Darkest Hour offers some truths on ruling class contradictions, but retells the myth that the people were fighting for Empire, argues Chris Bambery
Darkest Hour does us one great service. It reminds us that in May and June 1940, as Hitler’s tanks swept through Belgium and France, occupying both countries and positioning themselves across from the White Cliffs of Dover, the will to resist the Third Reich was not the unanimous position of the British elite. The film focuses resolutely on the figure of Winston Churchill, the maverick Tory who had become Prime Minister weeks before this collapse.
In the film he is confronted by his predecessor as premier, Neville Chamberlain, forced to resign after the debacle of the campaign to try and stop the German conquest of Norway, and his preferred replacement, preferred by King George V1 and the majority of the Tory Party, Lord Halifax. Halifax turned down the job, telling his monarch that he had no stomach for being a war leader, a fairly amazing response at a time when the British Empire faced its greatest threat.
Churchill got the job but it was widely noted that only a minority of Tory MPs cheered him in the House of Commons.
The great service of Darkest Hour is to remind us that the policy of appeasing Hitler ran deep in the British elite and did not end with the declaration of war in September 1939. Chamberlain himself had to be more or less forced to deliver the radio broadcast telling the British people they were at war. A year earlier he had flown back from Munich brandishing a piece of paper saying it was an agreement with Hitler which guaranteed “peace in our time.” That peace had been achieved by Britain and France agreeing to hand over a huge tranche of Czechoslovakia, without any reference to the government in Prague and leaving the one parliamentary democracy in Eastern Europe open to a German invasion which came within months, despite Hitler’s assurances to Chamberlain. Undaunted, the British Prime Minister kept open various back channels to the Fuhrer seeking a compromise to the end, even though his government was committed to going to war if Germany invaded Poland, which it would do.
This policy of appeasing Hitler, by feeding him chunks of Central and Eastern Europe, was not Chamberlain’s personal position. It was the policy adopted by the majority of the British ruling class including the King (he and the future Queen Mother brought Chamberlain out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace on his return from Munich, the first time a Prime Minister appeared there), the City of London and industry, the bulk of the media and the majority of the Tory Party.
They were haunted by Britain’s loss of power, saw Hitler as providing a “Bulwark against Bolshevism” (their hatred of Soviet Russia meant they could not see Stalin did not want revolution in Europe and had acted to crush the revolutionary situation in Catalonia in May 1937) and feared that a fresh world war would lead to a repeat of the wave of revolutions which ended the 1914-1918 war. There were few actual fascists in British ruling circles (but they existed) but there many admirers of Nazi Germany and many more who saw a new war as bringing the end of their privileged way of life.
Another reason behind appeasement was that many in the British elite, Chamberlain included, saw the USA as the biggest threat to the British Empire and the protected trade bloc, where those using Sterling got imperial preference and upstarts like the Americans had to pay tariffs.
In contrast, Churchill had grasped the truth about Hitler quite early on. The Führer wanted German domination of Europe and then to use that as a stepping stone to global domination. That last step would certainly mean the destruction of the British Empire. Churchill was an arch-imperialist who was isolated even within the Tory Party, for example in resisting even the most cosmetic reforms introduced to try and buy off the rising tide of Indian nationalism.
This maverick Tory had no problem with Italian fascism because he did not see it as a mortal enemy of Empire and he would laud Mussolini. He did not oppose Hitler out of concern for German trade unionists and leftists because he had been prepared to unleash troops with bayonets on striking Welsh miners in Tonypandy in 1910 and in 1926 had been the most hard line Tory minister when facing up to the General Strike. He opposed Hitler because he understood if the Führer controlled Europe he would turn to finishing off Britain.
The nastiness and class hatred of Churchill is missing from Darkest Hour. At one stage in the film he takes to the London Underground where he meets unflinching Dunkirk spirit. In truth Churchill was more likely to hitch a ride on a passing Messerschmidt than use public transport. If he had he might have bumped into black marketeers, deserters, looters waiting for the black out or members of the British Union of Fascists pasting up stickers urging people to listen to German radio.
That should not obscure the fact that the majority of Brits hated the Nazis and supported fighting on. That was, in most part, because of their class hatred of Hitler and an awareness of what a German occupation would bring. My father left the Young Communists (who followed Stalin's anti-war line) to enlist, and told me later, “Churchill was a bastard, but we needed a bastard to fight Hitler.” Once the bastard wasn’t needed the British people voted him out.
Darkest Hour shows Churchill having to face up to Chamberlain, Halifax and, to a lesser extent, the King. But it does not quite show how near the War Cabinet came to surrendering, as Halifax urged. It shows Churchill, depressed by the collapse in Northern France, agreeing to ask Mussolini what Hitler’s terms might be (Churchill fans would argue he was buying time for himself) but the dilemma is resolved by the success of the Dunkirk evacuations.
The truth is the fall of France, which removed Britain’s key ally with its far bigger army, led to a very close debate on whether to throw in the towel. Halifax’s deputy at the Foreign Office, Rab Butler, happened to bump into a Swedish acquaintance in St James Park and invited him back to discuss surrender terms, as you do, introducing him to Halifax and allowing him to phone Stockholm so the question could be posed to Berlin.
Halifax and co. argued Hitler would let Britain keep its Empire at the expense of Gibraltar and a few other pieces of real estate. A majority of the War Cabinet were prepared to pay that price but Churchill called a recess in which he gathered other ministers and supporters to warn surrender would mean the imposition of some satrap like Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, on them. With their support, and crucially that of the Labour Party now in the coalition government, he returned to win the day. Meanwhile, his supporters in the media were waging a campaign attacking Tory appeasers and talking of fighting a European civil war for democracy and liberty. What Churchill made of this remained behind his cigar.
Britain survived that Spitfire summer of 1940. Hitler had no real invasion plan while the Royal Navy remained intact and the RAF could control the skies of south east England. Churchill concentrated on defending Egypt and the Suez Canal, that vital link of Empire, but had no coherent plan as to how to defeat Hitler beyond hoping he could pull the USA into the war.
In the end Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded Russia, and four years later, after a mighty diversion to Stalingrad, the Red Army bore the brunt of winning the war in Europe. Britain depended on US imports, arms and finance by the close of 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the conflict. The price of the Anglo-American alliance would be the virtual dismantling of the British Empire. That summer of 1940 remains the jewel of pride for the British ruling class but it carries bitter irony because the cost of resistance was relegation from being a world power.
The central problem with Darkest Hour is that it not just rehashes the myth that the British population were “all in it together” and determined to unite behind Churchill in resisting Hitler, but has this flowing from a “Britishness” tied to Empire and the inner virtues of an elite figure like Churchill.
The film’s title comes from the speech Churchill delivered to the House of Commons after the evacuation from Dunkirk which ended with the rousing claim that:
“If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Note this refers not to the British people or even Britain but the Empire and its White Dominions (including South Africa where Apartheid was not yet in force but vicious racist segregation and discrimination was). Churchill opposed Hitler for the same reason he opposed Indian independence, Bolshevism and striking trade unionists at home, because he saw them as mortal enemies of the thing he held dearest: Empire.
Yet the British relied on its people and those of its colonies and Dominions to fight. Some had no choice. In September 1939 George V1 declared the Indian people at war with Hitler without asking them in anyway. But the price for that domestically was the 1945 Welfare State because working people would accept no less and a surge in support for independence in India in particular – a murderous wartime famine in Bengal caused by the British administration and in which Britain let millions die was one cause of that.
Where to put Churchill? In Darkest Hour he has deep moments of uncertainty and depression but ultimately, he is walking with history. In truth as a war leader he had a poor hand which he played well, but he remained what he was: a Tory and an imperialist, with all that meant as someone who grew up at the height of Empire.
The central contradiction in Britain’s war was that its elite was fighting to preserve their power and Empire while the masses believed they were fighting fascism. The former was true but you cannot ignore what drove ordinary people like my mum and dad to enlist. For them that choice was justified by the newsreel that brought them the horror of Belsen in May 1945.
Darkest Hour is worth the cost of the ticket but it is part of re-creating a myth which remains very important to a British elite which is a shadow of itself from the time when the sun never set on Empire.
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.
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