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The Temptation of Winston Churchill

17-05-2010, 14:00

 

 

HUMAN MEMORY recoils from the vast or even boundless expanse of the last war; it breaks it into events, periods and stages to better cope with its tragic grandeur. Thousands of those drawn in its whirlpool were aware of this yet not all of them proved equal to the task of passing their personal experience to the future generations. New facts and new documents reveal new dimensions of well-known facts; they even upturn our ideas about the past and many of our former approaches together with the meaning of the past events. It seems that mankind should pool efforts to draw on its collective memories to move closer to the line from which the vast panorama of this war can be seen in its entirety.

November 1943: a photograph published in all corners of the world shows the British premier and his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden at the Tehran Conference. Seated, Sir Winston looks straight at the camera; his face betrays the already familiar and somewhat grim charisma. You are looking at the man determined to go to the end. This brings to mind the desperate Battle of Britain when Churchill said in the House of Commons that if Britain was occupied "the Empire will carry on the struggle" beyond the seas, in the New World. Anthony Eden standing behind his premier looks like a true Englishman.

Proud bearing, high and noble brow, the eyes looking into the distance where the dawn of a future victory can be seen: the contrast between them is striking. In the photo Churchill looks like a skipper minus a pipe. He was the skipper destined to save his country from a deadly threat. Romanticism was alien to him: he never lost sight of the reefs, sand-banks and mines which threatened his ship.

At the early stage of the war Churchill had been tempted by anti-communism as a romantic memory of his political youth; judging by his memoirs he defeated it even before his famous broadcast on the beginning of the Soviet-German War. Shortly before that in a narrow circle Churchill, who was convinced that Hitler would attack Russia sooner or later, said: "Hitler was counting on enlisting capitalist and Right Wing sympathies in this country and the U.S.A. Hitler was however wrong and we should go all out to help Russia ... I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."

Man of two wars, Churchill had never forgotten what Russia had done in the Great War to save France. He was closely watching the maneuvering crowned with the Soviet-German Pact of 23 August 1939. He was at least as smart

and the Fuehrer who sought a strategic alliance with Stalin against Britain in disregard of all sorts of "-izms." Hitler was fighting for Lebensraum and strategic resources for Great Germany while Goebbels and his propaganda orchestra never departed from the main theme from the opening to the last note. Hitler's life was "very much simplified thereby."

According to Molotov Hitler never criticized Bolsheviks face-to-face; during one of the meeting with Ribbentrop, when the Soviet-German cooperation was going ahead at full speed Stalin suddenly toasted: "Let's drink for Stalin who has become anti-Comintern" and winked at Molotov ... Ribbentrop rushed to the phone to inform Hitler who said: "You are a foreign minister of genius." "Hitler could never understand the Marxists," concluded Molotov.

In his memoirs Churchill admitted that the fate of his country had been sealed in November 1940 during the visit of the Soviet Foreign Minister to Berlin where Hitler spared no effort to lure Moscow in the Axis and replace the non-aggression pact with a strategic alliance of sorts. We all know today that since October 1940 the German General Staff had been working on a Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union scheduled to start early in the summer of 1941. This means that Hitler's insistent invitation to a strategic alliance was short of an ultimatum: those who are not with us are against us. The Skipper had no illusions: "The negotiations took the form of draft proposals by Germany for the accession of Soviet Russia to the Three-Power Pact at the expense of British interests in the Orient. If Stalin had accepted this scheme the events might for a time have taken a different course. It was possible at any moment for Hitler to suspend his plans for invading Russia. We cannot attempt to describe what might have happened as the result of an armed alliance between the two great empires of the Continent."

In his memoirs Churchill admitted that had had no information about the Berlin talks between Molotov and Hitler and Ribbentrop. Here is how Molotov described them:

"Hitler: You need an access to warm seas - Iran and India are the best prospect."

"I could not take this seriously," Molotov wrote later, "yet he was going on with a lot of pomp about England that should be destroyed and continued pushing us to India via Iran."

"He obviously wanted to lure us into an adventure - to trap us in the south which would have made us, locked in a war with Britain, dependent on him. It would have taken a lot of naivete to swallow the bait." Neither Molotov nor Stalin was naive. The country had to choose between a war against Germany that had already captured the continent or Britain, blocked from all sides, pressed on from all sides and fighting for dear life in the air. Russia refused to side with Germany against Britain: today the nature of the regime and the subjective approaches of the Stalin-Molotov tandem are irrelevant. The die was cast; the Kremlin, however, was taken by surprise when the spiral of punishment untwined with frightening speed. Churchill was probably much more aware of consequences.

Early in April 1941, he sent, through the British ambassador in Moscow, a personal letter to Stalin to warn him about an imminent German threat; with long delays (which exasperated the British premier) it reached the addressee. The letter which contained British intelligence about the transfer of three out of five German assault tank units stationed in Rumania to the Soviet-Polish border remained unanswered. The Kremlin might been still piqued by the flop of the Moscow conference at which the British and French reduced to naught what Russia had been doing to knock together an anti-Hitler bloc; the memories of Munich did not help much, either. Later, Churchill wrote: "If I had had any direct contact with Stalin I might perhaps have prevented him from having so much of his air force destroyed on the ground." This is probably a delusion.

 After the war when reminded of Churchill's letter Stalin said: "I needed no warnings. I knew that the war was imminent yet hoped to gain another six months." Molotov was even more explicit: "Could we trust Churchill? He was an interested side - he wanted to push us against the Germans as promptly as possible. He had no choice!" Stalin and Molotov remained cautious when it came to dealing with Churchill: he was well known as a rabid anti-communist and an old and uncompromising enemy of the world's first socialist republic.

Churchill was told of Germany's invasion of Russia at 8 o'clock on the morning of 22 June 1941. His first comment was: "Tell the BBC I will broadcast at nine tonight." Throughout the day he prepared his broadcast which was completed twenty minutes before the scheduled time.

Determined to move toward a military-political alliance with Russia he faced a difficult task: Would Russia trust him? How would the dominions and colonies on the brink of a war with Germans and Italians respond to his speech?

He had to smooth things over with the Soviets; he had to do something about his own image of an anti-communist yet he wanted to go down to history as Churchill and nobody else. The radio broadcast of 22 June 1941 was not an easy task yet he, an experienced politician and great pragmatist, accomplished it. Later he wrote in his memoirs: "The force, the mass, the bravery and endurance of Mother Russia had still to be thrown on the scales." It seems that the words "Mother Russia" were the key to the rest of the speech. He was sincere and he sounded sincere to many: he was convinced that God would save England through Russia.

"The Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism. It is devoid of all theme and principle except appetite and racial domination. It excels in all forms of human wickedness, in the efficiency of its cruelty and ferocious aggression. None has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no words that I've spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding.

"I see the Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native lands, guarding the fields which their fathers have tilled from time immemorial. I see them guarding their homes; their mothers and wives pray, ah yes, for there are times when all pray for the safety of their loved ones, for the return of the breadwinner, of the champion, of their protectors.

"I see the 10,000 villages of Russia, where the means of existencewas wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play. I see advancing upon all this, in hideous onslaught, the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking dandified Prussian officers, its crafty expert agents, fresh from the cowing and tying down of a dozen of countries ...And behind this glare, behind all this storm, I see that small group of villainous men who planned, organized and launched this cataract of horrors upon mankind."

Churchill was a born orator with a special gift for bright imagery and convincing and emotional presentation. Having paid tribute to emotions he could switch to a clear, precise and logical political parlance. These contrasts kept the listeners riveted to what he was saying. "It is not for me to speak of the action of the United States, but this I will say: if Hitler imagines that his attack on Soviet Russia will cause the slightest division of aims or slackening of efforts in the great democracies, who are resolved upon his doom, he is woefully mistaken."

And further: "He wishes to destroy the Russian power because he hopes that if he succeeds in this he will be able to bring back the main strength of his army and air force from the East and hurl it upon this island, which he knows he must conquer or suffer the penalty of his crimes. His invasion of Russia is no more than a prelude to an attempted invasion of the British Isles."

In Moscow Pravda and other newspapers published the speech (censored as could only be expected). The Kremlin remained silent - there was no rush into the embrace of future allies. The Skipper was concerned; another personal letter was dispatched to Stalin; the answer came on 19 June through Soviet Ambassador in London Ivan Maisky who personally handed it to the prime minister. Stalin wrote about the Second Front in the north of France and in the Arctic. "I am aware," the letter said, "of all the difficulties of setting up this front yet I think that this should be done not only for the sake of our common cause but in the interests of England." Churchill responded with a series of letters in which was trying to provethat a landing of this scope could hardly be realized: Britain had not enough transport and special boats and no overwhelming superiority in the air (absolutely indispensable for any landing). In fact, having worn down the RAF which, however, remained combat-ready Germany never dared to cross the English Channel to land at the White Cliffs of Dover or anywhere else to reach southern England. Churchill argued that by insisting on the Second Front Russia, a great continental power, was hardlyaware of the problems incurred by a wide-scale landing operation. The former First Lord of the Admiralty was wrong. Here is what Molotov wrote later: "In 1942,1 was present at all talks on the Second Front and I never believed that they would do this. I remained composed because I knew that this was absolutely impossible for them but, first, this demand was politically important and, second, we had to squeeze everything out of them. Stalin, likewise, was skeptical - I am sure of this. We had to insist, for the sake of our people. They were waiting: would help come or not? Any document was of great political importance: it bred hopes which meant a lot at that time.

"Churchill came and started saying that they could not do this. I saw that Stalin took this in stride. He knew that this was indeed impossible yet he needed a document."

Molotov believed that the allies could have landed in France in 1943; D-Day came in the morning of 6 June 1944. By that time, American historians write, the war had entered a new stage and Churchill had to keep the retreating Germans and the pressing Russians in sight. Britain was much closer to Europe than the U.S. which means that its premier took the European developments much closer to heart than his American partner. Their secret correspondence abounds in President Roosevelt's displeasure with Churchill's talks with Stalin and Molotov about the postwar European order: the division of the Balkans and an exchange of Rumania for British influence in Greece. The British premier preferred to support Tito despite his communist ideas. Poland was the only apple of discord between London and Moscow. "Britain above all" and "England has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. Its interests are eternal and perpetual" were Churchill's guiding principles. The war went on; the resources of the United Kingdom were depleting while President Roosevelt never hastened to its rescue. The two power poles - rich America and the Soviet military might unfolding before his eyes in Eastern and Southern Europe - made the choice difficult indeed. It is hard to imagine the former vehement anti-communist meeting the man whom he had called "dictator" at a round table to divide Europe's military and political priorities. What were his plans? The American publishers of his correspondence with Roosevelt pointed out that his interest in Europe was mainly pragmatic, ideology came second. What the Skipper regarded as a highly advantageous division of the spheres of influence in Europe(guaranteed by Russia) gave him a chance not to go begging to Uncle Sam and preserve the might, albeit shattered, of the British Empire.

Molotov offered the following comment: "Roosevelt believed in dollars. To be sure, this was not his only conviction yet he argued that they were rich and we were poor and when weakened still more we would come to them begging ...They came to their senses when half of Europe was no longer theirs." Roosevelt was jealously watching Churchill trying to save what remained of Europe for Britain and firmly prevented London's interference into the internal affairs of Italy which had signed unconditional surrender. London failed to reap a rich harvest at Germany's expense because Churchill had taken too much time to grasp the meaning of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau's lucrative suggestion: Germany, stripped of all heavy industry, should have been converted into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character. The opposition rebelled and the plan was abandoned. Roosevelt and Churchill exchanged harsh letters because of the crisis inGreece which Stalin had exchanged for Romania. The American president irritated by British bossing in Greece condemned the cruel suppression of the communist uprising. Earlier General de Gaulle had surprised the British and American allies by denying General Eisenhower the right to turn to the French when the Allied armies needed support in Europe; he refused to attach his signature to the paper money the Allied administration planned to introduce in liberated France. Churchill failed to come to an agreement with Stalin on the Polish question. The Left which came to power in Romania was the last drop: Churchill's idea of salvaging what was left of Britain's prestige and economy by the postwar division of Europe was dead.

The developments in Romania would have been dismissed as unimportant had Churchill managed to acquire living space beyond the English Channel for his country which had sacrificed a lot for the victory over fascism. In 1972, bewildered Molotov wrote: "Churchill, one of the architects of the victory, lost the 1945 elections: I am still puzzled."

The Skipper placed the interests of his country weakened by the war much higher than the Declaration of Liberated Europe: an opposite would have been possible if Britain's interests in postwar Europe were guaranteed. He never heard what Stalin and Molotov discussed behind the scenes in Yalta. The Soviet foreign minister warned Stalin against the American draft which seemed to have gone too far with the right of nations to political self-determination. Stalin answered: "We shall abide by it in our own way. It is the balance of forces which counts." The balance of forces did not favor Churchill.

Since military might rather than diplomacy determined the way Europe was divided into spheres of influence and competence London could not play the first fiddle. The verbatim reports of Molotov's talks registered a succinct comment: "Army helped the diplomats; otherwise diplomats would have been useless."

ON 5 MARCH 1946, speaking in Fulton Churchill addressed the "English-speaking peoples" and left the rest of Europe, which had failed him, beyond the scope. Affected by the virus of communism it obviously needed guidance. This role went to the renovated and much closer British-American alliance which opened an era of "special relations" between the UK and the U.S. The Skipper steered his boat across the ocean where an Atlantic alliance assured Britain's future, even if not glorious. Truman was scared: he hastened to excuse himself to Stalin lest the Soviet leaders interpreted Churchill's speech as the West's joint challenge to Soviet Russia.

Five short years separated Churchill's BBC broadcast which had laid foundation of the wartime alliance between Russia and Britain and Fulton. In 1946, just like during the first years of Soviet power, the Soviet Union was once more challenged as an enemy. For many years, however, Churchill's British patriotism coupled with his British fairness determined his attitude to Russia. No other Anglo-Saxon statesman said and wrote as many sincere words of admiration about the courage and staunchness of Mother Russia and its feat of arms in that enormous war as Churchill. This is the truth which will remain his forever, because "when the war of the giants is over the wars of the pygmies will begin."


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