What if Churchill had sued for peace in 1941?

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ONE NIGHT last week, I was trying to find my way to a Foreign Office reception in the old Admiralty building. I caught up with the hurrying figure in front of me, who turned out to be an old Polish friend. The great concrete Admiralty bunker loomed over us, prompting thoughts about Churchill.

'What do you think about all these arguments that Churchill should have made peace with Hitler in April 1941?'

My friend stopped, and burst into ironic laughter. 'Well, I would not be alive today, for a start,' he said.

The sources of this uproar are surprisingly slight: one historian and one former government minister. John Charmley has written a book which says Churchill's leadership in the Second World War was, from the British point of view, a failure. The war failed to keep totalitarianism out of Europe, failed to preserve Poland's independence and failed to keep Britain an independent power. Charmley does not actually say that Churchill should have made peace with Hitler. He only argues that some policy short of 'unconditional surrender' should have been followed which - as he summarises it in a Times interview - 'would have detached Hitler from his chieftains'.

Most of the row is not really about Charmley's book but about the review written by Alan Clark, late of the Ministry of Defence. Clark rushes through the door opened by Charmley into much wilder places. He claims that in the spring of 1941 Hess brought 'excellent' peace terms from Hitler. If Churchill had made peace, this would have allowed Britain to defend Malaya and Singapore with sufficient forces and save the Far Eastern Empire. The prolongation of the war for another four years left Britain bust and an American dependency; it wrecked 'the old social order' and mortally wounded the Empire. All this because Churchill was an outsider who relied on Labour support to govern against the traditional wisdom of the Conservative Party.

One junior historian and a former minister do not add up to much of a controversy. When the mighty Historikerstreit broke out in Germany in 1986, when Ernst Nolte and Joachim Fest suggested that the Nazi extermination of the Jews was prompted by the example of Bolshevik massacres in Russia, squadrons of German professors rode out in full academic armour to batter one another. The Churchill fuss is a mere skirmish in comparison. And yet there is plainly a fascinated audience which feels that something suppressed is being said at last.

Alan Clark's case, in itself, leaks like a sieve. Some of the state papers relating to Hess's flight are still kept secret, but it is highly unlikely that they conceal a plausible peace offer with Hitler's endorsement. Secondly, it is sheer fantasy to think that British reinforcements would have saved the Far Eastern Empire not only from the Japanese in 1941 but from post-war pressures for independence. Thirdly, what about the Russians? Clark scarcely mentions them, but apparently assumes that, with Britain out of the war, Hitler's invasion in June 1941 would have succeeded or, at least, that the two dictatorships would have fought one another to a bloody impasse.

That was a popular scenario among Conservatives in the late 1930s, and even after the war had begun. 'Let the dictators destroy each other] There's nothing to choose between them anyway. (A smaller Tory faction did choose: it preferred Hitler.) Britain should stay out of this one. Pity about the Poles, but there you are . . .' This miserable attitude - a sort of snuff movie version of Victorian balance-of- power politics - should not be confused with the nobler 'Guy Crouchback syndrome'. Crouchback, the Catholic-conservative protagonist of Evelyn Waugh's trilogy, Sword of Honour, also found nothing to choose between Nazis and Communists. But he welcomed the Nazi-Soviet Pact because it at least conflated them into a single enemy - the enemy of Christian civilisation. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and Churchill welcomed Stalin as an ally, Crouchback's moral world collapsed.

But would Hitler really have conquered the Soviet Union if Britain had left the war? The idea that Britain pinned down decisive German forces in 1941 would be comic if it were not pathetic. The evidence still suggests that Germany would have been defeated, even if a few more divisions had brought German troops that last 19 miles into Moscow. With the British (and therefore the Americans) out of the European war, Stalin would then have occupied the whole of Germany and probably Greece, in addition to the slice of Europe he did in the event conquer. I do not think Stalin wanted to carry on to the Atlantic. But if he had, then nobody could have stopped him.

The Charmley line about 'detaching Hitler from his chieftains' belongs to a different school of thought. It relates to that beleaguered group in wartime Britain who kept faith with its friends in the German anti-Hitler resistance. It rejected Churchill's ruthless policy of 'unconditional surrender', and hoped that the overthrow of Hitler would produce a 'good Germany' with which peace could be made. But Charmley is closer to murky calculations about what Germany-after-Hitler would have been like. George Urban's book End of Empire, a marvellous package of conversations about historical 'ifs', discusses the idea of 'Nazism with a human face'. Urban imagines a Nazi Gorbachev emerging who would blame the death camps on 'Adolf Hitler and his anti-party clique . . . a gross abuse of national socialism . . . new relations with nations incorporated into the Reich.' Meanwhile my Polish friend would have been just as dead.

The worst rubbish here is the moaning by both writers about the ruin of Britain's world status. War did not begin but only accelerated Britain's economic decline; war did not demote but, on the contrary, gave Britain an international standing which she could not otherwise have attained - or deserved. As Professor Cameron Watt writes in his book, How War Came, the decision to fight Hitler in 1939 granted Britain an extraordinary, if fragile, position in the post-war world as one of the victor powers. Britain became a founder of the United Nations, with a permanent Security Council seat. Cameron Watt writes: 'Whatever status Britain has in the world today stems ineluctably from the course of action she followed in 1939.' After defeat by Hitler (which is how such a peace would have been perceived) the Empire would have dissolved sooner, not later.

But why is all this so fascinating right now? Because it is not really about the past but about the present - about 'Maastricht and all that'. Churchill's war committed Britain irrevocably to a European involvement which has led from the 1939 Polish guarantee through to Maastricht. How lovely it would have been to leave Europe to those horrible Europeans, and remain alone and sovereign on the sea] Traditional values (that is, the English class system) would have remained inviolate, Labour would never have come to power and foreign bosh like the Social Chapter or the European Court of Human Rights would have stayed across the Channel where they belong.

Shuddering, I hear again the invitation to cram into that dark, smelly nursery cupboard where the Clarks and Powells and Tebbits and Benns hide from nanny and the light of day. In that stifling Little England, hallucinations about peace with honour with Hitler come as consciousness begins to fade. No thanks] It is cold and windy out here, but at least the air is fresh.