Churchill’s Loyal Foot Soldiers

The March issue of Quadrant includes an article by David Rees critiquing my review in the December issue of Andrew Roberts’s recent biography of Winston Churchill. Rees accuses me of smearing Churchill, engaging in character assassination, using twenty-twenty hindsight, being an armchair general and, heaven forbid, a “revisionist”. In my review I was careful to give due credit to the prevailing view, ably reinforced by Roberts, that Churchill almost alone, or at least most loudly, warned of the Nazi threat and later provided much of the steel to resist it. While I am happy to be branded a revisionist, I hope it was clear I have no truck with historians and commentators who believe Britain could have retained its empire and independence by distancing itself from any wider European quarrel and potentially giving Hitler a free hand on the continent.

The issue I had with Roberts’s book was that he claimed, with regards to Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech for example, that it was “just as prescient as any that he made about the Nazis during the appeasement period”. I argued that because this speech was made in March 1946, almost twelve months after the war in Europe ended and after the Cold War had already well and truly begun, the comparison was false and Roberts’s praise for Churchill was, at least on this issue, too effusive. Roberts’s thesis is that Churchill was, unlike most of his contemporaries, right about the Kaiser, Hitler and Stalin, overlooking the fact that Churchill identified the first two threats early enough to actually do something about it, and the third when it was too late. Surely this matters and I do not think highlighting it is particularly controversial.

It is true, however, that I made some accusations about Churchill that I knew would enrage and mobilise some of his loyal foot soldiers. In particular, Rees takes issue with my assertion that Churchill’s relationship with Stalin exhibited elements of hypocrisy. Rees asks sarcastically, should Churchill have perhaps stormed out of the Yalta conference on “a point of high moral principle”? The foundation of the Churchill cult is built on the fact that, unlike the appeasers of the late 1930s (who, incidentally, are now accused of much worse things than hypocrisy), he refused to have anything to do with the Nazi regime or even refer to Hitler by name precisely because of his high moral principles. Nor did Churchill think it was excusable to negotiate with Hitler on the grounds of expediency or lack of alternative options. We laud him for maintaining this stance regardless of the seemingly hopeless strategic situation in which Britain found itself in mid-1940.

On the other hand, we are told that Churchill was also pragmatic and sensible enough to overcome any previous scruples regarding Soviet communism and cultivate a close relationship with Stalin. As I wrote, Roberts, and presumably Rees, thinks that when confronted directly with Soviet brutality during the war, it is “admirable” that Churchill was able to put aside moral considerations when dealing with Stalin and bite his tongue. I do not. Whether Churchill should or could have pursued substantively different policies is another matter. To defenders of Churchill’s legacy like Rees, on the one hand he is a principled beacon of moral clarity who would rather see Britain destroyed and occupied than deign to negotiate with Hitler, and simultaneously also a hard-bitten realist who made many necessary, admirable compromises when it came to dealing with Stalin’s equally odious regime. With this in mind, perhaps it would be less offensive to Rees if I instead called Churchill’s defenders hypocrites and limited myself, as he does, to using reassuring euphemisms like “troubling trade-offs” and “unpalatable” choices when discussing Churchill’s Soviet policies.

I did not realise that just because I highlighted these double standards and contradictions that, from my “comfortable armchair”, I was required to formulate an alternative grand strategy for the Western powers during the Second World War; one that would see Poland and other East European nations properly and permanently liberated from totalitarian rule. Implicit in my argument is that if Churchill was such a far-sighted and capable statesman he could have managed this himself. Rees assumes that I believe Churchill should have altogether avoided an alliance with Stalin in 1941, when I explicitly stated the opposite. He raises the interesting idea that, at least after Britain and the United States had established a foothold in Northern Europe after D-Day, military strategy could henceforth have been more profitably directed towards minimising the Soviet Union’s territorial gains after the war. Perhaps, but since I am a mere armchair general it is probably best to avoid such speculations.

Where I think we are on safer ground is the immediate post-war period. Rees argues that even after the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Churchill (and the United States) was still justified in avoiding the adoption of policies more antagonistic to the Soviet Union, writing, “it is a fact that at the conclusion of the war in Europe thousands of British and American prisoners of war … had fallen into the hands of the advancing Russian armies … They were effectively, and potentially, Russian hostages.” This is frankly ridiculous. Many of these prisoners of war had been in German hands as early as 1940, and would be for the next five years. As bestial as Hitler’s regime was and as increasingly murderous and vengeful it became as defeat loomed in 1944 and 1945, it does not seem that the Western Allies wavered in their commitment to destroy and occupy Germany for fear that their prisoners of war would be threatened with execution, nor did the Germans do so (excepting Hitler’s notorious Commando Order). It would therefore be unlikely that Churchill, Attlee and the Americans would or should let their policies towards Stalin be affected by such considerations.

Pointing also to the Anglo-American need to encourage Soviet entry into the unresolved conflict with Japan, Rees asks rhetorically, “Given these facts, should Britain have challenged the Soviet Union and fought on alone or perhaps with the United States, this time against the Soviet Union, to secure Poland?” Well, this is exactly what happened with Germany six years earlier, and almost no one questions it now, especially not me. In 1939 and 1940 Neville Chamberlain, and subsequently Churchill, resolved to confront alone a great European power over the principle of Polish sovereignty, but with little or no idea of how it was going to prevail in such a conflict. Of course, to suggest that in 1945 or 1946 Britain or the United States threaten to use, let alone actually resort to, force to expel the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe is absurd and unthinkable to contemporary historians. The accepted orthodoxy tells us that public opinion at the time would not tolerate such a policy, that the British and American people were weary of war and wary of further bloodshed, and that the Soviet Union had legitimate territorial grievances and concerns over its security. All arguments, however, I would suggest were proffered by those who opposed standing up to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, and that are now met with limitless contempt.

In defending Churchill’s negotiations with the Soviet Union, Rees even makes the bizarre claim that Stalin was in fact someone who could be relied upon to keep his agreements on the post-war world. He says that “following the peace agreement in Europe, Russia allowed the British, US and French permanently to occupy sectors in Berlin, well within the Russian sector. Stalin did not have to do this …” Therefore, he writes, West Berliners owe their freedom over the next forty years to Churchill’s willingness to negotiate with “Uncle Joe”. Is Rees defending Churchill or Stalin? The Soviet dictator did not honour this aspect of the Potsdam Agreement because he was benevolent or because he envisioned and conceded that the occupation of West Berlin by the Western Allies would be permanent, as Rees seems to be arguing. Stalin reasoned that, in the light of his plans for an eventual communist takeover of all Germany and the fact that West Berlin was precariously perched in the middle of the Soviet zone, the Western position there would quickly become untenable. In 1948, with West Berlin basking in only its third year of freedom, Stalin effectively put a line through this section of the Potsdam Agreement by blocking road and rail access to the city, with the aim of starving and freezing the inhabitants into submission. It is likely that West Berliners during and after the massive American airlift that was conducted to feed and supply them concluded that they owed their freedom more to US resolve and military might than to what, by this point, had plainly become redundant Churchillian diplomacy.

Rees laments that as a university student in Britain in the 1970s he had to endure attacks on Churchill from the Left and seems exasperated that he is now having to defend him from criticism from a conservative perspective. He goes on to conclude, rather contradictorily, that Churchill’s fifty-year career is “open to challenge and re-assessment from anyone with a serious case to advance”. Perhaps Rees could at least point us in the right direction, because it has been over fifty years since Churchill died and the clear indication I am getting is that he is still beyond reproach. I repeat and stand by my assertion that the war’s most enduring legacy was the proliferation of communism in Europe and Asia and the onset of the Cold War, a conflict that killed tens of millions and enslaved and imprisoned many more. I believe it is worth exploring Churchill’s contribution, however inadvertent and unavoidable, to this disastrous state of affairs. I regret that Rees finds these inquiries to be somehow unserious.

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