He indicted Neville Chamberlain and his Government for having been patsies for Hitler and Mussolini, demanded explanations for failures to act, insisted on a change in policy, and recommended specific measures to face the crisis confronting them.
"Neville – who has been a second time deceived by the Dictator in whom he particularly trusts, & invites us to trust…There is a great danger in refusing to believe things you do not like."
In the Spring of 1929 the Conservative Party lost the General Election, and Churchill stepped down as...
"Neville – who has been a second time deceived by the Dictator in whom he particularly trusts, & invites us to trust…There is a great danger in refusing to believe things you do not like."
In the Spring of 1929 the Conservative Party lost the General Election, and Churchill stepped down as Chancellor of the Exchequer and left government. He would not serve again until September 1939. The intervening years were filled with grave dangers, as Hitler rose to power, Germany rearmed and began its conquests, Japan invaded China, and Italian Fascism became aggressive and expansionist. Meanwhile, Britain and France, who had lost so terribly many men in World War I and were not being driven forward by dictators, were lost in a dream of peace and appeasement, and a politics of denial and pacifism. Buttressing these inclinations was the onset of the Great Depression, which diminished government revenues even as it increased demands on the reduced funds remaining available. Diverting money needed for the health and welfare of the people in order to purchase arms was, to many, unthinkable.
Among the public men of influence, only Churchill recognized the profound peril to the world that the Nazis and Fascists represented. He spoke out in Parliament, on the radio, in his newspaper columns, anywhere and everywhere, demanding the government wake up and prepare. As early as 1933, Churchill warned in the House of Commons, “Those Germans are not looking for equal status. They are looking for weapons.” He soon gathered around him a band of like-minded supporters who saw the menace and the potentially fatal nature of the threat. But these men were a small minority, and none of them were in the upper reaches of government. The men who were, the prime ministers and party leaders, not only disagreed with Churchill but considered him a loose cannon and an annoyance. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said, "Winston’s position is curious. Our people like him. They love listening to him in the House, look on him as a star turn, and settle down in the stalls with anticipatory grins. But for leadership, they would turn him down every time." His successor Neville Chamberlain wrote, "One doesn’t often come across a real man of genius or perhaps, appreciate him when one does. Winston is such a man. [But] he is a brilliant wayward child who compels admiration, but who wears out his guardians with the constant strain he puts upon them." As for the rank and file of his party, many Conservatives could never forgive Churchill’s ‘betrayal’ of their Party in 1904 when he had not only left them to join the Liberals, but had used all his oratorical skills both to attack them with skill and invective.
In 1934, in scenes reminiscent of the best spy dramas, Churchill held clandestine meetings at Chartwell, where he was briefed on the actual situation in Germany by the government and military men in his network, men in positions low enough to be without policy-making influence but high enough to know the true facts and statistics being developed (and be in despair at the lack of response from the government). With this information, Churchill shocked Parliament by revealing the true figures of German military production, figures many colleagues refused to believe. In November of 1934, he made a stirring speech in the Commons demanding an increase in military expenditures: “To urge preparation of defense is not to assert the imminence of war…” These words marked a turning point in his career; he would now primarily devote himself to warning of the threat of Germany. Meanwhile, Hitler went public with hitherto secret information showing the superiority in strength of the German air force over the British. Baldwin had promised that British airpower would never fall behind that of Germany, and this put the lie to that statement, while Chamberlain urged continued disarmament, claiming “The real danger to this country is Winston. He is the warmonger, not Hitler.”
In October 1935 Italy took Ethiopia. But after the General Election a month later, Churchill was again excluded from the Cabinet. On March 7, 1936, Hitler invaded the demilitarized Rhineland, which action conflicted with and basically tore up the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. Hitler chose that date knowing that Ministers of Parliament would be unavailable on that day; the British ruling class was accustomed "to take its weekends in the country," criticized Churchill, while "Hitler takes his countries in the weekends." Churchill understood the meaning of this invasion, saying "An enormous triumph has been gained by the Nazi regime," and stating “The German Army is a dagger pointed at the heart of France.” But many in Britain saw this as Hitler simply getting his own. At a high-level dinner party Chamberlain reviled Churchill and voiced approval of Hitler, and Baldwin said, "I know some of you think I should speak more roughly to Hitler than I do, but have you reflected that the reply to a stiff letter might be a bomb on your breakfast tables?" Lord Lothian noted in London that "After all, [the Germans] are only going into their own back garden." Churchill continued to reveal in the Commons the truth about Britain’s lack of preparedness, while public opinion first began to swing his way.
In 1937 Chamberlain became Prime Minister, and despite growing pressure and stormy Cabinet meetings, he held firm to his policy of appeasing the dictators and denying the necessity of rearming. Saying Hitler was a reasonable person with whom he could negotiate, and refusing to allocate significant funds to build planes and ships, he overpowered or forced out of the cabinet everyone who opposed him. Then came the pivotal year of 1938, when Hitler began to implement his grander plans. In the early hours of March 12, German troops marched into Austria. Hitler himself crossed the border shortly after, welcomed by thunderous crowds, some of which were genuine while some others staged. He visited his birthplace of Braunau, touring his former school and home, and was reported to have gotten emotional. Mussolini was informed by Hitler of the invasion in advance, and he personally telephoned Hitler to say that Austria was "immaterial" to Italy, suggesting Italy's approval for this annexation. The enthusiastic Hitler told a messenger to bring Mussolini the message "I will never forget him for this!" Meanwhile, Britain and France registered protests but failed to act. In fact, in April, Chamberlain signed the Anglo-Italian Agreement, whereunder the British and Italian governments undertook to observe the order in the Mediterranean.
The successful annexation of Austria fueled Adolf Hitler's ambition, and he next looked to the German-populated regions of western Czechoslovakia, a region which the Germans called Sudetenland. "It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future", Hitler said to his military advisors, many of whom were worried that the move was too ambitious. What fueled Hitler in moving forth with the gamble was the appeasement sentiment from the British and French political leadership. To resolve the crisis over the threat of an invasion of Czechoslovakia, in September Chamberlain flew to Munich to meet with Hitler and Mussolini. At this, the famed Munich Conference, Britain and France agreed that Hitler could take the Sudetenland in return for his promise that this was his final territorial demand. Chamberlain returned home waving the agreement and announcing he had secured “Peace in our time.”
With Parliament again backing Chamberlain, Churchill was the lone voice in the wilderness, as he told the Commons, "All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness…We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude which has befallen Great Britain and France. Do not let us blind ourselves to that…I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost…the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defenses; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war…And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time." Churchill further remarked, “Chamberlain had the choice between war and shame. Now he has chosen shame – he’ll get war later.” But Churchill was very much a voice in the wilderness in the midst of the temporary jubilation after war was seemingly averted.
On March 15, 1939, breaking his word to Chamberlain, Hitler invaded and occupied all of Czechoslovakia. With Prague in Nazi hands, many in a shocked Britain began to wake up to the danger. Significant pressure arose for a change in government policy, and for rearmament, but Chamberlain still did not act. Churchill's informants continued to warn him of deficiencies in Britain's defenses, particularly in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. At the end of March, Parliament learned to its distress that a new Anglo-German economic agreement would allow Germany to increase its foreign currency holdings, so that Britain was in effect giving Germany the foreign currency with which she could buy arms and raw materials. Then, on March 31, Chamberlain issued a guarantee to Poland; this put Britain's one foot in the water, but since the guarantee covered Poland's independence, not its present borders, the other foot was held out. In early April, the gloves really came off and Churchill attacked the German action against Czechoslovakia as "crime and treachery", thus pressuring Chamberlain to define his guarantee to Poland broadly and end appeasement, and began pressing home points of the utmost importance to war readiness (and which indeed proved essential to ultimate victory): conscription and involvement of Russia in an anti-Nazi coalition. Churchill's bashing of the dictators and strong support for an alliance with Russia was none to Chamberlain's liking.
Hitler's ally Mussolini delivered an ultimatum to Albania on March 25, 1939, demanding that it accede to an Italian occupation. Temperatures rose from there, and the nations contiguous to Albania (Yugoslavia and Greece) shuddered at the prospect of having Mussolini as a neighbor. On April 6, news arrived in London that Italian troops were massing for the invasion of Albania, and on the 7th there was an announcement on the radio that Italians had actually landed in Albania. Besides the illegality of the invasion generally, it was also a violation of the Anglo-Italian Agreement of 1938. Churchill's first thought was, where is the British fleet? The Royal Navy should now be in the Adriatic Sea (which stood between Italy and Albania) preventing this. He was astonished to find that the fleet was scattered throughout the Mediterranean, and could be of no use in this crisis. On the following day Churchill prepared a note for Chamberlain on where he felt the British fleet should be, saying that it should seize the Greek island of Corfu in order to use the island as a base to deter any further Italian assault on Albania. This action he thought should be taken that night. He reinforced the letter with several phone calls to Downing Street, and he requested a session of Parliament. Chamberlain wrote, "I suppose he has prepared a terrific oration which he wants to let off," dismissing the call to action. At this point, the Germans and Italians had, in just three years, armed themselves to the teeth and built the strongest military forces with the best armaments in the western world. They had taken the Rhineland, the Sudetenland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia and Albania; Poland was already under threat. In all that time, the western democracies had done nothing to prevent this, and in fact the world was quaking at the dictators' feet.
On April 13, 1939, the House of Commons scheduled a debate about the Italian invasion of Albania and its implications, and Chamberlain's hastily announced response to the crisis: guarantees to Greece and Romania, and talks with Turkey. Even as the government seemed to be developing this design, however, it still showed in this emergency a reluctance to switch British industries to a war footing and to coordinate the needs of the three military services by means of a central Ministry of Supply. The Ministry of Supply was something Churchill had urged for years, and it was something of a euphemism, as its job was to be less supply than rearmament. There still seemed no clear commitment to act in ways that would make a guarantee meaningful, nor a recognition of the deep interest of Russia, one that ought to be exploited by British foreign policy. Churchill determined to make major statements in this debate, ones both policy and personal, that painted a complete picture of the world at that moment, and would be of such significance that a number are quoted in Martin Gilbert's authoritative book, "Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years." Gilbert reports that after Churchill finished speaking, Chamberlain complained that there was an "acid undertone" to his words that left him [Chamberlain] feeling depressed. Chamberlain went on to ask if Churchill would wear him out resisting his "rash suggestings."
After his first speech went poorly in the House of Commons in 1901 because he had failed to prepare it with sufficient thoroughness, Churchill never again made a planned statement in the Commons without making careful preparations. For the April 13 statement (actually he would stand three times during the debate and make his points), Churchill started out with a few blank pages in front of him on which he would outline the key points he wanted to make in the comprehensive view of the world he was presenting to Parliament. He headed the first page "Policy of HMG [His Majesty’s Government]", and at the top wrote "Anglo-Italian Agreement." His concern about the danger to other nations, and the meaning of British guarantees given to some, was next on his mind, as he noted "Balkan Bloc vital…Greece, Turkey, Romania & Bulgaria." To the right he wrote "Y.S. [Yugoslavia]…Where are we now?", urging the need for immediate action "Up to the next Speed." His next thought was of Russia, again asking for a British approach to that nation: "Are we doing all that we might?", and hoping Russia would "go on " with its stalled negotiations with Poland. He also wanted to deal with the situation in Spain, where the Fascist Franco had just won the Civil War there with the help of Hitler and Mussolini. At lower left he noted two points he wanted to make about Italy, and German and British relations with that country. They were "1. Not her interest nor wish of [Italian] people to be in a mortal struggle [with] England & France. 2. Germany’s interest is to get Italy involved in war before striking in herself. Only then will Germans be sure of her…"
Churchill then turned from foreign policy to domestic. He would demand "conscription" and a 'M of S' [Ministry of Supply]. He would state unequivocally that the "Fleet" was in "disarray," and that although there was a "Concentration now. But it ought to have been before crisis." He was obviously moved by the list of crises, failures, and dangerous prospects, so his next thought moved away from specifics and to a Churchillian warning: "Darkening scene…Another now impending." At this point one can just imagine him in the House of Commons, on his feet and looking right at Chamberlain. He would admonish the government that we "Go on with our quiet life here & yet given to play so great a part." Turning to attack Chamberlain's policies, he would lead with "Disillusion & disappointment. Neville – who has been a second time deceived by the Dictator in whom he particularly trusts, & invites us to trust. Everyone knows his high motives, his desire for peace. We all sympathize with him but sympathize with ourselves too." That last line was clearly meant for Conservative Party back benchers, as a reminder that though people can sympathize with Chamberlain's good intentions, no one can accept his invitation to trust Hitler nor forget to worry about the nation's concerns (and not just the Prime Minister's).
Page two Churchill heads "National unity." He continues his thoughts about the government, both urging it and lecturing it: "But His Majesty’s Government must also rise to the height of events. Merely to be strong in the House of Commons or to be successful on by-elections is no ground for complacency. One does not feel that existing political machinery fairly represents the deep feeling of anxiety & dissatisfaction with conduct of affairs in country. My belief is country is far ahead of the Government. The days are upon us when majorities in Parliament, votes of confidence in ministers, friendly articles in the press, will no longer count." He does not want promises, but actions. "Words do not count, achievements alone count." Summing up, he pleads "Recover initiative in foreign policy" rather than "Wait upon events." There was a brief digression to claim that the recent failings were not the result of the intelligence service, but the government: "Our intelligence information: "1. Prague 2. Albania – dispersal of ministers & fleet." He finished with a true Churchillian admonition: "There is a great danger in refusing to believe things you do not like."
Using these comprehensive notes, an outline for an entire policy speech really, Churchill fleshed them out into a longer typescript, which he had his personal secretary, Kathleen Hill, prepare. That April 13 typescript is in the Churchill Papers at Cambridge University, England. Churchill gave Hill the original notes, and from her they came on the market. A search of auction records going back 40 years fails to turn up even one other manuscript notes for a speech to Parliament on the impending war – the very matter which brought Churchill his fame and renown, and brought the world salvation.
These notes were the thurst of his policy, as it flowed from his mind, and formed the core of this speech. Many of the themes carried over for years. Here are a few examples of how his notes translated into speech. "In spite of the bad faith with which we have been treated by the Italian Government, I am still not convinced that Italy has made up her mind, particularly the Italian nation, to be involved in a mortal struggle with Great Britain and France in the Mediterranean…It may be assumed that Germany would like to make sure of Italy by getting her into a war with the Western Powers." As for Chamberlain, he said, "I have listened to the Prime Minister's statement; and I am bound to say that I am disappointed…We can readily imagine that it must have been a great disappointment and surprise to the Prime Minister to be treated in this way by a dictator in whom he placed particular trust, and in whom he advised us to place particular trust. We all sympathize with him, and we all sympathize with ourselves too." He continued, "How can we bear to continue to lead our comfortable easy life here at home…unwilling even to take the necessary measure by which the armies that we have been promised can alone be recruited and equipped?…I do not feel that we are getting the lead that we ought to have from the Government." On the fleet: "I cannot feel that the dispositions of the British Fleet in the recent crisis conformed to the ordinary dictates of prudence…The Fleet was scattered from one end of the Mediterranean to the other." As for warnings: "The dark, bitter waters are rising fast on every side…The danger is now very near…Everywhere it is felt that some new stroke is impending…The essence of a policy is speed and vigor." And also an important hope that Britain would be given a "chance to recover something like the initiative in foreign policy."
Before five more months would elapse, Churchill's warnings were proven justified and his predictions came true, as the world was plunged into World War II.
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