In these troubled times in which we live, and mindful of George Santayana’s famous remark that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, this week I read two books which seem to reverberate into our own dislocated world, and cast light upon our own multi-faceted predicaments. The books were Churchill’s Legacy: Two speeches to save the world by Alan Watson (Bloomsbury 2016) and The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes (Old Street Publishing Ltd, 2017).
In the latter half of 1945, Churchill, having lost the General Election after VE day but before the capitulation of Japan on September 2nd that marked the end of the Second World War, became His Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition. For a man who basked in the limelight and who loved to be at the centre of things, it must have seemed a terrible climb-down. One moment he was deciding the future of the world first with Stalin and Roosevelt, then with Stalin and Truman, the next moment he was out of office, powerless, unable to influence affairs other than by writing newspaper articles and asking questions in the House. No wonder he was visited by his Black Dog.
Then he got an opportunity. On October 3rd, the president of Westminster College in Fulton Missouri invited him to give the annual John Findlay Green lecture to the college. Crucially, the letter was endorsed by a handwritten appendix from the 33rd President of the United States:
This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards, Harry S Truman.
On 5th March 1946 Churchill gave a speech at Fulton that was to become almost as famous as the great orations of 1940. It was entitled The Sinews of Peace. Perhaps its most famous line is:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.
Churchill was alerting the world to the threat of a totalitarian regime’s expansionist ambitions towards the west. Initially (how true this is of many of Churchill’s speeches) the response was negative. Stalin, Uncle Joe, was a popular guy. In 1945 at Yalta, an ailing President Roosevelt had accommodated him to the extent of excluding Churchill from some of their negotiations, and he acceded to many of Stalin’s territorial demands. Now in 1946, the last thing the American people wanted to hear about was the prospect and possibility of further war. Truman probably recognised this when he distanced himself from Churchill’s message and denied that he had had prior knowledge of its content. Yet he was sympathetic to the idea that the US needed to prop up a bankrupt and exhausted Europe in order to counter the Soviet threat.
From these deliberations arose the Truman Doctrine – a resolve financially to support Greece and Turkey against the threat of a Communist takeover, and the Marshall Plan – an injection of capital into Europe to kick-start its ailing economies.
Churchill gave another speech of great significance in 1946, in Zurich. It was entitled Europe Arise. Here are the crucial sentences:
I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany… There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany. .. If we are to form the United States of Europe or whatever name or form it may take, we must begin now.
When the first volume of Churchill’s six volume history of the Second World War was published in 1948, its first page declared: Moral of the Work: in war: resolution. In defeat: defiance. In victory: magnanimity. In peace: goodwill. But De Gaulle was appalled at the notion of a regenerated Germany. He wanted to replicate the 1918 Armistice reparations arrangements and permanently disable Germany. The idea of a swift reconciliation between France and Germany must have seemed very strange. Yet it was this very idea that was to make possible the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community that was the precursor of the European Union.
People have used the Zurich speech to argue that today, in the context of Brexit, Churchill would have been a Remainer. Yet the close of the Zurich speech would suggest otherwise:
Our constant aim must be to build and fortify the strength of the United Nations Organisation. Under and within that world concept, we must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe… In all this urgent work, France and Germany must take the lead together. Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia – for then indeed all would be well – must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine. Therefore I say to you: let Europe rise!
Churchill’s view of the post-war world, as expressed in The Sinews of Peace and Europe Arise, reverberates right down to our own time when the UK is revaluating its relationship with the US, Europe, and Russia. Churchill wanted to construct and bolster multinational institutions that would preserve the peace. In his second premiership, by which time the USSR had become a nuclear power, he recognised the threat of all-out nuclear war and he devoted what mental and physical energies he had left to find a way to avert world annihilation. He tried to convene a “Summit” – he coined the term – of World War II’s “Big Three” – Britain, America, and the Soviet Union. But he did not succeed, and this is perhaps the chief reason why he remarked that he had achieved a lot in his life, in the end to achieve nothing.
James Hawes’ Shortest History of Germany shares this dark outlook. The West is in full retreat. The Anglo-Saxon powers, great and small, withdraw into fantasies of lost greatness. In 2016 Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister from 1998 – 2005 said, “The Western World as virtually everyone alive today has known it will almost certainly perish before our eyes.” Yet, like Churchill, Hawes is not at heart pessimistic. He sees Germany as “our last hope”, provided – and this echoes Churchill’s Zurich speech – she remains at the very heart of the west.
Things do feel extraordinarily precarious in the world right now. I have the sense that some minor ruction in an obscure corner of the world, something apparently insignificant, could set off a train of events that could easily spiral out of control. Bismarck predicted the First World War. He said it would be sparked off by a minor event, or, as he put it:
Some damn stupid thing in the Balkans.