Part two of a response to Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes
Roberts and Gebreyohanes write that Churchill had a ‘dogged determination to defeat the Nazis, the threat from whom he had been warning against for almost a decade’. This is a misleading characterisation of Churchill’s understanding of the Nazi movement.
Churchill indeed warned against the threat of the Nazis, especially in terms of German rearmament and what he believed was their superiority in the air. But his criticisms eventually became quite muted. At the 1937 Conservative Party conference, Churchill said that despite old ‘differences between ourselves about rearmament and also about a place called India’ he now felt that ‘we are all agreed’. He exhorted, ‘let us indeed support the foreign policy of our Government, which commands the trust, comprehension, and the comradeship of peace-loving and law-respecting countries in all parts of the world’. In other words, Churchill endorsed the policy of appeasement. In an article in the Evening Standard Churchill wrote that dictators had to be dealt with from a strong position. He had previously been ‘a loud alarmist’ but saw the government was taking action against the threats—‘great efforts are being made to meet them’.
As for a ‘dogged determination’ to defeat the Nazis, Churchill’s feelings about the Nazi movement can be described as ambivalent at best. This is not entirely surprising; Churchill believed in white racial supremacy, imperialism, and praised Mussolini and Franco. He was a reactionary who opposed women’s suffrage and Indian self-government. His attitude to the Nazi movement was coloured by his broader political beliefs.
As early as 1933, Churchill made favourable statements about the Reich. In a speech to the Anti-Socialist and Anti-Communist Union, he referred to
great nations … determined to defend their national glories or national existence with their lives. I think of Germany, with its splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on the road of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army, eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland.
In a 1935 article entitled ‘The Truth About Hitler’, Churchill did condemn Nazi policies of repression and attacks on Jews. But he qualified his criticisms with the following passage:
It is not possible to form a just judgment of a public figure who has attained the enormous dimensions of Adolf Hitler until his life work as a whole is before us. Although no subsequent political action can condone wrong deeds, history is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim, and even frightful methods, but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So may it be with Hitler.
In his 1937 book Great Contemporaries, Churchill again condemned Nazi policy on Jews and repression, and yet still romantically described Hitler’s rise to power:
the story of that struggle, cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate or overcome, all the authority or resistances which barred his path.
In a September 1937 article entitled ‘Friendship with Germany’, Churchill wrote:
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 admirable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations. I have on more than one occasion made my appeal in public that the Führer of Germany should now become the Hitler of peace.
Are these the words of someone who had a ‘dogged determination’ to defeat the Nazis? Or are they the words of someone who had mixed feelings about the Nazi movement, approving of its ‘patriotic’ nationalism and criticising its repressive, dictatorial elements? Churchill was not ready even in the late 1930s to unreservedly denounce Hitler.
Churchill did attack Nazism as one of the ‘Infernal Twins’ (alongside Communism) but again, his ambivalence toward the Nazi movement is evident in a number of his writings. In his 1938 meeting with the Nazi Albert Forster, Churchill said that discrimination against Jews was not a deal breaker for an understanding between Britain and Germany. Churchill reported the discussion to the Foreign Office:
I remarked that I was glad they had not introduced the Anti-Jewish laws in Danzig. Herr Forster said the Jewish problem was not acute in Danzig, but he was anxious to know whether this type of legislation in Germany would prevent an understanding with England. I replied that it was a hindrance and an irritation, but probably not a complete obstacle to a working agreement, though it might be to comprehension.
Again, this was an appeasing policy and Churchill supported it. A ‘dogged determination to defeat the Nazis’? No. Because of the nostalgic prominence of Churchill’s rhetoric in 1940, calling for victory at all costs, his pronouncements as war leader have been backdated by supporters of British national mythology in order to create the impression that he had some sort of clairvoyance. The reality is that he went along with the appeasing policy of his government for much of the 1930s, and that he had mixed feelings about Nazism.
R. Jenkins, Churchill
C. Ponting, Churchill
R. Langworth, ‘Forster, Appeasement and Fascism: What Churchill Really Believed’