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Churchill in the Prewar Years

Much has been written about the Holocaust years (including by this author), generally defined as covering the period from November 1938 to the end of World War II in 1945.

Many died at the hands of the Nazis during that time.

Much has been discussed (including by this author)—the good and the bad—about that period.

But how did this come about? How was Hitler able to build up such might during the 1930s without interference from the democratic nations?

Sir Winston Churchill, although he was not prime minister of the United Kingdom until May 1940, fought against the appeasement policy of the British government and warned against German aims for many years during the 1930s.

Who was Churchill, and what did he say? What did he want to change? Over 3,000 books have been written about him, some complimentary and some critical. Granted, from our perspective today he was an elitist, a racist and an imperialist, fighting to preserve the status of the British Commonwealth. His views about Egypt and India as expressed in his writings were certainly racist. Granted he smoked too much and (supposedly) drank too much. He lived beyond his means his entire adult life and constantly had to supplement his income as a government politician by writing for newspapers and authoring a huge number of books.

In his speeches and writings, he often emphasized that Great Britain and France, with the help of the United States, could have easily stopped Hitler in his tracks, before he became too powerful to start WWII.

Churchill, who was chancellor of the exchequer from 1924–1929, was out of power for much of the 1930s These years are generally defined as his “Wilderness Years.” During those years the British government’s policy consisted of appeasement and disarmament in line with the voters’ expressed desire to prevent another involvement with continental conflicts and the memory of World War I, with millions of human losses.

Churchill was influenced in his policy by the history of the end of WWI. German ambition had led to the start of the war. He felt that the whole makeup of the Germans was based on militarism and a feeling of racial superiority.

What was appeasement during that period? Appeasement were the concessions made to the German and Italian dictators when they grabbed land, contrary to the peace treaty that ended WWI. Appeasement was considered as not being the acceptable policy of the British government and in standing with its democratic values. That was what Churchill was fighting for.

It was in 1932 that Churchill met a friend of Hitler—Ernst Hanfstaengl—which almost resulted in a meeting with Hitler, whose antisemitism was well known by that time, although he did not come to power for another year. These policies of Hitler were already well known to Churchill and others, and denounced by him repeatedly. During that same time Churchill also met the German Chancellor Franz von Papen, who informed him that his government was going to ask for an agreement by the Allied powers for Germany to rearm. Naturally this request was turned down by the British government.

Churchill warned his government against continuing disarmament, considering what was happening on the continent, namely the rearmament of Hitler’s Reich, which was taking place under their very noses.

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, Churchill alerted the British government about the threat to peace that was apparent from Berlin. He also spoke about the increasing persecution of Jews in Germany and warned his government about the consequences.

Germany’s first act, contrary to the restrictions resulting from the peace treaty after WWI, was to invade the Rhineland in 1936. The Rhineland had always been the heart of German major industry, and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles required that that area be demilitarized. The British and French governments decided to do nothing. That did not bode well for the future, since it told Hitler that the Allied powers would not oppose any other land grab.

Why did the Allies not oppose Hitler’s actions? They argued that they did not have the military strength. Churchill argued that whatever strength they had was more than Germany could counter with, and that letting this go by unanswered would only increase Hitler’s military desires. Churchill also said that this lack of action was proof that the League of Nations was a useless organization.

To further his stand on the persecution of the Jews, Churchill in 1937 published a direct request to Hitler to stop this persecution.

In 1938 Churchill condemned the “Anschluss,” the takeover of Austria by the German forces, and again the Allied powers remained quiet. Churchill urged his government to condemn the Anschluss, warning that within two years the German army would be stronger than the army of France.

In September 1938 when Germany threatened to invade the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, Churchill urged British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to declare war on Germany if that territory was violated. Chamberlain refused, and instead made a deal with Hitler in Munich on September 30, 1938, which gave Hitler the Sudetenland. Churchill condemned this appeasement on October 5, 1938 in a speech in the House of Commons, using the strongest language yet: “a total and unmitigated defeat.” Another strong critic of Chamberlain’s policy was Alfred Duff Cooper, the secretary of state for war, who resigned, stating that Britain should fight a war with honor instead of having peace with dishonor. But neither Churchill’s arguments nor those of Cooper and others had any effect on the British government, which passed a bill endorsing Chamberlain’s action.

It was not until September 1939 when war broke out that Churchill again became part of the British government by being appointed first lord of the admiralty by Chamberlain, which made Churchill part of the war cabinet.

The cabinet was still debating the so-called Norway campaign, when Germany invaded Holland and Belgium with the intention of invading France, creating a crisis within the cabinet resulting in Churchill being named prime minister in May 1940.

This was the start of a five year period until the end of WWII in 1945 for Churchill to lead Britain and the Western world.

Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and Englewood Hospital volunteer. He frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

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