Churchill and Peace with Germany

Part three of a response to Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes

Roberts and Gebreyohanes write that ‘[t]here were plenty of senior figures in the British government who were willing to countenance making peace with Hitler in 1940, but Churchill was not.’ This is inaccurate. Churchill was opposed to the idea of Italian mediation, supported by Halifax, in seeking a peace. But he was not unwilling ‘to countenance making peace with Hitler in 1940’.

According to the civil service minutes, Halifax asked Churchill on 26 May 1940 ‘whether, if he was satisfied that matters vital to the independence of this country were unaffected, he would be prepared to discuss terms’ with Germany. Churchill replied ‘he would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength even at the cost of some cession of territory.’ Chamberlain’s diary recorded Churchill’s response more colourfully: ‘if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies he would jump at it’.

On 27 May, Churchill said that ‘if Herr Hitler was prepared to make peace on the terms of the restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe that was something he was prepared to accept, but he rightly thought such an offer most unlikely.’ In other words, Churchill believed that the Germans offering acceptable peace terms was highly improbable, but he was not unwilling to countenance peace if acceptable terms were offered.

On 28 May, Churchill suggested that by continuing to fight, Britain might secure better terms if it eventually did sign a peace with Hitler. Churchill stated that ‘[a] time might come when we felt that we had to put an end to the struggle, but the terms would not then be more mortal than those offered to us now.’ ‘If, as we believed, we could hold out, we should be able to obtain terms which would not affect our independence.’

On 29 May, Churchill outlined a policy that was far from total victory. In a message to all ministers he encouraged them to keep their morale up ‘till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe under his domination’. Breaking the will of the enemy to conquer everything is a rather different thing from defeating the enemy outright.

This is not to say that Churchill was as ready for peace as Halifax. Churchill certainly had strong reservations about coming to terms with Hitler and thought that fighting on would at least provide a chance for better terms. But the idea that he did not at all countenance peace with Hitler while his senior colleagues did is plainly inaccurate.

R. Jenkins, Churchill

C. Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality

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