02 March 2005

Myers on a Monster

I'm a bit concerned. Far too often this year have I found myself reading Kevin Myers's column in The Irish Times and generally agreeing with it. Considering that I normally agree with Myers about once a year, my current sympathy with his columns is extraordinary. I normally find him pompous, odious, self-righteous, and indeed wrong; all too often his columns are poorly researched rants, opinion pieces with no evidence to back them up. You know, the sort of thing that's normally classed as bigotry?

Today's piece, on the other hand works around as fine and eloquent attack on the myth of Churchill you'll ever find in just one column. To see one of the most Anglophile and Atlanticist conservative pundits in Ireland taking this approach is extraordinary. Maybe Kevin is simply doing penance for his infamous 'bastard' article of a few weeks ago.
"Which do you want to be remembered as," asked Jason Fitzharris of the Taoiseach last week: "Chamberlain or Churchill?" Well, I can't speak for Bertie - why, even he sometimes has trouble doing that - but speaking for myself, I think I'd rather be Neville Chamberlain.

He recognised realities and did not base his policies on dreams. Churchill both evolved policy and governed by fantasy and, moreover, thirsted for war, repeatedly, throughout the 20th century. In the full measure of time, though not in my lifetime, Churchill will be seen as one of the greatest warmongers of the 20th century, an abominable man with an insatiable appetite for conflict.

Neville Chamberlain acknowledged one central truth: the British people in the 1930s did not want to go to war. Warning them of the dangers of the Third Reich, as Churchill was doing, did not incline them to seek a return to the breastworks of Flanders or the trenches of Picardy. Chamberlain knew that he could not induce those people to fight in a war which was not of their vital national interest, any more than Dev could have done here in 1939.

Chamberlain did all he could to prepare to protect the British national interest and prepare against war. The Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito and Manchester (the precursor of the Lancaster) were ordered when he was prime minister. So too were radar and the first jet engine. The British army was reorganised into becoming the first all-mechanised army in the world.

However, governments can mobilise technological change, but they cannot, in a democracy, change popular will. Chamberlain knew that the people of Britain, and therefore a popular army drawn from such a people, had no stomach for real war, as events were to testify. In essence, the British army cut and ran in May 1940, no less than the French, and but for the naval genius of Sir Bertram Ramsey - in every sense the match of Nelson, and more - it would have been left stranded in France; and aided by their his chums in the IRA, Hitler's command would inevitably have soon reached to Slieve League and the Cliffs of Moher.

But by this time, Churchill was prime minister, and though his speeches of the summer and autumn of 1940 contain some of the greatest rhetorical flourishes in the English language, it was not he alone who caused the people of Britain to fight on. By this time, they knew there could be no dealing with Hitler. After all, Poland had entered an alliance with Hitler in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and its reward was the Nazi compact with Stalin, and its utter destruction.

National survival is one thing; assertion of national will abroad quite another. Just as the British army was no match for the Nazi armies in France in 1940, nor was it a match for the outgunned, outnumbered, under-equipped Afrika Korps from 1941 on.

Organisationally, culturally, psychologically, the armies of the Third Reich were infinitely superior to those of the United Kingdom.

Chamberlain knew this in 1938; he knew that he could not induce the British people to fight for a country they could not find on a map. This is not the absurdity it is often held to be but an inviolable truth which holds today as much as it did then.

Only a bellicose old fool like Churchill would maintain the opposite.

At the close of the 19th century, from Sudan to South Africa, he had sought bloodshed. In 1914, as first lord of the admiralty, he conceived the folly of attacking Turkey and used all his bullying and debating skills against the war cabinet, whose members could not cope with his overbearing mendacity and ferocious will-power. The result was just about the greatest defeat of British arms in history, and it is why an uncomprehending generation of Irish children was raised to sing, "It was better to die 'neath an Irish sky, than in Suvla or Sud el Bar". Of course that wasn't his only contribution to Irish musicology. Where would all the ballads be without the Black and Tans, which came into existence at Churchill's behest even as he levied a quite wicked war against the infant Turkish state? His later tenure as chancellor of the exchequer proved to be disastrous, until the backwaters and the back-benches very properly beckoned.

From there he was rescued by war, and at the admiralty again he promptly repeated his Turkish folly, this time in Norway, his intention being to secure supply routes to help Finland against the Soviet Union. For, not content with taking on the Third Reich, he also wanted to fight the Reds too. In other words, a barking lunatic beyond remedial care, whom the British people properly dumped at the first chance in 1945, before he led them to war against India.

So Bertie, Neville Chamberlain was a good man who dreaded a repeat of the first World War, just as you have dreaded a repeat of the past 30 years. But he did prepare for the worst, even if his timing was poor - though how could it be better when faced with the monomaniacal genius of Hitler?

Nonetheless, it was he, not Churchill, who prepared the RAF for the Battle of Britain and the British army for modern warfare. Moreover, he knew that when a peaceful man plays cards with a crook, the day will come when he must reach for his gun and come out fighting. That's a lesson always worth bearing in mind, Bertie, but never more than now.
It strikes me that the emphasis on Churchill and Chamberlain is of crucial importance nowadays, especially at a time when Munich is seen as a codeword for short-sighted cowardice, while the cult of Churchill as a champion of freedom grows ever stronger, particularly on the far side of the Atlantic.

A racist, imperialist brute who understood the world in primary colours, where every nation had its place - and for plenty of nations that place was beneath the feet of the European powers - Churchill was also no friend to England's poor, recommending in the 1920s that striking workers be shot. His career up to his becoming Prime Minister was a lenghty catalogue of blunders and bloodshed. Frankly, he was a monster who was lucky enough to have lived in a time of monsters far worse than himself.

And yet, despite all this, we tend to buy the myth of Churchill he composed himself.

And who said you couldn't fool all of the people all of the time?

1 comment:

a famous historian said...

A.J.P. Taylor's Origins of the Second World War, for all its flaws, provides a suitably sympathetic picture of Chamberlain and the sometimes noble intentions of the advocates of appeasement. (Incidentally, there was a slew of cash-in biographies of Chamberlain released in the autumn of 1938 and early 1939, indicating his immense popularity.)

As a German, I'd also point - uncontroversially, I hope - to Churchill's pushing forward the systematic use of carpet bombing of German cities, which killed 600,000 people by most (however uncertain) estimates, half of them children.