at reading from a text. It makes my voice even flatter and duller than it naturally is. Even so, I do find it useful to have something written in advance. This allows me to get straight in my head what I want to say, and parts of the structure and wording stay in my head. It is also useful to have as proof that what I am saying has not been made up on the spur of the moment. Therefore, the video to which I link is somewhat different from this slab of text, and may be worth watching in its own right.
I am, by the way, converting and uploading videos of all the speeches from this most remarkable of conferences. These will be made available through the Multimedia page on the Libertarian Alliance Website.
I could make this an entirely conventional speech about what a disaster the Second World War was for humanity, and how much better it would have been had we all managed somehow to avoid fighting it. However, bearing in mind the present audience, I do not think I should be saying anything original or challenging. For those who are interested in a conventional argument, I attach as an appendix to my speech a review article that I wrote several years ago. What I want to do instead is to explore how the world might have appeared in 1960 had there been no Second World War.
Why do this? you may ask, and why choose 1960? The answer is that my dear friend Richard Blake is now ahead of his contracted schedule. His Blood of Alexandria will come out next Thursday the 10th June 2010. The next in the series, Sword of Damascus, was offered a few weeks ago as an unrevised first draft, and was accepted without any need for changes. This means that time he had set aside for rewriting can now be given so some other project. He could write another novel about the Byzantine Empire, but has decided instead to write about something completely different.
Mr Blake has for many years been impressed by L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach, which is set in an alternative 1980s, two centuries after the American Revolution had taken a much more libertarian direction, and by Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, which is set four centuries after an abortive Reformation. He wants to try something of his own in the same genre. He did at first think of setting his novel in 2014 in a world where neither World Wars had happened. He was, however, soon daunted by the scale of what he needed to imagine. We live in a world so shaped by these big wars that it is hard to conceive the details of an alternative world. And so he has decided on something rather more modest. His The Churchill Memorandum is set just twenty years after a Second World War that never happened. Twenty years is not a long time, and it is not necessary to imagine things like a British Crown Colony on the Moon and indefinite life extension. In this particular alternative 1960, many things would be much the same as in the real 1960. But, of course, many things would be different. This allows him to craft a novel in the tradition of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, or even the early James Bond novels.
So let us begin with the alternation. The standard objection to not fighting the Second World War is what Hitler might have done had he not been stopped. In the review article appended to this speech, I argue that he would probably not have done very much at all. But this is an argument many find incredible, and so Mr Blake has decided to avoid fruitless controversy by removing Hitler at just the right moment. In March 1939, He tore up the Munich Agreement and annexed what remained of the Czech Republic. It is an historical fact that, on Wednesday the 15th March 1939, he arrived in Prague to inspect his latest conquest. He was there for just twenty two hours, and the people of that city were barely aware of his presence. On Thursday the 16th March, he was driven from Prague Castle to the main railway station so he could travel back to Berlin. In The Churchill Memorandum, there is an accident. As the Fuhrer’s Mercedes accelerates on one of the main roads, one of the armoured cars forming his guard gets stuck in some tramlines. The Fuhrer’s car swerves to avoid this. On the frozen cobblestones….
There is no need to go into detail. It is enough to say that the body is taken back to Berlin for a gigantic state funeral – all Wagner and fluttering banners. Hitler is dead, just as the diplomatic game he started is beginning to run out of control. What might have happened next?
I think it most likely that Goering would have taken over. Unlike the other secondary leaders of the Third Reich, he was not purely a creature of Hitler’s revolution. He was a war hero, and to some extent a member of the old ruling class. He would have been acceptable both to the German people and to the military and economic establishment of Germany. There is no need to ask whether he consolidates his power in a bloody purge or by a slower process of demotion. It is enough that he succeeds to all the formal offices that Hitler had taken. Now, Goering was no liberal, and was just as fond as any German nationalist of waving his sword in the air. But he did not have Hitler’s enormous prestige or Hitler’s taste for diplomatic gambling. He had no reasonable interest in provoking war with any other great power.
By 1939, Germany was the strongest country in Europe. It had walked away from the Versailles Treaty and recovered from the moral disgrace of losing the Great War. If there were still German territories and German populations in the restored Poland, Germany had taken Austria and Bohemia and Moravia. Living space to the east was a fine ambition, but was not a pressing need. Poland itself was no obstacle to a further expansion. The Polish Government was far more terrified of Soviet Russia than of Germany. We know that, even with the Chamberlain Guarantee, it was willing to consider granting some land access between main Germany and East Prussia. It might, with a few years of diplomatic pressure, have been willing to allow German citizenship to its German minority, and even to slide into a de facto German protectorate, with mixed German and Polish forces patrolling its eastern border.
Hitler himself never wanted war with Britain, and had no particular reason to fight the French. So long as he kept his own eastern demands reasonable and slow, there is no reason to suppose that Goering would not have maintained excellent relations with the western powers. His main enemy would have been Soviet Russia. His most likely settlement with Poland would have given Germany some kind of border with Russia. The Russians were competitors for influence in Rumania and the Balkans. I think he would have avoided war with Russia – we can be sure that Stalin was desperate to avoid war. It is quite easy to imagine that Hitler’s death in the March of 1939 would have avoided another big war.
This being so, it is probably unimportant to try imagining the details of Goering’s domestic policies. He would probably have ruled over a corrupt and authoritarian social democracy. It is likely that Germany would have run into economic difficulties during the early 1940s. But these are common to social democratic regimes, and are usually overcome by a rebalancing of monetary and fiscal policy. It is hard to say how practically anti-Semitic this alternative Germany would have been. Goering had no personal dislike of Jews. There were Jews who were German nationalists. Indeed, many Jews who had left Germany after 1933 were drifting back from exile by 1939. Without Hitler and without a gigantic war, we are probably safe to believe there would have been no mass murders. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the Nuremberg Decrees would have been formally revoked. It is more likely that they would have been modified in practice. Goering’s Germany might have evolved into a place where Jews and Slavs faced legal discriminations that fell short of persecution.
Goering might still have been alive in 1960. If so, he would probably have been despised for his faint absurdity, and respected for his ability to maintain Germany as the greatest power in a Europe that had avoided another war. Even with the National Socialist interventions, it is hard to imagine Germany as other than rich and broadly contented with its place in the world.
If we turn to Russia, the alternative 1960 is unlikely to have been so pleasant. The Soviet State of the actual 1960 rested on two supports. The first was the Stalin Terror that had made any overthrow of Bolshevism inconceivable. The second was victory in the Great Patriotic War that merged Communism with Russian nationalism, and raised the prestige of Russia throughout the world and of its government at home. Had there been no Second World War, Stalin could not have emerged as its winner. There would have been no expansion into Central Europe and no general perception of Communism as an ideology of victory. But the Terror had done its work. Stalin and the system that had produced him were too closely fixed on the Russian back. Without the devastation of the Second Wold War, living standards in Russia might have been higher by 1960 than they actually were. But Russia would not have been one of the great powers except by default. So long as war with Germany was avoided, the main threat would probably have come from a Japan that would by now have conquered and occupied most of China.
For obvious reasons, Britain is the country most of interest to Mr Blake. How would Britain have looked by 1960 without the Second World War? To answer this question, we need to look at what actual harm the War did to Britain. So far as most foreigners are concerned, this was the destruction of British world power. In 1939, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s land surface. By 1960, it did not.
Not the Roman Empire
However, the Empire was never particularly important to Britain. For all the Roman pretensions of the British ruling class, the British Empire was never based on tribute. Rather than a cause of British greatness, it was a consequence. The Empire brought wealth to a few privilege groups – in the earlier period, of course, to the East India Company – and it provided more administrative and military employments than would have otherwise existed in a liberal state. But the Empire was of limited economic importance. In 1914, British trade with America and Germany dwarfed imperial trade. There was more British investment in America than in the Empire as a whole. Even Argentina was more important to British investors than Australia. The colonies of white settlement were useful so far as they provided a frontier – and frontiers are useful for allowing potential trouble makers outside the ruling class to emigrate, and for making ruling classes themselves behave more reasonably than they otherwise might. Even so, these colonies were not the only, or the most important, frontier. More British people emigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century than to all the white colonies added together.
So far as most ordinary British people were concerned, the Empire, in the late nineteenth century, was barely more significant than the Falkland Islands are today. It was only the Diamond Jubilee and relentless propaganda attendant on the South African War that the Empire was kept in the public mind. Even so, it was never significant enough for the Conservatives to win an election based on promises of imperial trade preference.
The Empire was an affordable appendage to British greatness when there were no other great powers outside Europe, and when the other European great powers had no worthwhile imperial ambitions of their own. With the rise of America and Japan, and with the expansion of Russia into Asia, it became an increasingly troublesome burden. The loss of Empire after 1945 was not a cause of the British collapse, but – for Britain: never mind the lost territories – a minor consequence. Indeed, it might even be seen as a blessing.
A Minor Human and Financial Cost
Nor was the economic cost of the War harmful in the long term. Its direct financial cost has been put at £35 billion – or about five times the gross domestic product of 1938. In modern American terms, this would equal a war costing something like $50 trillion. Even ignoring indirect opportunity costs, this was a gigantic cost. It cleaned out the productive classes, and burdened the British State with a debt that was a nuisance for several decades. It also caused an overexpansion of heavy industries in which the country had already lost its main competitive advantage.
This being said, we are talking about an advanced modern economy. In the actual world of 1960, Britain was far richer, by every estimate, than it had been in 1938. Living standards were higher, and were rising fast. And the debt had been made manageable by a combination of economic growth and inflation.
We can also discount the human and material losses. The demographic catastrophe of the Great War was not repeated. There were casualties, but these were among forces conscripted from the general population. It was not the case that the most able and energetic were again rounded up and thrown into a gigantic mincing machine. The main fighting was done by the Russians and Americans. The bombing killed about 60,000 people, which was s shame but hardly a disaster; and it destroyed nothing that could not be replaced at broadly inconsiderable cost.
The State Socialist Revolution of 1940
The real cost was the revolution that attended the military crisis of 1940. The defeat in Norway brought down the Chamberlain Government and replaced it with a coalition that included the Labour Party. During the next five years, the deal that Churchill made with the Labour Party was that – lavishly funded by the Americans – he could play at grand strategy, and meet on apparently equal terms with Roosevelt and Stalin, and there could be a socialist takeover on the home front. The most important work on what happened is Paul Addison’s The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War. This shows how the state socialists after 1940 were allowed to take over most of the domestic administration, and how they unleashed a flood of radical propaganda that laid the foundations of the post-war settlement in Britain – this being a large welfare state and of much state economic involvement.
By 1960, it is worth saying, the effects of this revolution were still mostly potential. Fifteen years of welfare and high taxes had not been enough to undermine general habits of thrift and self-respect. There was no visible encouragement of the feckless to breed, nor any throttling of the birth rate among the more able of any class. Most areas of national life remained untouched by direct state control. By modern standards – even by modern American standards – Britain remained a free country. The laws had not been corrupted. Speech and association were free. Access to guns and drugs was not seriously controlled. The burdens of tax and regulations were not excessive. Mass-immigration of non-whites was being discussed as a problem, but had not so far produced not even demands for a multi-cultural police state. To describe the established order of things as national socialist would be a misleading use of words. But it was patriotic socialist.
Even so, everything was in place for the secondary revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It was only a matter of time before welfare and taxes had their natural effect of degrading the national mind. And every institution and lever of power was ready and waiting for capture by the neo-Marxists who have now probably damaged England beyond any hope of recovery.
The further main cost was the prevention of any strong liberal reaction against the post-war settlement. So far as it is possible to speak of victory, Britain did win the Second World War. This gave the non-socialist old order more prestige than it deserved. But this had, since 1940, been an old order maintained as the instruments of an American protectorate over the country. So long as money could be found to pay for the ships and armies of occupation, the conservative establishment was encouraged to maintain the pretence of Britain as a great world power.
Within the rival political establishments of the 1950s and 1960s, there was no determination to restructure the country as a post-imperial liberal democracy. A really conservative government after 1951 would have floated the pound, and set down a ten year programme of withdrawal from all the colonies, and screwed down on taxes and regulations, and removed trade union and other privileges. In fact, not even the humiliation of Suez was enough to bring on a reaction against the post-war settlement. The first real attempt was made by the failed Heath Government of the 1970s, and then by the slightly more successful Thatcher Governments of the 1980s. But, as we know, even Margaret Thatcher neither understood the scale of had to be done, or was able to ensure the permanence of what she did do.
Britain without the Second World War
So let us now look at the Britain of our alternative 1960. In this world, there had been no Second World War. For an historian writing in that year, twentieth century history would have divided into two halves. The first thirty years would have been dominated by the catastrophe of the Great War – its approach, its course, and the decade of struggling to overcome its most immediately disastrous effects. The turning point in this story would have been 1931. In this year, the Coalition Government took decisive action over the budget deficit, and gave up on trying to deflate a rigid economy back to the old parity of £4.5s to one ounce of pure gold. The Great Depression was largely an American and European collapse. Britain was not greatly affected by this, and there was a strong recovery after 1934. over the next few decades – the usual cyclical problems aside, the British economy would have continued to grow strongly – the old heavy industries giving way progressively to light manufacturing and services.
Had there been no War, there would have been a general election in 1940. Though there were no opinion polls at the time, it was widely accepted that the Coalition – that is, mostly the Conservatives – would have won heavily. To say there would have been no drift into state socialism is too optimistic. The younger intellectuals and politicians – George Orwell, J.B. Priestley, Malcolm Muggeridge, E.H. Carr, Harold Laski, Douglas Jay, Michael Foot, and many others – were already talking up the socialist future. They were the equivalent of the neo-Marxists who, during the Thatcher ascendancy, laid the foundations of the New Labour tyranny. Theirs was the coming generation.
But, in our alternative world, these people would have had their turn without British war socialism, and without the moral effects of the Soviet victory. They would have been constrained by an unbankrupted and still fairly liberal old order. They might have got state control – not perhaps ownership – of the railways and coal mines. They might have got more generous state funding of education and health for the poor. It is difficult, nevertheless, to imagine that they would have been able to achieve and maintain the same intellectual hegemony in England as they in fact achieved. It may even be that many of them would have stopped being socialists in any meaningful sense. This did, after all, happen with Orwell, Priestley and Muggeridge.
Moreover, it is worth emphasising that British recovery from the Great Depression can be measured from 1934, and was not the result of the monetary or fiscal manipulations recommended by J.M. Keynes in 1936. Before 1940, Keynes may have had more admirers in America and Germany than in Britain. There is little reason to suppose that, without the War, he would not have acquired to commanding reputation that, in fact, he did.
We cannot say that, but for the Second World War, Britain would have moved back to the liberalism of the Victorian and Edwardian ages that was what most important people in the 1930s really wanted. But Britain in the 1930s remained a highly liberal country in economic and political terms. There can be little doubt that any further drift into statism would have been contained had the world remained at peace. Almost by definition, this would have made the world a better place in 1960 than it was.
The Empire and World Power
Does this mean that the Empire would not have collapsed? I think the answer is not. World power depends largely on demographic facts that are largely independent even of big events like the two world wars. European ascendancy in the nineteenth century was based an on economic progress that was not shared by the rest of humanity, and on an associated absolute and relative growth of population. Even before 1914, non-European powers like Japan were modernising, and there was a perceptible slackening in both absolute and relative rates of white population growth. This slackening was accelerated by the Great War, but by no means caused by it.
Had the Japanese been sucked deeper into their Chinese war, and not been diverted by the American blockade and British pre-occupation with Germany into an attack on the European colonies, there would have been no sudden collapse in the 1940s. But it may be asked how long British primacy in the East could have survived the economic and demographic rise of the Oriental races. Already, in the 1930s, India was on the path to full Dominion status within the Empire. How long before this would have led to effective independence may be wondered. The Japanese destroyed the illusion of European superiority all at once in 1941. But it is impossible that this would not otherwise gradually have waned.
In our alternative 1960, there would have been a much larger and more glorious British Empire than there was in fact. But it would have been visibly in decline. There would have been no military threat from Germany or Japan. There would have been a much reduced spiritual threat from Soviet Communism. The Americans would not have held the whip hand. But the rising cost of maintaining the Empire, and its continuing economic uselessness, would have been an important factor in British politics.
One of the reasons why Mr Blake gave up on his plan of a world without the Great War was the extreme difficulty of imagining alternative developments of technology. If we take the first two decades after the non-occurrence of the Second World War, we can be less fanciful in our imagining. We can, for example, speak of technologies that would not have advanced as they did. There would have been much less development in aeroplane engines and rocketry. These were technologies obviously accelerated or even brought into being by the actual War. Instead, aeroplanes would surely have remained small and of low power. There might instead have been a renewed development of airships. These are, after all, cheaper than aeroplanes, and perhaps better suited for civilian uses.
It is easy to imagine no worthwhile development of rocketry. There would have been visionaries talking about space exploration, and perhaps rich individuals willing to fund some experimentation. But I see no reason for the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or even anything like the German V2 rockets.
It is the same with computing. I think it is only since the late 1970s that there has been sustained civilian interest in computers. Until then, computer development was driven by the needs of governments made big by war and threats of war, and by the needs of corporations themselves made big by military contracts.
It may be the same with nuclear technology. On the day our imaginary world diverged from the real world, humanity was just six years from the first atom bombs. But their development was obviously a fact of war. The American Government was able to gather just about every relevant scientist in the world outside Germany, and throw unlimited money at them. Without the War, Britain and Germany might, by 1960, have been able to develop small nuclear weapons. The Germans might have been considering the use of these against Soviet Russia, and the British might have been shoring up their world position by making vague threats against Japan. But it is unlikely that this world would have been two years away from anything so frightening as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Against this, we need to balance those technologies that would have been accelerated but for the War. Here, we are confronted by the obvious unknown. We are into the territory described by Bastiat in his analyses of what is seen and not seen. We can look at the technologies that did benefit from the War. We cannot see those that were hindered or even frustrated by it.
Had there been no Second World War, German industry would not first have been co-opted and then destroyed. British and American investment would not have been diverted from its civilian courses. What would the results have been by 1960? Perhaps there would have been more medical progress. Perhaps there would have been much the same electronic progress, but without its actual military emphasis. Perhaps there would have been colour television sets and cheaper telephone calls. Perhaps many of the developments in what we call entertainment technology would have been brought forward from the 1970s to the 1950s. We cannot say.
What we can say, however – and this is worth saying at least once explicitly – is that fifty million people would not have been murdered in various acts of organised violence, and western civilisation would not have been brought to the edge of total collapse. Indeed, the best we can say at the moment is that western civilisation has not yet fallen over that edge. The longer term disastrous effects of that War may remain in the future.
I have left America to the end of this speech partly because it does not fit easily into the main body, and also because I can speculate here with much less assurance than about half my audience. What would America have looked like in 1960 had it not gone to war in 1941?
We can be sure that the Great Depression would eventually have ended. We can be equally sure that its end would have had nothing to do with Roosevelt’s New Deal. For all the state interventions of the Roosevelt regime, America’s economic progress in the 1930s is pitiful compared with that of Britain, which remained broadly orthodox in fiscal and monetary policy. But how and when would America have recovered? Without the excuse of a big war, there could surely have been no capture of America by a military-industrial complex. Or was some lapse into corporatism a largely inevitable effect of the first Roosevelt and Wilson eras? If not a big war, would there not have been some other excuse? Bear in mind that, unlike Britain in 1940, America never had the same revolution that stripped its conservative forces of most of its wealth and prestige. Yet it was still tending to rottenness even before 1941.
Would America have avoided the cultural collapse of the 1950s – all that childish music and trashy television? Or was this an inevitable effect of a high birth rate and increasing wealth? Would it have been able to overcome the apartheid in its southern States that followed the War between the States without the “civil rights” movement it actually got – a movement that was largely a front for a neo-Marxist revolution?
Would America, but for the War, have become an aggressive world power? Certainly, it would not have been the first country to develop nuclear weapons. It would not have fought a war from which it emerged triumphant not only over Germany and Japan, but also over Britain. It could not, by 1960, have displaced Britain as the main world power. But it should – unless the Roosevelt experiment have brought on some collapse into despotism or civil war – have been very much richer than Britain.
One of the problems with alternative history is a tendency to believe that the avoidance of evils that actually happened would not be attended by other unimagined evils. If Hitler had died in March 1939, it is easy to imagine that there would have been no lunatic invasion of Poland the following September. But, even under someone as cautious as Goering might have been, would Germany have been able to resist the temptation of a crusade against Soviet Russia in the late 1940s? Would this have been won by a German development of nuclear weapons that would then have been used by an unbalanced German leadership into making demands on Britain and France? Was America actually saved from civil collapse by the War?
Or let us look at the world of 1960 as described in Mr Blake’s Churchill Memorandum. The British State is trying ineffectually to maintain peace in an India increasingly torn apart by Hindu and Moslem fanatics. It is doing this partly because it has ruled India for two centuries, and cannot imagine not continuing to do so – and also because it needs India as a base for siting its fleet of nuclear bombers to keep Soviet Russia and Japan in check. Japan now rules China, and is financing trouble in India Burma, and is making trade and immigration demands on Australia and New Zealand.
The Jewish Free State in Palestine has become a German-speaking effective German satellite to which Goering is threatening to give nuclear weapons for use against an Arab world still loosely tied to the British Empire. Goering himself is old and dying, and there are some very odd people ready to step into his shoes and make more effective use of the immense wealth and power accumulated during Germany’s own twenty five years of recovery from the Great Depression.
America remains strangely quiescent. This is partly because of the conservative reaction that followed the collapse of the New Deal. At the same time, there are rumours of a secret treaty with Britain made in 1950. If revealed, this treaty might cause such uproar in Washington that American isolation would be abandoned overnight. This would please Germany, which might then have a better ally than Britain has been in the containment of Soviet Russia. It would also be the perfect excuse for Germany to give nuclear weapons to its Jewish clients. The world would move sensibly closer to a war that the British have, for their own selfish reasons, been frantically trying to avoid.
The spring of 1959 – it is actually twenty years after the accident in Prague that Mr Blake sets his novel – looks as dull and ordinary as any other that Britain has known. But there is the same general unease as we can see in the last years before the Great War – a feeling that some immense and probably unwelcome change is in the air. There is the same attempted escape into nostalgia. The television channels are filled with Jane Austin and Dickens adaptations. The best-selling novel of 1958 was set in a world where Germany had been crushed by a British attack in 1940. For all that the last big war ended in November 1918, n one regards the world in which he lives as anything approaching utopia.
Mr Blake’s novel opens with the return to England of an Anglo-Indian historian from America. He has been researching the second volume of his biography of a Winston Churchill who drank himself to death in 1950 and who left his papers to Harvard University. These papers have, unaccountably, remained under lock and key. But our hero has managed to bribe his way through the security. Contained in the five boxes of papers he smuggles past the American border officials is a memorandum the old man wrote towards the end of his life. If the German spies who chase him through England can lay hands on this document, it will have incalculable effects on an international conference to be held in London later that year….
But I have said enough. If you want to know more, you really need to encourage Mr Blake to hurry up with writing his Churchill Memorandum. You can do this most effectually by purchasing as many copies of his Blood of Alexandria as you can afford, and helping him to secure a Hollywood deal!
Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War
Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1998, 196pp, £14.99 (pbk)
ISBN 0 7190 4382 X
Reviewed by Sean Gabb
9th April 2003
I read through this book during my lunch break today, sat in an unusually warm and sunny Kensington park. An old man saw the cover with its bold title and rather nice line drawing of Chamberlain. “Neville Chamberlain?” He said to me with an accusing stare. “What a wanker he was.” I thought of putting the book down and starting an argument about the realities of British foreign policy before 1940. But lunch breaks for me are far too unusual for wasting on argument with someone who would only start ranting about Saddam Hussein and plastic shredders or whatever—and I get quite enough of that from the Internet. So I smiled and carried on reading.
His reaction, though, was no more than the conventional wisdom. Despite more than 30 years of revisionist scholarship, Neville Chamberlain is still seen by the world exactly as those in and around the first Churchill Government wanted him to be seen. That view is of a weak and confused man out of his depth in the snakepit of European politics. With his rolled umbrella and wing collar, he blundered round Europe in the late 1930s, deceived at every point by bad men of greater intelligence, but hoping that he could settle German demands for territory as peacefully as he might settle a strike in a Birmingham button factory. In the process, he refused to let the country re-arm sufficiently to face the inevitable conflict in defence of liberal civilisation. His name has become shorthand for weakness and self-delusion in foreign policy. “Appeaser” has become one of the ultimate insults in political debate throughout the English-speaking world; and every argument over the present war with Iraq must include some slighting reference to Neville Chamberlain and some lavish praise of Winston Churchill, his apparently more realistic and courageous antithesis.
In fact, this view of Chamberlain has largely disappeared from the scholarly literature. What we have instead is a cool understanding of the limitations of British power in a changing and increasingly hostile world. This book expresses the view briefly yet fully, and it gives useful extracts in support from contemporary documents, and contains a good bibliography for further reading. As such, it is an excellent introduction to the subject for students and for those simply interested in the approach to the greatest war ever fought by this country and the last in which it entered as a primary belligerent.
And that is all I will say about the book. I am reviewing it simply as an excuse for writing more about British foreign policy – this time from the perspective of the 1930s.
Undoubtedly, the Great War had been a disaster for this country. It was an act of stupidity to enter it, and even more stupid not to try for a negotiated settlement in 1916. It had killed nearly a million men, and left many more maimed. Its financial cost had been immense, requiring heavy taxes and a devaluation of Sterling, and a tenfold increase in the national debt. It had also distorted patterns of investment. The vast overseas portfolio built up during the previous generations had been partly liquidated and replaced by heavy indebtedness to American interests. Internally, capital had diverted into an unsustainable expansion of heavy industry—areas in which the country had for some time been losing its comparative advantage, and the products of which could no longer be readily sold in an increasingly fragmented and economically hostile world market. The years before 1914 were not some long, golden summer. But to those looking back from the years after 1918, that is how they often seemed.
But while disastrous, the Great War had not for us been a catastrophe. It was, if in various ways, for Germany, France, Russia and Turkey—but not for us. It had not been fought on our territory. Nor had it been followed by any serious challenge to the established order. Though these did not at all justify the heavy costs, it had even been attended by certain benefits. Germany and Russia and Turkey were destroyed by defeat and revolution. France was prostrate. The United States had briefly emerged as an active great power, only to return to a determined isolationism. In terms of naval supremacy and imperial security, the country was restored to something like the position it had enjoyed after Waterloo. And, while taking the German colonies was of no value, the despoiling of Turkey had given us control over the Middle East and its increasingly important oil reserves.
By 1920, it was clear that the Great War had ripped holes in the financial web that had once bound the world to the City of London. There could be no exact return to the position of 1914. But, if it had shaken the foundations of British power, the War had not undermined them. Something like the old position could still be restored. It was necessary to make a complex and difficult set of changes. At home, it was necessary to cut taxes and spending back towards the levels of 1914, and to force down the price level to the point where the gold standard could be restored at the old parity. At the same time, the over-expansion of heavy industry had to be reversed, so that labour and capital could flow into the more productive new sectors—cars, chemicals, electricals, general light engineering, and so forth.
In the Empire, it was necessary to reduce the commitment to India —returning to something like the system of indirect rule used before the Mutiny—and to shift the balance of imperial interest to the now more valuable Middle East. Outside the Empire, it was necessary to restore as much as possible of the old financial and trading system.
Any one of these required much effort and some luck to achieve. Astonishingly, most of them had been achieved after a fashion by the 1930s. The Great Depression had put an end for the moment to hard money and free trade, but caused little harm overall to the domestic economy. The unemployment and other hardships were mostly confined to the declining heavy industries. From the Midlands down, the country was enjoying a steady increase of output and living standards. Indeed, looked at from about 1935, the Great Depression seemed to serve British world interests rather well.
After 1918, the only potential challenger was the United States. Its size and wealth appeared to place it beyond all hope of competition. If it wanted to outbuild the Royal Navy, it could. However, its prevailing constitutional and moral order made a challenge unlikely. Though it might take an occasional interest outside the Americas, it was essentially isolationist. Though it might have the cash to challenge British primacy, it lacked the will. It had been tricked into the Great War to serve British interests. Now, it had largely withdrawn. The Great Depression seemed to confirm its impotence. The general collapse of its economy after 1931, and the emergence of mass unemployment—averaging, I think, around 35 million—threw it proportionately into a scale of suffering quite unknown in this country. Moreover, the election of Franklin Roosevelt had opened it to a departure from economic orthodoxy that opinion in this country rightly saw as likely to keep it in depression for as far ahead as could reasonably be seen.
All this country needed to consolidate the recovery was time – time for the new arrangements at home and abroad to take full effect. What had to be avoided at all costs was another big war. That would destroy all the cautious but solid progress made since the removal of Lloyd George from power in 1922. The Treaty of Locarno had got us out of all practical European connections after 1925—the guarantee to both France and Germany was in effect a guarantee to neither, as it justified a refusal to enter into close military relations with either. The League of Nations was a useful means of imposing British will elsewhere in the world where it was no longer convenient to act unilaterally.
By 1935, the country had never in living memory enjoyed such profound home and imperial security, or spent so little of the national income on defence. Let all this continue, and by 1960, the financial and strategic costs of the Great War would have scarred over as surely as those of the Napoleonic wars had a century before.
This is the background against which Adolf Hitler was viewed by this country’s ruling class. There is no need, I think, to argue that he was a thoroughly bad man. He turned Germany into a semi-socialist police state, and tainted with his embrace what had previously been one of the homelands of liberal civilisation. However, I share the official perception of his early years that he was no threat to this country. His published writings and speeches at the time, and his private conversations made available after his death, all point to a settled ambition. This was to expand German power deep into Eastern Europe. He wanted to gather up the Germanic fragments of the Habsburg Empire under his own rule, and to conquer large colonies of settlement for the German people in Poland and western Russia. That was the consistent purpose of his foreign policy in the east. In the west, his only declared and perceptible aim was to reach a settlement with Britain that would give him a free hand in the east.
Yes, we are told endlessly that his eastern policy was just his first step to conquering the world. Give him Poland and Western Russia and their great resources, the claim goes, and give him the lack of an enemy to the east—Soviet Russia being destroyed—and he would surely turn eventually on Britain. I suppose he might have. But he might also have died his hair green, or applied to join a kibbutz, or had an early sex change operation. In deciding what someone might have done in circumstances different from those he actually faced, we can say nothing for sure. If we want to say anything at all, we can only do so in the light of his stated or revealed intentions. For Hitler, there is no evidence that his ambitions stretched to a conquest or even a humbling of Britain.
He had a sincere, if not always well informed, admiration of Britain and the British Empire. He respected our victory in the Great War, and wanted to avoid another conflict. He did not share the desire of other German nationalists for a return of the lost German colonies. He had no interest in naval construction, and went out of his way to condemn the naval race that had poisoned Anglo-German relations after 1898. He signed a naval agreement with us in 1935, and I think this is the only treaty he ever made that he took care to observe. When the Arabs rose against us in Palestine, they sent emissaries to him in Berlin, seeking financial support. Since they were all good anti-semites, one might have thought they would reach a deal. But Hitler refused all help, declaring in effect that he would not lift a finger against white rule over the coloured races.
It is possible that victory in the east would have raised his ambitions in the west. We cannot be sure that it would not. But neither can we assume that he would have been any more successful in his invasion of Russia than he actually was after June 1941. Without facing us, he would not have had to divide his forces between France, North Africa and the Balkans. At the same time, he would not have had forces hardened in those wars, or the record of invincibility that for a while silenced his internal critics. And the Russian winters would have been no less ruinous of invaders than it had always been before. He would probably have taken Moscow and Leningrad. But I do not know how much further into the Eurasian landmass he could have reached. He would have faced much the same war of attrition with the partisans, and would probably have had to keep a vast army of occupation in the east before it could be made safe for German settlement. He might well have been able to present no threat of any kind to the west. His only contact with us might have been endless requests for loans, and complaints at our unwillingness to join his crusade against Bolshevism.
Even otherwise, he would have dominated much the same area as Stalin did after 1945, and done so at a comparative disadvantage. Most obviously, he was not the acknowledge head of an international conspiracy to spread his rule. He had no bands of committed followers stirring up trouble everywhere from China to Peru. As its name suggests, national socialism was not an ideology for export. It was an ideology of Aryan domination. Even in other Aryan countries, it had little following. Oswald Mosley made a big noise in this country for a while, but never came close to electoral significance. Under Soviet rule after 1945, the Slavs of Eastern Europe went into their factories and film studios and, for a while, worked with something like unforced gratitude for their masters. Under Hitler, they had to be coerced from the start.
Granted, his economic policies were less insanely destructive. At the same time, the expectations of his people were higher, and they had been less frightened by his tyranny out of expressing them. And he was a socialist. If he had presided over a recovery from the Great Depression, that recovery was running into trouble after 1938. Inflation could only be hidden by wage and price controls, and was evidenced instead by shortages of consumer goods—see, for example, how the German forces sent into the Czechlands in March 1939 stripped the shops in Prague bare of things like razor blades and overcoats. Not all the frenzied rhetoric in the world could have saved Hitler’s revolution from running out of steam after 1940. It was only the war that kept up a semblance of prosperity into the middle of the decade.
A German domination of the east might have involved us eventually in a cold war. But ours would have been an unexhausted, unbankrupted, unhumiliated Britain and British Empire. There would have been no American support. Neither though would there have been need of any.
There are two further points to be made against me. The first was made by a friend last week, as we sat arguing over what I have just written. Suppose, he asked, Hitler had not only failed to conquer Russia, but had lost. Suppose Stalin had all by himself beaten Hitler and conquered all the way to Germany. Would this not have been worse for us? There would have been no limit to the prestige of Communism, and every Comintern agitator throughout the world would have had a glorious time against liberal civilisation. At least in the real war, the victory was shared between us and them.
I have no answer to this point. It requires more detailed understanding than I have of the relative balance of forces in hypothetical circumstances between Russia and Germany. But while it strikes me as reasonable to say that Hitler might not have won very easily, I find it hard to believe that he could have lost to Stalin.
The second point is the atrocities committed by the Germans. These are often used as justification for going to war. Do I not care about these? My answer is that I do not think they were grounds in themselves for war. An individual has all manner of moral responsibilities, and looking to these will by no means be always in his own interest. A government, however, is a trustee of the nation to which it is accountable, and must look only to the interests of that nation. It would be wrong for our government to visit positive evils on foreigners. It would be right for it to perform such good offices for them as did not involve much cost to us. But it has neither the duty nor the right to go about the world acting as some knight errant, putting down the bad and raising the good. When we talk about the British Government, the adjective is at least as important as the noun.
It must also be said that the worst atrocities were committed towards the end of a general war, and do not seem to have been long premeditated. They happened at a time in which fear of defeat and a misplaced desire for revenge had extinguished the usual moral feeling, and in places far removed from the battlefields that most attracted western curiosity. I have no doubt that an invasion of Russia after about 1943 would have resulted in great atrocities. But I do doubt if these would have been so bloody as the ones actually on record.
Of course, we cannot be definite on what would have happened had there been no outbreak of war in 1939. But the worst I can imagine for us is no worse than did happen after 1945. And it could easily have been better.
This being so, it was not our business if Hitler wanted to tear up the 1919 settlement in the east. It involved us in dangers that can only now be demonstrated behind a mass of subjunctives. Nor, to be fair, was there anything we could have done to stop him. Our guarantee to Poland was a nonsense, bearing in mind our lack of ability to send help. Even if we had—as is often urged—intervened to stop the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, or the union with Austria, or the occupation of the Sudentenland, we probably had not the military power to enforce our will, even against a Hitler weaker than he became. Nor would there have been the public support at home or abroad to legitimise such pre-emptive actions.
And so the policy of Neville Chamberlain was neither cowardly not absurd. It reflected the realities of British power and British interests at that time. I do not accept the accusations of some American conservatives that Winston Churchill was equal to Hitler or Stalin in his infamy. They are angry that he got their country into a war from which it emerged supreme abroad but ruined in its constitutional and moral order at home. I sympathise with this complaint. But he was in every sense a better person.
Even so, did ruin this country. He did so because he never understood the true foundations of British greatness. He saw that splash of red on the map of the world, and never realised that he was looking only at the effect, not at the cause. His ambition was “to make the old dog sit up and wag its tail”. In fact, what he wanted for us before 1940, and what he did to us after, was the equivalent of making an invalid get up from his bed and dance too soon after an operation. He brought on the collapse that the Great War had only threatened. He undermined the foundations of our greatness abroad, and at home acted as the front man for a socialist revolution. For five years, he dressed and spoke and acted as if the traditional order was safe in his hand—while quietly behind his back it was taxed and regulated and smeared out of existence. “Why worry? We’ve had a Labour Government since 1940” was the comment of one observer after the 1945 general election.
All considered, the 20th century as it actually ran was not too bad for this country. We did not lose any big wars, or have a revolution or civil war. We did not even suffer a real economic or financial collapse. Within a few years of each of the two big wars, we had recovered our old living standards in full and were making rapid continued progress. We ended the century as the third or fourth richest and the second most powerful country in the world. We are even remarkably free in practice to live as we please. We did far better than I think we deserved. But it could have been better still. If only we had kept out of those dreadful wars and remained masters of our own fate, the whole world, I have no doubt, would have been a better place.