Did Churchill Miss A Deal with Hitler -- and Lose an Empire?

WILLIAM PFAFF

January 11, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — An explosion of some magnitude has been set off in London by the proposal that Winston Churchill should have settled with Hitler in July 1940 or June 1941, and that by failing to do so he bankrupted Britain and destroyed its empire.

John Charmley, a scholar in his 30s and an acknowledged authority on British political history of the period, argues in a new book called ''Churchill: The End of Glory,'' just out in London, that Churchill was a political gambler obsessed with defeating Hitler, who should have settled with Germany after the fall of France, in July 1940, when Hitler indicated a willingness to do so, or the following spring, when the Italians had been defeated in Africa, Japan had not yet entered the war, and Hitler was preparing his invasion of Russia.

This argument is endorsed by the rambunctious former defense minister in John Major's government, Alan Clark, who is also &&TC military historian. Mr. Clark says ''there were several occasions when a rational leader could have got first reasonable, then excellent, terms from Germany,'' and that by not doing so Churchill submitted Britain to ''immense and punitive borrowings from the United States,'' betrayed the confidence and wasted the soldiers of the Commonwealth, and left the empire ''terminally damaged.''

Mr. Clark says German and Soviet states should have been left to destroy one another. His critics suggest that Russia's resources might have been conquered by Germany, which for the past 50 years would then have been a superpower indeed. Those critics also say that Hitler would never have kept the bargain with Britain.

Yet one must remember Hitler's racial obsession. He was not a German nationalist but a Nordic racialist: He believed that the Nordic peoples, including the Scandinavians, Dutch and British, as well as the Germans, were destined to rule over the ''inferior'' Slavs of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the Mediterranean peoples.

It is on the record that Hitler resented the unwillingness of Britain to make a global settlement in 1940, leaving Germany to dominate Europe, Britain to keep the seas and its own empire of ''inferior'' races, Indians and Burmese and Africans.

It also has always seemed to me an unsustainable argument that German victory would have made Europe forever Nazi. First of all, nothing in history is forever anything, particularly when a system rests on oppression and lies, and is as errantly criminal and as intellectually empty as Nazism. Marxism was a much more sophisticated affair, and we have just seen the Soviet Union collapse of its inner emptiness and perpetuated in justices. It seems to me entirely reasonable to think that the same thing would have happened to a Nazi Europe.

But it seems to me that Professor Charmley and Mr. Clark take a very romantic view of the British Empire of 1940-41 to think that it would have been capable of so large a cynicism as required by a deal with Hitler. It is also a considerable assumption to believe that Britain's leaders would have had the will to pull this off, since, morally speaking, they had been backing off from empire since the turn of the century.

The British Empire was at its greatest extent after World War I, a contiguous land mass under direct or indirect British authority reaching from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to the border of China. At the very same time the British elite's belief in their empire was fading away. Since the Boer War, when much lower and middle-class non-conformist opinion supported the Boer Calvinists against British colonialism, and the liberal-minded questioned the justice of the British cause, imperial feelings had become ambiguous.

After World War II, Britain gave the empire away with what seemed terrific relief -- precipitously, as if it could not be got rid of fast enough. Even links with the old ''white Commonwealth'' were clumsily cut, as if even that had become an embarrassment.

Since the Spanish-American war, when public opinion forced support for Protestant and progressive America's crusade against the ''backward'' and Catholic Spanish empire, while the British establishment was aligned with the Spanish monarchy, the British government has also made ''deliberately courting the friendship of the American government and people'' a fundamental policy principle. (The quotation is from the historian Elie Halevy.) And while the Americans in 1940 were isolationist in policy, they would never have comprehended or forgiven a British attempt to divide up the world with Hitler. Neither would the Canadians or Australians and New Zealanders.

Arguments about decisions that might have been taken, roads never traveled, are interesting because of what they tell about those who make the arguments. In this affair there seems evident a new romanticism about the empire -- perhaps a reflection of the ignominy of Britain's present position, by comparison with what might have been, or even with what was. It is interesting that two ages are represented. Professor Charmley is a young historian, born after the empire foundered, and Mr. Clark is old enough to remember, to romanticize and to begrudge the mediocrity that has followed.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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