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Far more urgent at the time of the Charter than the question of self-determination was the defeat of Germany. It is true that Roosevelt had no intention of declaring war. Hitchens claims that such a declaration had been “Churchill’s great hope and the reason for his journey”, but Roberts makes clear that Churchill had no such expectation. At this, their first meeting, it was hardly likely that either leader would offer more than verbal commitments. What Churchill did get was a clear statement from Roosevelt that their new vision of Western civilisation was predicated on “the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny”. This mattered hugely, not only to Churchill, but to its intended target: Adolf Hitler.

For in Berlin the impact of the Atlantic Charter was greater even than in London or Washington. After the outbreak of war in 1939, Hitler that warned that he would hold the Jews responsible if the European conflict were to become a “world war” (by which he meant the involvement of the United States). On August 19, 1941, just after reports of the Churchill-Roosevelt summit and the Atlantic Charter had reached the Nazi headquarters on the Russian front, Goebbels recorded a meeting with Hitler: “The Führer is convinced that his prophecy in the Reichstag, that should Jewry succeed once again in provoking a world war, this would end in their annihilation, is being confirmed. It is coming true in these weeks and months with a certainty that is almost uncanny. In the East the Jews are paying the price, in Germany they have already paid in part and will have to pay still more in the future.” Some historians believe that August 1941 was the moment when Hitler resolved to move beyond the massacres by Einsatzgruppen behind the advancing German armies into the systematic genocide of the European Jews. He did not bother to wait until his declaration of war on the United States after Pearl Harbor.

Hitler’s diabolical reaction surely vindicates Churchill’s determination to transform the European war into a battle for the survival of civilisation, in which practically any means to ensure victory were legitimate. Hitchens insists that Britain by this time was no longer in danger of invasion, but a dishonourable defeat was still a real possibility. If Churchill had not moved heaven and earth to bring a reluctant Roosevelt into the war, dragging America behind him, he would have betrayed the Jewish people, who were now in mortal peril and whose cause he had championed ever since the Balfour Declaration. The same obligation applied, in his eyes, to all the other peoples groaning under Nazi occupation. What else could or should he have done than to make every possible sacrifice to defeat Hitler?

One sacrifice that did not cost the Prime Minister too many sleepless nights was that of his own scruples about responding to the “total war” of which Goebbels boasted in kind. Hitchens condemns Churchill for ordering the indiscriminate bombing of German cities, but that too was an imperative rather than a choice. To have heeded George Bell’s moral objections to the killing of civilians — perfectly proper for a bishop, but not for a war leader — would have met with incomprehension and even anger among the British public. The debate has raged ever since, dominated by hindsight: bombing did incalculable damage to the Nazi war machine, but did not break the Germans’ resistance, any more than the Luftwaffe destroyed British morale with their V-weapons.

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Patrick Heren
October 30th, 2018
6:10 PM

October 18th, 2018
7:10 PM
A few points of detail need clarifying. HMS Cossack did enter Norwegian territorial waters to rescue British prisoners from the Altmark but the Germans had already violated international law by seeking to carry prisoners of war through the waters of a neutral state so Cossack's action was justifiable. There were five Queen Elizabeth class battleships not four so the legacy of the Churchill of the First World War to that of the Second was that bit greater. The Revenge class were not modernised which is why the Admiralty did their best in WW2 to keep them away from the enemy. Churchill probably did over-estimate the deterrent effect of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse but the key error that led to their loss was the failure of Admiral Phillips to summon air cover from Singapore as soon as his ships were spotted by a Japanese scout plane. No-one really knows when Hitler decided on a policy of genocide against the Jews but the fact that he could publicly make a comment that was effectively a threat of such a policy early in 1939 tends to make you think his intention long predated August 1941.

Lawrence James
October 7th, 2018
9:10 AM
An excellent article which says all that needs to be said on World War II: Hitchens's polemic is selective and can be ignored whilst AJP Taylor wrote when large swathes of evidence were not available. Churchill's post-war remarks on an united Europe must be taken in context, for they were made when he was sure that the British Empire would survive for the foreseeable future. It did not and, by 1970, it was clear that Britain would have to to seek compensation by an alignment with what was then the Common Market.

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