The Eurosceptic lie about why we fought Hitler

Britain took up arms in two world wars not, as many believe, to prevent an invasion but to bring its influence to bear upon the Continent
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The Independent Online
Many people believe that Britain fought two world wars to preserve her independence from the looming German-dominated European superstate. So they lend a receptive ear when urged, as they often are these days by the Euro-sceptics, to resist the Teutonic hordes for a third time. But the truth is that Britain never went to war to prevent a German invasion.

The summer of 1940, when Britain stood alone, back to the wall, against Nazi tyranny, and changed the course of history, is a powerful national myth. Like many myths, this one is essentially true. But it has been misappropriated, its lessons perverted, by Europhobic nationalists.

Even leaving aside the absurdity of comparing Kohl and the Eurocrats to Hitler and the Gestapo, the picture of plucky little Britain going to war in defiance of the invading Hun has no basis in fact. Both in 1914 and 1939, Britain fought not to protect herself from German invasion but to influence events on the Continent.

In 1914 Germany went to war to break out of a perceived encirclement and to pre-empt a feared French attempt to win back Alsace and Lorraine. Britain went to war in support of Belgian independence, her French ally and the balance of power in Europe. At no point were the Germans in any position to invade Britain.

In the Second World War they were, and would have done, but for the victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain. But when and how did Hitler come to have designs on British independence?

On 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, whose integrity Britain and France had guaranteed; both declared war on Germany. On 10 May 1940 Hitler attacked France and the Benelux countries. German success was swift; by 4 June the Allied armies in northern France were shattered and the British had withdrawn from Dunkirk. On 16 June France sought an armistice.

Although German military and naval staffs were already considering the problems of an invasion of Britain, Hitler hoped Britain would make peace, leaving him a free hand on the Continent. Some in Britain were receptive to that idea. On 17 June R A Butler, deputy to Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, met Swedish minister Bjorn Prytz to discuss peace feelers.

Next day, 18 June, Churchill put a stop to that sort of thing by delivering in the House of Commons his "finest hour" speech: "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war ... If we fail then the whole world ... will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age ..." Even so, it was not until 16 July that Hitler ordered preparations to begin for the invasion of Britain.

Three days later, on 19 July, Hitler delivered his celebrated ultimatum: "I feel obliged ... to direct once more an appeal of reason to England ... Herr Churchill may dismiss this declaration of mine ... In that case I have freed my conscience about what is to come."

On 22 July Halifax issued Herr Churchill's dismissal of that declaration and on 24 July the Volkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party newspaper, carried the headline: "England has chosen war". On 1 August the Luftwaffe was ordered to smash Britain's air defences as a preliminary to invasion.

The notion that Britain fought the Second World War to avert a threat to her sovereignty is the reverse of the truth. That threat arose only because she resolved to fight the war to a finish, to overthrow Nazi tyranny and put a stop to German aggression on the Continent.

What would peace with Hitler in 1940 have meant for Britain? We can see some pointers. Hitler the racist admired the British Empire - for reasons that would have appalled many British empire-builders - and had no wish to destroy it. He was all for Britain oppressing and exploiting the non-white peoples of Africa and India while he did the same and worse to the Jews and Slavs of Eastern Europe.

Churchill would have been replaced by a more compliant prime minister. Goodwill towards Germany would have become compulsory. The pro-Nazi former King Edward VIII might have returned to the throne, displacing his brother, George VI. What is certain is that Britain's power to shape events in Europe would have been extinguished.

Britain would have been rendered impotent, excluded, on the margin of a continental superstate. To prevent that, Britain dragged down Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th. Strange if something very like it were to happen in the 21st through British withdrawal from the European Union. Europhobes are fond of claiming the mantle of Churchill. The events of 1940 suggest the one that fits them is that of Halifax and the appeasers. The decision to fight on in June 1940 was an act of engagement with Europe in her darkest hour, when the faint-hearts would have cut Britain loose.

If the two world wars have a lesson for us today as we face historic decisions about how far and how fast to go along the road of European integration, it is a lesson not about defending British sovereignty but about maintaining British influence for the good in the affairs of continental Europe.