Mark M. Rufo of New Hampshire, asks Saturday, April 7, 2007 about Ian Kershaw's new work on Hitler's peace offer and how Churchill (foolishly) rejected it
Winston Churchill and Hitler's peace offer
FIRST let me say that I have always admired your work and your personal courage. On a recent trip to the UK (I am an American) I obtained quite by accident an "uncorrected proof copy-not for resale" of Ian Kershaw's as yet unpublished Fateful Choices - Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941. A Penguin press release enclosed in the book says it is to be published June 7, 2007.
The first chapter is entitled "London, Spring 1940" and purports to deal with the decision of the British war cabinet to continue hostilities.
I was struck by Kershaw's very facile exploration of this important topic, his reliance on secondary and tertiary sources, and the fact that even when he hints at significant points he seems incapable of following up with logical argument. (He does cite two of your works in his bibliography, but I can't tell how he uses them.)
On Friday, April 13, 2007 Mr Rufo adds: "Looking again at Kershaw's officially unpublished book, he attempts to impose a neatly narrative structure on the British decision to stay in the war -- with a simple beginning, middle and end. Quoting from his chapter "London, Spring 1940":
"The Churchill who emerged from the Dunkirk crisis now stood head and shoulders above his colleagues in the War Cabinet. On June 6 he could tell them with unchallengeable authority that 'in no circumstances whatsoever would the British Government participate in any negotiations for armistice or peace.' This had not been the case during the political crisis to determine Britain's war strategy during the very days when the fortunes of the army stranded at Dunkirk seemed at their darkest."
In a note to this passage, Kershaw refers to R.A. Butler, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and cites an unpublished paper on him by Patrick Higgins which
"suggests that Halifax, despite his experience and seniority, was at a disadvantage not just -- or even mainly -- because of Churchill's dynamism and force of personality, but because he [Halifax] was attempting to feel his way towards an argument in which a deal with Mussolini and a general settlement involving Hitler were not clearly seperated, and in a War Cabinet where he was opposed by the leader of the government while his other colleagues were initially undecided."
I have a sinking feeling that the most important decisions in history have tended to be made on the slimmest of grounds."
David Irving replies:
WELL, it seems a fair guess that the sources on which Sir Ian Kershaw (above) relied for the previously unknown War Cabinet peace deliberations in the spring of 1940 (in fact May and June 1940) were in fact my Churchill and Hitler biographies, "Churchill's War", vol. i: "Struggle for Power" and "Hitler's War" (Millennium Edition, 2002).
Both books were the product of the kind of original research -- and thinking -- for which Kershaw is not renowned. He was rewarded for his conformity with a knighthood a few years back, and so far as I know has spent little of his time in solitary confinement in prison.
In the spring of 1940 the bombing of London had not begun, and Hitler had used several channels to inform leading Britons that he had no interest in destroying their Empire -- which was true.
At that time there was a powerful peace movement in the Cabinet. Several ministers predicted that the British Empire would be ruined by fighting a needless war against the Nazis to benefit, not the British, but their recent immigrants from Germany who were the ones pushing hardest for war in 1938 and 1939. As Machiavelli wrote, Never heed the advice of immigrants. (Ironically, in May 1940 the British interned most of them as dangerous aliens. But the damage had been done).
Most outspoken for peace (behind the closed doors of No., 10 Downing Street) were the former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whom Churchill had replaced by underhand tactics on May 10; Lord Halifax, the foreign minister (whom Churchill sent into exile in July, as ambassador in Washington); and Lord Beaverbrook, the press magnate. The Cabinet was thus evenly divided. Halifax argued the most powerfully for accepting Hitler's peace offer, calling it most reasonable.
Churchill had only just come into office however, and had a lifetime of political failure behind him. To accept peace now would have marked the end of his personal ambitions. While stating in one Cabinet session that he too felt it would be wrong to jeopardize the Empire needlessly, the next day he came back and stated that there could be no question of "surrender" -- the loaded word he chose. Halifax walked him out into the garden at No. 10, and continued the argument, but Churchill would not be talked out of it.
In mid June 1940, R A Butler of the Foreign Office -- later a deputy prime minister, who nearly found himself giving me Hitler's Mein Kampf at our school prize day in 1956 -- confided to a Swiss diplomat that the British wanted to accept, and they would not allow their mad prime minister to do otherwise. But Churchill was in the position that George W Bush and Tony Blair are in now: the whole world wanted disengagement and peace, but he saw it as his own personal ruin.
To kill off the peace movement Churchill did two things: he ordered the bombardment of the French fleet at Mers el-Kébir early in July, and he provoked the bombing of London by deliberately attacking Berlin in the last week of August, on a pretext. (He himself hid out in Oxfordshire every time Intelligence sources told him London was going to be bombed). The archives leave no doubt.
After the first raid on Berlin, Hitler hurried back to his capital and secretly instructed Hess to make one final attempt to establish contact with his high-placed friends in Britain, to halt the madness. Hess fumbled; the war continued, and the Empire was lost. As I stated in "Churchill's War", vol. i: "Struggle for Power", Winston was the destroyer of two empires - one of them his own.
THE new edition of "Churchill's War", vol. i: "Struggle for Power", which will be much updated, contains an extraordinary revelation (the work of researcher David Pounder, not myself) -- that the admirals were plotting, with Queen Elizabeth, to overthrow Winston later that June. I myself revealed that King George VI told several American visitors including Sumner Welles and Harry Hopkins and the Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King that he disliked Churchill as prime minister and preferred Lord Halifax. Captain Ralph Edwards wrote in his diary on June 19, 1940:
"Sir W. Monkton's Secretary telephoned and asked me to see Sir W [Walter]. I went at 18:00 and told him the whole truth or rather corroborated Bill T.'s story. He promised action and told me [Leo] Amery + Beaverbrook + his own minister were ready to act. It seems likely that they'll do it thro' the Queen, who seems to be the power behind the throne."
Bill T was Captain William Tennant. One 1940 file of Sir Walter Monkton, the queen's lawyer and adviser, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford is still sealed because it is known to contain references to her belief that Hitler's peace offer should be accepted. Pounder concludes that this was clear evidence that the plot (to replace Churchill and to conclude a negotiated peace with Berlin) was being managed by Monckton and powered by Queen Elizabeth.