British historian Alan Clark wrote in his book Barbarossa, “Roosevelt’s betrayal of Eastern Europe, whether out of calculation or gullibility, is so notorious as to need no further recapitulation.”
National pride is a bitter pill to swallow. Some of the bitterness goes away if the pill can be dissolved in a mixture of faded memories and shared guilt. Sharing the guilt for the tragedy that befell the states in Eastern Europe after World War II has become a passionate occupation for generations of British historians.
Throughout the summer of 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was demanding international action to protect the rights of oppressed Germans living in the western provinces of Czechoslovakia. Coming after the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, Hitler’s demands raised the fear of another devastating European war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain received broad approval throughout Europe for his determined efforts to keep the peace. After lengthy discussions, on September 30, 1938, representatives from the governments of Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom signed the Munich Agreement.
They believed they had solved the crisis created by those ethnic Germans living in western Czechoslovakia. They gave the Sudetenland to Germany. Representatives from the government of Czechoslovakia were not invited to attend the conference. Neither was Soviet Russia, the only country willing to fulfill her treaty obligations to the Czechs in the event they were attacked by Nazi Germany.
Chamberlain had taken the lead in negotiations at the Munich Conference. He and Adolf Hitler had also signed an agreement declaring it was indicative “of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” On returning to London, Chamberlain was greeted with great enthusiasm. He told the welcoming crowd, “I believe it is peace for our time.”
Unfortunately, it did not take long for Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” to unravel. The Munich Conference would leave a bitter taste in many British mouths. It worsened after Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. A British statesman in the Foreign Office, while searching for an explanation of his government’s failure to act, declared: “Nothing can be done to stop Germany … the less we interfere in this crisis the better.”
The shame of the Munich Agreement had become a salient factor in European politics almost since the day it was signed. It attached itself to the men and countries responsible for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. The sad fate of Czechoslovakia and later Poland has left a deep scar of culpability in British memories. One can sense the fate of Eastern Europe inducing a national shrug of the shoulders and a sigh of deep concern.
An Ultimatum on Poland
Prior to World War II, British diplomats sought to reach an accommodation with nearly every state in Europe. Throughout the 1930s the British government feared Russian communism as much than they feared German fascism. Their halfhearted attempts to reach an agreement with the Russians left Hitler free to negotiate a treaty with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed on August 23, 1939, and barely one week later Hitler attacked Poland.
The Poles had tried to modernize their army and air force. They asked the British for a loan of 60 million pounds. British officials cut the loan request to eight million pounds and added the caveat that it was not a loan but a credit to be used for purchasing armaments from British factories. A.J.P. Taylor wrote, “They explained that, as British armament factories were fully employed, the credit could not be used in any case. No credit had passed by the time the war broke out; no British bomb or rifle went to Poland.”
At 4:45 am on September 1, 1939, German troops crossed the Polish frontier, and by 6 am German planes were bombing Warsaw. This was a clear violation of the guarantee that the British and French had given to Poland and good cause for an immediate declaration of war against Germany, but nothing happened. The governments of Britain and France, panicked by their fear, continued to look for ways out of the war with Germany. First, there was a peace conference proposed by Italy’s Mussolini, but that fell apart. Then the French protested that they needed extra time for mobilization.
While Chamberlain was looking for a peaceful way to settle the disagreement between Poland and Germany, public opinion had turned against him. With the cloud of Munich still hanging over Parliament, ministers warned Chamberlain that the government would fall unless it sent an ultimatum to Hitler before the House met again. Chamberlain gave way. The British ultimatum was delivered to the Germans at 9 am on September 3, 1939. When it expired at 11 am, Great Britain was at war with Germany.
The British often try to cast themselves as the “white knights of freedom and democracy” riding to the aid of the poor Poles in Eastern Europe. They had thrown the lives of British grenadiers into the caldron of a continental war against the tyranny of German fascism. This was true but completely irrelevant to the Poles at the time. Ultimately, however, British principle does not appear to have been a matter of any great concern because no British grenadier gave his life for it.
The Shameful Sitzkrieg
In 1914 the British Empire was at the zenith of its power. During the first year of the Great War, the British sent 50 well-trained and equipped divisions to France. The Great War, which the European powers had enthusiastically joined, became a slaughterhouse. England had a smaller population base than the continental powers and could not afford the horrible losses.
In the eight months between the British declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 and the German attack on the Allied armies on May 10, 1940, the British government sent the paltry British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 10 infantry divisions and a few armored brigades to France. These were both poorly equipped and untrained in the combined arms tactics employed by the Germans.
The “Sitzkreig,” or “Sitting War” was shamefully the best they could do for Poland. The British watched their Polish ally fall to the Germans and later to the Russians without firing a single shot. No British aid found its way to Poland, no British soldier gave his life for Polish freedom.
The British people had tired of appeasement and the shameful stain that policy left on their national honor. They demanded a war. But it was not a war their army was prepared to fight. In 1940, the Germans put an army of 157 divisions onto the field of battle, of which 135 were detailed for their May offensive against the Western Allies. The French Army had 80 of its 117 divisions available for the defense of northern France. Compared to the two continental powers, the British contribution of only 10 divisions left them open to French charges of failing to share the sacrifices of their war against Germany.
What had been obvious to Adolf Hitler from the beginning soon became obvious to everyone else. The British and French would not fight to save anyone but themselves, and this they would do rather poorly. Indeed, Hitler was counting on their lack of involvement while his army was fully engaged in Poland. The Western Allies threw away their last, best chance to defeat Hitler while his back was turned in Poland.
Britain’s Critique of America
We now know that the French and British lost the war to Hitler in May and June 1940. We do not know what might have happened had they summoned the courage to attack Germany while its army was fighting in Poland.
The end of World War II presented historians in Great Britain with an opportunity to recast these events in a more favorable light. The betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich and the “Phony War” on Poland’s behalf are barely mentioned. It appeared that the Americans had been the culprits all along. The Americans had not seen the tragedy unfolding in Europe and had been years late in joining the European democracies’ war against the horrors of German fascism. They came into the war only because they were attacked by the Japanese Imperial Navy at Pearl Harbor and not as a matter of higher principle like the British and French.
If British Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought American participation in the war ultimately guaranteed Allied victory, he also thought the American military chiefs, Admiral William Leahy, General George Marshall, Admiral Ernest King, and General Henry “Hap” Arnold, made up one of the “stupidest strategic teams I have ever seen.” Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke was equally critical of the Americans.
The British would voice a host of concerns about their new American ally. The most accurate of those in 1942 was a lack of battlefield experience for nearly all the senior American generals. The British loved to run things. They viewed themselves as the most qualified strategists with far more actual combat experience than any of the Americans.