26th December 2006 Inevitability

Yesterday afternoon we watched a DVD I bought myself for Christmas. The box is all in French, but in English it seems to be called The Gathering Storm and it’s Churchill biography, or as it’s dramatized like a story, fanfiction. It’s based on the Churchill history of the same name, and on various letters of Churchill and Clementine, and on various other historical information. It has Albert Finney as Churchill — and he manages to look just like Churchill even stark naked. The film covers the years 1934-36, and it’s brilliant and very accurate as far as I can tell. It’s slightly weird that they make the start of WWII (and Churchill getting back into power, or anyway, the Admiralty) the happy ending, but that’s OK. My immediate reaction was “They ought to make the rest of The Gathering Storm, and while they’re at it, the other five volumes of Churchill’s history of the second world war”. Rysmiel, who is a lot less of a Churchill obsessive than I am, in fact who is very tolerant to watch a Churchill film on Christmas Day at all, (and did ask anxiously if I was going to mutter if they got things wrong and shout “scumbag” at Lord Halifax) also liked it and thought it well acted.

What the film does — though not Churchill’s book — is make it seem as if WWII is totally inevitable and Churchill is inherently by definition right. It does this partly by eliding the years between the annexing of Austria and the start of WWII, and partly by ignoring the existence of France.

Churchill knew that WWII was not inevitable. He points out in The Gathering Storm several times when war could have been averted entirely.

Oddly, while there are a zillion alternate histories where WWII went differently, I don’t think there are any where the French had the gumption to advance into the Rhineland in 1934 and the Germans retreated, as was their contingency plan, and Hitler’s government fell as a consequence. I don’t recall any where Britain and France weren’t pusillanimous at Munich and Hitler gave the order to attack Czechoslovakia and the coup the army was planning to depose and kill Hitler went ahead. Or, for that matter, any where he survived the coup and WWII started over Czechoslovakia with the Russians on the side of the West from the start. (I suspect the reason for this is because these don’t have the dramatic nature, and also because it would take an awful lot of working out what would have happened.)

The Third Reich got so powerful and so greedy because the Western democracies believed in peace at any price, and in compromise, and “appeasement” which can better be put as “placating”. (Weirdly, in French, “appeasement” still has its original meaning.) Because nobody stood up to him, ever, Hitler acquired a godlike status, and an aura of success. But compromise and being reasonable are not inherently awful positions to take — indeed, with normal people they are a good idea. Most people will not take an ell when offered an inch. Halifax’s “let’s all talk and give a little bit” diplomacy worked pretty well in India. Appeasement taught the wrong lesson: see Suez, not to mention anything more recent.

In reality, everything is very complex and nothing is inevitable until it happens. Churchill’s speeches that seem so prescient now could seem as silly to us as they did to the House of Commons if France (which wasn’t influenced one way or the other by Churchill at this point) had acted differently.

I picked the Hess Mission for the Farthing Peace (which is basically “let’s call it a draw”) in May of 1941, because in May of 1941 there was no way for either Britain or Germany to defeat each other. It was a stalemate. Hitler didn’t care about Britain, much, he wanted a continental empire, he wanted to go East, he was irritated enough about needing to conquer Greece and Yugoslavia first. Britain wasn’t about to lose either the Battle of Britain or the Battle of the Atlantic (or re-runs of them) so it wasn’t invadable, but it was bleeding treasure to the US for, frankly, crappy ships and munitions (though it was doing the US economy good) and it wasn’t about to invade the continent either. There was no way to win and any sensible person would have seen that it made no sense to keep on fighting. The war could be won if the US came in and made a huge effort over a long time — which is what began to happen early in 1942, Pearl Harbor was December of 1941 — but there had just been a US election in which the US had pretty much declared for not joining in, and they probably wouldn’t have joined in if not for Japan being foolish enough to force them into it. Britain and the Empire could hold out alone — just — but it couldn’t win alone, and everyone, including Churchill, knew it.

Why did we, Britain, fight WWII? We didn’t fight it to free the Jews from the camps, the Wansee Conference wasn’t until 1942, and anyway, we’d known about what was happening to the Jews since 1934, and we demonstrably didn’t give a damn. We didn’t fight it to guarantee the freedom of Poland — which was, unlike Czechoslovakia, which we betrayed in 1938, quite an obnoxious place anyway. We didn’t do it because the Nazis were Ultimate Evil, or at least, if so we’d known that since 1934 too, and given in to them on every point. We lost a tremendous amount by fighting — not just all the lives, not just bankrupting the country and losing the Empire, losing our influential place in the world, but also our beautiful and historic and utterly irreplacable towns and cities. What we gained — it’s like doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — was sweeping away a whole way of life which was terrible for most people and setting up a new society with class mobility and something much closer to a meritocracy, as well as (somewhat late in the day) freeing the Jews from the camps and freeing half of Europe from dictatorship — while unfortunately leaving the other half in it for another fifty years.

Churchill, who was right about so much throughout the thirties, wanted to go on at the end of the war and steamroller the USSR, forward from Berlin to Moscow, using the newly developed nukes, freeing Eastern Europe, opening the Gulags. I can’t think of anyone writing that as an alternate history either, unless you count Ken MacLeod’s The Human Front.

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