Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Clive Ponting: 1940 -- myth and reality

Anyone who wishes to understand the history of the twentieth century would do well to read Clive Ponting's 1940.

Clive Ponting is a name which will be remembered by some older readers in the UK. In the early 1980s, Ponting was a British civil servant. At a certain point, he decided that the saintly Margaret Thatcher was trying to mislead the House of Commons, and the British people, about the conduct of the Falklands war. He therefore 'leaked' two key documents to a Member of Parliament.

As a result of this act of conscience, Ponting was prosecuted for breach of the Official Secrets Act. Rather to most people's surprise, the jury acquitted him, but Ponting's career as a civil servant was most definitely over at that point, and he subsequently wrote a number of books about government and British history. He is currently a member of staff in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Swansea.

Ponting's 1940 -- Myth and Reality was first published in 1990. I came across it when the widow of an old friend of mine invited me to go through his library and remove any books which appealed, and this was one of the ones that I chose.

As the title suggests, the book deals with the events occurring in the first full year of World War II, though it necessarily refers to developments both before and after.

As it happens, I was under the impression, until I read this book, that I already knew quite a lot about 1940. The reason for that is that, about six or seven years ago, I wrote a thriller set in that year (Beautiful Lady, written under the pen-name Patrick Read). As background research for my novel, I read about twenty books dealing with the politics and personalities of that era, and as a result, as I say, I thought I was pretty well informed. It is a measure of the quality of Ponting's work, however, that I now realise that I had acquired only half the story, if that.

There is no reason why American readers of this blog should know anything much about the early years of WWII, but Brits -- especially Brits of my age -- will usually be familiar with the key events. These include the heroic evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, before they were all captured or killed by the German army; and the Battle of Britain, when a handful of British airmen, flying Spitfires, managed to prevent the German air force from dominating the skies over the UK, and hence prevented a German invasion. The year 1940 is, above all, remembered as the year in which the British people, under the charismatic leadership of Winston Churchill, resolved to stand alone against the German war machine, and were united in their determination never to surrender.

Ponting, however, goes through the history of that vital year, and attempts to show us the truth. And the truth, as is often the case, proves to be not quite as heroic and impressive as the myth which was fostered at the time, and which has become more and more embedded in the public memory as the years have gone by.

There is far too much good stuff in the book for me to summarise it all here. But I do want to place on record the fact that this book has given me a whole new perspective on the history of my country, and of its position in relation to the world as a whole. And that is a substantial achievement on Ponting's part, because I am, after all, a man with a first degree in history, someone who taught history for a while in schools, and someone who (as mentioned above) has read about the year 1940 in some detail.

Ponting's book has led me to the following conclusions.

In the nineteenth century, Great Britain could lay reasonable claim to being the richest and most powerful nation on earth. True, this was a historical accident, and the position was not likely to last, but that is the way it was. In 1880, for example, Britain produced 23% of the entire world's manufacturing output, which was 50% more than the USA and three times the level of Germany's output.

What is more, Europe in the year 1900 could reasonably lay claim to having been the source of almost all significant progress in the world to that date, whether you measure progress in terms of the production of wealth, science, philosophy, political systems, the arts, or any other important factor.

The first world war brought a catastrophic end to the steady development of European civilisation. The impact of the war was shattering. In almost every European country of any consequence, a whole generation of young men -- invariably the brightest and the best -- was wiped out. By the time the war was over, the wealth of nations had drained away: it had all been spent on armaments, which had been used to destroy the seed-corn of the future.

In particular, Britain ceased to be the financial centre of the world, which now shifted to New York. The UK ended up in debt to the USA, owing £1,365 million (at 1918 prices). In short, we were broke, and we had lost perhaps 90% of our most vigorous and active young men.

The effects of this were far-reaching, in every sphere of activity, but were particularly important in terms of our relationship with the US. From now on, Britain was no longer in a position to defend all of it overseas possessions, especially in the Far East. And we were obliged, for all practical purposes, to do what the Americans told us.

Example: Britain had since 1902 had a formal alliance with the Japanese. In fact, in WWI, Japanese ships had helped to clear the Indian Ocean of German ships, and had even patrolled the Mediterranean. Now, however, the Americans insisted that the Anglo-Japanese alliance should not be renewed, and the UK had no choice but to accept that decision.

In the twenty-one years between the end of WWI and the start of WWII, Britain declined still further as a world power. In the 1930s, for example, 80% of British blast furnaces were obsolescent, and the average output per furnace was lower than that which the Americans had achieved in 1910. We still thought of ourselves as one of the world's great powers (and we tend to do so even today!) but we were largely deluding ourselves, even then.

The 1930s also, of course, saw the rise to power of Hitler and his merry men. And it has been fashionable in the past -- still is -- to criticise, usually in bitter terms, the alleged cowardice and lack of wisdom of those who sought to appease Hitler by negotiating with him and giving him at least part of what he wanted. However, when you read Ponting's book, you will realise that the appeasers were nothing like as dumb as they looked. On the contrary, it is certainly possible to argue that they were the wise ones, because they seem to have understood the desperate weakness of the British position. We still had, on paper, a vast empire. But we lacked the resources to defend it. What is more, the appeasers appear to have understood that, if there was a new war, and even if we won it, Britain would emerge weaker than ever.

Once WWII began, Ponting's research shows us that the British cabinet, if not the British people, were left in no doubt about the desperate position in which the nation found itself. Only a week after war was declared, the cabinet was given a paper which showed that Britain's total resources for financing the war were about £700 million, a vastly smaller sum than was available in 1914; and there was no chance of increasing it.

One the war began, the events can only be described as catastrophic. The French collapsed in the face of the German attack, though Ponting shows us that they performed rather better than they are often thought to have done. In the first world war, the French had had 1.5 million men killed. In WWII, before they asked for an armistice, they had 120,000 killed, 250,000 wounded, and 1.5 million taken prisoner.

The British government decided that the best story to tell the people back home was that the French had failed to fight effectively, and to declare that the British Expeditionary Force was undefeated; both statements, says Ponting, were travesties of the truth. But there were no journalists at Dunkirk, and so the government was able to get away with this picture of events, which was certainly better for morale.

Chapter after chapter of Ponting's book reveals that the myths of 1940 are often just that. In the Battle of Britain, for example, there were certainly many brave young Englishmen defending their country, and many of them died. But the most successful squadron was manned by Polish pilots, and the two most successful individual fighter pilots were a Czech and a Pole. Ponting also makes it clear that the nation was not united in its determination to overcome the enemy at whatever cost: many people were either bored, apathetic, or anxious to make peace at almost any price.

Perhaps the most important chapter in Ponting's book is number 10, 'The End of Independence'. In it, Ponting relates how the UK came to be largely dependent on American goodwill -- or, to be more precise, dependent on America's sense of self-interest.

It was abundantly obvious to the British government of 1940 that the UK could not survive without American assistance in various forms. And when, at the end of that year, the US government decided to save the UK, it did so on the basis of self-interest rather than anything else. At that time, 80% of the US population was against their nation voluntarily getting involved in the war.

The Americans, oddly enough, seem to to have believed that the UK was rich; this was an illusion not shared by the British. In any event, the UK was allowed to place orders in the United States worth $10 billion -- far beyond the debts incurred in the whole of WWI. Thus the UK sold itself, if not into slavery, at least into a position in which it would be more or less for ever indebted to the US.

Britain was effectively a bankrupt nation, though the fact was seldom understood. And the financial crisis at the end of 1940 marked the end of Britain as an independent power. Ponting's title for chapter 11 is 'The Client State', which tells its own story.

There is much else that is fascinating in Ponting's book. There is, for instance, the fact that the British government consciously and deliberately set out to organise what it openly acknowledged as 'terrorist acts' in German-occupied territory. This is rather different, I think you will agree, from the attitude which the government now takes to terrorist acts carried out in the UK.

After the war was over, there were many in Britain, some of them in high places, who were foolish enough to believe that the nation still had its former standing in international affairs. There were those who believed that, because Britain had somehow emerged on the victorious side, it was possible to pretend that the recent nastiness had never happened. I have argued elsewhere that the two world wars had driven many Englishmen into a state which was, in some ways, indistinguishable from insanity, and this attitude is proof of that contention.

'Much of Britain's post-war economic, defence and foreign policy,' says Ponting, 'is based on an illusion.' It still is. 'The myth of the "special relationship" with the United States was sedulously cultivated... to disguise Britain's real role as a client state of the Americans.'

Those who criticise Mr Blair for behaving like George Bush's poodle should bear this in mind. For all his many shortcomings, Blair is at least a political realist. And he appears to understand full well that, when George whistles, he has little option but to come bounding up and wait for the stick to be thrown.

The two world wars of the twentieth century set back European civilisation by a hundred years. They left the way open for the Americans to emerge as the dominant world power. And soon it may be the Chinese. Unless, of course, the new Europe can somehow get its act back together and organise a new age of enlightenment.


Andrew said...

Some truly fascinating reflections. I would beg to suggest that our baby boom generation in the US has at least some appreciation of that period. Any younger than that, however, and you'll find Evel Knievel is remembered, not Winston Churchill. I fear too many people here still believe the Queen runs Britain. There's definitely some culture confusion, based on what we are exposed to.

For myself, I see the bond developed between Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher as far more reflective of how we see the relationship of the two nations--and what it should be. I fully recognize the difficult spot in which Mr. Blair has been placed by Mr Bush, but have felt he responded out of much of that same kind of loyalty--not merely financial/political realities. The political fallout on him has been truly unfortunate and, amazingly, has been escaped by our president. Mr. Blair's loyalty was, simply put, taken advantage of. But, that being said and for all our liabilities, I'm convinced Britain is an ally we need, far more than the reverse, if for no other reason than to keep us out of trouble. Which has been hard to do, lately.

Anonymous said...

I agree with those who say that there is no 'special relationship', but rather a coincidence of interests. And I think it is idiocy to expect a country's own national interests to be anything but its first consideration in taking any action. But one can recognize that actions are taken for reasons other than giving help and nevertheless feel gratitude for the actions themselves. And, at some level, we are all men before we are countrymen.

With these things understood, I know I am not alone in saying how profoundly grateful I am as an American for Tony Blair. I don't know what his reasons are for refusing the Medal of Freedom that the US Congress has bestowed on him; perhaps he is wary of another round of accusations of 'poodling'. But he has certainly earned the highest civilian award our nation has to offer.

bfreesun said...

Harold Wilson kept Britain out of Vietnam.
Blair could if he wished have kept Britain out of Iraq. He chose to become involved and should not be let off the hook for that.
As you say Churchill wrote the history and this has been accepted as a true version of events. I think the Iraqi and the Irish views of Churchill would be quite different.

jerry hamilton said...

Churchill will be remembered differently by different people.
Those with little knowledge of history call him "The Greatest Briton."
I look at him as a man supported by the "Focus Group" as a bought and paid for puppet.
A monstrous one.
Not only did he cause the starvation of millions of people in Pakistan.
Once Hitler stopped the Poles killing Germans that the Versailles treaty pretty much ensured would happen, Hitler offered to pull his troops out, reclaim Danzig and the corridor, and resort to peace.
We didn't want peace. We wanted war, a war that we could never have won alone.
Churchill caused 5 years of war to continue.
How many deaths was that.