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The myth that Britain alone opposed Hitler

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — In the spring of 1940, Winston Churchill made three significant parliamentary speeches in a row. All of them were full of many invented expressions, which almost immediately became part of the everyday language with which millions of people in Britain and around the world were accustomed to comprehend that military conflict.

The most powerful of them, like the winged phrases of Shakespeare and George Orwell, firmly entered the English language.

Churchill’s speech of May 13 sounded a gloomy prophecy: “Blood, hard work, tears and sweat.” In his speech on June 4, an open call to arms came out: “We will fight on the beaches.” And two weeks later, on June 18, Churchill presented the people with a powerful and inspiring concept of “high point”. These were such elegant words that the memory of the context in which they were sounded was almost not preserved in the people’s memory.

Already few remember, but the talk of “blood, hard work, tears and sweat” is a warning that, without victory over Germany, not only the British state could perish, but “the British Empire will inevitably perish, everything that it stood for will perish The British Empire. ” It was forgotten that when Churchill said: “We will fight on the beaches,” he meant that if Britain “were subjugated and exhausted from hunger, then our overseas Empire, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would continue the struggle.” And from the speech about the “finest hour,” a phrase dropped directly leading to these two magical words: “And if the British Empire and its territories last a thousand years, people will still say:” It was their finest hour. ”

References to the Empire in many of Churchill’s most famous speeches are a modest reminder of significant reality. Great Britain waged World War II, partially drawing on funds and people from the Empire, and the main purpose of the war, in addition to protecting its native islands, was the survival of the Empire.

Before the war, Churchill, at least privately, was ready to accept that the era of the empire was coming to an end. In 1937, he confessed to the Governor-General of India, Lord Linlithgow, that although he would have dreamed of “seeing the British Empire in all its might and magnificence stand for several more generations”, he understands that “only a miraculous effort of the British genius such a result could be achieved.”

Churchill’s fears that the Empire might not even exist “for several more generations” were perhaps obvious when in November 1942 he delivered a speech to the Mansion House, when the course of the war was already taking shape in favor of the Allies. In a statement quoted by most of his biographers, he noted: “I did not become the king’s first minister to lead the abolition of the British Empire.”

The following sentence is quoted much less frequently: “For this task, if it stood that way,” Churchill warned, “it would be worth looking for someone else.” When the time came to abolish the Empire, or at least to bring down the veil of 200-year-old British rule in India, Churchill watched it as a simple member of Parliament.

On the night of August 14, 1947, it was the turn of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, to utter his immortal phrase: “At the time when midnight strikes,” he said to the Constituent Assembly of India, “when the whole world is asleep, India will awaken to life and freedom.” This midnight hour struck seven years, one month and 27 days after Churchill spoke to Parliament and the British people with beautiful words about the Empire, which could last another thousand years.

When one hundred years after the end of World War I was celebrated, many historians noted that our idea of ​​this conflict was distorted by verses of military poets that overshadowed the stories of generals and politicians. In the case of World War II, perception is not distorted by poetry, but by our insatiable need to view war through the prism of national mythology.

The necessary myths that were created during the war by the Ministry of Information and the Press laid the primary structure, on the basis of which an entangled ball of distorted memories and politicized myth-making grew. These thickets now partially obscure the military and political history of the conflict.

In the foreground is the myth of Dunkirk, when a humiliating, costly defeat was transformed into a glorious, unlikely victory. This image of the “little ships” and the “Dunkirk spirit,” desperately needed to strengthen morale and later criticized by researchers, is still glorified – mostly blindly – today, seven decades later.

There is also the myth of the “London Blitz”, which claims that the stoicism shown by a significant part of the British public under aerial bombardment was an order of magnitude higher in moral terms than the courage of German, French or Japanese civilians in such circumstances. In addition to these myths, there is a long-established and unsightly habit of pushing into the background the war on the eastern front and the central role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of the Nazi armies.

To challenge these myths is to risk being accused of hatred of Britain, but historians have struggled with them for decades, proposing a critical approach to the analysis of this conflict, complicating these schematic representations, taking into account uncomfortable facts and often undesirable subtleties. More recently, military historians have embarked on a myth explaining why the imperial aspects of the war are so poorly preserved in memory.

At the heart of how they recall the war now is the idea that Britain “stood alone” between 1940 and 1941. The myth of state isolation is especially strong because it is one of the main pillars of a more comprehensive illusion of British exclusivity, a delusion that can continue to exist only through conscious historical amnesia.

In a cartoon by David Low, painted during the fall of France and published in the Evening Standard on June 18, 1940, the British Tommy (Tommy, or Tommy Atkins – a collective image of a British soldier – editorial note of InosMI ) stands on the shore. Stormy waves beat against the rocks, and Luftwaffe bombers rumble overhead. With a rifle in his hand, Tommy threatens his fist to an enemy plane. “Well, I’m alone,” the signature reads.

Someone might find it unusual to think that Britain was not alone in June 1940. In fact, for six years of the war, Britain was alone for hours: on the same day that Britain declared war, both Australia and New Zealand issued their own declarations. Three days later, South Africa entered the conflict, and another day later, Canada.

By 1945, not only the forces of the old “white” possessions, but also 2.25 million Indian soldiers (the largest volunteer army in the world) and a third of a million African troops joined Britain in its alleged seclusion. Almost 7 thousand people from the Caribbean joined the Royal Air Force, and thousands of sailors from all over the Empire served in the merchant fleet.

The empire sent not only people, but also money. Canada spent $ 1.6 billion massively supplying pilots and navigators to the Air Force, and residents of the remote Nigerian city of Kano on the southern outskirts of the African Sahel raised £ 10,290. This money was sent to the British Treasury to purchase a Spitfire fighter.

Just as Churchill may have become more popular in Britain in 2019 than it was in 1945, the Empire’s contribution was valued higher during the conflict. In 1943, the Daily Express newspaper lamented: “We often say that we stood alone in the battle for Britain. But we were never just small, completely lonely islands. Canadian troops were with us. Australian troops were with us. From all parts of the Empire, help came to us in the form of people and goods. ”

And another caricature, by Cyril Bird, also known as Landing Mine, published in July 1940 in Punch Magazine, depicts two British soldiers sitting on the beach. “So, our poor old Empire is left alone in the whole world,” says one. “Yeah, we were left alone – all five hundred million,” his comrade replies. What was then considered a strength and gave confidence was a forgotten detail. A detail that does not fit with the prevailing myth.

Britain entered the war in 1939 in the name of freedom and democracy, but deployed armies on the ground, in the ranks of which were dark-skinned and “brown” soldiers, who were considered second-class citizens, and who were often treated accordingly. To overcome these contradictions, the government tried to transform the British Empire into a partnership program rather than domination.

Nevertheless, the racial hierarchy around which the empire was organized was evident even in propaganda designed to denounce it. One wartime poster, designed to promote the idea of ​​imperial unity and partnership, depicted servicemen from different countries of the Empire marching together in uniform, a Union flag fluttering over their heads.

They stride as a whole, but the separation is striking. In the front row, a Briton, an Australian and a Canadian, followed by a South African and a New Zealander. In the corner is a soldier of the Indian army, and behind everyone in the upper left corner of the poster is an African. Two dark-skinned servicemen are literally driven out to the periphery.

To convince Asians and Africans that the victory of Britain was in their interests, a clear propaganda work was conducted to explain to them the true nature of Nazism and its racist theories. But in August 1941, the Nigerian newspaper touched on the essence of the dilemma, raising the following question: “What purpose are reminders that Hitler considers us half-monkeys if the Empire, for which we are prepared to suffer and die … suffers racial discrimination against us?”

My childhood passed in the UK of the 1980s, and my friends and I were obsessed with war and toy soldiers, with whom we constantly played. Among my plastic legions, the selected unit was the 29th unit of the Eighth British Army. I still remember the photo on the box of the Airfix simulation kit into which they were packaged.

Although I was told about the war at school, I watched films about the war that were endlessly played on TV, and I took books about the war in the library, nothing that I found out or read made me suspect that even for a moment one of the soldiers of the Eighth Army might not be a white British.

In fact, the Eighth Army, the forces sent to North Africa to protect the key supply route – the Suez Canal – from the Italians and the German African Corps, was actually one of the most diverse armies ever formed. By 1941, in the year of the siege of Tobruk, only a quarter of the Eighth British Army was British.

As historian Ashley Jackson noted, the rest came from India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Uganda, Tanganyika, Kenya, Nigeria, Bechuanaland, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Palestine, from the Gold Coast, Mauritius, Seychelles and Cyprus.

Why did the image on my box of Airfix soldiers not reflect the reality of the imperial army, where there were people of different races, different faiths who spoke different languages? Why were they all painted white, and what lessons about the war could I and my school friends learn if it were otherwise?

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