Winston Churchill has a reputation in some quarters as a warmonger, and yet nobody was as courageous and prescient in trying to avert the Second World War. His line of argument, which brought him social and political ostracism in the years immediately preceding Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, might be summarised as follows: appeasing a vainglorious demagogue was folly. In the preface to The Gathering Storm, the first part of his six-volume history of the war, he defined his theme as follows: “How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to re-arm.” On November 16, 1945, in a speech to the Belgian Senate, Churchill implored the West to “profit at least by this terrible lesson. In vain did I attempt to teach it before the war.” It could be argued that Churchill’s lesson did leave its mark, if only for the duration of the Cold War. However, Xi Jinping’s militarisation of the South China Sea and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, commencing on February 24, suggest we need to learn it all over again.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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In his Belgian speech, Churchill outlined why the Second World War need never have happened:
President Roosevelt one day asked what this War should be called. My answer was, “The Unnecessary War”. If the United States had taken an active part in the League of Nations, and if the League of Nations had been prepared to use concerted force, even if it only had been European force, to prevent the re-armament of Germany, there was no need for further bloodshed. If the Allies had resisted Hitler strongly in his early stages, even up to the seizure of the Rhineland in 1936, he would have been forced to recoil, and a chance would have been given to the same elements in German life, which were very powerful especially in the High Command, to free Germany of the maniacal Government and system into the grip of which she was falling.
We could go even further and argue that Hitler’s authority would have been challenged at home had the Allies opposed the March 1938 annexation of Austria (Anschluss) instead of accepting it as a fait accompli. Chamberlain’s capitulation in Munich later that year, which Churchill vehemently opposed, sealed Hitler’s reputation—in Germany, at least—as a statesman of genius, even superior to the previously unparalleled virtuosity of Otto von Bismarck.
War happens, we might argue, when an aggressive party believes victory on the battlefront is far more likely than not. This aligns with the thesis in Geoffrey Blainey’s The Causes of War (1973)—“Wars usually begin when two nations disagree on their relative strength”— as discussed by Keith Windschuttle in the April 2022 edition of Quadrant. The so-called “balance of power” in Europe in the years leading up the First World War did not keep the peace because the Kaiserreich believed, relative to France in the west and Russia in the east, it was the most powerful player on the board. As Windschuttle writes:
The critical factor is one nation’s perception of its power relative to others. The actual distribution of power is less important than how the nations’ leaders perceive it is distributed.
Putin, we might say, perceived himself as having a winning hand on the eve of his invasion of Ukraine. How did the world, and particularly America and Europe, allow Putin to come to this calamitous conclusion? Perhaps we could begin with discussing why the actions of the West encouraged Hitler to believe victory on the battlefield was far more likely than not.
Patrick Buchanan attempted to turn Churchill’s argument on its head in Churchill, Hitler, and the “Unnecessary War” (2008). But Buchanan’s case is likely built on a misreading of Hitler’s intentions. The Führer’s pre-war pronouncements about the infamy of the Versailles Treaty were a minimalist cover for his maximalist vision: returning the status quo in Europe not to November 1918 but to March 1918. The Kaiserreich, on the eve of the Ludendorff Offensive in March 1918, had Ukraine and large swathes of western Russia, not to mention Belgium and northern France, under its control. That is the very least Hitler wanted to re-claim by diplomacy where possible and war if necessary. Handing him—as Buchanan advocates—the so-called Danzig corridor, a remaining German irritation about Versailles, would not have avoided general hostilities. In fact, it is the same weaselly argument made at the time of the war by Hitler apologists such as Diana Mitford, wife of Oswald Mosley.
The record suggests that appeasing Hitler after he came to power in January 1933 only strengthened his hold over Germany while bolstering his ambitions. The pattern is all too evident. For instance, the Wehrmacht had orders to retreat if directly confronted by the French during the re-militarisation of the Rhineland in March 1936. In other words, if the French had fired a single shot in defence of the conditions of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler would have experienced utter humiliation and quite likely been overthrown in a coup. The Anschluss in March 1938 left Czechoslovakia partly surrounded; the annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 made the remainder of Czechoslovakia indefensible; the capture of Prague and its environs exposed Poland’s southern flank; and so on.
Appeasement by the Allies emboldened and enabled Hitler at every turn and left him with the perception, to borrow from Blainey, that the relative power of Nazi Germany had become increasingly advantageous in the event of war. Blainey provides seven key factors that determine a nation’s calculations when weighing up the risks of war: military assets and their deployment; the likely conduct of other interested nations; the internal unity of the opponent; memories of a previous war; the potency of ideology; ability to pay for war; and the character of each nation’s decision-makers. All of these would appear to have been addressed in the lead-up to the Second World War.
Some will insist that Neville Chamberlain was no dovish pacifist and the concessions he made in Munich were not so much a case of appeasement as playing for time. In short, the Sudetenland was sacrificed so that Britain could continue with its belated re-armament program, producing the Hurricanes and Spitfires that would prove so valuable in the Battle of Britain. But the Munich Agreement was a geopolitical catastrophe. Beyond all else it signalled to Stalin that the Allies could not be trusted and was a factor in the signing of the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, which gave Hitler the green light to invade western Poland on September 1, 1939. (Stalin underhandedly seized eastern Poland on September 17.)
Appeasing Hitler, ultimately, was not a good idea, whether turning a blind eye to his introducing conscription and establishing the Luftwaffe in 1935 or signing up to the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, or any of the other concessions mentioned above. Hitler launched the Second World War because he had come to believe Nazi Germany could win, and the Allies unintentionally did everything in their power to encourage that viewpoint. W.H. Auden’s line in the poem “September 1, 1939” about the 1930s being “a low dishonest decade” was on the mark.
But how to account for the obtuseness of the Allies? There are a range of factors, not the least being that the people of Europe were terrified about doing anything that would repeat the circumstances that generated the Great War. The very idea of a future conflict involving large-scale bombing filled people with horror. If the consequences of the new weapons of war were too dreadful to contemplate, or so the narrative went, then the weapons of war had to be removed. Britain’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (1929 to 1935) put great faith in international disarmament and Stanley Baldwin (1935 to 1937) professed a similar belief. Though Baldwin increasingly spoke about building up national defences, Churchill castigated him for not only appeasing Hitler (and Mussolini) but neglecting re-armament. Chamberlain (1937 to 1940), notwithstanding his muted response to the Anschluss and the Munich Agreement, understood the necessity of re-armament in the shadow of Nazism. And we should also add, in fairness, that the Great Depression was an impediment to upgrading defence spending. And we cannot ignore the World Disarmament Conference (held between 1932 and 1934), with contributions from many world leaders, including President Hoover and (later) President Roosevelt.
Hoover, for example, submitted a proposal in 1932 for an all-inclusive one-third reduction in armaments, with an emphasis on the eradication of tanks, chemical warfare, sizeable mobile guns and bombing aircraft. Roosevelt, a year later, echoed Hoover’s outlook when he asserted that the objective of the World Disarmament Conference should be the “complete elimination of all offensive weapons”. Their reasoning, undoubtedly, was that if offensive weapons were removed from the equation, then every nation would be impregnable and war would be a thing of the past. These are thoughts of such acumen, such clear-sightedness, that you wonder why the world took so long to conceive of them. Peace for our time, as Neville Chamberlain—and Barack Obama in his own way—would later proclaim. Alas, Adolf Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, and in October of that year took Germany out of the World Disarmament Conference. His promise to Germany, after all, was not to disarm but to shred whatever remained of the Treaty of Versailles and transform the Third Reich into Europe’s leading military power.
France was a victim of not only 1930s disarmament and appeasement but also 1920s mollification and even the unaccommodating compromises insisted upon by both the US and Britain in the Treaty of Versailles. France, which had been conquered by Prussia in 1870 and partially occupied by Germany throughout the First World War, feared the possibility of a third invasion. Nevertheless, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George rejected Georges Clemenceau’s request that Germany be partitioned, and a friendly Rhineland state established along France’s eastern border. Instead, Clemenceau had to make do with the hollow Anglo-American Guarantee and French troops stationed in the Rhineland, in addition to strict limitations on the German army and navy and forswearing an air force. Marshal Foch, a perennial critic of Clemenceau, allegedly denounced the Versailles Treaty in the following terms: “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” Clemenceau, in his heart of hearts, might have agreed, knowing that the potency of German industry had not been scarred by war. Accordingly, the hybridised Paris Peace Conference outraged Germans but did not fix “the Prussian problem” for the next generation—the worst of all possible outcomes.
The French, with the benefit of hindsight, were right to be worried about their predatory neighbour. The rest of the world tended not to see it that way at the time and continually prodded France in the direction of appeasement, with disastrous consequences. Obviously, the impact of the Great Depression played a role in a surge of Nazi support, up to 18.2 per cent in the September 1930 elections to the Reichstag, but it might not have been entirely coincidental that French forces vacated the Rhineland six months earlier. The re-militarisation of the Rhineland in 1936—by the Nazis this time—was a humiliation for France and removed a useful buffer zone in the case of future invasion. France’s non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939), out of sensitivity to the Führer’s feelings, meant that by the time Hitler launched his Western Campaign in 1940, France was bereft of a potential ally—that is, the Spanish Republic—on its southern flank. These innumerable acts of conciliation led in a direct line to the fall of France. Britain and then France, “through their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature”, helped turn Adolf Hitler into an unsurpassed conqueror—if only for a few blood-soaked years.
At the World Disarmament Conference, France was roundly condemned for its scepticism about disarmament. For most international statesmen at the time the favoured theme was disarmament equals peace. Doubtless this misconception was based on an erroneous view on the causes of the First World War, which emphasised the arms race, in concurrence with imperial rivalry, the formation of two inimical blocs, secret diplomacy, militarism, navalism, nationalism and so on, all of which turned Europe into a veritable powder keg ready to blow when Archduke Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn in Sarajevo. The war was everybody’s fault and therefore nobody’s fault. Not until Fritz Fischer discovered an explosive set of files dating back to 1912, located in archives in Potsdam, did scholars become more attuned to the idea that the Kaiserreich might have been singularly responsible for starting the Great War. In other words, the German High Command in the second half of July 1914 exploited the Sarajevo assassination, and the enmity between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, to provoke war—a war the Prussian Junkers believed could be won.
And there is the common link between the causes of the First and Second World Wars and, we could add, Putin’s 2022 war—“one nation’s perception of its power relative to others”. The German Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, did everything in his power during the second half of July 1914—while Kaiser Wilhelm II was sailing about the Baltic Sea out of communication—to provoke war. Max Hastings’s Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (2013) has Moltke and his coterie cajoling Austria-Hungary into invading Serbia and celebrating with champagne when Russian responded with full mobilisation, allowing Berlin to falsely represent “Germany as the victim” and at the same time launching the Great War. No wonder Annika Mombauer, in Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War, claims the July crisis “seemed to present an opportunity rather than a threat” to the German Chief of Staff. The High Command believed it could win the war by Christmas after capturing Paris and then turning its weapons on the Russians. Again, that was the perception of their power relative to the Allies.
We can surmise that all Blainey’s seven key factors were seriously evaluated as Moltke and colleagues, who enjoyed great autonomy from oversight by the Reichstag, contemplated “escaping forward” by means of a war in the last week of July 1914. We might never know for certainty given that all the minutes of these high-level discussions went missing once the war plans began to go horribly wrong, but at least we have a motive for their mysterious disappearance. The important point, again, is not that German High Command were right in their belief that a lethal strike against France (via Belgium) followed by a decisive victory over the Russians could be achieved in a timely fashion; the point, rather, is they believed this would be the case. They got a war but not the war they wanted. For instance, they disregarded the effect the British army and its imperial forces would have because Britain was primarily a naval power and its relatively small professional army was expected to play only a minor role, if any role at all, in a war that might be over by Christmas 1914. In other words, the absence of a powerful British army did not contribute to the cause of peace but encouraged the Kaiserreich to pursue a course of action that resulted in the death of 20 million people. That is the message—seeming vulnerable invites war—which should have been shouted from rooftops of Geneva at the time of the World Disarmament Conference.
Strong leaders from Emperor Hadrian to President Reagan have called it Peace Through Strength. The foreign policy mantra of Barack Obama, whose political ambition involved reversing Reaganism in all its facets, might be summarised as Peace Through Apology. He tried to “reset” relations in 2009 in the aftermath of Putin launching the Russo-Georgia War in October 2008 and hiving off South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. In the spirit of Russo-US conciliation, in 2009 Obama vetoed a request by the Czech Republic and Poland for provision of a missile defence shield. It was like Reagan’s Star Wars only in reverse. In March 2012, Obama promised Putin’s proxy, Dmitry Medvedev, that he could be “more flexible” in his second term in office, a quality in evidence at the time of the 2014 Putin-driven Donbas War. Even more suppleness was on hand after Putin seized Crimea in March 2014. Obama finished his time in office embittered by Putin’s flagrant disregard for established international borders, and yet that is not the relevant point to make: it is that Putin perceived he could get away with military adventures, not the least reason being Obama’s character and placatory foreign policy.
It would be inaccurate to think that Putin’s appropriation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory was all to do with Putin’s low opinion of Obama’s character, or that Putin’s February 24 invasion is all owing to Biden’s character weakness (or cognitive decline). Putin’s personal ideology has always (albeit incorrectly) deemed Ukraine an extension of Russia, which in turn might have misled him about the internal unity of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s nation. Moreover, his own generals and government advisers may have been less than frank about the efficacy of Russia’s military assets on the eve of the assault. On the other hand, memories of the Donbas war and the annexation of Crimea must have fortified him at moments of self-doubt, because those wars had been prosecuted without too much blowback on the international front. The same can be said about his military intervention in the Syrian civil war—coinciding with Obama’s last two years in the Oval Office—which might be characterised as levelling one neighbourhood after another with bombs and missiles, barely discriminating between military targets and non-combat sites such as hospitals. Putin brought to Syria the same barbarism that he employed in the Second Chechen War (1999 to 2009). Razing to the ground Grozny and Aleppo and now Mariupol all speak to the brutality of Vlad the Impaler, and yet Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s true successor, lacked the wherewithal to deter Putin. Why is that? Say what you will about Trump, but Putin did not try—and would have never tried—his luck with the forty-fifth President of the United States.
In fairness, Biden has not only talked tough since Putin’s latest invasion commenced—“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”—but, in a timely fashion, has also provided lethal military assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU), from portable anti-tank missile systems and Switchblade drones to air and coastal defence systems, longer-range artillery and counter-battery capabilities and armoured vehicles. Moreover, as President Obama’s pointman on Ukraine after the seizure of Crimea in 2014, Vice-President Biden oversaw the upgrading of the ZSU, American assistance constituting some 90 per cent of all foreign military aid in the eight years preceding Putin’s “special military operation”.
A special feature of American—and British—support for Ukraine over the years has been the training aspect, focusing on devolving operations to semi-autonomous killer squadrons of ten to thirty combatants able to mount an asymmetrical insurgency against a numerically superior but somewhat cumbersome invasion force. (A similar training process, we can be assured, is at work in Taiwan preparing for a prospective million-strong amphibious invasion of the island by the People’s Liberation Army.) In summary, Putin’s murderous bombing and shelling of Ukrainian towns and cities is a function of the reality that Russia’s numerically superior mechanised units and infantry are relatively inept, and that in turn is a consequence of Ukrainian courage and prowess and American (and British) money and expertise.
But even these events call into question the kind of leadership provided by President Obama and President Biden—despite the absurdity of the Ukraine hoax, which falsely accused President Trump of threatening to withhold $391 million of American aid unless President Zelenskyy investigated the corruption associated with Hunter Biden during Joe Biden’s tenure as Vice-President. Nevertheless, Trump’s suspicions about the corruption of the Biden family were doubtless well founded. After all, one of the reasons Zelenskyy, formerly a comedian and actor, won the 2019 presidential election by an astonishing 73 per cent is because the Ukrainian people were fed up with astronomical levels of corruption associated with Petro Poroshenko’s government. Much of that corruption, in turn, was associated with vast sums of US military aid pouring into the country. Peter Schweitzer’s Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family Friends (2018) provides a startling overview of how the Hunter Biden crime act worked; Miranda Devine’s Laptop from Hell (2022) fills in the details, and a lot of the details have to do with Ukraine. The fact that the mainstream media and Big Tech covered up the Hunter Biden laptop scandal on the eve of the 2020 presidential election says a lot about the degeneracy of the Left-power elite running America and the uncivil war they continue to wage against truth and democracy.
None of this is to suggest that America has lost its lethal edge as the premier military power in the world, the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army notwithstanding. The point, as Keith Windschuttle makes, is that negativity about America’s military and economic viability has been taken too far by the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and we might add here Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran. They have confused economic and military potency with the impotency of two recent presidents: “The only thing they have got right is their view of the lack of resolve of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who have been, so far, the most timid American presidents since Jimmy Carter.” In terms of foreign policy, Obama’s one Big Idea was to ask America’s traditional adversaries—Russia, Iran, Cuba, China and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—to let bygones be bygone and become “partners in peace”. The signing of the Iran Deal in July 2015 was aptly described as America’s Munich Moment. Seven years later, the Biden administration is attempting to resurrect this sham agreement, proof that some people never learn.
Wars occur, as in the First and Second World Wars and now the Ukraine war, when leaders of nations perceive themselves to be in a superior position. Watching the US government—for a second time!—demean itself before the Iranian regime, the greatest sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East, might have told Putin all he needed to know about Joe Biden’s character. The capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15, 2021, came only weeks after Biden assured the leaders of the G7 that all was “stable” and the Afghan army would survive the US drawdown. Biden’s administration did not even think to secure the perimeter of Kabul before thousands of American, British and other Western civilians were evacuated. Six months later and Biden was offering Zelenskyy safe passage to the United States when the whole shooting show had barely commenced. Zelenskyy’s pithy response is the stuff of legends: “I need more ammunition, not a ride.”
Churchill’s lesson is not about how to wage war—though he knew something about that as well—but how to avoid wars. The armed forces of Ukraine have bloodied the nose of the Russians and knocked Putin’s “special military operation” off balance, while thousands of Ukrainians have been killed and millions have fled the country. Putin is undoubtedly a monster but not an irrational monster, which is all the more reason why the implications of Churchill’s lesson should have been grasped by Obama and Biden. Better, by far, there had never been a Russo-Ukrainian war even if that war results in an unlikely Ukraine victory or, at least, stalemate. Hopefully, America and the West in general will take to heart Churchill’s lesson in time to stymie Xi Jinping’s designs for Taiwan.
Daryl McCann is a frequent contributor. He blogs at darylmccann.blogspot.com