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