This post continues from the last post‘s assessment of early twentieth century British military and foreign policy in Europe, in a series of criticisms of sovereigntist-Eurosceptic assumptions of Britain’s separateness and superiority in relation to mainland continental Europe, and is rather long because bad decisions of the 1930s had consequences in World War Two, making it difficult to split the periods into separate posts. After the Treaty of Lausanne of 1926, the most notable aspect of British foreign policy was appeasement of Nazi Germany from Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia beyond the Sudetenland which Czechoslovakia had been forced to give Germany in autumn of 1938. Spring 1939 represents the point at which Britain (and France) abandoned the policy of Appeasement, which had left Germany rearmed, stronger, and larger, and mobilised for war.
There had been an associated appeasement of Fascist Italy, particularly with regard to its invasion of Ethiopia, the one African state which was fully recognised and fully independent at that time. Britain also acted to prevent aid to the Spanish Republic during the Civil War of 1936 to 1939 against the alliance of traditionalist conservatives and fascist Falangists led by Francisco Franco, though Franco received a high level of aid and military assistance from Germany and Italy. It would add too much to this long series of posts to get into the issues round the Spanish Civil War, but being as brief as possible it has to be said that the Civil War came about through extreme polarisation, sometimes violent, between left and right, and was not a simple case of a bunch of fascists overthrowing a model democracy. Nevertheless, the left was in power in 1936 due to elections, and was not in the process of abolishing democracy in Spain, which was abolished by Franco, including the destruction of autonomy of the most distinct regions of Spain, and associated cultural repression. This followed not only the use of military force, but many massacres of prisoners of wars and civilians. This is hardly a glorious moment for British influence in Europe, unless support for far-right dictatorship in preference for a highly stressed but real democracy is glorious, and does not really support any picture of a uniquely moral and beneficial Britain.
The policy in any case backfired in World War Two. Hitler was not willing to offer enough to Franco to tempt him to enter the war on Germany’s side, but in the earlier part of the war, Spain’s embassies and intelligence networks were used to subvert and undermine the British war effort, in addition to which, Franco sent a division of volunteers to fight under German command on the Soviet front. There were more than 150 divisions in the German invasion of the USSR, so this was a small contribution, but nevertheless a contribution to fighting a country then allied with Britain. There was just nothing glorious or admirable about British policy in Spain in the late thirties.
The less than admirable British (in partnership with France) policy towards Germany continued after the declaration of war on Germany, after the latter’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. No help was given to Poland and the only attack on Germany was a brief French assault on the Saarland which was not executed with any real energy, certainly not enough to detract from German aggression in Poland, and troops were withdrawn soon after the Fall of Poland. This was a shared failure of British and French policy, since it came under the Anglo-French Supreme War Council.
Germany was essentially unimpeded in invading Poland, with the USSR joining in after a few weeks. This was followed by the Phoney War, in which Britain and France failed to attack Germany at all though a state of war existed and Poland had been occupied. There was a passive policy of waiting for a German attack on France and other west European countries. The handing over to Germany of all initiative in the war of course had disastrous consequences. I will just mention one significant detail of the Fall of France, illustrating the failure of previous British (and French) policy: many of the better German tanks were in fact Czechoslovak tanks produced in what had become Germany after Britain (and France) abandoned Czechoslovakia in September 1938.
Winston Churchill’s refusal to negotiate with Hitler after the Fall of France was highly admirable and correct, but should not distract us from the reality of joint British and French failure and no sense of superiority over France is appropriate given that the German forces were faced by the natural barrier of the English Channel, and no one doubts that if the German forces could have got directly into southern England then the result would have been a military collapse at least as quick as that of France.
The British government’s refusal to negotiate did lead to the danger of invasion, which was averted by success in the Battle of Britain between the German and British airforces, on the basis of great bravery and determination from the aircrews and moral courage at the political level. The overwhelming majority of British people of all political inclinations take pride in that history and there is not criticism offered here of that attitude.
However, it is possible to take that attitude too far and inevitably the sovereigntist Eurosceptics do. Some individuals on that side might be a bit more careful and cautious about this, but certainly as a whole that attitude draws on the idea that British resistance to Hitler marks it as uniquely heroic and as somehow morally superior to those countries which were so morally weak as to become occupied, and which then collaborated with the Nazis in the sense that one way or another governments acceptable to the Nazis and willing to work with them appeared, and of course no other government could have survived in occupied territory.
The successful resistance of the British owes rather a lot to the seas separating Britain from the European mainland, the North Sea, English Channel, and the Atlantic Ocean. 1940 was probably too soon for Germany to organise a sea born invasion anyway, except though a total destruction of British naval and air forces which was not very likely. There was actually some demobilisation of German forces after the fall of France, and Britain was outproducing Germany in fighter planes, so Hitler was never really focused and committed with regard to an invasion of Britain. Had Hitler continued to concentrate on Britain after aborting a planned invasion in the autumn of 1941, when Herman Göring failed to deliver the promised quick and complete destruction of the Royal Air Force by the Luftwaffe, the situation could have been very different. The decision to invade the Soviet Union in summer 1941 meant that the vast overwhelming majority of armed forces were transferred to the east saved Britain.
Against the chauvinism of the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic approach, it should be noted that a part of Britain, or at least territory closely associated with Britain did fall to the Nazis without fighting and collaborated with German occupation until the general German surrender of May 1945. That is the Channel Islands, which are closer to Normandy in northwestern France than Britain and are not part of the UK, but which nevertheless are under the sovereign power of Britain and have no independence in defence and foreign relations. German forces landed in these islands and occupied them in 1940, because the British government decided they could not be defended and the King took on the duty of telling the islanders to offer no resistance. Local administration collaborated with the Nazis who used slave labour from eastern Europe in the islands. There was no provision land in the islands when the western Allies landed in Normandy in the summer of 1944 and the local collaboration with Nazi occupation went on until the final surrender of Germany.
We should not make light of the difficulties Britain had in defending or liberating small thinly populated islands of little strategic importance outside its coastal waters, but it has to be said that this little story does take some of the plausibility away from chauvinistic sovereigntist-Eurosceptic tendencies to turn World War Two into a story of British superiority over cowardly collaborationist Continentals. The very real suffering of Britain was small compared with the suffering of occupied countries, particularly in eastern Europe, and the courage of those who joined partisan and resistance movements in occupied Europe must command the highest respect, and surely even higher respect than that justly given to British leaders, ordinary people, and soldiers determined to carry on fighting the Nazis after the Fall of France.
Next post, Britain and Europe after Word War Two