Thursday, 3 September 2009

Two tragic ironies of World War II – and one crucial lesson

junkers_ju_87_stuka On the 70th anniversary of the day that World War II was declared, effective upon Germany’s blitzkreig invasion of Poland, it’s worth observing two outstandingly tragic ironies:

  1. Neville Chamberlain declared war on Nazi Germany in defence of Poland – a country that wasn’t defensible – but acquiesced in Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland, which were.
    That’s just one of the practical consequences of appeasement.
  2. Britain declared war on Nazi Germany because Hitler invaded Poland, yet within two years Britain was an ally of the Soviet Union -- which was the co-invader of Poland, and the Nazi’s partner in Poland’s dismemberment.
    That’s just one of the tragic ironies of twentieth-century history: that’s what happens when you fail to identify the nature of your so-called friends: the practical consequence of which was that a war undertaken ostensibly to deliver Poland from the Nazi yoke ended by delivering the entire population of Eastern Europe to the noose of Joseph Stalin.

Just as the moral is the practical, so too is the immoral the impractical.  The lesson of WWII is so large that it’s so rarely seen, but it’s crystal clear when you look hard enough.  In the words of Virgil, “Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito.” (Loose translation from the Latin: Do not give your sanction to evil, but proceed ever more strongly against it.)

There endeth the lesson of 3rd September.


  1. A war begun ostensibly to liberate Poland, and we now celebrate 1945 as a victory yet Poland wasn't liberated from her invaders until 1989.
    That's progressive forces for you...

  2. "Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany in defence of Poland – a country he couldn’t defend – but acquiesced in Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he could. "
    How was England capable of defending Czechoslovakia? Wouldn't there be huge geographic problems involved?

  3. Neville Chamberlain has been unfairly treat by history.
    His apparent appeasement of Hitler bought the British enough time to build up the RAF so they had a chance of defeating or at least fighting the German air force to a draw
    it could be argued Neville Chamberlain won the battle of britain not Churchill

  4. Sean Fitzpatrick4 Sep 2009, 09:15:00

    "His apparent appeasement of Hitler bought the British enough time to build up the RAF so they had a chance of defeating or at least fighting the German air force to a draw."

    Where is the historical record that the RAF increased their numbers to any significant degree during Chamberlain's premiership? If you can point me to it I will stand corrected.

    Credit should also be given to Air Marshal Hugh Dowding who during the battle for France refused to send more aircraft to Europe since he knew they would be needed later to defend Britain.

  5. Hi Panda .. re your assertion that the British "had a chance of defeating ... German AF to a draw", I offer the following from Sebastian Faulks.

    In his non-fictional work, "The Fatal Englishmen" he broaches the theory that Goering received bad advice and, duped into believing that the RAF was better equipped than it was, decided to pull the plug on the Battle of Britain and focus Germany's attention back on Europe.

    From memory -- (it's admittedly been years since I read it) -- Faulks wrote that the RAF aircraft at the time numbered less than 20 and had Goering known this, Britain could have barely lasted another fortnight. That it hung out for so long was testament to the skill & daring of the pilots and the patch-up talents of the ground staff, but time/equipment was definitely running out.

    If true, Churchill's famous speech re "Never have so many, etc" was even more pertinent than people realised.

  6. Ayrdale: great comment.

    Panda: if Nazi ambitions has been firmly knocked on the head in the Sudetenland, there might not have been a Battle of Britain.

    Bruce: Compared to the flat plain of Poland and its antiquated military forces -- stories had teh Poles charging at tanks with cavalry -- Czechoslovakia's terrain made it a veritable fortress, and it's military was well-equipped and raring to go.

    Equipment which the Nazis took and used against Poland and France.

  7. Lady Thatcher is spot on, in her comment, which she stated:

    During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come in one fashion or another from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it.

    That generalisation is clearly true of the Second World War. Nazism was after all a European ideology, the Third Reich an attempt at European domination.

    Against both, the resolve of Britain, of the Commonwealth, and decisively of America were successfully brought to bear. A great victory for liberty was the result.

    Time to ditch the EU says Thatcher

  8. Where is the historical record that the RAF increased their numbers to any significant degree during Chamberlain's premiership? If you can point me to it I will stand corrected.

    well it's from wikipedia, but: The importance of the R.A.F. to Chamberlain can be seen when we consider that its budget rose from £16.78 million pounds in 1933 to £105.702 million pounds in 1939, surpassing the Army's budget in 1937 and the Royal Navy's in 1938

    The problem in the first gulf war was that the US army did not go on to Bagdad.

    The problem in world war 2 was that the US army did not go on to Moscow.
    Without Chamberlain there would have been no RAF.

  9. Without Chamberlain, they might not have needed an RAF.

  10. PC,

    stories of Polish forces charging tanks are myths, propagated by the Germans who were trying to make out that the takeover of Poland was far easier than it actually was.

    Also, if it weren't for the very experienced Polish airmen who stepped in to defend England part-way through the Battle of Britain, the battle definitely would have been lost. By that point, there were too few experienced fighters in the sky. Have a look at Squadron 303 for more.

    303 Squadron claimed the greatest number of aircraft destroyed of the 66 Allied fighter squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain, even though it joined the fray two months after the battle had begun. Its success in combat can be attributed to the years of extensive and rigorous pre-war training many of the long-serving Polish veterans had received in their homeland and surviving previous encounters with the Luftwaffe in inferior aircraft; far more than many of their younger and inexperienced RAF comrades being thrown into the battle. In its first seven days of combat, the squadron claimed nearly 40 enemy aircraft. Withdrawn from battle for a rest on the 11 October, the squadron had claimed 126 kills in six weeks. However, losses had also been heavy, with 18 Hurricanes lost, seven pilots killed and five badly wounded.

    Far worse than the irony you mention, it's my belief that if help had been given Poland in the first two weeks of the German invasion, most likely WW2 could have been completely averted. Stalin would not have attacked, being overly cautious because of a Polish defeat of the Soviet Union 20 years earlier, and the damage done to the Germans by the Polish forces despite no help from anyone shows that this position is not just wishful thinking.

  11. From 1938 overall UK defense spending increased. The extra spending went to increasing the RAF’s bomber fleet. (Spending on the army dropped.) All noted by the Germans.

    The increase in bomber numbers was meant to be a deterrent to Hitler’s European war goals. Hitler was not deterred and the RAF did not fight the Battle of Britian with its bombers.

  12. Sean Fitzpatrick4 Sep 2009, 14:25:00

    Anon - Hmmmm, ok but I do tend to prefer more reputable sources than Wiki!!

    Sus - As I recall a major turning point was the apparently accidental bombing of civilian areas in London by a German bomber which led to Churchill ordering a retaliatory raid against Berlin. Hitler was so infuriated he ordered the Luftwaffe to turn their attention to bombing British cities rather than clobbering the RAF who, at that stage, were on the verge of destruction. it was this change of emphasis that allowed the RAF to rejuvenate enough to carry on.

    Lucia Maria - I have to agree. France had the largest land army in Europe at the time and Hitler had left only a single division to defend his western frontier during the attack on Poland. After Poland fell Germany was desperately short of fuel and ammunition. Had the French attacked, rather than simply reinforcing the Maginot Line, they could have forced Hitler to terms very quickly.

  13. Lucy, Like I was saying above, it's easy to miss the big lessons if you get bogged down too much in detail -- and we've all got our favourite details about WWII.

    My point about Poland is that when Chamberlain finally did stand firm, it was on a place that he could do nothing about. With the result, as Ayrdale said above, that a war begun ostensibly to liberate Poland ended with her enslavement until 1989.

  14. my point there is there is more to history than Churchill good Chamberlain bad

  15. in fact the debacle in Norway that lead to Chamberlain's resignation can be directly laid at Churchill's feet as first lord of the adrimialtry

    It has been said the only job Churchill was ever any good at was Prime Minster

  16. ">My point there is there is more to history than Churchill good Chamberlain bad."

    Oh for sure. That's my point too. But not one of the most important.

    "It has been said the only job Churchill was ever any good at was Prime Minister."

    And even there he was found wanting. British war socialism and the alliance with the Soviets were hardly Britain's finest hour.

    Tonypandy, Gallipoli, the Great Depression, Narvik -- Churchill had a destructive hand in all of them.

    Perhaps it could be said more accurately that the only jobs Churchill was ever any good at was writing impromptu speeches, building a beautiful house, and opposing Hitler.

    And at all of these things he was immense.

    But as we agree above, there are more important lessons to be taken from WWII than merely Churchill good, Chamberlain bad.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.