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Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” and the Fate of the European Jews


Sixty years ago, on May 10, 1940, Hitler’s armies began the process of overrunning Holland, Belgium, and France. By the third week of May, the French army was in retreat, and the British Expeditionary Force was withdrawing to Dunkirk. Western Europe was rapidly falling under the occupation and control of Nazi Germany. The French were already thinking of possible terms of surrender and reconciliation with German domination.

In Great Britain, the government of Neville Chamberlain fell on May 10, the day the German armies invaded Holland and Belgium. Winston Churchill was asked by the king of England to accept the position of prime minister. A decisive moment in world history was in the making. Noted historian John Lukacs chronicles and interprets the meaning of this moment in his recent book, Five Days in London: May 1940 (Yale University Press, 1999). He argues that the fate of the Western world was determined during this period, with the issue being: Would Great Britain carry on the fight against Hitler, even if alone, or would it accept defeat and a political compromise that would leave Germany in control of the European continent?

Lukacs traces out the events of five days during the last week of May 1940 as a high drama between Churchill, who was determined to resist every suggestion of compromise and negotiation with Hitler, and Britain’s foreign minister, Edward, Lord Halifax, who argued for attempting to find out whether terms could be reached that would leave England with its “liberty and independence” intact.

In Lukacs’s eyes, Churchill had a clear, determined vision that there was no solution to Nazism, either in Germany or in Europe, other than absolute resistance by Great Britain and complete destruction of Hitler. Lord Halifax was an “appeaser, indeed a quintessential, if not an altogether extreme, one…. The inclination to seek compromises, the profound dislike of anything overstated or overwrought, were characteristic of Halifax, not of Churchill,” argues Lukacs.

At every cabinet meeting during the week of May 24-28, 1940, Churchill resisted all suggestions and arguments that various avenues should be pursued to find a way to bring the war to an end that would not require a humiliating surrender or occupation of Great Britain by Germany. Churchill insisted that any hint of possible negotiations would lead down a slippery slope, ending in England’s becoming a vassal, slave state under Nazi control. For Lukacs, Churchill’s success in imposing his insistence on resistance to Germany upon the members of the British government resulted in the survival of Western civilization.

In fact, in May and through the summer of 1940, Hitler had no desire to either defeat or occupy Great Britain. In Hitler’s fantasy world of a hierarchy of racial groups, the British were seen as Germany’s “Aryan brothers.” He told those around him that he wanted the British Empire to be preserved and that British naval and military power had to be kept intact to police its colonial possessions. Indeed, Hitler even mentioned that he would offer German soldiers to serve under British command to help do the job. What Hitler wanted was British acquiescence to Germany’s domination on the European continent so that he could safely turn east for the “living space” that the German people would need in the centuries to come.

Churchill, however, got his wish. Great Britain did not negotiate. In December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined the war against Nazi Germany after Hitler declared war on America in support of his Japanese ally. But actions have their consequences, and they can be awful in their effects. And Churchill’s insistence on a war to the death had such effects.

Five years later, on May 8, 1945, the Second World War ended in Europe. The physical devastation was immense across the entire continent. Hundreds of cities, towns, and villages had practically been wiped off the map. Millions of people faced famine and disease. Tens of millions had been killed in the war. Civilian deaths at the hands of the Nazi regime have been estimated to number between 20 million and 25 million. Among those mountains of dead were approximately six million European Jews.

Hitler and the Jews

That the Jews would be the special target of Adolf Hitler, if he ever came to power, had never been a secret. During a speech in May 1923, Hitler had said, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human. They cannot be human in the sense of being an image of God, the Eternal. The Jews are the image of the Devil. Jewry means the racial tuberculosis of the nations.”

In July 1924, in an interview with a National Socialist Party member from Czechoslovakia, Hitler explained,

“I have changed my mind about the way to fight Judaism. I have realized that hitherto I have been too mild. In the course of working out my book [Mein Kampf] I have come to realize that in the future the most stringent methods of struggle must be employed if we are to fight through successfully. I am convinced that this is a vital question not only for our people, but for all peoples. For the Jews are the pestilence of the world.”

When Hitler did come to power in 1933, German Jews faced boycotts of their businesses as well as violence and humiliating treatment throughout the country. Jews were removed from the civil service and university professorships. The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 deprived Jews of German civil rights and prohibited intermarriages between German Jews and non-Jews. During the night of November 9-10, 1938, a rampage of anti-Jewish violence occurred all across the country known as Kristallnacht — the “night of broken glass.”

About 432,000 Jews emigrated from Germany between 1933 and 1940, including 117,000 from Austria. At first the Nazis encouraged Jews to leave the country, and placed few restrictions on the possessions they could take with them. Later, heavy emigration taxes were imposed, with more stringent controls on the amount of money that could be transferred out of the country. Even with the financial costs and losses imposed on emigration, undoubtedly more Jews would have left German-controlled areas of Europe, even following the outbreak of the European war in 1939-1940, if not for the fact that there were few countries willing to accept them as refugees and residents — the United States not one of them.

In 1940-1941, there began mass deportation of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to parts of Nazi-controlled Poland. Here they were forced into ghettos and made to serve as slave labor for the Nazi Reich. Only after June 1941, following the German attack on the Soviet Union, did the Nazi policy of terror, brutality, and humiliation against the Jews of Europe become a plan of mass extermination. With the Polish areas beginning to overflow with an increasing Jewish population and with tens of thousands more Russian, Ukrainian, and Baltic Jews now coming under Nazi control, a “final solution” had been devised. The death camps were the last stop for six million men, women, and children who by faith or accident of birth were branded by the German National Socialists as “Juden.”

But this need not have been the fate of the European Jews. In April 1940, official Nazi policy still permitted the emigration of the Jews from Europe. In June and July 1940, a new plan was promulgated in the German Foreign Ministry’s Department for Internal German Affairs. In a memorandum, “The Jewish Question in the Peace Treaty,” it was declared, “The desirable solution is: All Jews out of Europe.” Their point of destination would be the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, then under French colonial administration. The plan had the full support of Hitler, who told the German ambassador to France at the beginning of August that “he intended to evacuate all Jews from Europe after the war.” In the middle of August 1940, a new memorandum prepared under the supervision of Adolf Eichmann called for “the project to settle around four million Jews on Madagascar.”

Life would not have been easy for the Jews sent to Madagascar. The plan was for the island to be transferred to German administration, and the deported Jews would have been limited in the possessions and property they could take to the island. And they would be “denied the citizenship of the various European countries” from which they came. “Instead they will be citizens of the mandate of Madagascar.” But they were to have “self-administration: their own mayors, police, postal and railroad administration, etc.” The clear intention of trying to implement this plan was demonstrated in October 1940, when the Jews of German Alsace and Lorraine were sent to southern France as the first step in their evacuation to Madagascar.

World War II and the fate of the European Jews

But the continuance of the war due to Churchill’s refusal to countenance any attempt to bring the conflict to any end short of a total Nazi defeat sealed the fate of six million Jews in Europe. In June 1940, it may have been Churchill’s “finest hour” when he impressed the British people and many others around the world when he said in Parliament that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

But for the Jews of Europe, Churchill’s refusal to reach a negotiated peace with Hitler closed the door on a deathtrap. In 1933 there were approximately 9.5 million Jews in Europe. After the war the number had been reduced to 3.5 million. Almost two-thirds of the European Jewish population had been destroyed in the Nazi extermination machine. But the gas chambers at Auschitwz, Betzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibór, and Treblinka only began their nightmarish work in late 1941 and 1942. If peace had been made in 1940, how many of the millions of the victims who were sent to these camps might have lived instead?

The mass, compulsory deportation of millions of innocent human beings to a faraway island off the east coast of Africa would have been a tragic and despicable inhuman act. The hardships and sufferings would have been immense. And if these millions of European Jews had been forced into exile on Madagascar under German administration, there is no way to know what evils the Nazis might still have tried to perpetrate there.

But what is certain is that Churchill’s war against Hitler meant that the Nazi plan to expel the Jews of Europe was thwarted and the final solution became mass murder on an unspeakable scale. In turning his back on the potential for peace — no matter how unpleasant with the likes of Hitler — Churchill helped to ensure the reality of the Jewish holocaust.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).