The 70th anniversary of the real beginning of World War II
, 1940—the day Hitler invaded the Low Countries and, coincidentally, the day the man who would stop his conquest of Europe, Winston Churchill, became prime minister of Great Britain. The King appointed Churchill prime minister not because Hitler had invaded Western Europe, but because Neville Chamberlain had lost his support in the House of Commons over Britain’s failure to prevent the German army from conquering Norway. Here is the closing passage of The Gathering Storm
, the first volume in Churchill’s six volume memoir of World War II:
Thus, then, on the night of the tenth of May, at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.
- end of initial entry -
During these last crowded days of the political crisis, my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 a.m., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or for want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.
Richard W. writes:
I’m missing something here. Why do you call May 10, 1940 the real beginning of World War II? Why not the German invasion of Poland?
Because after Germany invaded Poland, and France and England in response declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, there was no fighting between the allies and Germany. The oddity, which has been pointed to by many people over the years, from Hitler then to his apologist Patrick Buchanan today, was that England and France declared war on Germany for its invasion of Poland, but did nothing to stop the invasion of Poland. Nor was there any fighting between the allies and Germany for several months afterward. This war without fighting was called the Phoney War. Churchill in his book called it the Twilight War. Not until Hitler invaded Western Europe on May 10, 1940 did France and England become involved in large-scale direct hostilities with Germany.
Richard W. replies:
Yes, I see. That makes sense.
On the other hand it does tend to obscure, to some extent, the resistance of the people and armed forces of Poland to Hitler. Also recall that both Hitler and Stalin attacked Poland (as well as Slovakia), so it really was a multiparty war.
The Poles fought for 36 days, from Sept 1 to Oct. 6. There never was a formal surrender, the government went into exile in England, unlike France, for instance.
Holland lasted five days.
France lasted about six weeks, but didn’t put up much of a fight. And formally surrendered to Hitler, who then toured Paris.
Hitler couldn’t show his face in Warsaw. Here’s an contemporaneous article on the problems with the Nazis’ visit to Warsaw.
So, all I can say is that for the Polish people the World War very certainly started on Sept 1, 1939, and did not really end until late 1989 when the hated Russian occupation government was finally driven out of the country.
I think it is important for Americans to consider this perspective, and not just the standard narrative which seems to over-emphasize the role of some figures and nations while discounting that of others.
Obviously, I am of Polish heritage, so these things matter to me.
But a war of Germany (and USSR) on Poland, followed by eight months of no hostilities on the continent, was not a “world” war. Two major powers acting in concert to gobble up Poland does not a world war make. A world war means a general war among the major powers.
It takes nothing away from the tragedy and heroism of Poland, and from the central importance of Poland (the country where World War II began with the Germans’ and the Russians’ invasion of it in September 1939, the country that 50 years later brought down the Soviet empire and thus brought to a conclusion what had begun September 1939) to say that the conquest of Poland, in and of itself, did not constitute a world war.
What made the invasion of Poland the beginning of the World War was Chamberlain’s commitment, made after Hitler consumed the rump of Czechoslovakia in spring 1939, that Britain would declare war on Germany if Germany invaded Poland. Hitler thought this was absurd, and proceeded to invade Poland. Britain and its ally France then declared war on Germany as they had promised. But this declaration, as Hitler himself pointed out, did not lead to actual war, not for many months. At the time it seemed to be another of Chamberlain’s impotent gestures. But ultimately of course it did lead to actual world war with Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and France.
Richard W. replies:
Yes, I agree. I was just taken by your headline, but I understand your reasoning and it’s sound.
For more on the quick French surrender as compared with the heroic resistance of the Poles, see the long and interesting 2007 thread, “Surrender monkeys.” It includes this comment by me:
This reminds me of the devastating scene in Churchill’s The Gathering Storm [correction: the scene is in Churchill’s second volume, Their Finest Hour], when the French premier Paul Reynaud calls him on May 17, 1940, just one week after the German invasion of the West has begun, and announces with finality that the French lines have collapsed and the Germans are pouring into France and the war is over. Churchill, stunned, flies to France that same day to meet with the French leaders. Churchill asks Gen. Gamelin, the commander in chief of the French army: “Ou est la masse de maneouvre? Where is your strategic reserve?” (meaning additional forces behind the front lines that can rush forward to fill a gap). And Gamelin answers with a Gallic shrug, as though it were a matter of complete indifference to him, “There is none.”
Laura G. writes:
Re: Churchill and “Gathering Storm,” thanks so much for posting his concluding statement at the start of WW II:
“Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”
That has to be one of the all-time best statements from any leader, anytime, anywhere. Especially now. We seem to be in dire need of remembering this truth, and have apparently instead decided to plan our futures with dreams. This pertains to many U.S. citizens as a whole, but it pertains to all of the current leaders of this administration. The examples are far too many to enumerate, but for example, consider that we are not involved in a war brought against us by Islamic Muslims, nor even on a “war on terrorism,” but rather in an “overseas contingency operation.” A convenient dream. We are far more at risk of violence by Tea Party activists than by Muslim immigrants (permitted or illegal) or visitors. A pernicious dream. Islamophobia is a dire threat to the American soul following each attack on us by Islamic terrorists. A cowardly dream. Favoritism based on group identity is always to be supported if p.c. groups are being favored. A bigotted dream. Demanding that the President be known to have satisfied constitutional qualifications for his position is racist. A self-serving dream. And so it goes. It is certainly that NONE of these dreams serve to support the nation, strengthen the culture, inspire the youth, promote the truth, or remind us of patriotic duties. To the complete contrary. THANK you, Mr Churchill, for sending us yet another rock of your wisdom for us to cling to.
James P. writes:
Richard W. wrote:
Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 10, 2010 07:05 AM | Send
“France lasted about six weeks, but didn’t put up much of a fight”
Germany lost 49,000 dead and 100,000 wounded in the Battle of France. This is roughly what the U.S. lost in the Korean War (36,516 dead and 92,134 wounded). Would anyone say the North Koreans and Chinese didn’t put up much of a fight from 1950-53? The 1940 figures are also comparable to Prussian losses in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (44,781 dead and 89,732 wounded). In that war, France was decisively defeated on the battlefield and surrendered just as in 1940, but curiously, unlike 1940 this war does not have the reputation of being a walkover in which the French “didn’t put up much of a fight.” Obviously the contrast with WW1 is what made the German victory in 1940 seem surprisingly “easy.”
This is a good day for two of my favorite jokes:
Q: Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees? A: So the German Army can march in the shade.
Q: What’s the first thing they teach at French military academies? A: How to say, “I surrender!” in German.