Posts Tagged ‘Lord Halifax’

Counterpunch Demolishes Some Churchillian Myths

December 8, 2017

There’s a very interesting piece by Louis Proyect over at this weekend’s Counterpunch, The Churchillian Myths of 1940, where he takes a well-observed aim at two of the recent films about the Second World War. One is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the other is the forthcoming biopic about Winston Churchill’s battle against the appeasers in the British cabinet in 1940, The Darkest Hour. This hasn’t been released yet, and is set to come out on December 21st (2017). It stars Gary Oldman as Churchill, and is directed by Joe Wright.

Dunkirk’s already attracted much criticism because of its historical inaccuracies. I think it’s been accused of racism, because it ignores the large numbers of the British forces, who were Black and Asian. But Proyect also draws on a critique of the film by Max Hastings of the Telegraph to show how the film presents a very mythical view of Dunkirk. The film has it that the British troops are under constant shooting and bombardment by the Germans, and that they are saved by the flotilla of small vessels that went over there to rescue them. In fact, according to Hastings, the Germans largely left the retreating British alone. As for being saved by the small ships, 2/3 of the troops were rescued by the fleet of big ships that were sent by the navy. There were 37 of these, but six were sunk. Proyect also criticises a scene where the sailors aboard a sinking ship discuss how they are going to get to the surface without being mown down by the Germans. He compares this unfavourably to the Poseidon Adventure, producing the quotes by the critics to show that this is actually a far superior film.

More serious is the way the film deliberately omits atrocities committed on the civilian population by the retreating British. Proyect states that at the time the British squaddies were under immense physical and psychological stress. They responded by shooting anyone that moved, including old women and nuns. This is historical fact. Proyect cites and describes one of these incidents. The trooper had been told to take no prisoners, except for interrogation, and so blazed away accordingly.

As for the Darkest Hour, Proyect draws on an article by Clive Ponting on the Churchill Myth. Older readers of this blog will remember that Ponting was the civil servant Maggie tried to prosecute under the Official Secrets Act because he leaked two documents about the sinking of the Belgrano to the Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Ponting was acquitted, because the jury weren’t about to be told what to do by Maggie.

He points out that in fact the difference of opinion between Churchill and the appeasers, like Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, was actually much smaller than most people realised. At the time, Churchill was in favour of making peace with Germany, and had sent feelers out to see what their terms were. Where he differed from Halifax and Chamberlain was that they were in favour of making an immediate peace, while he wanted to fight on for a few more months.

The film does show Churchill hesitating at one point, and Proyect states that this would have been unthinkable a few years ago, as the official archives were still closed and the only source material available were Churchill’s own self-aggrandising writings. In which he portrayed himself as the resolute warrior.

But this ignores just how pro-Nazi Churchill had been, as well as anti-Semitic. What! Churchill pro-Nazi? The very idea! But he was. In 1937 Churchill wrote of Hitler

Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms,” he said, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” Despite the arming of Germany and the hounding of the Jews, “we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age,” Churchill wrote. He was doubtful, though.

As for Leon Trotsky, Churchill reviled him with all manner abuse, not just because he was a Bolshevik, but also because Trotsky was Jewish. He quotes Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a revision history attacking the notion of World War II as ‘the good war’, from which he also took the above quote about Hitler from Churchill. Baker writes

Churchill also included a short piece on Leon Trotsky, king in exile of international bolshevism. Trotsky was a usurper and tyrant, Churchill said. He was a cancer bacillus, he was a “skin of malice,” washed up on the shores of Mexico. Trotsky possessed, said Churchill, “the organizing command of a Carnot, the cold detached intelligence of a Machiavelli, the mob oratory of a Cleon, the ferocity of Jack the Ripper, the toughness of Titus Oates.”

And in the end what was Trotsky? Who was he? “He was a Jew,” wrote Churchill with finality. “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.” He called his article “Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein.”

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/08/the-churchillian-myths-of-1940/

I am not surprised by Proyect’s description of Churchill’s highly equivocal attitude to Nazi Germany. Churchill himself was very authoritarian. He had visited Mussolini’s Italy, though he had not been impressed when the Duce compared the Blackshirts to the Black and Tans, and privately remarked that Musso was ‘a swine’. But he did like General Franco. The historian Martin Pugh, in his book on British Fascism between the Wars, states that Churchill’s opposition to Nazi Germany did not come from any deep ideological view, but simply because he was bitterly suspicious of Germany and believed that it would block British interests in the North Sea. Pugh points out that he didn’t seem concerned that a bloc of Fascist states in southern Europe could do the same to British interests in the Mediterranean.

It would be interesting to know what Peter Hitchens thinks of all this. Hitchens is deeply Conservative, but he is a fierce critic of the Second World War as ‘the good war’, and has absolutely no love of Churchill. Indeed, in his book taking aim at New Atheism a few years ago, The Rage Against God, he attacked the cult of Churchill as a kind of ersatz religion, put in place of Christianity. It’s a bit of stretch, as it wasn’t quite an exercising in God-building that the Soviets tried. In the former USSR there was a brief movement after the Revolution to create a kind of atheistic religion, centred around great revolutionary heroes, to harness religious sentiments for the cause of Communism. The cult around Churchill isn’t quite like that. But nevertheless, to some Churchill is almost a sacrosanct figure, against whom you must not utter a single word. You can’t, after all, imagine Dan Snow on the One Show, striding around what remains of Churchill’s office and papers, telling the world how ‘Winnie’ at one time looked approvingly on Hitler and was very nearly ready to make peace. Or that, when it suited him, he was viciously anti-Semitic.

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George Orwell on How the Upper Classes and Tories Hindered Britain in World War 2

October 17, 2013

One of Margaret Thatcher’s electoral strategies was to hark back to the Second World War, and present herself very much in the mould of her hero, Winston Churchill. Back in the 1990s the BBC did a documentary series showing how she had taken over Churchill’s own, heroic view of British history in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. She modelled both her own personal image and her style of politics on it, and on Churchill’s own image as the great statesman and warleader, who had kept Britain free during the Second World War. This was particularly clear – indeed, you were repeatedly hit over the head with it, metaphorically speaking, in the Conservative Party Political Broadcast for the 1987 election. This featured black and white film footage from the War of Spitfires zooming about the clouds, and ended with an enthusiastic actor’s voice declaring that ‘it’s great to be great again!’ Alan Coren on that week’s edition of the News Quiz described it as showing how Britain was saved by ‘the Royal Conservative Airforce’. He then reminded the nation that all the servicemen, whose courage and sacrifice Thatcher was using to promote her party, had then all come back and voted Labour in the 1946 election.

This constant presentation of herself as the incarnation of Churchillian statesmanship was not without problems. While the Second World War really was the great man’s finest hour, in many respects Churchill himself was an unpleasant figure. He started politics as a Liberal, but joined the Conservatives when they introduced old age pensions and sickness insurance for the workers, claiming that it was ‘socialism by the back door’. During the 1922 General Strike, Stanley Baldwin deliberately gave him in a job in the Telegraph Office to get him out of the way after he announced the army’s willingness to step in against the strikers. Amongst some on the Left, he is also remembered – falsely – as the man, who sent the army in against a demonstration by workers in Newport. It’s a myth, but such was his reputation for hostility towards organised labour that it’s still widely believed. Speaking on the above-mentioned BBC documentary, a former member of the Irish nationalist terrorist organisation, the INLA, stated that he found it easier to recruit members under Thatcher than under Ted Heath, because of Thatcher’s deliberate association with Churchill. Churchill might be a great hero in Britain, but to Irish nationalists he was hated for sending the brutal Black and Tans to suppress the Irish rebellion.

George Orwell was also unimpressed with Churchill and the Conservative party’s stance on Fascism. As a Socialist, he believed Churchill’s stance as the defender of democracy to be mere pretence. He also stated that the Stock Exchange had cheered Franco’s side when they rebelled against the Republican Government.

In his article, ‘England, Your England’ of 1941, Orwell attacked the political power and aims of the aristocracy, and the claim that everyone was equally making sacrifices for the war effort. He wrote

‘England is a family with the wrong members in control. Almost entirely we are governed by the rich, and by people who step into position of command by right of birth. Few if any of these people are consciously treacherous, some of them are not even fools, but as a class they are quite incapable of leading us to victory. They could not do it, even if their material interests did not constantly trip them up. As I pointed out earlier, they have been artificially stupefied. Quite apart from anything else, the rule of money sees to it that we shall be governed largely by the old – that is, by people utterly 8unable to grasp what age they are living in or what enemy they are fighting. Nothing was more desolating at the beginning of this war than the way in which the whole of the older generation conspired to pretend that it was the war of 1914-18 over again. All the old duds were back on the job, twenty years older, with the skull plainer in their faces. Ian Hay was cheering up the troops, Belloc was writing articles on strategy, Maurois doing broadcasts, Bairnsfather drawing cartoons. It was like a tea-party of ghosts. And that state of affairs has barely altered. The shock of disaster brought a few able men like Bevin to the front, but in general we are still commanded by people who managed to live through the years 1931-9 without even discovering that Hitler was dangerous. A generation of the unteachable is hanging upon us like necklace of corpses.

As soon as one considers any problem of this war – and it does not matter whether it is the widest aspect of strategy or the tiniest detail of home organization – one sees that the necessary moves cannot be made while the social structure of England remains what it is. Inevitably, because of their position and upbringing, the ruling class are fighting for their own privileges, which cannot possibly be reconciled with the public interest. It is a mistake to imagine that war aims, strategy, propaganda and industrial organisation exist in watertight compartments. All are interconnected. Every strategic plan, every tactical method, even every weapon will bear the stamp of the social system that produced it. The British ruling class are fighting against Hitler, whom they have always regarded and whom some of them still regard as their protector against Bolshevism. That does not mean that they will deliberately sell out; but it does mean that at every decisive moment they are likely to falter, pull their punches, do the wrong thing.

Until the Churchill Government called some sort of halt to the process, they have done the wrong thing with an unerring instinct ever since 1931. They helped Franco to overthrow the Spanish Government, although anyone not an imbecile could have told them that a Fascist Spain would be hostile to England. They fed Italy with war materials all through the winter of 1939-40, although it was obvious to the whole world that the Italians were going to attack us in the spring. For the sake of a few hundred thousand dividend drawers they are turning India from an ally into an enemy. Moreover, so long as the moneyed classes remain in control, we cannot develop any but a defensive strategy. Every victory means a change in the status quo. How can we drive the Italians out of Abyssinia without rousing echoes among the coloured peoples of our own Empire? How can we even smash Hitler without the risk of bring the German Socialists and Communists into power? The left-wingers who wail that ‘this is a capitalist war’ and that ‘British Imperialism’ is fighting for loot have got their heads screwed on backwards. The last thing the British moneyed class wishes for is to acquire fresh territory. It would simply be an embarrassment. Their war aim (both unattainable and unmentionable) is simply to hang on to what they have got.

Internally, England is still the rich man’s Paradise. All talk of ‘equality of sacrifice’ is nonsense. At the same time as factory workers are asked to put up with longer hours, advertisements for ‘Butler, One in family, eight in staff’ are appearing in the press. The bombed-out populations of the East End go hungry and homeless while wealthier victims simply step into their cars and flee to comfortable country houses. The Home Guard swells to a million men in a few weeks, and is deliberately organised from above in such a way that only people with private incomes can hold positions of command. Even the rationing system is arrange that it hits the poor all the time, while people with over £2,000 a year are practically unaffected by it. Everywhere privilege is squandering good will. In such circumstances even propaganda becomes almost impossible. As attempts to stir up patriotic feeling, the red posters issued by the Chamberlain Government at the beginning of the war broke all depth-records. Yet they could not have been much other than they were, for how could Chamberlain and his followers take the risk of rousing strong popular feeling against Fascism? Anyone who was genuinely hostile to Fascism must also be opposed to Chamberlain himself and to all the others who had helped Hitler into power. So also with external propaganda. In all Lord Halifax’s speeches there is not one concrete proposal for which a single inhabitant of Europe would risk the top joint of his little finger. For what war-aim can Halifax, or anyone like him, conceivably have, except to put the clock back to 1933?

It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power. Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place. Nor does it mean the dictatorship of a single class. The people in England who grasp what changes are needed and are capable of carrying them through are not confined to any one class, though it is true that very few people with over £2,000 a year are among them. What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies are committed in public. Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of the nation.’

Fortunately, the allies did win the War, and in a few instances the opposite was true. Instead of pulling our punches, we also committed war crimes. The bombing of Dresden is the classic example, though many others have also denounced the carpet bombing of civilians. One of these is the Conservative journalist, Peter Hitchens. I strongly disagree with Hitchens on most issues, but here I think he is fundamentally correct. In his opinion the bombing of Nazi Germany’s civilian population was a murderous act. It did not hinder the Nazi war machine, nor did it demoralise the German population any more than their bombing of ours reduce our determination for victory.

But Orwell, when he was writing, could not have known that we would win. Indeed, as subsequent historians have pointed out, at one point in 1942 the majority of the cabinet turned against him and demanded that we make piece with Germany. It’s to Churchill’s immense credit that he refused and managed to turn the cabinet completely around to his opinion. Orwell was right about the way many of the moneyed classes did favour Nazi Germany. Martin Pugh on his book on British Fascism between the two world wars, notes that much of the aristocracy was discreetly pro-Nazi. The upper classes also generally supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The one notable exception to this was the Duchess of Bute and Argyll. Known as the Red Duchess for her pamphleteering in support of the Spanish Republicans, she repeatedly attempted to point out that the Spanish government certainly wasn’t solely occupied with Anarchists and Communists, but that most of them were liberals and democrats. Pugh also points out that Churchill himself wasn’t anti-Fascist, and admired Franco. He was hostile to Nazi Germany because he feared that it would be a rival to British imperial power, ignoring the fact that a Fascist Spain could also block or impeded British imperial access to the Mediterranean. And Orwell was right that the Second World War did encourage the subject races of the British Empire to seek independence. India was the first, followed by Ghana and the others. It’s actually one of the reasons Hitchen’s believes we should not have entered the War. He appears to believe that if we had not fought Hitler, we would still possess an Empire. Well, the Empire was in decline anyway, and its loss was a fair price for keeping Europe free.

What is striking about Orwell’s piece is just how much is relevant today. We are still ruled by the moneyed class. Literally, in fact. Both Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and their associates have backgrounds in finance, rather than manufacturing. They are also public schoolboys, and if not half-witted, certainly believe absolutely that they have a better right to govern than the mechanic, no matter how intelligent. The Conservatives and their Liberal lickspittles are still claiming that everyone is suffering equally, while working conditions are made worse and people turned out of their homes. And the Tory party has repeatedly sold arms to nations that have then used them against us, like Iraq during the Gulf Wars.

Orwell was like just about every other writer and commentator in that his views weren’t always right. But they are still very much worth reading. The novelist, journalist and freedom fighter is still very relevant now, nearly sixty years after his death.