1945 AND ALL THAT
The Conservative split over the European Union is a direct result of our national obsession with
the second world war, argues Andrew Roberts WHY ARE YOU proud to be British? (Stop here if you are not; this will not be to your taste at all.) Perhaps a better question is: why do you suspect that you have better reason to be proud to be British than, say, a Swiss has of being Swiss or a Swede of being Swedish?
As there is virtually no area of endeav- our in which Britain — as opposed to some economic indicators, behind several Far East- ern countries. Our seat on the Security Council, if indeed we are able to retain it for much longer, owes everything to the past.
The exclusivity of our nuclear club member- ship is being devalued by Israeli, Indian, Pakistani, South African, North Korean and probably now Arab gatecrashers. Our royal house is now widely derided abroad and held in less respect than those of Japan and Spain. Our language is only spoken so widely in the world today because two centuries ago it was adopted as the official tongue of a country thou- sands of miles away.
At everything at which we excel there are always other countries who do it better, cheaper or more efficiently. Exceptions to this rule are few, but are supposed to include the rock and pop music industry, acting, and some areas of scientific endeav- our. But look into your soul: is it really because Paul McCartney, Kenneth Branagh, or even Professor Dorothy Hodgkin are British that you are proud to be? No. It is a trick question to ask what has happened since the war to make you prouder to be British than you would be being Italian or French. Because it is the second world war itself which provides the answer. Admit it. Britain was the only nation to fight from first to last, from September 1939 to V-J Day almost six years later. That period, and specifically the year in which she `Stood Alone' from 18 June 1940 to 22 June 1941, provides the true reason, even if usually it only expresses itself subconsciously, why we are still proud, despite all the imperial, political, strategic, industrial and economic humiliations that have befallen us since 1945.
All peoples have their annus mirabilis, the crucial period of their history which defines them, which gives them their racial raison d'etre: great political or constitution- al acts, like 1776 to the Americans or 1789 to the French, or great military events like 1812 in Russia (despite the long, false dawn of 1917) or 1813 in Prussia.
Italians who oppose the 1870 Risorgi- mento are looking back to the city states of the Renaissance, or even further to Ancient Rome. The Greeks will always have 5th-century BC Athens from which to draw national pride. Nations need this Golden Age, this time in the sun, a period when, as Hitler said of Operation Bar- barossa, the world holds its breath and watches them. Denmark had the Vikings, Sweden the Thirty Years War and 1940-41 was that time for Britain; as T.S. Eliot wrote in `Little Gidding' then, it was when `History is now and England'.
It is also partly why the war is always news. `Dispute over death toll overshadows Dresden ceremony', `Plan for Auschwitz opens old wounds', `US pubs remember Churchill', `Veterans' fury over exhibition of Hiroshima bomber', `Poles reflect on mixed blessing of Warsaw Liberation' and `Veterans con- demn official veto of V-J Day service', all these were Times headlines from the past fortnight. Neither are they solely the result of the 50th anniversary industry which is gearing up. The issues and myths of 1939- 45 will, like 1776 and 1789, continue to affect national self-perception and fuel national self-esteem long after the last vet- eran dies in around 2030.
As the 50th anniversaries fall, it is time for a few old myths to be laid to rest, whilst others — for just because something attains the rank of myth does not necessari- ly mean it does not contain a kernel of truth — need to be burnished up yet brighter. Overall we should have nothing to fear from this process, however painful it may be at times.
This year's anniversaries have already begun with the liberation of Auschwitz. Between 4 and 11 February we will have the Yalta Conference. Iwo Jima will be stormed on the 19th; 7 March will see the 'Forgotten Army' capture Mandalay. On 28 March, the last of the V-2 rockets will be hitting British soil and FDR will die on 12 April, to be fol- lowed by Mussolini on the 28th and Hitler two days later. Meanwhile, the Red Army will reach Berlin on 20 April and link up with the American army at Torgau on the 26th. Berlin surrenders on 2 May and then no sooner will V-E Day be celebrated on 8 May than all eyes will turn, as they did 50 years ago, to the Far Eastern theatre. If last year's D-Day celebrations are any- thing to go by, the media interest will be huge, the issues controversial and cere- monies dignified and impressive. But what of the myths? How will they come through? Will Britain be brought up short, like an arthritic septuagenarian flicking through a half-century-old Wisden for confirmation of the scenes of his past glories, only to dis- cover that the memory of brilliant centuries in county matches do not measure up to the cold facts on the printed page? Fond memories and treasured tales might be shown never to have been quite true.
Nations, like individuals, can excise painful, embarrassing or disturbing memo- ries. In Occupied and Vichy France, as well as in the Axis countries themselves, post- war amnesia had to be collective in order for life to continue. The same might be true for some of the victors' memories.
Never having undergone occupation has given the British a sense of moral cleanli- ness which cannot exist elsewhere in Europe. We were never put to that ulti- mate test. We hoped that eight centuries of independence would have put more back- bone into our people than other countries showed, but the example of the only Britons actually to experience the crunch of the jackboot is not encouraging. The latest book on the occupation of the Channel Islands reveals a disturbing degree of col- laboration, and at best a sullen acceptance. Admittedly St Helier could not, as Churchill said of London, swallow an entire invading army, but it was not long before British bureaucrats were earmark- ing Jews for deportation to Auschwitz and hundreds of babies were born to Channel Islands mothers and German soldier fathers. The French had a phrase for it: `collaboration horizontale'.
Ignorance of many of the basic facts about the second world war is endemic, even amongst those who fought in it. Here is a version of the first two years which the average Briton, let alone his children, might not find much to disagree with: Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain and France immediately declared war. [In fact, it took Th days before the undertaking to declare war 'at once' was honoured.] Their
aim was to destroy Nazism, reverse all Hitler's alterations of the Versailles Treaty and if possible save the Jews. [Wrong on all three counts.] Once the fighting was underway, the unpopu- lar [he was still popular] Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain lost a vote in the House of Commons [he won by 281 to 200] and Winston Churchill became Tory leader [he didn't]. Betrayed by the Belgians [no] and let down by the French [not really], the BEF retreated in good order [well ... ] to Dunkirk from where they were evacuated, largely by little boats [which in fact only took a small minority]. Hitler's plans to invade Britain immediately after Dunkirk were only prevented from being put into operation by the young British [Poles, Czechs, Canadians, New Zealanders] pilots who won the Battle of Britain thanks to the all-important [no] discovery of radar.
Whilst the battle was being decided, London was subjected to the Blitz [not until after], which almost brought the city to a standstill [wrong]. Throughout this extraordinary peri- od, MPs retained all their ancient rights and privileges [Archibald Maule Ramsay MP was imprisoned without trial].
If Britain had been successfully invaded, the Government, royal family, Bank of England gold reserves and Royal Navy would have been welcomed by Roosevelt to the Ameri- can continent. [He told the British Ambas- sador he did not think they would be welcome, and Churchill told him the Navy might not come.] Had metropolitan Britain been invaded it would not have collaborated like France did, but fought to the death. [Who knows? The Channel Islands experi- ence is not a happy precedent.]
It is almost a cliché to remark on the effect the 1936 Rhineland Crisis had on Eden's handling of Suez 20 years later, and the word 'Munich' is still the ultimate brickbat the Right can throw at an appeas- ing Foreign Office, but wartime analogies were seeming to lose some of their power by the late Seventies and Eighties until the one issue blew up which could make them return with a vengeance.
Our relationship with the European Union is likely to be the foremost issue in British politics for many decades. It sum- mons up a cacophony of echoes and reso- nances from the 1939-45 period, ranging from the subtle to the grossly crude. Euro- pean Union was going to be a child of the war, whichever side won. The Nazis used it in their western occupied territories as a fig-leaf to hide the nakedness of their imperium. Equally, the founding fathers of the Community promoted it as the force that could banish war from the European continent forever.
This hope regularly features in the speeches of Sir Edward Heath. The sub- text is that if the united Germany — the fear is hardly directed at Spain or Greece, after all — can be closely bound into the Community she will never again be tempt- ed to fight for lebensraum. Sir Edward is not so rude (at least to foreigners) as to suggest that he believes today's apologetic and democratic Germany is a potential threat to European peace, but that is the sotto voce message nonetheless. The pre- war Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax used the analogy of packing a horse so tightly into its box as to ensure it couldn't kick. Their argument assumed (wrongly) that Nazi Germany put economic aggrandise- ment higher on her agenda than territorial and racial hegemony.
The leaders of the British United Europe movement — men like Healey, Heath, Duncan Sandys, Ian Gilmour, Julian Amery — all had fine war records. They and the founding fathers of the European Community, men like Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi and Couve de Murville, came to believe by 1945 that nation states led to nationalism, which spawned hyper-nationalism, which in turn led to fascism and, as the French intel- lectuals of 1936 agreed: 'Le fascisme, c'est la guerre!' No nation, they preached, should therefore be allowed the right of untram- melled action and self-determination. The nation state had been Europe's undoing. But this failed to take into account the cru- cial fact that in 1940 it had been Britain's salvation. We survived largely because of the nation state. This dichotomy largely explains the British political class's pro- found split over Europe.
Today's debate is, in part, over different interpretations and conclusions to be drawn from the second world war. In the clash of myths the historians have a vital role to play. They have usurped the posi- tion Shelley once claimed for poets of being 'the unacknowledged legislators of the world'.
For the older generation of Euro-scep- tics also take succour from the lessons of the Thirties and Forties. Memories of the war clearly affect Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit. Thatcher was at the highly impressionable age of 19 when the war ended, the future pilot Tebbit thrilled to the exploits of the RAF between the ages of 9 and 14. The colourful language Nicholas Ridley used in his 1990 interview with this paper — monetary union was 'all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe' — showed how infuriat- ing he found it as trade minister visiting countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia only to discover German towels already laid out over the most enticing parts of the eastern European economies.
The younger generation of sceptics, men like Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley (both of whose fathers fought against fascism) and John Redwood, approaches the problem of Europe in an altogether less visceral, ghost- ridden way. Their objection to the almost total loss of sovereignty which a common currency entails derives from a more ratio- nal post-war analysis of German intentions and ambitions. It is, of course, impossible to be wholly rational about issues as emo- tive as these, but the sheer generational difference means that the shadow of the jackboot does not fall over their view of a United Europe. They hate and fear it for more modern reasons.
Jonathan Aitken, who this week trailed his credentials as the Cabinet's leading opponent of a single European currency, is in an altogether different category. Coming from the younger generation he is never- theless also a historian, the great-nephew of one of Churchill's greatest confidants and lieutenants as well as the owner of the house from which Churchill sallied forth with Brendan Bracken to condemn Munich.
Some of the whipless rebels, in particular Teresa Gorman, openly derive comfort from the experience of the anti-appeasers of the Thirties, who were also ostracised (but significantly never unwhipped) by the Tory party, before being eventually proved right over Munich.
Bill Cash and Nicholas Budgen, the Tory Euro-sceptics' most effective propagan- dists, both lost fathers in the wartime ser- vices. Although their opposition to the Euro-superstate arises from intellectually impeccable motives, it is small wonder that they recoil from the prospect of a united Germany being handed its lebensraum on a plate by the Euro-zealots.
Enoch Powell is both a war veteran and a fluent German speaker. Although his opposition to European Unity derives from a philosophy of England dating to pre- Reformation or even ancient times, even the fastidious philosopher-king of the Tory Right is not above a bit of what-about-the- war. Last week he told a Bruges Group meeting, 'Had Germany won the war, Hitler would not have imposed tighter con- trols on the United Kingdom than those imposed by the [1972 European Communi- ties] Act.'
In fact, as Field Marshal Waither von Brauchitsch commanded in his 9 Septem- ber 1940 directive, were Germany to win, `the able-bodied male population of Britain between the ages of 17 and 47 will, unless the local situation calls for an exceptional ruling, be interned and dispatched to the continent'. Even the Euro-sceptics might concede that this is a touch more drastic than Jacques Santer's worst proposals for monetary union.
But the prize for the most outrageous example of fraudulently selective quotation and myth-making must go to Michael Hes- eltine for the piece of historical legerde- main he perpetrated in the Sunday Times in his 'Britain must march behind Churchill into Europe' article last weekend. He quot- ed what he said was Churchill in Zurich in 1946:
In my experiences of large enterprises, I have found it is often a mistake to try to settle everything at once. We know where we want to go but we cannot foresee all the stages of a united Europe in which our country will play a decisive part . . . It is for all the responsible statesmen, who have the conduct of affairs in their hands and the power of executive action, to shape and fashion the structure.
Delighted to be able to quote their hero back at the Tory Right, Heseltine ended up by commenting: 'As so often in the past the Tory party would be wise to listen to his words.'
My suspicions were first aroused by Hes- eltine's felicitous use of the `.. ' Had Churchill said something banal or boring that it needed to be cut? Surely not. So I looked up the speech (which was actually delivered in the Albert Hall on 14 May 1947) and discovered what Heseltine had excised. It was a few sentences which com- pletely contradicted the entire argument of his whole article.
For in the `. ' Churchill had, in fact, said:
United Europe will form one major Regional entity. There is the United States with all its dependencies; there is the Soviet Union; there is the British Empire and Common- wealth; and there is Europe, with which Great Britain is profoundly blended. Here are the four main pillars of the world Temple of Peace.
Churchill, as he did say at Zurich, want- ed Britain to be a 'friend and sponsor' of the new Europe but not an integral mem- ber, as he made clear at Zurich, The Hague and the Albert Hall, and as he emphatically told Montgomery when Britain was negoti- ating entry in 1961. That was why Britain did not contribute troops to the proposed European Army in 1954.
As Powell's hyperbole, Heseltine's his- torical dyslexia and the popular myths from 1940-41 show, the past is boggy ground for politicians to choose on which to hoist their standards. It is dangerous for our future to be decided by reference to perceptions of history which are hopelessly confused, dis- torted and wrong. J.M. Keynes's famous taunt about 'practical people who believe themselves to be exempt from intellectual influences' being 'usually the slaves of some defunct economist' also applies to politicians who are the slaves of some defunct historian such as Arthur Bryant.
It is vital first for us to understand our own recent history; only afterwards can we construct a future that is worthy of it.
Andrew Roberts's latest book, Eminent Churchillians, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson at £20.