The Independent Archive 2 September 1989: A time for mourning, not commemoration

50 years after the outbreak of the Second World War, Martin Gilbert argues that Britain was shamefully unprepared for the conflict

IN THE midst of the current commemorations of the outbreak of the Second World War, I feel uneasy. Commemoration should be a cause of pride. Yet the outbreak of war in 1939 was in many ways shameful, marking as it did the failure of British and Western diplomacy over several years to do what might have been done to deter Hitler by all means possible. At the same time, the very act of war was a shameful one - not a struggle between equals with a declaration of war, but a sudden German attack and the immediate use of the tactics of aerial bombardment and land terror against civilians, to cow the Polish population into submission.

The Second World War ought never to have broken out. For six years the weakness of successive British governments had helped to convince Hitler that he could advance eastwards with impunity. With the political will to do so, this British weakness could easily have been avoided. From the very first months of Hitler coming to power, however, it was self-willed and self-inflicted. First Baldwin and then Chamberlain believed that Stalin, not Hitler, was the real main enemy.

"If there is any fighting in Europe to be done," Baldwin told a deputation of senior MPs in 1936, "I should like to see the Bolshies and the Nazis doing it." That same year, when Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, it was Baldwin's Cabinet that put pressure on France not to act.

An American attempt early in 1938 to become involved in the defence of the democracies was brushed aside by Chamberlain - with contempt. When first Austria and then the Sudetenland were absorbed by Hitler, both moves were rationalised by the British government as a mere incorporation of German-speaking peoples into the Reich.

Those who said that these were the first steps in an aggressive design were belittled as scaremongers. Those who believed that German aggression could be prevented by an alliance of all threatened states were derided as warmongers.

After Munich, Chamberlain saw a long-term peaceful settlement as the outcome of his efforts. For this reason he turned down repeated calls to set up a ministry of supply, or to introduce national service. Even an air ministry proposal to raise British aircraft production to the German level was rejected by Downing Street.

In February 1939 Chamberlain was confiding hopes that, "given three or four more years" of improving relations in Europe and an "advance towards disarmament", he could retire "with a quiet mind". When, a month after Chamberlain had expressed these hopes, Hitler occupied Prague, the alarm bells that had already been ringing for some time for many millions of Britons now rang, belatedly, in Downing Street. Even then, however, Chamberlain hesitated to throw the war machinery into top gear.

That autumn, last-minute feelers were sent to Berlin to find out if some territorial compromise might satisfy Hitler. Thirty-six hours after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, there was widespread indignation in the House of Commons when Chamberlain still spoke of the possibility of a German troop withdrawal. Later that evening, even Chamberlain's Cabinet colleagues raised the flag of revolt, refusing to leave No 10 until he promised them that an ultimatum would be sent to Berlin.

Lack of adequate preparation and a tardy response are hardly cause for commemoration. In due course, with Hitler the victor in Poland, Denmark and Norway, and with his armies sweeping through Holland, Belgium and France, the British people - still poorly armed as a result of pre-war neglect - found extraordinary reserves of courage and a new leadership. These, the achievements and struggles of the summer of 1940, are the true themes of national commemoration.

The very nature of the war - from its first days - belies commemoration. Of the 46 million people who perished, the majority were civilians. It might be more appropriate to mourn the start of such a conflict than to commemorate it.

From `The Independent', Saturday 2 September 1989

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine