Friday, 8 June 2012

Shame, Pride & Virtue.

We forget that Churchill was a maverick despised by many in Britain in his day and that he came to power by chance. Once Churchill took over from Chamberlain he had to contend with the faction that had sought to secure the British Empire through 'appeasement', a shallow euphemism for selling Europe to Hitler in a most cowardly manner. The Nazi plans to cleanse Europe of Jews and Slavs did not enter the imperial mind. The crowd aligned with Churchill were looking to preserve British hegemony over the East, especially the Suez Canal and India. The suggestion of a German dominated Europe posed a threat to this in the long-term. These fears later came to fruition with the Fascist invasion of Egypt, where the Italians sought to seize the Suez Canal. By then Mussolini had already seized Malta and Somaliland, the North African campaign was underway. If Mussolini had taken over Egypt then the oil trade through the Suez Canal could have been taken out of British hands entirely. That would have been a huge blow to the British empire.

Before this there was still a significant chunk of the British ruling-class that hoped to secure the Empire through a deal with Hitler. The Halifax faction of 'appeasement' junkies were pushing the government for a deal when the Germans pushed the British back towards Dunkirk. The terms of such a deal would've been a humiliation for Churchill and he was determined to fight on. So Churchill called a meeting at which he faced down his opponents with a speech in which he stated "I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." Notions of 'virtue' and 'honour' can barely encapsulate the moral weight of the stand Churchill took. The emotive language Churchill used had some members of the cabinet looking away in embarrassment. These same mesmeric tones of heroic rhetoric would inspire the masses during the Battle of Britain.

By the time we invaded Italy in 1943 it was part of the same aim of trying to reinstate British hegemony in the Mediterranean. The Italian resistance had effectively liberated the country, then the Allies came in to destroy hit two birds with one stone: namely destroy what was left of Fascism and to destroy the Italian resistance because it was left-wing. The Partisans in Greece and Yugoslavia experienced the same attitude from the Allies. Churchill had refused to open up a second front in France and left the real fighting for the Russians. It wasn't until 1944 that Churchill pledged with Roosevelt and Stalin to open a second front on the Continent. This wasn't the only instance that Churchill had allowed imperial interests to take priority over the war effort. Around 3 million Indians fought on the side of the Allies, but Churchill refused to grant India independence and was determined to hold onto India. As Russians and Germans were slaughtering each other in Stalingrad there were British troops killing demonstrators in India.

In the 1930s the popular desire for peace converged with the imperial interests of the British ruling-class, the outcome was 'appeasement' for a long time. The British ruling-class were looking for a way to preserve the empire, specifically the power held over the Middle East and India. There was the view that the British empire could be maintained with a Nazi dominated Europe. Hitler called our bluff when he invaded Poland and foresaw an easy victory against the French, with a settlement drawn up with the British promising not to touch the empire. The important pre-condition of this was the decision to sell Czechoslovakia to Hitler and allow Poland to become a German satellite, which had been made by 1938. The British and the French reluctantly struck at Germany after the invasion of Poland and only went as far as to evacuate Polish soldiers. By then the section of the elite aligned with Churchill came to the view that the Third Reich would inevitably threaten the empire as it would expand into the Balkans.

At that time Churchill was not easily budged when it came to matters of anti-Communist pragmatism and had gone as far as to express sympathies with Fascism along those lines. As late as 1937 Churchill said in the House of Commons "I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazism, I would choose Communism." He was not alone in his view in 1935 that "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." Of course, this isn't to situate Churchill amongst the Germanophilic prime-mover of 'appeasement' known as the Cliveden Set. He was an opponent of 'appeasement' when the rot of Hitlerian sympathies had spread to the Royal Family. But it does demonstrate just how compromised the British ruling-class were. It isn't a pleasant thought just how easy it would have been to set up a Nazi puppet government in Whitehall after a successful German invasion.

This is partly what made Churchill so impressive when he came to view Hitler as a monster with an insatiable "lust for blood and plunder". Perhaps this was best demonstrated when he reacted to Operation Barbarossa with the words "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." In retrospect we can see that Churchill was right about the need to destroy Fascism and wrong that the British Empire could be maintained in this way. But it was probable by then that the Empire would collapse given the inevitability of war with Hitler. There could be no peace with National Socialism as the gang of psychopaths who took power in 1933 were met with enthusiasm from German industrialists. Expansion offered the prospect of new resources to be extracted, such as the goal of Poland and the oil of Romania. It was a last-ditch attempt at a time of enormous crisis to reinvigorate German capitalism.

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