Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Britain and the War It Couldn't Win
In strategic terms, the strength of the British Empire depended on maintaining control of several vital “choke points” around the globe. British leaders had, for centuries, taken care to bring these “choke points” under the control of London so that, about the only one Britain did not control was the Panama Canal. To keep open the trade and supply lines vital to maintaining the empire, Britain had to maintain control of several strategic points such as Gibraltar, Malta and the Suez Canal through the Mediterranean and Singapore in South East Asia. After World War I all of these strategic points were totally secure and yet, due to foreign policy decisions, all were threatened by the start of World War II. In terms of foreign policy, the traditional British practice was to remain aloof from the continent to focus on maintaining control of the oceans and maritime trade routes which were vital to the empire. Britain would intervene on the continent only if the balance of power was disrupted to the point to become a potential threat to Britain’s global possessions. However, after World War I the British government began making extensive promises to continental powers and made several decisions which imperiled Britain’s strategic “choke points” around the globe.
Of course, there had been increased tensions with Japan since the end of World War I and one could reasonably argue that Japan would have been a potential enemy in any event. Was Japan really adhering to the alliance in good faith? Especially since the war with Russia, many Asian colonial dissident groups looked to Japan for inspiration and support in throwing off British rule and such rebel groups were not lacking in sympathizers within Japan. Racist sentiments were growing, coinciding with the pan-Asian movement that aimed to expel all Europeans from the region. Therefore, the case could be made that by ending the alliance and drawing closer to the United States, Britain was simply preparing for a time when Japan would break the alliance anyway. Yet, as things stood prior to the outbreak of World War II, nothing Japan had done had threatened British possessions or interests in the region. Japanese expansion had focused on northeast Asia, far from the British sphere of influence in China or British holdings in India and Southeast Asia. The choice to go to war with Germany in 1939, however, removed all British options in Asia. Forced to focus British military force on Europe and North Africa, British possessions in Asia were ripe for attack and only American military assistance could stop Japan from striking the British Empire while Britain itself was fighting a titanic struggle in the west against the Germans. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Burma would all ultimately fall to the Japanese and while British rule would be restored after the war, it was not to last for long.
Public opinion, however, proved decisive and the British joined in placing sanctions on Italy which were not strong enough to cripple the Italian war effort but were strong enough to enrage public opinion against what Mussolini called the “plutocratic democracies of the west”, primarily Britain and France. In the end, despite the sanctions, the Italians conquered Ethiopia in seven months and Haile Selassie went into exile in England. Mussolini, because of the sanctions, was always particularly infuriated by efforts to use economic pressure to force a course of action and the sanctions imposed on Italy because of the war in Abyssinia represented a burning of bridges between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Italy. Mussolini put aside his past feelings and embraced the one major power that had not joined in the sanctions against Italy: Nazi Germany. Too late, Britain seemed to recognize that Hitler was the real threat that had to be opposed and tried to get Italy to come back alongside Britain and France in opposing Germany but this request was made, embarrassingly, while the sanctions were still in effect and needless to say, Mussolini was content to stand with Hitler and forsake any friendship with the British Empire.
Previous efforts to restore the Hapsburg monarchy had been centered on Hungary and were thwarted by real or perceived Franco-British opposition as well as the unwillingness of the regent Admiral Horthy to give up power. Austria, however, was a different story as it became clear fairly early on that the only foreign countries which really mattered to Austria were Germany on one hand and Italy on the other. There had been an effort at a revival of nationalism in the country under the leadership of the “Austrofascists” led by Englebert Dollfuss. Dollfuss had courted the monarchists but never brought them home from the dance. His successor (after his aforementioned assassination by local Nazis), Kurt von Schuschnigg, was a different story. He took more pro-monarchy steps than his predecessor, actually met with the heir to the throne, Archduke Otto and stated that the monarchy would be restored within one year. He even broached the subject to Mussolini who had no objection and even considered that (yet another) royal marriage between the Houses of Hapsburg and Savoy would be beneficial. According to what Schuschnigg told Archduke Otto, it was not a question of “if” the monarchy would be restored but simply “when”. All that changed with the Abyssinian war, after which Mussolini dropped his opposition to Germany annexing Austria and Hitler did so enthusiastically, conspicuously naming his invasion plan “Operation Otto”.
It is also an obvious, if unpleasant, fact that the interests of the British Empire were in no way threatened by the German flag being raised over Danzig or German road and rail links being established with the isolated rump of East Prussia which is what the German-Polish dispute centered on. The only power on earth that was positioned to stop the Germans in Poland was the Soviet Union and Hitler and Stalin had signed a pact and the Soviets were even prepared to take eastern Poland when war broke out, which they did. Obviously, given that, there was nothing Britain could do to actually help Poland and British military preparedness had been woefully neglected, particularly considering the course of British foreign policy. In 1939 Britain was pledged to defend a country it couldn’t reach with an army it didn’t have to thwart a country that did not, as yet, pose any threat to the British Empire. A very small minority of writers have argued that Britain fostered the build-up to war by giving the war guarantee to Poland, without which the Poles might have been more willing to give in to Hitler’s demands regarding Danzig and corridor. That just might be possible, but sounds like pandering to anti-British sentiment to me. Poland made mistakes on its own and does not seem to have been inclined to surrender territory under any circumstances. It was a country that had known years of subjugation and it is not surprising that the Poles were rather hostile toward their former masters after regaining independence as well as being over-confident after giving the incompetent Bolsheviks a thrashing in 1920.
The British didn’t have to go to war in 1939 nor did Britain have to continue to fight after the conquest of France and the retreat from Dunkirk. That they did so is something that everyone in Europe and not a few countries around the world who have no wish to imagine living under Axis domination should be grateful for. Because Britain became, necessarily, a more minor player in the war from 1942 onward alongside the massive militaries of America and Russia, the world tends to forget that it was Great Britain and the British Empire that took a stand, fighting a war in which they stood to gain nothing and which they had no realistic hope of being able to win prior to 1942. The British government willingly chose to sacrifice the greatest empire in history and Britain’s place as a top-tier power in order to wage war against Germany (and later Italy and Japan) in order to ensure that none of the Axis powers would be great powers themselves. Those who are quick to criticize the British Empire should think about that and what might have happened if the British had just given up on having an empire some time before and just how much they sacrificed in order to see the Axis powers defeated.
It did not, of course, have to happen that way. British policy makers could have said that unless America was prepared to make a better offer, the Japanese alliance would be maintained. After all, if there had been trouble with Japan in the future, the same factors which caused America to oppose the alliance would have ensured that America would have stood with Britain anyway. The British government could have said that Ethiopian independence was not worth losing Mussolini as an enemy of Hitler and block against the German annexation of Austria. In that event, if Britain had still decided that Danzig and the Polish corridor was worth a war with Germany, it would have been a more localized conflict that Britain stood a better chance of winning without having Malta, Suez, India and Singapore under threat at the same time. Being able to focus the Royal Navy and RAF in particular on Europe rather than stretching them over the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, would have been a considerable advantage. However, all things being as they were, when Britain chose to go to war in 1939, British leadership was simply impossible to maintain. It was impossible because Britain had only America to turn to for the money, munitions and resources essential to fighting the war and thus had to ultimately defer to the wishes of the United States just as, likewise, Britain had little choice but to agree to the extensive demands of Stalin for fear that he would capitulate or make a separate peace that would allow the Axis forces to concentrate all their strength on Great Britain.