Britain declared war on Germany not to fight fascism but to secure the interests of its own ruling class, writes Chris Bambery
On Sunday 3 September 1939 the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, addressed the nation on BBC radio to tell them that the country was now at war with Hitler’s Germany. France too declared war. Both countries had issued an ultimatum to Hitler after he had invaded Poland to withdraw or they would declare war.
In his broadcast to the nation, Chamberlain spoke of his sadness that "the long struggle to win peace" had failed.
What he did not explain is that the Conservative government he headed had fed Hitler pieces of territory – the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia – in a hope that would appease the Nazi leader and that he might be encouraged to turn his attentions towards Russia.
Many in the British and French elites viewed the Nazis as a bulwark against Bolshevism – they ignored the fact that Stalin’s rise to power had ended all vestiges of revolutionary socialism at home or abroad.
Appeasing Hitler was not some minority position within the British ruling class, it was comfortably the majority position, shared by the King and Queen, the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs, big business and the City and a section of the Labour Party.
Just over a year before he declared war, Chamberlain had shuffled backwards and forwards to Munich to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia with Hitler, the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini and the French Premier. Hitler was demanding the eastern region of the country with its substantial German population and threatening immediate invasion. It was also where its fairly formidable border defences and much of its substantial arms industry were located.
At the Munich summits the Czech government was not represented. The whole affair was rigged by Hitler and Mussolini, who chaired the meetings. It concluded with Britain and France handing over a tranche of another country to Hitler. He promised his appetite for territorial expansion was satisfied.
Why did the British and French hand over this vital territory?
Firstly, Czechoslovakia had the support at that point of the Soviet Union which indicated it would join Britain and France in resisting Hitler’s land grab. The last thing Paris and London wanted was to be allied with Moscow nor Stalin being involved in European affairs.
Secondly, the Spanish Civil War was continuing and the Republicans had launched a fresh offensive across the River Ebro. A new European war would become embroiled in a clear anti-fascist one and that raised the sceptre of a clear war against fascism which could threaten continental civil war.
Thirdly, the illusion that Hitler would accept a normal diplomatic deal.
A German diplomat reported that he had been told by Chamberlain's close adviser, Sir Horace Wilson:
"Britain and Germany were in fact the two countries in which the greatest order reigned and which were the best governed... It would be the height of folly if these two leading white races were to exterminate each other in war. Bolshevism would be the only gainer... A constructive solution of the Czech problem by peaceful means would pave the way for Germany to exercise large scale policy in the South East."
In March 1939 Hitler broke his word to Britain and France and occupied the rump Czech state.
Any further concessions would seriously erode Britain's position as a great power. Chamberlain reacted to Hitler's gobbling up of the remainder of Czechoslovakia by issuing guarantees of protection to both Poland and Romania.
Poland had a minority German population and to give it access to the Baltic Sea it had been given a strip of territory dividing Germany from East Prussia. Hitler’s eyes turned there.
Yet Britain and France were in a much weaker position by promising to defend Poland that if they had chosen to stand by Czechoslovakia. It was now threatened from three sides. It was also a state run by army officers who were antisemitic.
Now a dramatic shift in the European situation burst like a bomb blast.
In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact pledging not to go to war with each other. Stalin promised to supply vital war materials, including oil, without which the Third Reich could not have fought later in France and the Low Countries. A secret section of the agreement partitioned Poland between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.
Subsequently the Red Army entered Eastern Poland to incorporate it into the Russian state.
Defenders of Stalin argued this move bought him valuable time to prepare for an eventual war with Germany. Yet between August 1940 and June 1941 Stalin did little to do so and the Red Army and air force was caught surprised and thrown into costly confusion when the Germans did eventually attack.
What Stalin did do was continue with the purges of Red Army commanders at substantial cost to its ability to wage war.
The Pact was very much in the tradition of Czarist diplomacy. Three times in the past the Russian Emperor had divided Poland between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Now the new emperor was doing the same.
What Moscow had grasped after was that Britain and France were not going to ally with it. The shift towards a pact with Berlin was obvious in Spain where the Russians reduced their support for the embattled Republic.
With a deal with Stalin in his pocket Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland. The killings of Jews started immediately together with “reprisals” against Polish civilians.
Despite his pledge to the Poles, when Chamberlain entered the Commons two days after the invasion of Poland he intended not to deliver an ultimatum to Germany but to float the possibility of Britain being 'associated' with possible talks to end the 'present hostilities'. Just days before, on 29 August, a friend of Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, noted in her diary, 'Edward [Lord Halifax] thinks if we can keep Hitler talking for two more days the corner will be turned'.
What precluded this was the emergence of an alliance between the Labour Party and a growing section of the Tory party who realised that any retreat would mark the end of Britain as a great power. Despite his wishes Chamberlain had to declare war.
This meant that the British ruling class were deeply divided. After the announcement of war Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, asked his permanent secretary what Britain's war aims were:
"I told him I saw awful difficulties. We can no longer say 'evacuate' Poland without going to war with Russia, which we don't want to do! I suppose the cry is 'abolish Hitlerism'. What if Hitler hands over to Goering! Meanwhile what of the course of operations? What if Germany now sits tight? What do we do? Build up our armaments feverishly? What for?... Must try to think this out."
Throughout the autumn and winter 1939-1940 Britain and France sat on their hands. The French failed to deliver the offensive against the Third Reich they had promised the Poles. This was the Phoney War. All through these months Chamberlain tried to secure a deal with Germany to no avail.
In the spring of 1940 Hitler took to the offensive invading and occupying Norway and Denmark and then Holland, Belgium and France.
His dramatic victory in the West did not come about because the Germans were superior in armaments – they were not especially in tanks and planes. It came as a result of serious military flaws in Allied planning; because in France, deeply polarised on class lines, the ruling class feared once Hitler attacked a war against him would lead to the left taking the lead and thus prepared to surrender to Germany; and because the British decided to quit for home when they evacuated their forces from Dunkirk.
By then Winston Churchill had taken over from Chamberlain after the Labour Party refused to enter a coalition government under the latter. Yet Churchill had the backing of only a minority inside the Conservative Party. Lord Halifax continued to send out peace feelers and urged capitulation. Churchill had to wage a vicious faction fight to defeat the appeasers.
The rhetoric of resistance he used that summer has gone down in history. It masked the fact that Churchill’s priority, and that of the British elite, was defence of the Empire. Millions of people thought the war was against Hitler and fascism, but that was not a priority for their leaders. Churchill’s problem with Hitler wasn’t about his politics but because he understood early on the Führer wanted dominance of Europe and then the globe and that would mean confronting Britain.
The horror of the Holocaust and the genuine hatred of fascism of so many can obscure the fact World War 2 was ultimately a war to re-partition the globe.
What that did mean was that the prospect of the war becoming a civil war between right and left or it ending in revolution as in 1917-1918 haunted all the leaders of the warring powers, not least Hitler. America and Britain did put the cap on that, though they had to rely on Stalin for large part.
For Churchill the irony was that victory could only be achieved by eventually dragging in the USA, and the price Washington demanded was the dismantling of the British Empire, the very thing Churchill desired to maintain.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Scotland: it's time to break from a broken UK
- Scotland's election
- Huge numbers join Catalonia's general strike for freedom
- Civil liberties in Spain? The clampdown against the Catalan independence movement
- What’s changing in Scotland?
- Flawed transition: why the Spanish state is repressing the Catalan independence movement
- Sails and Winds: A Cultural History of Valencia - book review