Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Churchill and Poland

In a splenetic outburst on his blog, Szwagier says that “the old bastard” Winston Churchill – “a deeply unpleasant human specimen” – handed over tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe to Stalin at the 1943 Teheran Conference “without much of a thought for the millions he was condemning to misery and Stalinist terror”. Churchill, according to Szwagier, was a thoroughly bad hat with “lousy decision-making and authoritarian tendencies”.


Well, Szwagier, I grew up during World War Two and I know – better than you, I think – that whatever his shortcomings, Churchill almost single-handedly inspired the British people to keep on fighting after the Dunkirk evacuation without even contemplating defeat or surrender at a time when the odds were almost impossibly stacked against us. Anyone who actually heard his wartime broadcasts when he delivered them – as I did – will never doubt that without Winston Churchill we would have lost heart and given up the fight. The country at that time was riddled with pessimism and defeatism after the long dreary twilight of Chamberlainite appeasement and the phoney war. Only Churchill sounded the clarion call to struggle and ultimate victory, and the proof of this is that although the people threw out his tainted party at the 1945 general election, Churchill’s personal popularity was simultaneously at its height.


Churchill was a complex man, with many political warts and blemishes during his long career. I by no means defend his total record. He was impulsive and sometimes autocratic – which as a war leader he had to be – but he was a profound believer in parliamentary democracy and personal freedom and consistently sought to secure those blessings [as he saw them] for as many people as possible.


Unfortunately, the wartime realpolitik, and the geographical realities, meant that he was in the end powerless to prevent the postwar division of Europe by what he dubbed the Iron Curtain. It’s quite clear that he strove very hard to secure a free, Western-style democratic government for Poland, and that he was continually rebuffed by the Russians and not backed up sufficiently strongly by the Americans.


There were two aspects to the ‘Polish problem’. The first was frontiers. Poland’s Eastern frontier had been settled by military conquest against Russia and her other Eastern neighbours in the immediate post-WW1 years, and was grudgingly ratified by the Russians in the Treaty of Riga. The Western frontier was settled by the victorious allies at Versailles. The Soviet Union never willingly accepted the Eastern frontier, and sought throughout the war to ensure that Russia’s former provinces incorporated in the new Poland would be regained. Churchill recognised the case made by Stalin on security grounds, and advocated a Westward shift of both Poland’s frontiers to the Curzon Line in the East and the Oder-Neisse Line in the West. The first was uncontroversial, except with the Polish government-in-exile in London. The second was disputed among the Big Three, the Russians wanting a Polish border further West into former German territory than Churchill deemed prudent or just. This dispute was not resolved until the 1945 Potsdam Conference.


Shifting frontiers, of course, affected many millions of Poles, Germans, and Russians either beneficially or adversely. There is something distasteful in the tone of the discussions about this at the Conferences; but it is the way of so-called ‘statesmen’ to overlook the impact of their decisions upon the lives of ordinary citizens – as we are seeing now only too clearly in the Middle East.


The more contentious, and significant, dispute was over the form of the postwar Polish government. The British were committed to the Polish government in exile in London, who were anathema to the Russians because of their anti-Russian and anti-Communist stance. Abortive negotiations between the two came to nothing, and Russia proceeded to install its own puppet government, the ‘Lublin Committee’, in the regions of Poland it occupied. Churchill repeatedly stressed to Stalin that the British had a debt of honour to Poland, for whom we had entered the war in the first place; and that the Allies should ensure a multi-party parliamentary democracy in Poland. Stalin demurely assured the British and Americans that he had no ulterior designs on Poland, and that all he wanted was security for Russia against a repeat of the German invasion.


At least during the earlier conferences, when the emphasis was on creating good personal relations between the Big Three leaders in the hope that this would sway the Russians into allowing at least a degree of political freedom in Eastern Europe if not in Russia itself, the British and Americans were willing to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt. At that time, Russia was still extremely popular in Britain, and to a lesser extent in America, because of the heroic feats of the Red Army and ‘Uncle Joe’ was viewed by some as an almost benign figure. But by the time of Yalta and Potsdam it was becoming clear that Russia had no intention of allowing freedom to its satellites, including Poland. Yet Churchill persevered, telling Stalin in April 1945 that “the British people can never feel this war will have ended rightly unless Poland has a fair deal in the full sense of sovereignty, independence and freedom on the basis of friendship with Russia. It was this that I thought we had agreed at Yalta.”


The Russians, however, now felt strong enough to provoke a crisis by arresting sixteen Polish government negotiators on charges of causing the deaths of Red Army officers. This Churchill described to his deputy Eden as ‘perfidy’. He kept up the effort at Potsdam, though by that time the Russians had tightened their iron grip on Poland and had banned their Western allies from entering the country. The representatives of the Russian-sponsored Lublin government continued their attempts to pull wool over Churchill’s eyes with specious assurances that the new Poland would be ‘far from Communist’, living on friendly terms with the Soviet Union and wanting to profit from Russian experiences, ‘but not wanting to copy the Soviet system’. This was all specious hogwash, but it was too late for Churchill to resist what was an already accomplished fact; and he was in any case about to be dismissed from office by the British electorate.


The rest is history – the Fulton speech, the clanking down of the Iron Curtain across Europe, and the descent into Cold War. With Churchill out of office, his mantle as chief anti-Stalinist spokesman was ably assumed by Ernest Bevin.


In my view, if not Szwagier’s, this is a tale of honourable defeat – not one of callous betrayal.

12 comments:

Emmett said...

I Reckon that, as in fact I /am/ a life-long Churchill-admirer (based on what my father and mother told me), you will be surprised when I write, now, that in fact in 1940 had I been alive, and in London, I really rather do perceive that I should have /disliked/ Churchill -- and that, perhaps, rather intensely.

I Don't know /how/ to account for this; but, it would be, I daresay, a fact of my /temperament/; and, it is curious to note at this point, that I /did/ dream of Stanley Baldwin the other night -- /he/ was on the wireless and went on, oh, for a bit:

ALL About this 'fleeting land of England, this place we see and see every day, only then we wake to see no more this place, when /we/ rise up with the smoky Sun to drift away, all like fog and smoke and time -- we run away with the ebbing tide & green stuff in our toes....'

AS To Churchill in history, I think now that the hungarian-american /bourgeois/ & historian-emeritus, John Lukacs, does the best job by Churchill by a long shot; in his three books about 1939-40; and, in his memoir of Churchill's funeral.

AND, Alas, England is in the toilet; and, America in /hers/, too, if anything even less 'constitutionally'.

anticant said...

Wook, I don't think you would have disliked Churchill in 1940; you may well have done so in the 1920s and '30s, and in the 1950s. [His postwar premierships were disappointing, and increasingly skewed by his unrealistic conviction that he was uniquely fitted to secure world peace, and end the Cold War, though personal summitry.] But in 1940, only pro-Nazis or pro-Communists did not support him.

Baldwin, like all politicians, had his good and bad sides. He was an emollient, too complacent character. His two most important achievements were ending the 1926 General strike peacefully, and getting rid of Edward VIII and his "Wally" without a major upheaval.

In retrospect, both of those seem small beer against his failure to recognise the gravity of the Nazi threat, and to begin rearming Britain quickly enough. He is unfairly blamed for his silence on this score during a 1930s by-election, which earned him the nickname of "Sealed Lips". During the war he was deeply unpopular. Beaverbrook's spiteful action in removing poor old Baldwin's ornamental iron front gates for munitions scrap earned cheap public
applause.

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge just after the war, Baldwin was Chancellor of the University and I remember seeing him stumping around the Senate House Yard - he was very lame - in a degree procession. I've never seen anyone else looking so old, ill and glum, and I felt sorry for him even though I disliked his record.

Emmett said...

BEAVERBROOK, I daresay, was no gentleman; and, that's the thing about Churchill, so many of his friends were from a raffish world! But, I seem to perceive that, in May of 1940, the mid-middleclass took their second wind in a rather direct way from the Churchill premiership & that Dunkirk actually consolidated the loyalty of the nation around the renewed confidence of (post-modern phrase) 'middle Britain'. It was the shop-keepers and smallholders who led the way in the initial 250,000-or-so LDV sign-ups, I think. But, I think also that popular opinion (as opposed to upper-middleclass press-lords' 'public opinion') in the slums was altogether more volatile & a touchy business. Good! indeed, that Buck House was hit....

IN All of this I am fascinated by the story of Mass Observation-reporting -- I think that the most I've ever read of it in one account is in Angus Calder's /The People's War/; and, really, I expect I could do to learn more. Now, of course, it's very different as this increasingly un-American 'elite', here, doesn't 'have to' pay any attention (they don't think!) to the common ruck -- and, yet, all these 'internet' vapourings & 'blogging', one thinks, must be a fertile resource for statisticans!

BALDWIN /Did/ out-do certain Republicans & Democrats, in placing party & polls ahead of policy, alas. As to Churchill's summit-inklings, there is an odd movemnet past one another /in opposite directions/ on that point, as between 'Eisenhowser' as we call him, here (in my maternal Lakese dialect); and, old Churchill.

AT First, Churchill was the disappointed reactionary who watched his american 'girl-friend' go waltzing away with the georgian /banditto/; whilst the grinning Eisenhower, in 1945, practically handed over lorry-loads of allied nurses to satisfy the additional unmet romantic-needs of the Red Army. Whereas, by 1952, the (north american)continentalist, Dulles, had Ike firmly in the 'He-Man Pinko-Haters' club; and Churchill, now, was pondering soviet digestive difficulties in central Europe -- and, meditating summits with whomever should be Stalin's successor.

LUKACS Says Churchill didn't win the war; but, he kept Hitler from winning /his/; and, maybe, as well he gave us an additional, final, fifty or sixty civilised years as, precisely, Westerners. Lukacs is of jewish background; but, he is also an hungarian /bourgeois/ and, alas, talks loathingly, of Gypsies and -- Iranians! Alas, I write, as in so many other ways I respect his historianship & follow his heuristic lead, at least for now.

IT Is /my/ greatest regret that I was not a young man in England, in 1940 -- my dad, his brother and cousins, they had all that. It seems, now, that 1940 will be always & always the greatest year of all, of the Old Atlantic West; standing up against /our own/ Evil; standing in the light of sun and Moon and Stars; standing there in a hurricane of blood and fear; and, there for all the World to see and marvel; and, briefly, maybe, for all the World to love.

anticant said...

In June 1940 Churchill rightly predicted that future generations would look back and say "This was their finest hour".

Baldwin's main preoccupation in teh 1930s was healing social divisions after the industrial strife of the 1920s, and he did achieve a less bitter social climate - without, of course, attempting any redistribution of incomes towards greater equality.

Jose said...

Excellent, Anticant. Yes, I "lived" that, too, and cannot be more in agreement with you. It wasn't Churchill who had the definitive "say" in the struggles at Postdam it really was the US and Churchil was not in a solid position in respect of the US to dissent. Churchil was of course much more aware of European circumstances than was Roosevelt, but alas! the American prepotence prevailed.

Emmett said...

WHAT May have made the gloomy fact tolerable to Churchill, that England ('Britain') had finished the war bankrupt & Royal Navy reduced to "Task Force 77" of the USN Pacific Fleet, may have been his saving impressions, formed from the beginning of their first face-to-face meetings at Potsdam, of Harry Truman. Truman was called every name in the book; and, in many respects, his assent to the 'cold' war yielded dark fruit, most-notably this contemporary & ridiculous, over-duplication, of security-services, here. And, of course, he took large part in the perhaps-inevitable 'imperialisation' of the american Presidency.

BUT, In person, he was also a "dandy little complete sonofabitch" (a compliment in the american Middle-west!), an obvious fighter; and, one suspects, Churchill took comfort in knowing viscerally that /this/ post-war America, represented by Truman, would not leave the poisoned-pup Europeans all alone, to delve & foment more of /their/ "old shit!"

ON The other hand, to-day, aren't the completely and categorically, unworthy & God-damned, professional & credentialled, whorish, baby-boom baby-bombers of /my/ debased & depraved mis-generation, aren't they just? Acting just like a load of -- you guessed it! -- Tojo-Japs? I mean with this God-damned 'globalisation "New Cunt -- Same Old Shit" crypto-imperialist prosperity-sphere"?

Emmett said...

AUNTY, I have tarted up our exchange a tad, in the following 'link':

http://bodwyn.wordpress.com/2007/05/16/letter-to-england/#more-219

WOTCHER?

Jose said...

Apologies. It was Truman at Postdam, but it was Roosevelt at Yalta, and if I am not wrong it was in the Yalta meeting where the sharing of Europe was finally drafted.

I must however revise my memory.

anticant said...

Truman always struck me as a down to earth, commonsense character - one of the better USA presidents.

I do wonder, though, how he could sleep at nights after ordering the obliteration of two Japanese cities. Surely the Japs - and the Russians - could have been invited to an atomic test explosion and they would surely have then laid down their arms.

But I suppose scaring the Russians was more important than sparing the lives of huge numbers of Japanese civilians - white racism, again.

And I remember reading that when they dropped the bombs, the Americans had intelligence that the Japs were about to sue for peace anyway.

What a horrid world!

Richard W. Symonds said...

It is my personal conviction that wartime Churchill saved the people in this country (England) from invasion and occupation. He was wrong about India, but he was right about Hitler.

An old lady in my lip-reading class said this :

"My hero is Sir Winston Churchill because he (especially by his speeches) inspired people to be courageous (especially during the Blitz).

"Hitler thought he could break the spirit and morale of the English people, but he failed because of the courage in the face of terrible adversity - a courage inspired by Churchill.

"This failure to break our spirit was a primary reason for Hitler's decision to turn towards Russia.

"We have a lot to thank the Russian people for too."

anticant said...

The old lady was quite right, Richard. I've no time for ignorant and spiteful Churchill-bashing such as that which inspired my original post. There are lots of things one can rightly criticise, and even dislike, about Churchill. But he was head and shoulders above his contemporaries and most of those who have followed him into No. 10. In Whitman's phrase, he was large, he contained multitudes.

Emmett said...

NEJMI Mohammed has some interesting insights about the /relationship/ beween /la/ Hitler & Chrchill, at:

http://bodwyn.wordpress.com/2006/05/19/they-worked-together/

(AUNTY, Pray forgive my travesty-transcription of Cockney -- 'was flang together mainly for a Yank audience & indeed Nejmi writes mostly in American and not English....