Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Britain and the War It Couldn't Win

In the history of mankind, no political entity ever came close to matching the British Empire at its peak. After World War I, the British Empire; the United Kingdom, its territories, protectorates, mandates, the Empire of India and associated Commonwealths covered more land and sea and included more peoples than any other empire in the history of the world. George VI, the last British King-Emperor, reigned over an empire larger than that of Alexander the Great, Caesar Trajan or Genghis Khan. Winston Churchill, at the height of the battle of Britain, famously said that, “…if the British Empire, and its commonwealths, last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘THIS was their finest hour’”. Absolutely no one could deny that this was true. Yet, the British Empire was not to last a thousand years and almost before World War II was over, the dissolution of this monument to Anglo-Saxon civilization had already begun. Because it was so large, covering so many diverse lands and peoples, there has never been a greater setback to the cause of monarchy than the break-up of the British Empire whose collapse gave birth to so many republics across Africa and southern Asia. How could this have happened?

The causes of this catastrophe can be categorized in a number of ways. There were economic, strategic, military and political reasons for it. One of the greatest strengths of the British people, at least to my mind, was their ability to admit their own mistakes, look at them honestly and improve themselves going forward. The examples of this are numerous, in numerous fields, from politics to the military. However, when it came to foreign policy, past wisdom seemed to be increasingly forgotten in the events leading up to World War II. The First World War had left the British Empire at its peak in terms of size, but in economic terms it was stretched to the breaking point. The total war that Britain embarked on in 1914 had caused all other considerations to be set aside in favor of destroying Imperial Germany. Part of that included putting the British Empire deep in debt to the United States to buy the food, war materials and other necessary resources to keep Britain in the fight so that, by the time it was over, Britain owed billions of dollars to America. This, combined with a rise in the socialist movement within the trade unions after the war meant that the British Empire was economically unprepared for the strain and expense of an even larger, costlier world war in 1939. Before it was over, by choosing to fight in 1939 the British government was forced to turn over virtually its entire gold reserve to the United States to sustain the war effort.

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.

One of the first such decisions was ending the alliance Britain had with the Empire of Japan since 1902. When representatives of the British Empire met to discuss the treaty, all but Canada favored renewing the alliance. The Canadian Prime Minister feared that his country would suffer if trouble developed between Japan and the United States while the British Empire was allied to Japan. Naturally, the United States wanted an end to the alliance as American business feared that it would allow Japan to dominate Asian markets. Ultimately, Britain decided it was better to end the alliance with Japan to improve relations with the United States. However, while Britain was already in a position in which it was certainly necessary to keep on good terms with America, this was not necessarily beneficial to the British Empire as a whole. Under the terms of the original 1902 treaty, Japan was bound to defend the British possessions in Asia in case of trouble. There were even provisions requiring Japan to deploy sizable numbers of troops to India if the subcontinent ever rose up in rebellion against British rule. Needless to say, the United States was not about to make similar promises and by ending the treaty, Japan immediately ceased to be an ally and became a potential threat. This, combined with post-war reductions in naval armaments, meant that British possessions were left vulnerable and it placed vital strategic positions, such as Singapore, open to Japanese attack.

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.

In the west, other foreign policy decisions also turned another former ally into a potential (and ultimately actual) enemy which was the Kingdom of Italy, which just happened to sit astride the vital British lifeline through the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Suez. Originally, even after Mussolini came to power in 1921, there were no serious problems in Anglo-Italian relations. In contrast to Hitler’s admiration of the Fascist dictator, Mussolini was not well disposed to the Nazi leader. When Nazis in Austria assassinated the chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, it was Mussolini who rushed Italian troops to the border and forced Hitler to back down. However, the Duce was rather annoyed that neither Britain nor France supported him in the emergency. However, what proved to be the breaking point in Anglo-Italian relations was the outbreak of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in 1935. Here was a case of high-minded principle coming into conflict with British imperial interests. Popular opinion in Britain, as with most of the rest of the liberal-democratic world, was firmly in sympathy with Ethiopia (though neither side was liberal or democratic) and yet the interests of the British Empire were not at all impacted by the issue of whether Haile Selassie or Victor Emmanuel III were Emperor of Ethiopia.

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.

Rather like World War II as a whole, Britain had taken a stand, almost universally considered on the moral high ground but which proved detrimental to the strategic interests of the British Empire. Italy had gone from an enemy of Germany to her primary ally and the British lifeline through the Mediterranean was under threat. And, it proved to be rather useless anyway as the British government ultimately recognized Italian rule of Abyssinia in 1938. So, the sanctions did no good, Ethiopia was still conquered, Britain eventually accepted the conquest and all that was achieved was to the benefit of Nazi Germany which gained an ally that threatened Britain’s lifeline in the Mediterranean and a free hand to annex Austria which Mussolini no longer objected to after the Abyssinian war. This also had some serious ramifications for the cause of monarchy which often goes unmentioned in histories of the build-up to World War II. It is not entirely out of order to suggest that the Franco-British opposition to the Italian conquest of Abyssinia thwarted a very real possibility of a restoration of the Hapsburg monarchy.

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”.

Finally, it is also true that while Britain was attempting to draw a line in the sand against Italy, it was making agreements with Hitler’s Germany. As most know, there were several points at which German expansion could have been stopped. When the German military moved back to the French border, even Hitler admitted that the French could have easily stopped him but Britain wouldn’t back up France and so France did nothing. Austria was an opportunity but was lost due to the opposition to the Italo-Abyssinian War. Czechoslovakia was another but it too was lost and partly due to the fact that the German cause seemed to be not entirely unjust. There were some in the Allied nations who felt rather guilty about the treatment of Germany after World War I and who felt that German desires for a redress of Versailles were not unreasonable. However, the bottom line is that so long as Hitler focused his expansion on Eastern Europe there was little to nothing that Britain could really do to stop him. When Britain finally decided that they would let Hitler go no further the issue in question was Poland and there simply wasn’t anything Britain could do to aid Poland in the event of a German attack. Britain gave Poland a war guarantee and did go to war with Germany over the German invasion but while Britain could go to war with Germany in retribution for invading Poland there was no way Britain could actually help defend Poland and stop Hitler from conquering it in the first place.

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.

Whether Britain did the right thing in declaring war on Germany on behalf of Poland in 1939 is hardly debatable. That is what is usually focused on. What is not is the question; was it prudent? In terms of the British Empire and the place of Great Britain as a major power, the answer must be “no”. Britain had nothing to gain and everything to lose because, right or wrong, it was a war that Britain could not win. Of course, the British Empire did not immediately go to war with all the Axis powers in 1939 but given recent policy it should have been obvious that such an outcome was highly probable and that was a war that was simply beyond the strength and resources of Britain to win. Britain had to have considerable help, which ultimately meant an unsavory alliance with Stalin (and thus the loss of the independence of those countries Britain went to war over in the first place) as well becoming totally indebted to the United States, the only country economically powerful enough to lend the money needed even before the USA came into the war. In short, the British Empire had entered into a war which could only be won in concert with two other countries, both of which were led by men opposed to the British Empire continuing.

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.

Whether the sacrifice was worth it or not is a judgment call and not the sort of thing one can ever know for sure as there is no way of knowing precisely how the world situation would have developed in the event of an Axis victory. What we do know for sure is that even if Britain had self-interested motives, viewing a Europe with Nazi Germany as the dominant power, Italy having control of the Horn of Africa or sacrificing American goodwill in exchange for the continued alliance with Japan as all being potentially bad for British interests in the long-run, the fact remains that the actions of Britain were not self-interested at all and while others certainly gained a great deal from World War II, Britain certainly gained nothing but the knowledge that if Britain would no longer be a great power, none of the Axis countries would either. Whether it was a fair trade depends on whether or not one views the current world order as positive or negative but the fact that Britain made the decision and sacrificed the empire to fight a war that could not be won on British, imperial and commonwealth strength alone is beyond question.

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.

It would be quite easy for monarchists who do not look down on the British Empire as is so fashionable these days, to look at its demise and the resulting upswing in the number of republics around the world, and say that it was too great a price to pay. It is certainly very easy to moan and groan about the world order that prevails today and wish that things could be different. However, I would say that, even for such monarchists, what would be an even more terrible vision than the British Empire going down in order to defeat the Axis powers would have been for Britain to have remained aloof only to see the likes of Clement Attlee elected to power and then the dissolution of the British Empire anyway, without even a great struggle to say that, at the end of the day, it was worth it. Friends and enemies of the British Empire alike would do well to give that some thought. Again, no one can say what would have happened for sure and I have puzzled over whether it was worth it or not, but that is ultimately for the British and Commonwealth Realms to determine. It is certainly though, something to think about and consider carefully whenever the subject of the British Empire comes up.


  1. Could you write an article on Magna Carta, I know you aren't always in favor of absolutism (neither am I), but I would like your full opinion on the document, it's causes, and repercussions.

    Always Curious

  2. Enjoyed this post a lot. I'm not very familiar of Great Britain's effort and consequences in the war so this has helped me understand the situation a lot better, since most of the time it's always viewed as a glorious victory over evil, at least in the US.

  3. There may be a lot of reasons for the fall of the British Empire. But no one can dispute that it was the Afrikaan Boer that gave Great Britain a run for its money!

    I'm curious to know MadMonarchist, what is your opinion on a potential future Independent Volkstaat in modern day South Africa?

  4. Is the Republican nature of the Volkstaat that bad that no one has a favorable opinion?

  5. Pat Buchanan also wrote about how WWII was an unnecessary war just as WWI destroyed the last great European and Russian empires. Britain was said to rule 95% of the world's land masses and but the question is how would the world be today if the great empires had not fallen and more important what if they had signed a treaty with each other choosing to never fight again. The world needed those empires to stop Communism but sadly Communism and capitalism won out. Maybe there is a time and season for all things and once Democracy and republicanism run it course the monarchy will rebuild itself.


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