History

Churchill's Antidote to Political Rage

Things are not more serious than they were in Britain in 1940.

|

"I've never in my adult life," observes David French, a writer for National Review, "seen so many people so angry about things they cannot control." The current hour is one of "defining people by their mistakes," he says, and "hating our ideological enemies."

This is not new information. Many others across the ideological spectrum have uttered the same lament. But the laments have not diminished the volume of rage.

To some degree the rage is understandable. People have plenty to be angry about. But much of the animosity seems out of all proportion. It is one thing to despise and vilify a foreign tyrant who tortures innocent children. It is something else again to despise and vilify someone who didn't vote for the same political candidate you did. You have to take politics extremely seriously for that.

But as serious as politics might seem today, it cannot be more serious than it was in Britain in 1940—when the wrong political choices could threaten the nation's very existence.

Two years before, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler's Germany. Chamberlain returned to England boasting that he had achieved "peace for our time."

A year later Hitler invaded Poland, and Chamberlain's name became synonymous with "appeasement"—which ever since has carried the stench of timorous naiveté. Munich itself has become both an argument by way of analogy and a cliché: Running a Google search about the Obama administration's "Iran deal" and "Munich," for instance, returns thousands upon thousands of results.

This version of history is hard on Chamberlain and omits certain complexities. As Alex Massie reminded readers in The Spectator a few years ago, after the Polish invasion "Chamberlain actually declared war on Germany, rather than vice versa." Massie also cites the views of Winston Churchill on Munich:

"Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems," Churchill wrote later, "who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right.

"On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances, they may be right."

Nobody had more reason to gloat "I told you so" over Chamberlain's miscalculation at Munich than Churchill, who had been warning about the German menace far longer than most people had cared to listen. And yet when Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill delivered a eulogy at once clear-eyed and generous:

"In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history," Churchill began. "In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values…

"It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned."

To be sure, Churchill had not gone easy on Chamberlain after Munich. "You were given the choice between war and dishonor," he said. "You chose dishonor, and you will have war." But the speech he delivered on Chamberlain's death—brought to renewed attention by a reader the other day—shows that even in the most difficult straits, it is possible to concede the other man's humanity and idealism without also conceding the political argument.

That distinction seems to have been lost, which is a pity. There would be much less rage today if it were revived.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

NEXT: 71 Percent of Millennials Say U.S. Politics Needs a Third Major Party

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,

      go? to tech tab for work detail,,, http://www.onlinecareer10.com

  1. That was in the pre-Hitchens era, when you were supposed to focus on the virtues and noble qualities of the recently deceased. There’s plenty of time after a respectful pause to go back to abusing the dead guy if that proves to be necessary.

    1. (And in Churchill’s case he’d taken over from someone who had, after all, been a popular politician and gloating that “you Chamberlain supporters sure were dumb, weren’t you” wouldn’t have been the way to unite the country at that juncture.)

      1. AND…focusing on the peace-seeking Chamberlain being deceived by Hitler would underline the point that “really, Hitler is the bad guy here,” in case that point needed emphasizing.

        1. It shows Hitler appealing to England’s best instincts – the desire for peace – in order to achieve his evildoing objectives. Thus subtly pointing out that Hitler had abused the trust of the English and was therefore all the evil-er.

          1. So, in sum, Churchill wasn’t against political rage, he was aiming that rage in Hitler’s direction.

            1. Sorry but I still find it bizarre that you can’t manage to consolidate your thoughts before you begin typing.

              1. Too much like work.

  2. During WW1 Churchill was fired from his job a First Lord of the Admiralty because of the failed assault on the Dardanelles which Churhill had pushed for

    During WW2 Churchill was promoted to Prime Minister from First Lord of the Admiralty when his plan to mine coastal waters of Norway to get the Germans to violate Norway neutrality failed and the British and French forces had to withdraw.

    So in WW1 a failed amphibious attack gets you fired, in WW2 a failed amphibious attack gets you promoted

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Wilfred

    1. It’s like a reverse Peter Principle – he screwed up the lower-level jobs then did pretty well (under the circumstances) at the top job. Doing pretty well meaning England didn’t become a German province and ultimately the Allies won, which isn’t something to take for granted from the standpoint of 1940.

      1. And all this, when during say 60% of the war, if they’d administered a Breathalyzer he’d have failed.

        1. “Churchill drank 42,000 bottles of Pol Roger champagne through his life; he thought nothing of starting the morning with cold game and a glass of hock and ending it at 3am with the best part of a bottle of cognac.”
          – Harry Wallop

    2. In Churchill’s defense, Norway is kind of close to Britain, and Germany was on the shores of the English channel preparing for an invasion at the time. You’ll also have a hard time convincing me that Germany gave a rat’s rear end about Norwegian neutrality.

      Turkey, however, is several time zones away from Britain. Don’t know how much of the blame Churchill should shoulder for Gallipoli, but the benefit of opening up a front there didn’t come close to the risk of a total disaster, much less the historical fact of it.

      1. There is a strong argument that if the Allied command had mounted Churchill’s plan when he proposed it instead of months later, the Gallipoli landings would have gone very differently.

        1. No military was very good at amphibious landings until late WWII, so Churchill’s Gallipoli expedition would have failed then too. Part 2 of amphibious landings is to expand a beachhead and the Gallipoli expedition never expanded the beachhead.

          Churchill was fixated on saving the British Empire more than winning a war. The British underestimated the Ottomans in their ability to fight and it backfired.

  3. Meh. Giving your retarded political adversary’s any leverage to hang YOU with is stupid.

    In a free society, you have to make compromises to get get budgets passed, for example. That does not mean that you need to give socialists the rope that year, the gallows the following year, and the executioner the next year. Fight the socialists where you can and anything they can weasel out of stupid voters is the compromise.

    Not to into a long thing about Chamberlin and Churchill but Churchill’s main claim to fame was being the last choice to stand up to Hitler. Churchill was something of a joke for having bungled Gallipoli so bad in WWI. Churchill made huge errors and concessions during WWII that cost British lives and Stalin grabbed Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

    Chamberlin was a moron who is of the ilk like Woodrow Wilson. There were clear indicators of Hitler’s intentions from his book Mein Kampf, plus the Rhineland, plus Austria. Chamberlin was from that group that thinks they are so smart and can control tyrants by giving them things.

    The big mistake for making deals with tyrants is you have to be ready to go to war. Democracies typically cannot go to war easily and tyrant regimes know this. If Britain and France went to war with Germany over the Rhineland, Germany would have lost and Hitler would have been deposed.

    1. (contd) If Britain and the USA had not sided with the USSR (who had the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) Germany probably would have beaten the Communists. The USA would still have the atomic bomb before Japan or Germany, so a threat of nuking Berlin after Japan was nuked, would have ended Hitler’s reign. Or Germany would have been utterly wiped out, just like they were with conventional bombs.

      Governments tend to make things more complicated than they are. Complicated things are typically self-evident. Many things are black and white.

      1. Gallipoli was a strategic masterstroke that was ineptly carried out against an unexpectedly vigorous Turkish commander. The Brits didn’t even plan the landing or have boats to go ashore. A first day push would have seized the high ground and given the observers position for naval support. How many days before the army commander went ashore? I could go on, but the Brits lost the battle before they ever landed and the Turks won it despite their corrupt leaders (except Ataturk).

        1. Somebody probably was nuts enough to think that WWI was a brilliant masterstroke. The entire war was like Gallipoli also in that it was ineptly carried out.

        2. Strategic masterstrokes included sending hundreds of thousands of troops from well prepared positions through artillery kill zones and into machine gun fire.

          Yup, strategic genius.

          Fact is that WWI trench warfare and sideline amphibious operations are horrible plans which WWII showed that there are a multitude of alternate strategies that actually defeat one’s enemy.

      2. If Britain and the USA hadn’t sided with the USSR, I still think that Germany would lose. The Germans did the best they could to knock the USSR out of contention in spite of nutty leadership by Hitler, but it wasn’t enough. Even if Germany hadn’t invaded, Stalin was planning on making war with Germany. You can say if Britain didn’t declare war if the USA didn’t join in if if if if if if if, but it’s a silly argument to make. Invading Russia is not a task that a sane person would put in the middle of his “To Do” list, especially if that sane person couldn’t even take out Britain.

        1. “If Britain and the USA hadn’t sided with the USSR, I still think that Germany would lose.”
          I suggest “Wages of Destruction”, Adam Tooze.
          He agrees, with supporting evidence. As does Weinberg, “World At Arms” in may more pages and as do others (me, too). War (not limited conflicts) is an economic competition; Germany lost the day it started the war.
          Germany was a high-end third world country at the beginning of the war, and by the end was using potatoes to fuel its machinery while the Germans went hungry; making war on the body fat of the German population.
          It would have taken a craven surrender by the Brits after Germany captured France for the Nazis to have won; there was NO other way.

          1. Maybe if the allies never got their act together by ’41, the Germans could have held on to some of their wins. But I don’t think it can be stressed enough that Russia was an ally of convenience. Stalin had his eyes on Europe from the beginning. Hitler was a rival and a useful pretext for war when Russia was ready to do more than take Finland, Poland, and the Baltics. That said, we memorialize D-Day endlessly but rarely reflect on everything the soviet people had to suffer through ( Stalin included) to beat back the Germans. That is before soviet troops raped the remaining Germans, along with all the other the other women along the eastern front.

            1. “Maybe if the allies never got their act together by ’41, the Germans could have held on to some of their wins. But I don’t think it can be stressed enough that Russia was an ally of convenience.”
              And PR. Now, even the comm-symps in western countries couldn’t argue.

              “That said, we memorialize D-Day endlessly but rarely reflect on everything the soviet people had to suffer through ( Stalin included) to beat back the Germans.”
              Difficult subject in that it’s easy to make the case that at least half of the Red Army losses were the result of Stalin’s stupidity. So do you memorialize those lost to German efforts or those lost to the ignorance of the Red Army top leadership (meaning Stalin)?
              Overy (“Why the Allies Won”) makes the claim that the Soviet production numbers in ’42 ‘couldn’t be the result of coercion’; I guess he figures the commies could do miracles. Someone with access to real numbers should take that apart as Tooze did regarding Speer’s ‘production miracles!’. There were none; you can’t turn 20M tons of bauxite into 40M tons of aluminum no matter how you heat the batch.

        2. Fred Reed once memorably wrote, of the invasion of the USSR by Germany, “Stupid comes in three grades. Dumb, REAL Dumb, and invading Russia.”

          1. You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia”

      3. Minor nitpick but there would have been no threat to nuke Berlin as it would have been nuked first. The overall tactic of WWII was the pacific theater was largely a standoff campaign until the war was won in Europe. As a result Germany would have been hit with the bombs first or, while unlikely, simultaneously with Japan as a show of how truly fearsome nuclear bombs are.

        Japan was nuked because we had the resources and the position to invade the main body of Japan, see Operation Downfall, which was estimated to cost the lives of 5+ million Japanese and over 1/2 million US soldiers. In contrast the bombs were estimated to kill on the order of 100-200 thousand Japanese. Granted, Operation Downfall was still planned for later in the year but it was hoped that the bombs would mean the Japanese wouldn’t fight down to the last man as they did on Okinawa where nearly 95% either fought to the death or committed ritual suicide. Nor was it known that many would die after from various forms of illness brought on by the radiation.

        1. Dunno if the Japanese were moved to surrender by the nukes or by the threat of Russia rolling in as an “ally” of the US in the pacific war, just as the Germans were generally more eager to surrender to the US forces rather than the Russians. Probably there’s some evidence somewhere that Truman just dropped the bombs to be sadistic and evil rather than intent on concluding the war ASAP, but I doubt that was the perception among anybody before the anti-nuke movements.

          1. Sanjuro Tsubaki|11.29.17 @ 10:44PM|#
            “Dunno if the Japanese were moved to surrender by the nukes or by the threat of Russia rolling in as an “ally” of the US in the pacific war, just as the Germans were generally more eager to surrender to the US forces rather than the Russians.”
            Suggest Frank’s “Downfall”; the Russian threat had already been discounted.

            “Probably there’s some evidence somewhere that Truman just dropped the bombs to be sadistic and evil rather than intent on concluding the war ASAP, but I doubt that was the perception among anybody before the anti-nuke movements.”
            If so, it has never been found, regardless of a LOT of digging.

  4. However sometimes foolishness needs to pointed out to not suffer its consequences

  5. I don’t really understand the premise of this article. It’s pretty customary, even in US politics (broken that they might be at times), to show the utmost respect for your dead political foes. If the point is that Churchill held Chamberlain in high regards when it counted, then I don’t know how this is supported with kind words in his eulogy.

    1. Showing respect for dead political foes was something they did back then. Nowadays, when a prominent conservative dies, numerous scribblers are going to write a column about how they’ll burn in hell.

  6. I, personally, find no need, or desire, to be civil to people who would rob me of my earnings, my liberties, and my freedoms, and I give fuck-all that they claim to do it in the name of the children, veterans, deities, or the amorphous boundless, ‘poor’.

    1. Or even if they do actually do it for children, vets, yada yada. I’ve yet to be held at gun point by an actual charity, but I’d tell them the same thing.

  7. I knew it. Three paragraphs in, this turns into another silly debate over the allies’ role in WWII.

    The problem with war is that you can avert it only until you can’t anymore. Apart from that, war is a protracted episode of a lot of shit hitting the fan. War is bad, but the only people who have the surefire solution to it are amateur historians and the subjugated.

  8. Churchill rather diplomatically stated that Chamberlain was a boob, because Chamberlain was a boob. Name any British political figure in the last few centuries who was anywhere near as nefarious or daft as Hitler.

    1. Well, by using ‘or’ you allow the list to be long.
      nefarious AND daft is much shorter.

  9. “To some degree the rage is understandable. People have plenty to be angry about. But much of the animosity seems out of all proportion. It is one thing to despise and vilify a foreign tyrant who tortures innocent children. It is something else again to despise and vilify someone who didn’t vote for the same political candidate you did. You have to take politics extremely seriously for that.

    But as serious as politics might seem today, it cannot be more serious than it was in Britain in 1940?when the wrong political choices could threaten the nation’s very existence.”

    So granted that most people are fools, i.e. nothing new here, but I often say that hyper-active little SJW’s screaming about nazis because some other dumbasses are marching with tiki torches really need to be time-traveled back to Germany circa 1938. And likewise, mouth-breathing evangelicals ranting about the war on christmas should go visit Lebanon.

  10. Really good article! Always like your articles!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.