The invasion of Ukraine by Russia parallels the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939. That miscalculation by Adolph Hitler provoked World War II. But the German attack on Poland pushed to fame one of the greatest leaders and greatest Britons of history.
Winston Spencer Churchill until that time had been washed up. His own father had thought he was “too dull for the Bar.” He directed hs son into the British Army.
At 17, with a poor lower-school record and having failed the entrance examination, Churchill as a young man had entered Sandhurst, Britain’s two-year military college. He showed an aptitude for military studies. He graduated, and received a commission in the cavalry, which required his family to equip him with a horse.
The family could ill afford the horse. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, 45 years old, was dying. In January 1895, Randolph Churchill left an impoverished widow and two sons.
As a young lieutenant of cavalry in British India, the elder son, Winston Spencer Churchill, regretted his failure to achieve a university education. At Churchill’s request, his mother shipped books out to him from England. She began with Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Lord Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James II.
Churchill’s habit of lifetime reading transformed him into a great writer, speaker, and leader in the British government. In World War II, he was the savior of his country.
Time has brought us hundreds of biographies of Churchill. The current one is Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts, an English biographer. Roberts’s book is well worth reading.
When Roberts began, his wife asked him why he wished to write another biography of Churchill, since there were 1,009 biographies already written. He said he had uncovered so much new material, there was something new on almost every page.
That in in itself was remarkable: Churchill wrote up all his wars, from The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) in India to World War II. He wote five volumes of memoirs of the Second World War. He wrote books and arrticles of all kinds. He needed the money.
But there is another way to read Churchill: his speeches. He spoke throughout the 1930s to warn of Adolph Hitler and the threat of the National Socialist (or Nazi) party. When war broke out in Poland, he roused the British to battle in the Second World War (1939 to 1945) and to defeat Hitler’s Germany and its allies Italy and Japan.
Churchill had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain – essentially Secretary of the Treasury – but in 1929, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin fired him from Baldwn’s Cabinet. Churchill then became a backbencher – an ordinary member — of the British House of Commons.
He remained a backbencher in the House of Commons. No member followed his lead throughout the rise of Hitler until war approached . He called this his time in the wilderness.
In the late 1930s – when war did threaten – a new Conservative Prime Minister named Neville Chamberlain attempted to “appease” Hitler by giving way to his demands for territory in Europe. Because Churchill spoke out against appeasement, the party had attempted to remove him as a candidate for re-election.
Churchill survived the attempt. He continued to speak against the appeasement of the Conservative Party and to urge Britain to rearm against the German threat.
In speech after speech in the Commons, he insisted that rearmament could avert war. The party ignored him.
Although Churchill was the grandson of an English duke, he was not wealthy. He made his living as a freelance writer and was frequently in debt.
His anti-Nazi views lost him newspaper clients. The BBC refused to allow him to broadcast on the radio. As Hitler took over the nations of Eastern Europe in the 1930s, Churchill faced bankruptcy. To restore his finances, he planned at one point to quit Parliament and sell his beloved country estate, Chartwell, where he and his family lived. He had said, “”A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.
Wealthy friends came together to paid off his debts. They wished to preserve his voice in the House of Commons. That allowed him to remain in Parliament and keep Chartwell He continued to speak against appeasement.
His is one of the greatest stories in history. Winston Churchil’s stand against Nazi Germany has been told in film as well as print. PBS presented an eight-part series in the 1980s, “Churchill: The Wilderness Years.” The series featured the great British actors of the time, advised b y Churchil’s official biographer.That series you can now watch free on YouTube.
In 2002, Home Box Office presented “The Gathering Storm,” a two-hour version of Churchill’s prewar struggle. The official Churchill biography — especially volumes III, IV, and V of Winston S. Churchill, the official biography by Sir Martin Gilbert — show Churchill’s courage in World War II, sometimes minute by minute.
Churchill also awakened the United States and Great Britain to the threat of Soviet aggression in the 1946 with his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri..
Through all this tumult, the politician wrote his own speeches. That is unheard of in today’s world, where speech-writers abound. Churchill said he spent 18 hours writing a single speech.
His speeches are collected in two books, Arms and the Covenant (London: George Harrap, Ltd., 1938) (published in the United States as While England Slept), and Into Battle (London: Cassell, 1941)(published in the United States as Blood, Sweat and Tears).
As Ukraine struggles to fend off Russian conquest, we have the example of Winston Churchill to follow.
In 1928, the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin dropped Winston S. Churchill from the British Cabinet. He had held most of the positions since the outbreak of World War I.
By November 1932, the British government was pursuing general European disarmament. But Churchill warned the House of Commons about the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany and the need to rearm.
The peace treaty that ended World War I restricted German re-armament. Churchill told the House:
Now the demand is that Germany should be allowed to rearm. Do not delude yourselves. Do not let His Majesty’s Government believe — I am sure that they do not believe — that all that Germany is asking for is equal status. I believe the refined term now is equal qualitative status or, as an alternative, equal quantitative status by indefinitely deferred stages. That is not what Germany is seeking. All these bands of sturdy Teutonic youths, marching through the streets and roads of Germany with the light of desire in their eyes to suffer for their Fatherland, are not looking for status. They are looking for weapons, and, when they have the weapons, believe me they will then ask for the return of lost territories and lost colonies, and when that demand is made it cannot fail to shake and possibly shatter to their foundations every one of the countries I have mentioned, and some other countries I have not mentioned.
European Dangers, Speech of Nov. 23, 1932, Arms and the Covenant 38 (Lib. of Imperial Hist. 1975).
In March 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany, but the British government continued to work for the disarmament of European air forces. Churchill said:
Not to have an adequate air force in the present state of the world is to compromise the foundations of national freedom and independence. It is all very well to suppose that we are masters of our own actions in this country and that this House may assemble and vote as to whether it wishes to go to war or not. If you desire to keep that privilege, which I trust we shall never lose, it is indispensable that you should have armaments in this island which will enable you to carry on your life without regard to external pressure.
Air Defence, Speech of March 14, 1933, Arms and the Covenant 57.
The next month, Churchill warned the House about the Nazi regime:
[O]ne of the things which we were told after the Great War would be a security for us was that Germany would be a democracy with Parliamentary institutions. All that has been swept away. You have dictatorship — most grim dictatorship. You have militarism and appeals to every form of fighting spirit, from the reintroduction of duelling in the [German] colleges to the [Hitlerite] Minister of Education advising the plentiful use of the cane in the elementary schools. You have these martial or pugnacious manifestations, and also this persecution of the Jews, of which so many Members have spoken and which distresses everyone who feels that men and women have a right to live in the world where they are born and have a right to pursue a livelihood which has hitherto been guaranteed them under the public laws of the land of their birth.
The Darkening Scene, Speech of April 13, 1933, Arms and the Covenant 81-82.
By November 1933, the government continued to cut military spending. Churchill spoke to the House about German rearmament.
The great dominant fact is that Germany has already begun to rearm. We read of importations quite out of the ordinary of scrap iron and nickel and war metals. We read of the military spirit which is rife throughout the country; we see that the philosophy of blood lust is being inculcated into their youth in a manner unparalleled since the days of barbarism.
The League and Germany, Speech of Nov. 7, 1933, Arms and the Covenant 100. That month, Hitler abolished free elections in Germany.
By 1934, Churchill was urging the British government to maintain parity of air forces with Germany, a subject on which he would give speech after speech in the 1930s. The government promised to strengthen Britain’s air force but allocated little money to do it.
I dread the day when the means of threatening the heart of the British Empire should pass into the hands of the present rulers of Germany. I think we should be in a position which would be odious to every man who values freedom of action and independence, and also in a position of the utmost peril for our crowded, peaceful population, engaged in their daily toil. I dread that day, but it is not, perhaps, far distant. It is, perhaps, only a year, or perhaps eighteen months, distant. Not come yet — at least, so I believe, or I hope and pray. But it is not far distant. There is still time for us to take the necessary measures, but it is the measures we want.
The Need for Air Parity, Speech of Mar. 8, 1934, Arms and the Covenant 123.
Britain continued to neglect her air defenses. In July 1934, Churchill proposed that the League of Nations restrain German aggressiveness.
It is no use disguising the fact that there must be and there ought to be deep anxiety in this country about Germany. This is not the only Germany which we shall live to see, but we have to consider that at present two or three men, in what may well be a desperate position, have their grip on the whole of that mighty country with its wonderful scientific, intelligent, docile, valiant people of 70 [million].
The Value of the League, Speech of July 13, 1934, Arms and the Covenant 151.
Churchill remained anathema to the leaders of the Conservative Party. But civil servants who agreed with him about the German threat began leaking information to him to use.
His speeches now pointed to specific threats known to British intelligence. He warned in 1934 that Hitler had designed German civil aviation for quick conversion to military aviation:
I am perfectly ready to be corrected, and no one will be more pleased than I to hear a convincing, an overwhelming, answer on the subject, but I am informed that the bomb-racks which would be substituted for the passenger accommodation in a great number of these fast German civil machines have already been made and delivered, and it would be a matter of only a few hours to unbolt the one and fasten in the other.
Germany Approaching Air Parity, Speech of July 30, 1934, Arms and the Covenant 166. The government did not dispute him.
In November 1934, he returned to the German air menace:
Never in our history have we been in a position where we would be liable to be blackmailed, or forced to surrender our possessions, or take some action which the wisdom of the country or its conscience would not allow. It is a danger to all Europe that we should be in that position, and I do not think His Majesty’s Government ought to put us or leave us in such a plight, where we, with our wealth and Empire, exist on the good behaviour and good faith, which may not be lacking, but which may not endure, of the present rulers of Germany. I am sure our people are not willing to run such risks, and yet, as I am going to show, I think indisputably, this is the kind of danger which is coming upon us in a very short time unless we act upon a great scale and act immediately.
The German Air Menace, Speech of Nov. 28, 1934, Arms and the Covenant 178.
Churchill argued that the illegal German air force was rapidly approaching parity with Britain’s. In a year, the German air force was going to equal Britain’s. By 1936, he said, Germany air power would be 50 percent stronger than Britain’s, and by 1937, twice as strong as Britain’s. The government dismissed his predictions.
He argued that the government was doing nothing to defend the civilian population from air attack:
I know that the Government have been considering this matter, and I understand the reason why nothing has been done is the fear of frightening the population. It is much better to be frightened beforehand than when the danger actually comes to pass. It is much better to be frightened now than to be killed hereafter
IThe government had promised that the British Royal Air Force would maintain 50 percent more military aircraft than Germany did. Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister of the Conservative Party (to which Churchill belonged), had made that promise in a White Paper about British air strength. By March 1935, Churchill knew the government’s assurance was false and said so:
I do not think my right hon. Friend’s solemn pledge, that we are not inferior to any country within striking distance, is being kept, or that it will be kept, because the efforts which are being made will not be made by this country alone. The great advance of German aviation is only now beginning to assume its full force. The [air-force] programme which was announced in this country in August last was hopelessly inadequate. Its leisurely, stinted execution has so far made no appreciable addition to our strength. The provision for this year is [also] hopelessly inadequate.
Mr. Baldwin’s Mistakes, Speech of Mar. 19, 1935, Arms and the Covenant 199-200. Then Churchill spoke of the danger to Britain:
Everyone sees now that we have entered a period of peril. We are faced, not with the prospect of a new war, but with something very like the possibility of a resumption of the War which ended in November 1918. I still hope, and I believe — the alternative would be despair — that it may be averted. But the position is far worse than it was [at the outbreak of World War I] in 1914, and it may well be found to be uncontrollable. We are no longer safe behind the shield of our Navy. We have fallen behind in the vital air defence of this island. We are not only far more deeply and explicitly involved in Continental affairs than we were in 1914, but owing to the neglect of our own defences we have become dependent upon other countries for our essential security.
From being the least vulnerable of all nations we have, through developments in the air, become the most vulnerable, and yet, even now, we are not taking the measures which would be in true proportion to our needs.
In May 1935, Prime Minister Baldwin began a program of rearmament. Churchill denounced this program as timid:
When the situation was manageable, it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong — these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.
Mr. Baldwin’s Confession, Speech of May 2, 1935, Arms and the Covenant 205.
The government finally admitted that the German air force had become stronger than the Royal Air Force. Churchill scorned this admission:
I have been told that the reason for the Government not having acted before was that public opinion was not ripe for rearmament. I hope that we shall never accept such a reason as that. The Government have been in control of overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Parliament. There is no Vote they could not have proposed for the national defense which would not have been accepted and, if the case was made out to the general satisfaction, as it is now, probably without serious opposition of any kind. As for the people, nothing that has ever happened in this country could lead Ministers of the Crown to suppose that when a serious case of public danger is put to them they will not respond to any request.
The Increasing Tension, Speech of May 22, 1935, Arms and the Covenant 227.
In May 1935 Churchill ridiculed a statement by the foreign minister:
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs [Sir John Simon] dropped out a phrase to-day which really is in keeping with what I call the illusion basis on which much of this discussion has proceeded. It was one of those casual phrases which nevertheless reveal an altogether unsound conception of the facts. He referred to countries with whom you feel it your absolute duty to remain on terms of air equality. Look at that. A “duty to remain on terms of air equality.” We have not got equality. Speeches are made in the country by leading Ministers saying that we have decided that we must have air equality, that we cannot accept anything less. We have not got it. . . . What is the use of saying “the countries with whom we consider it our absolute duty remain on terms of air equality”? This is one of the terrible facts which lie before us and which will not be swept away merely by following the very natural inclination which we all have to say that they do not exist.
False Security, Speech of May 31, 1935, Arms and the Covenant 234.
Italy invaded Ethiopia in the fall of 1935, and Britain agreed to join in international sanctions against Italy. Churchill took the debate back to Germany.
The whole of Germany is an armed camp. . . The industries of Germany are mobilized for war to an extent to which ours were not mobilized even a year after the Great War had begun. The whole population is being trained from childhood up to war. A mighty army is coming into being. Many submarines are already exercising in the Baltic. Great cannon, tanks, machine-guns and poison gas are fast accumulating. . .
We cannot afford to see Nazidom in its present phase of cruelty and intolerance, with all its hatreds and all its gleaming weapons, paramount in Europe.
The Italian Complication, Oct. 24, 1935, Arms and the Covenant 269-70.
The Versailles Peace Treaty that ended World War I had made the the former German territory of the Rhineland a demilitarized zone. In March 1936, the German army occupied the Rhineland. Hitler’s breach of the treaty was the first of his aggressions in Europe. Churchill told the House:
When you are drifting down the stream of Niagara, it may easily happen that from time to time you run into a reach of quite smooth water, or that a bend in the river or a change in the wind may make the roar of the falls seem far more distant; but your hazard and your preoccupation are in no way affected thereby. . . Herr Hitler has torn up Treaties and has garrisoned the Rhineland. His troops are there, and there they are going to stay.
Fortification of the Rhineland, Speech of April 6, 1936, Arms and the Covenant 309-310.
As the British government stumbled on, Churchill’s criticism became scathing:
The First Lord of the Admiralty in his speech the other night . . . said, “We are always reviewing the position.” Everything, he assures us, is entirely fluid. I am sure that that is true. Anyone can see what the position is. The government simply cannot make up their minds, or they cannot get the Prime Minister [Baldwin] to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. So we go preparing more months and years — precious, perhaps vital to the greatness of Britain — for the locusts to eat.
The Locust Years, Speech of Nov. 12, 1936, Arms and the Covenant 378.
In March 1938, Hitler invaded Austria and annexed the country to Germany. In the debate that followed, Churchill said to the House of Commons:
Let me give this warning drawn from our recent experiences. Very likely this immediate crisis will pass, will dissipate itself and calm down. After a boa constrictor has devoured its prey it often has a considerable digestive spell. It was so after the revelation of the secret German air force. There was a pause. It was so after German conscription was proclaimed in breach of the Treaty. It was so after the Rhineland was forcibly occupied. The House may recall that we were told how glad we ought to be because there would be no question of fortifying it. Now, after Austria has been struck down, we are all disturbed and alarmed, but in a little while there may be another pause. There may not — we cannot tell. But if there is a pause, then people will be saying, “See how the alarmists have been confuted; Europe has calmed down, it has all blown over, and the war scare has passed away.” The Prime Minister will perhaps repeat what he said a few weeks ago, that the tension in Europe is greatly relaxed. The Times [London] will write a leading article to say how silly those people look who on the morrow of the Austrian incorporation [into Germany] raised a clamour for exceptional action in foreign policy and home defence, and how the Government were not to let themselves be carried away by this passing incident.
Then Churchill said:
For five years I have talked to the House on these matters — not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. Look back over the last five years. . . [I]f mortal catastrophe should overtake the British Nation and the British Empire, historians a thousand years hence will still be baffled by the mystery of our affairs. They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory — gone with the wind!
The Danube Basin, Speech of March 24, 1938, Arms and the Covenant 464, 465.
In September 1938, Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia and take over its German minority. Britain and France had signed a treaty of mutual defense with Czechoslovakia.
A new Conservative prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, hurried off to Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat, to defuse the crisis. Chamberlain’s “negotiations” failed: Britain and France instead accepted Hitler’s demand to dismember Czechoslovakia and grant Germany the border territory that had contained the Czech defenses. That is known to history as the Munich Agreement.
The British and French delegations did not even allow the representatives of Czechoslovakia into the room. The allies of Czechosolvakia surrendered Czechoslovakia.
On his return, Chamberlain announced to cheers at the London airport that he had brought “peace for our time.” At No. 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain announced that he had brought “peace with honor.” The British people were ecstatic. The House of Commons cheered Chamberlain.
This final appeasement of Hitler produced one of the greatest of all Churchill’s speeches. He rose in the midst of the cheers to speak to the House of Commons:
If I do not begin this afternoon by paying the usual, and indeed almost invariable, tributes to the Prime Minister for his handling of this crisis, it is certainly not from any lack of personal regard. We have always, over a great many years, had very pleasant relations, and I have deeply understood from personal experiences of my own in a similar crisis the stress and strain he has had to bear; but I am sure it is much better to say exactly what we think about public affairs, and this is certainly not the time when it is worth anyone’s trouble to court political popularity. . .
I will, therefore, begin by saying the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing. I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and that France has suffered even more than we have.
At this Viscountess Astor shouted: “Nonsense.”
The utmost my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been able to secure by all his immense exertions, by all the great efforts and mobilization which took place in this country, and by all the anguish and strain through which we have passed in this country — the utmost he has been able to gain –
Several members shouted: “Is peace.”
I thought I might be allowed to make that point in its due place, and I propose to deal with it. The utmost he has been able to gain for Czechoslovakia in the matters which were in dispute has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.
The Munich Agreement, Speech of Oct. 5, 1938, Blood, Sweat, and Tears 55 (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941). Churchill failed to change public opinion in Britain:
I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week — I do not grudge them the natural spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth.
They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defenses; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
Blood, Sweat, and Tears at 66. Turning to Prime Minister Chamberlain, Churchill said:
You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.
Within a few months, Hitler sent his troops to occupy what remained of Czechoslovakia.
Months later, on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. After two days’ delay, Britain and France declared war on Germany .The prime minister recalled Churchill to the War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. (Churchill had been First Lord in 1891 at the outbreak of World War I.)
In May 1940, the German blitzkrieg shattered France, and Churchill himself replaced Chamberlain as prime minister. Churchill was 65. It is one of the great moments in history.
The war was one that France lost, and Britain nearly lost. Between 40 million and 50 million people died. Yet Churchill called World War II in his memoirs “The Unnecessary War” because the democracies could have avoided the war by opposing Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s.