What lessons can be learned from the interwar period? In light of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, it helps to look at attitudes and actions of three prominent politicians that responded to fascism: Chamberlain, Churchill, and Roosevelt.

  • Benjamin Carter Hett ist Professor für Geschichte am Hunter College und dem Graduate Center der City University of New York (CUNY). Er hat zahlreiche Auszeichnungen erhalten, darunter ein Guggenheim-Stipendium und den Fraenkel-Preis der Wiener Library in London. Sein neuestes Buch ist „The Nazi Menace: Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and the Road to War“, 2020 (auf Deutsch erschienen unter dem Titel „Eskalationen. Wie Hitler die Welt in den Krieg zwang“).

A large country with powerful armed forces, led by a brutal and unscru­pu­lous dictator, invades a smaller demo­cratic country. It seems like a flash­back to the 1930s and 1940s. But in fact it is the year 2022. How should demo­cratic coun­tries respond to these events?

This was a ques­tion which the dicta­tor­s­hips of the interwar years posed directly to the demo­cra­cies of that era. We can learn a lot from looking with clear eyes at what the demo­cratic response to interwar fascist and Nazi aggres­sion actually was. Let’s look at three parti­cular leaders who responded in diffe­rent ways to the threat posed above all by Nazi Germany (but also by Fascist Italy and Impe­rial Japan). The leaders are two British prime minis­ters, Neville Cham­ber­lain and Winston Chur­chill, and American Presi­dent Fran­klin Delano Roosevelt.

Chamberlain’s reso­lute realism

Neville Cham­ber­lain meets Adolf Hitler 1938 in Munic; source: faz.net

Neville Cham­ber­lain is someone whom the popular imagi­na­tion always gets spec­ta­cu­larly wrong. In the popular imagi­na­tion Cham­ber­lain was foolish, cowardly, and weak in his response to the danger of Hitler, above all in his noto­rious policy of “appease­ment” which culmi­nated in the surrender of the Sude­ten­land to Germany in 1938. In fact, Cham­ber­lain was the direct oppo­site of his stereo­type: He was tough, brave, arro­gant, dicta­to­rial in his gover­ning style, yet in many ways a highly compe­tent and clear-sighted politician.

Chamberlain’s poli­cies drew on three main impulses. The first was the widespread revul­sion which nearly all Euro­peans felt to the horrors of the First World War. Cham­ber­lain was deter­mined to avoid a repeat of such horrors, espe­cially as (like most people in the 1930s) he expected the next war to be worse, given the new dest­ruc­tive power of stra­tegic bombing.

The second impulse was a desire to use the resources of the British government for incre­ased social spen­ding. Cham­ber­lain had been a reforming minister of health in the 1920s and wanted to see the government do more to improve the lives of ordi­nary people. But this was impos­sible if government had to allo­cate a large share of resources to mili­tary spen­ding. So Cham­ber­lain wanted the mili­tary threats to recede so spen­ding on social programs could advance.

Lastly, when it came to foreign affairs, Cham­ber­lain was what today we call a Realist – meaning a poli­ti­cian who tries to put what he or she sees as the national inte­rest first, while comple­tely igno­ring moral factors. Cham­ber­lain did not consider it a British inte­rest to get involved in a major war for the defense of small nations in Central or Eastern Europe. As he famously told the British people in a radio address on the eve of the Munich confe­rence: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging tren­ches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

The coming war

Cham­ber­lain announces the British decla­ra­tion of war on Germany over the radio, 3.9.1939; source: bbc.com

Cham­ber­lain calcu­lated that if the threat from Nazi Germany could be dispelled, neither Italy nor Japan would dare to threaten British inte­rests on their own. There­fore, he sought a way to recon­cile Hitler to the exis­ting inter­na­tional arran­ge­ments. Cham­ber­lain preferred to do this through nego­tia­tion; but if nego­tia­tion were to fail, he had a shrewdly realistic sense of how Britain should fight a war, and what kind of war it could win against Germany. He drew on the ideas of the stra­te­gist Basil Liddell Hart to plan a war that would rely on Britain’s economic strength, its strong navy, and incre­a­singly strong air force, and avoid a ruinous ground war on the model of the First World War. Cham­ber­lain thought that by stan­ding on the defen­sive and relying on sea and air power for two or three years, Britain could weaken the German economy with sanc­tions and blockade to the point that Hitler’s regime would collapse. He did not want to engage in heavy and prema­ture rear­ma­ment, as to do so might damage the economy which was a core source of British strength.

When the Second World War came, Britain mainly fought an air and a naval war, and one of the main ways Britain could have lost would have been if adequate finan­cial support from the United States had not been forth­co­ming. So it is hard to say there was much wrong with Chamberlain’s stra­tegic appre­cia­tion of the situa­tion in 1938 and 1939.

Except for one thing: He did not grasp the systemic impli­ca­tions of Hitler’s growing assault on the demo­cratic order of the post-World War I world. This was part and parcel of his Realist outlook, and it was the point that by 1938 his conser­va­tive rival Winston Chur­chill unders­tood very well.

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Churchill’s clear view

There is a good deal of popular mytho­logy about Winston Chur­chill also. Chur­chill was never such a consis­tent oppo­nent of Nazism as he later liked to claim, nor was his appre­cia­tion of Britain’s stra­tegic posi­tion anywhere near as acute Chamberlain’s. But there was one thing that, almost alone among the poli­ti­cians of the British estab­lish­ment, Chur­chill grasped very well. Most senior British poli­ti­cians saw the threat from Nazi Germany as akin to that of the Kaiser’s Germany, or the France of Napo­leon or Louis XIV. Analo­gies to these past conflicts fill the pages of the British cabinet minutes of that time. Chur­chill, by contrast, unders­tood that the situa­tion of the 1930s was profoundly diffe­rent. Of course he is famous for his wartime rhetoric, espe­cially the eloquent and powerful spee­ches that rallied the British people to defend their island in the summer of 1940. But I contend that the most powerful and important speech he ever gave was his address in the after­math of the Munich confe­rence, in which he set out clearly how a demo­cratic state should respond to an autho­ri­ta­rian menace.

Chur­chill criti­cizes Cham­ber­lain in the House of Commons, October 5, 1938; source: legallegacy.wordpress.com

Spea­king in the House of Commons on October 5, 1938, Chur­chill warned: “Many people, no doubt honestly, believe that they are only giving away the inte­rests of Czecho­slo­vakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compro­mised, and perhaps fatally endan­gered, the safety and even the inde­pen­dence of Great Britain and France.” Churchll consi­dered it essen­tial to “consider the character of the Nazi move­ment and the rule which it implies.” It was one thing to want “cordial rela­tions” with the German people – “Our hearts go out to them.” But with their government “You must have diplo­matic and correct rela­tions, but there can never be friendship between the British demo­cracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Chris­tian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barb­arous paga­nism, which vaunts the spirit of aggres­sion and conquest, which derives strength and perverted plea­sure from perse­cu­tion, and uses, as we have seen, with piti­less bruta­lity, the threat of murde­rous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British demo­cracy.” A demo­cratic government, in its own inte­rest but also in the inte­rest of main­tai­ning a demo­cratic world, had to contem­plate the systemic impli­ca­tions of a large country’s attack on a small demo­cracy – and respond accordingly.

Roosevelt’s fear for democracy

Fran­klin Delano Roose­velt was at once the most enig­matic and the most intri­guing of American presi­dents. He kept no diaries, did not live to write a memoir, and always said many diffe­rent things to many diffe­rent people, making it all but impos­sible to recon­struct what he really thought. But the evidence is clear that, to a degree which is seldom credited, he was an extre­mely acute stra­tegic thinker with an astute awareness of how the world of the 1930s and early 1940s had changed – and what those changes meant for the defense of demo­cracy. And like Winston Chur­chill, Roose­velt unders­tood the world-systemic impli­ca­tions of threats posed by an aggres­sive dictatorship.

In the late 1930s. the American Poli­tical scien­tist Harold Lass­well was begin­ning to develop the concept of the “garrison state.” It is not clear if Roose­velt ever read Lasswell’s work, but he intuited the same problem. The problem was that the United States would not be able to remain a demo­cracy in a world domi­nated by fascist dicta­tor­s­hips: As a demo­cratic island in a fascist world, it would have to arm and restrict its freedom so that demo­cracy at home would be impe­riled or even destroyed as well. To put the point another way, American freedom was indis­so­lubly linked to the freedom of Europe (and to his great credit, Roose­velt was strongly anti-imperialist as well, a point of frequent fric­tion between him and Winston Churchill).

F.D. Roose­velt, State of the Union Address, 4.1.1939; Quelle: sutori.com

Roose­velt made this problem the main point of his 1939 State of the Union address. “If another form of government can present a united front in its attack on a demo­cracy,” he told the Congress, “that attack must be met by a united demo­cracy.” Could America compete with the dicta­tor­s­hips while still remai­ning “within our American way of life, within the Bill of Rights, and within the bounds of what is, from our point of view, civi­liz­a­tion itself?” Could a demo­cracy face down the Nazi menace, and possibly a total war against that menace, while still remai­ning a democracy?

The point became parti­cu­larly acute in the summer of 1940, after the German defeat of France raised the specter of an inva­sion and subju­ga­tion of Great Britain and thus the extinc­tion of all demo­cracy on the Euro­pean conti­nent. Roose­velt reco­gnized what a threat this scen­ario would pose to the United States and to the world. But he also led a highly isola­tio­nist country whose public opinion would not support armed inter­ven­tion in the Euro­pean war. Roose­velt reco­gnized that his chal­lenge was to keep Britain going in a war against Germany without ente­ring that war in a direct mili­tary way.

The policy results of his conclu­sion are famous. In the summer of 1940 there came a deal by which the United States Navy sent 50 old destroyers to Britain in return for 99-year leases on British naval bases in the western hemi­s­phere. In December 1940, as Britain faced finan­cial collapse and an inabi­lity to keep paying for supplies from the United States, Roose­velt proposed the Lend-Lease program through which America would supply a vast array of weaponry and other supplies to Britain at no charge. Legis­la­tion to enact Lend-Lease passed the Congress with comfor­table majo­ri­ties in March 1941, and the United States Navy even began escor­ting merchant ships halfway across the ocean to Britain to protect them from German subma­rines. With all of this, Hitler and the Nazi leadership were acutely aware – no doubt more aware than most Ameri­cans – of how closely the United States was coming to formally ente­ring the war. Hitler expected direct American mili­tary invol­ve­ment by 1942 at the latest. In the event, he short-circuited the process by decla­ring war on the United States in the after­math of Pearl Harbor.

From the interwar period to the present

These three approa­ches – those of Cham­ber­lain, Chur­chill, and Roose­velt – can help us think about our present response to the crisis in Ukraine. From a humane stand­point, there is much to be said for Chamberlain’s mini­ma­list and gradua­list approach, his willing­ness to bargain instead of fight, as well as for his acute appre­cia­tion of the stra­tegic reali­ties. But we have to temper this by keeping in mind what Chur­chill and Roose­velt saw in Nazi Germany. Putin’s regime, like Hitler’s, poses a threat to the entire global demo­cratic (or hoped-for demo­cratic) order. As we face home-grown autho­ri­ta­rian chal­lenges in much of the world, not least in the United States, to lose in Ukraine would be a disaster much as losing in Czecho­slo­vakia was a disaster over eighty years ago. If we wish to avoid direct mili­tary conflict with Russia, but still save Ukrai­nian (and world) demo­cracy, then, the only possible response is sanc­tions to weaken Russia’s war-making power (a la Cham­ber­lain), and Lend-Lease for Ukraine: demo­cra­cies in Europe, America and else­where must do their utmost to get mili­tary and other aid to the Ukrai­nians so that they can hold the line as Britain did in 1940. A Ukrai­nian collapse would, as FDR saw, only raise the specter of a garrison state for the rest of us.