Some 70 years ago, Hitler's Wehrmacht was chalking up one victory after the next, but then Winston Churchill stood up to the dictator. Their duel decided World War II. The former British prime minister has been viewed as one of the shining lights of the 20th century ever since. Is the reputation justified?
Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill never met, and who knows how it might have changed the course of history in the 20th century if the Nazi had made a different decision in the spring of 1932.
He was already standing in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Continental in Max Joseph Strasse in Munich, unshaven, exhausted from his election campaign, wearing a shabby trench coat. In another room, Churchill was dining with his family and members of his entourage, waiting for Hitler.
The short, stout Briton, the scion of one of England's most important families, was already famous. He was a successful journalist and author of bestsellers, and before World War I he had already served as home secretary, president of the board of trade and first lord of the admiralty (head of the navy). During World War I, he was appointed minister of munitions, then secretary of state for war and secretary of state for air. After the war, he became secretary of state for the colonies and, finally, served as chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929. The British Isles had not seen someone with such an illustrious career in a long time.
Hitler Showed Little Interest
Of course, Churchill was a member of the opposition at the time. He had come to Munich to conduct research for a new book, and while he was there, he wanted to use the opportunity to meet the notorious Hitler, whose supporters were in the process of destroying the Weimar Republic. Churchill's son and Hitler's foreign press agent Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl arranged for the two men to meet over dinner at the Continental, although Hanfstaengl neglected to tell the Churchills that the Fuehrer had shown little interest and had left it open as to whether he would attend.
The evening progressed without Hitler. After the dessert, Hanfstaengl excused himself and hurried to the hotel telephone booth to call the Fuehrer and find out whether he still intended to show up. Suddenly he saw Hitler standing in the lobby. The Nazi had coincidentally met with a benefactor at the Continental.
Hanfstaengl took the Nazi party leader aside and told him that if Churchill saw him now, his failure to appear would be seen as an insult. And then he said: "Mr. Hitler, you should come. It's truly important." But the party leader remained obstinate, and said: "Hanfstaengl, you know perfectly well that I have a lot to do at the moment and that we plan to get an early start tomorrow. So -- good night."
Churchill put on a good face over the rejection. Later on, Hanfstaengl sat down at the piano in the hotel's music room, and they sang Scottish songs together. But even in his memoirs, Churchill writes with regret that Hitler "lost his only chance of meeting me."
If Hitler had met Churchill in Munich, would he have realized that he was facing a man who was every bit his match? A man who actually enjoyed the war? And who would eventually force Hitler to his knees?
A Man Who Loved Danger and Sought Out Adventure
Churchill had killed people in battle as a young man, but he was not particularly struck by the experience. "Nothing in history was ever settled except by wars," the bellicose Churchill believed. He loved danger and sought out adventure. Even when he was in his sixties, as prime minister, he would stand on the roof of a government building in London during German air raids to observe the murderous spectacle from above, while his cabinet ministers fled into the bomb shelters.
Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. It was a rivalry that pitted a member of the petit bourgeoisie against a son of the aristocracy, an ascetic against a hedonist, and ideologue against a pragmatist, a murderer against an adventurer, a racist revolutionary against an imperial political realist.
Eight years after Hitler's failure to turn up at that dinner in Munich, the duel between these two men was to shape the fate of the world.
Britain Defies the Dictator
It was the summer of 1940, and Hitler, who was the Chancellor of the German Reich by then, was closer to winning the war than he would ever be again. The German had overrun Poland, occupied Norway and defeated and humiliated France, a major power. It seemed only a matter of time before Hitler would dominate all of Europe. He was aligned with the Soviets and the Americans were still neutral and biding their time.
Ironically, it was Great Britain, the only country Hitler truly admired and respected, that defied the dictator. Churchill declared that he had only one goal: "Victory -- victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be."
Great Britain persevered for a good year, from France's capitulation until Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, despite German air raids on London and Coventry, despite German victories in Africa, the Balkans and Scandinavia, and despite the threat of national bankruptcy.
And Churchill deserved the credit for this perseverance.
The prime minister, with his trademark Cuban cigars, polka dot bow tie and conspicuous hats, became the world's most important symbolic figure of resistance against Nazi Germany. Whenever he appeared in public, the crowds would raise their hands and part their index and middle fingers to form the victory symbol, just as he had done.
Hitler berated his rival as a "lunatic," "paralytic" and "world arsonist." Churchill shot back, calling Hitler a "wicked man," the "monstrous product of former wrongs and shame" and said that "Europe will not yield itself to Hitler's gospel of hatred." It soon became clear that the loser in this duel would pay with his life.
The perseverance of the British was of great and probably decisive importance in shaping the course of World War II. How else could the United States have launched an invasion of the European continent if the British Isles hadn't been available to it as a giant aircraft carrier?
And what would have happened if Hitler could have shifted the divisions and bombers to the Eastern front that were tied up in the war against England? It wouldn't have taken Hitler much more to defeat Stalin.
Of course, the Red Army and, with significant casualties, American GIs achieved final victory, but the fact that Churchill had stood his ground in 1940 played an important role in their success.
Britain's 'Finest Hour'
It's been 70 years since Britain experienced its "finest hour," as Churchill called it, but the fascination remains unbroken. There are few wars that can be described without qualification as just wars, and as wars in which the right side prevailed.
Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of visitors stream through the award-winning Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London, in the basement of England's Treasury Department Building on St. James's Park, where the cabinet met during the war. They stroll through the Baroque rooms and gardens of Blenheim Palace, one of England's most magnificent palatial complexes, where Churchill was born in 1874. Or they enjoy the view from Churchill's estate, Chartwell, across the meadows of the region known as the Weald of Kent.
Churchill has long been one of the icons of the 20th century, admired by statesmen in all countries and political parties, from former German Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt to former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush even borrowed a bust of the prime minister from the British government art collection and placed it in the Oval Office, because he saw Churchill as a visionary with whom he hoped to be compared. The Briton, Bush said, "charged ahead ... wasn't afraid of opinion polls ... and the world is better for it."
A Mythical Component to Churchill's Achievements
But as with all great historic figures who embark on the path to immortality, there is also a mythical component to wartime prime minister's achievements, a component to which Churchill himself repeatedly contributed. During his lifetime, he found it amusing that the history books would judge him kindly -- because he intended to write them himself.
And that's what the author of various historical works did. His six-volume work "The Second World War" became a bestseller and was part of the reason he was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature. Readers loved his sparkling style and, of course, the many anecdotes that the sharp-tongued aristocrat told. One concerned his vicious war of words with Lady Nancy Astor, the first female member of parliament, who once hissed: "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your coffee." Churchill replied: "Nancy, If I were married to you I'd drink it."
Since then, of course, countless historians, journalists and political commentators have studied the battle plans of the day, analyzed decision-making sequences and evaluated secret documents. Surprising as it may be, some documents are still classified today, but the existing material is enough to allow us to form our own opinions about this duel, which brought together two men whose paths, until then, could not have been more different.
Both were moderate students and, like all young men, they believed that they were destined to be great men. Hitler hoped to be a successful artist while Churchill, more than 14 years his senior, did poorly in school and eventually embarked on a military career.
Trench Warfare Cooled Churchill's Romance for War
At the time, the British Empire was still what German historian Peter Alter calls an "enormous playground and source of adventure for young Britons," and Churchill, too, felt the pull of the battlefield. He was an excellent writer and sought out assignments as a combat reporter: in tropical Cuba, in the Indian jungles and the deserts of Sudan.
After being captured by rebel Boers in South Africa, he escaped from their prison camp and made his way through the desert to what is now Mozambique. His spectacular escape and trek turned him into a national hero, one who could delight an audience of millions with his articles, lectures and books.
Both men were outsiders. But there was a difference between being descended from a family named Schicklgruber in a poor, forested region in Lower Austria and being part of a family that resided in Blenheim Palace and counted the Duke of Marlborough, one of the most famous military leaders in British history, among its ancestors.
In 1898, while Hitler was still going to school, the 23-year-old Churchill went to the Conservative Party headquarters in London to explore whether "a constituency could be found for me."
It could, of course.
To understand the Churchill phenomenon, it is important to consider the historic impact of his origins. He was mainly interested in seeing his painting appear alongside those of his ancestors in the family gallery and, of course, in the British Empire, to which his ancestors had already felt committed. He said it best himself: "The British Empire is everything to me. What is good for the Empire is also good for me, and what is bad for the Empire is bad for me."
The restless, resourceful, eloquent politician would soon become a member of the government, and while Hitler, who had been expelled from school, lived a Bohemian life, Churchill was already conferring with world leaders. One was the German Kaiser, who invited the young deputy secretary of state for the colonies to attend fall maneuvers in Silesia as an observer in 1906.
'Germany Must Feel She Is Beaten'
Before World War I, Churchill was not among the agitators in London, but when the country began losing large numbers of soldiers in 1914, he became an unrelenting supporter of the war, insisting that "Germany must feel she is beaten."
Once again, Churchill and Hitler were at opposite ends of their respective chains of command. Hitler was never promoted past the rank of lance corporal, while Churchill, now First Lord of the Admiralty, commanded the world's largest war fleet.
The war did bring the two later rivals into close physical proximity with each other. Churchill assumed responsibility for the catastrophic failure of the British landing operation at the Dardanelles, where the Ottoman army prevailed, and resigned in 1915. To make amends, he signed up to serve at the front and, as a lieutenant colonel, was assigned to a section of Flanders where Hitler was serving in the German army. Only 13 kilometers (8 miles) separated the two men.
The carnage of trench warfare cooled Churchill's romantic enthusiasm for war. After a few months, he resigned and was soon appointed to another cabinet minister position. Hitler, on the other hand, had to fight to the end.
Hitler Admired Victorious British
It was an unusually turbulent time. Europe's great empires were breaking apart, and so was the world of Lance Corporal Hitler. The 29-year-old social Darwinist believed that he had found the purpose of human existence in the bone mills of Verdun ("Every generation should take part in a war at least once"). After the German defeat, he decided to "become a politician."
Hitler admired the victorious British and, as historian Hermann Graml wrote derisively, his early writings suggest that the Nazi would have preferred to become Fuehrer in the British Isles than in Germany. Hitler saw the Empire as a model for his racist empire, because he assumed that it was based on rigidity and a sense of racial superiority.
He soon dreamed of an "Aryan world order," in which the Germans would control Eurasia and the British, as their junior partner, would dominate the world's oceans. He envisioned death or slavery for a large share of mankind.
Churchill also proved to be susceptible to the prevailing sentiments of the day. As a monarchist, he was horror-stricken by the Russian Revolution, which he initially blamed on a Jewish-Bolshevik global conspiracy, and for a time he even sympathized with the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, who he called "a Roman genius." But Churchill abandoned positions as quickly as he adopted them. He was not interested in party agendas or ideological designs, and he once told his mother that he considered his quickness to pass judgment a "mental flaw." He changed parties twice, once from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back to the Conservatives.
In the early 1930s, his checkered career seemed to have come to an end. Churchill fell out with his own party because it wanted to grant more rights to the Indians, which Churchill, an imperialist, saw as a threat to the Empire.
The sullen Churchill retired to Chartwell, where gardeners, cooks and servants attended to the needs of a hedonist who suffered from depression, began drinking in the morning and lived well beyond his means. When he was a politician, he wrote history books to make money (they were a huge success), and now he returned to his writing.
To the public, the 56-year-old Churchill was outdated, a man of the 19th century who refused to accept change. In one respect, however, his predictions for the future were downright prophetic. When Hitler won almost 20 percent of the vote in the 1930 parliamentary election, Churchill told a Berlin diplomat that the Nazi Party leader "would seize the first available opportunity to resort to armed force."
It was a view he continued to hold.
Churchill Advocates a Massive Military Buildup
Hitler had hardly risen to power before Churchill began advocating a massive military buildup in Great Britain. At this point, he even believed that an alliance with the hated Soviet Union was the right thing for Britain.
He had read parts of Hitler's "Mein Kampf," and he despised the dictator's methods, but this wasn't his greatest concern. In 1937, in remarks directed at Hitler, he said: "We cannot say that we admire your treatment of the Jews or of the Protestants and Catholics of Germany But, after all, these matters, as long as they are confined inside Germany, are not our business."
Indeed, Churchill was motivated by the maxims of the traditional British balance-of-power approach, in which the major powers were to balance each other out on land, while "Rule, Britannia!" applied on the high seas.
In a letter to a friend, he wrote that the Britain had never yielded to the strongest power on the continent, not to Philipp II of Spain (in the 16th century), not to the French Sun King Louis XIV (in the 18th century), not to Napoleon (in the 19th century) and not to Kaiser Wilhelm II (in the 20th century). London had always aligned itself with the second-strongest power. The acceptance of German hegemony, Churchill wrote, "would be contrary to the whole of our history."
'Stop It! Stop It! Stop It Now!!!'
It was pure realpolitik, and it was the same logic that prompted Churchill to turn against Stalin once again after World War II.
Churchill can hardly be blamed for feeling committed to a special mission in the regard. It was his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, who, as commander-in-chief of the British army, had reined in the troops of the Sun King, and Churchill was writing the Duke's biography in the 1930s.
He now called upon his government to obstruct the Third Reich. "Stop it! Stop it! Stop it now!!!" he said, "Hitler constitutes the greatest danger for the British Empire!"
But his warnings went unheard. His fellow conservatives, supporters of then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, favored appeasement of the Germans, because they feared another world war and believed that the dictator could be kept happy.
The Duke of Marlborough's descendant was on his own.
The duel had not yet begun, and ironically, the chief Nazi sought to curry favor with Churchill, because he feared that the British politician could end up playing an important role. He invited the MP with the illustrious past to Germany twice, but Churchill turned down the invitations. Of course, Churchill received envoys from Berlin and met with Nazi Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, who sought to convince Churchill, who favored war, of the benefits of appeasement.
Ribbentrop, the host, and Churchill stood together in front of an enormous map in the German Embassy in London, while the Nazi explained that the Germans needed space for a greater Germany, or Lebensraum, in the Ukraine and Belarus. He assured Churchill that the Empire would be left untouched, but that the British would have to accept Germany's eastward expansion in return.
Churchill, however, felt that this division of territory was unacceptable, to which Ribbentrop brusquely replied: "In that case, war is inevitable."
The Duel Begins
The gauntlet had been thrown down, and the mood quickly shifted. A furious Hitler publicly berated Churchill as a "warmonger," while Churchill increasingly ignored diplomatic etiquette. By now he was sharply criticizing the persecution of the Jews, and in a newspaper commentary in the summer of 1939, he wrote that the Third Reich represented an unprecedented "cult of malignancy."
When World War II began a few weeks later, it was Hitler, ironically, who paved the way for Churchill's political comeback. The German invasion of Poland shed a new light on Churchill's earlier predictions. He had been right, after all, and the fact that the Nazis were now railing against him, calling him a "filthy liar" and a "bloated pig," only enhanced his popularity.
Yielding to public pressure, Chamberlain appointed him to his cabinet, and in the spring of 1940, Churchill finally succeeded him as prime minister.
On the evening of May 10, Churchill, now 65, was sitting in a limousine on his way to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI would ask him to form a new government. In his memoirs, Churchill writes: "I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." The duel could begin.
The Nazis behaved as if they welcomed this development. "Clear fronts! We love that," Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels noted in his diary. Of course, the diary also contained other entries that testified to his respect for the new British prime minister. Goebbels described Churchill as a "man with great gifts," "completely unpredictable" and "the soul of the English attack."
Curiously enough, the Friday Churchill took office was also a fateful day for Hitler.
'Utter Dejection Was Written on Every Face'
In the early morning hours, he traveled to Euskirchen near Cologne on an armored special train, the "Amerika." From there, several convoys took the dictator and his entourage to Rodert, a village near the town of Bad Münstereifel, which had been fortified with flak positions and road blocks. Hitler moved into a Spartan combat bunker on a hill named the Eselsberg (Donkey Mountain), where he expected his guests to sit on simple wicker chairs. The ascetic fanatic was determined not to go down in history as a man who had lived in the lap of luxury.
Little had happened on the western front since the beginning of the war. France and Great Britain were unwilling to chance an advance on Germany, and Hitler had also hesitated. But now it was time to move forward.
At 5:35 a.m., the muffled roar of artillery was heard in the distance for the first time. Hitler raised his hand, pointed to the west, and said: "Gentlemen, the offensive against the Western powers has just begun."
The Wehrmacht's Coup
On paper, the Wehrmacht was inferior to the combined armed forces of the French, British and Belgians. The Germans had fewer soldiers, fewer tanks and fewer artillery guns.
The Wehrmacht's coup was a success nonetheless. German troops invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, where they created the impression that they would then launch their main attack from these countries, as Germany had done in World War I. At the same time, German armored units pushed their way through the hills of the Ardennes, which the French had considered a buffer against attack, and then suddenly appeared in the rear of the front. After a few days, a substantial portion of the Allied divisions threatened to be surrounded.
Hitler was suspicious of the Wehrmacht's success and feared that he was marching into a trap. He sought to curb his officers and "ranted and raved that they were about to spoil the entire operation," as Franz Halder, the head of the Army General Staff, noted.
The German advance also took Churchill by surprise. He later admitted that he had underestimated the extent of the change that had taken place since the last war, as a result of the emergence of large numbers of fast-moving, heavy armored vehicles. "Neither in France nor in Britain had there been any effective comprehension of the consequences of the new fact that armored vehicles could be made capable of withstanding artillery fire, and could advance a hundred miles a day," Churchill wrote in his memoir.
He flew to France several times to encourage his French allies to hang on. He promised squadrons of aircraft (which he didn't send) and divisions (which he didn't have). But after his first visit to the Foreign Ministry in Paris on May 15, he already noted that "utter dejection was written on every face."
Then the prime minister looked out of the window. As he later wrote: "Outside in the garden of the Quai d'Orsay clouds of smoke arose from large bonfires, and I saw from the window venerable officials pushing wheelbarrows of archives onto them. Already therefore the evacuation of Paris was being prepared."
Hitler Briefly Becomes Churchill's Unwitting Ally
When the British expeditionary force and parts of the French army were forced to retreat in northern France, Churchill said, maliciously: "Of course, if one side fights and the other does not, the war is apt to become somewhat unequal." Nevertheless, he was determined to rescue the effort.
It was then that Hitler, ironically, became Churchill's unwitting ally.
By halting the German advance, the dictator enabled the British to stage the biggest evacuation in their military history at Dunkirk in northern France. Most military historians believe that if the evacuation had failed, London would probably have had to sue for peace.
Hitler would later claim that he had spared the British so as to solicit "the recognition of our dominance on the continent." Churchill, he added, had unfortunately "failed to appreciate" his "generosity and chivalry."
Chivalry is not a trait for which Hitler is commonly known, and in fact there is every indication that the decision to halt the German advance was a miscalculation on the part of his military leaders, a decision with which the dictator had concurred. He corrected the course two days later, but by then it was too late to stop the British evacuation.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were waiting on the beaches in late May, protected by the piers and breakwaters of Dunkirk. Nevertheless, German artillery shells and the bombs dropped by the German dive bombers known as Stukas made their wait a living hell. When the boats finally arrived, the soldiers wading through the shallow waters had step over and push aside the cold bodies of their dead comrades.
The Royal Navy used its own ships, but it also commandeered cutters, sailing dinghies, yachts and motorboats. In the ensuing evacuation, about 1,000 ships crisscrossed the English Channel to bring the boys home.
The British were in luck, because low clouds made for poor visibility for Germany's Luftwaffe. The Royal Air Force also stood up to the Luftwaffe for a few days, enough time for the evacuation to succeed. By the time the Wehrmacht captured Dunkirk on June 4, most of the Allied soldiers had escaped.
The British were ecstatic over the rescue effort, but it had, in fact, masked a disaster elsewhere. The British and the French had stood their ground against the Germans for four years in World War I, but now, after only a few weeks, the Nazis were at the gates of Paris.
Had the duel between Hitler and Churchill already been decided?
Churchill's Strongest Weapon Was the Word
While the evacuation was underway, Mussolini offered to a broker a peace with Berlin. We will probably never know what was then discussed in London, where it was noted in the minutes of the cabinet that the minutes were to be temporarily suspended.
The appeasers, allies of former Prime Minister Chamberlain, were still in the cabinet, and for reasons of domestic policy, Churchill needed their support. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, an English Catholic with a passion for hunting (hence his nickname, "Holy Fox"), headed the peace faction. Although he was adamantly opposed to peace at all costs, he was interested in exploring London's options.
Churchill, too, seemed to vacillate, or was it only a tactical maneuver? According to the minutes of the cabinet, he said that the government could consider making peace with Hitler, provided the German leader would settle for the return of former German colonies and would agree to limit German dominance to Central Europe.
Churchill knew that Hitler would never agree to such conditions.
Hitler Would Turn England into 'Slave State'
On the afternoon of May 29, the time had come to reach a decision. The prime minister assembled the expanded cabinet and explained that whether the British sued for peace or "fought it out," it would make no difference in the end, because Hitler would only seek to turn Great Britain into "a slave state." For that reason, he argued, the British should continue the fight.
According to the Churchill, his remarks were received with great enthusiasm. Some members of the cabinet jumped up from the table, ran to his chair, shouted and slapped him on the back. Another source describes the reaction in somewhat more muted terms, as a murmur of consent from the entire table.
Either way, the situation was clear: The war would continue.
Churchill, for his part, savored the drama of the day. He would fly more than 180,000 kilometers (about 112,000 miles) by 1945. He would inspect the troops at the fronts, and when he did, he would venture so dangerously close to the enemy lines that his commanders feared for his life.
The war was entirely to the taste of the prime minister, a man about whom the writer H.G. Wells wrote, after World War I: "He believes quite naively that he belongs to a peculiarly gifted and privileged class of beings to whom the lives and affairs of common men are given over, the raw material of brilliant careers Before all things he desires a dramatic world with villains -- and one hero."
Churchill's strongest weapon was the word. The equally eloquent John F. Kennedy, son of the then US ambassador in London and later president of the United States, once said that Churchill had sent the English language to war. He gave magnificent speeches, and even the Nazis were impressed by his eloquence. "In his crudeness, he does command a certain amount of respect," Goebbels wrote.
Churchill's rhetorical performances were only slightly diminished by the fact that some of his wording was not entirely new.
On June 4, he uttered the following famous words in the House of Commons: "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."
A similar passage appears in Rudyard Kipling's collection of stories, "The Jungle Book."
'We Will Make Germany a Desert'
To this day, scholars disagree over whether the prime minister was trying to turn around a defeatist mood with his passionate words, or whether he was merely echoing the sentiments of an already determined populace. Churchill addressed the people directly only a few times, but when he did, up to two-thirds of Britons sat in front of their radios, hanging on his every word.
The prime minister would later seek to downplay the impact his words may have had, saying that "there was no need to rouse their spirit," and that "nothing moves an Englishman so much as the threat of an invasion."
Churchill emphasized a total commitment to the war. While the Third Reich exploited forced laborers and ransacked the countries it occupied, the Britons were expected to contribute directly to the war effort. Sebastian Haffner, a German immigrant, reported that at Easter in 1940, uniformed doormen were still standing in front of the luxury hotels, while a million unemployed were looking for work. Only a few months later, the people had disappeared from the streets and the War Office had requisitioned the hotels.
Meanwhile, Churchill was dreaming of air attacks on the German Reich. "We will make Germany a desert, yes, a desert," he announced over lunch.
He was probably the most powerful British prime minister in history. And the Empire has probably never been governed in such a bizarre way, by a prime minister who conducted a significant portion of government affairs from a horizontal position. Dressed in his red dressing gown, he would lie on his four-poster bed, chewing a cigar and sipping ice-cold soda water, and dictate memos to his secretary, memos that were often titled "Action This Day."
According to the Churchill saga, the British Isles were practically defenseless against Hitler in the summer of 1940. Churchill, too, was infected by the so-called invasion fever that was taking hold all around him. Speaking to a friend, he grimly predicted: "You and I will be dead in three months' time."
'When Will that Creature Churchill Finally Capitulate?'
He had barricades made of sandbags erected in front of key government buildings to provide cover for soldiers, to fend off a potential attack by German paratroopers. For a time, street signs were removed in the government district to prevent attackers from getting their bearings. Churchill was also determined to join the fight himself, if necessary, practicing with his Mannlicher pistol on the firing range at Chequers, the prime minister's country house.
Today we know that there was no threat of a German invasion, at least not in the summer of 1940. Hitler and his senior military leaders were in agreement that the British Navy was far too powerful.
They considered a landing operation to be a remote option that was only to be considered if the British Air Force could be put out of commission first. An invasion across the Channel was hardly a possibility before the end of September. The Germans felt that they stood a better chance of succeeding in May 1941, but even then they were not enthusiastic about the idea.
According to a report by an adjutant, Hitler was "more indecisive than ever before, and doesn't know what he wants to do and how he wants to do it."
The dictator had expected that after his victory in France, the appeasers would prevail in London.
Instead, he found himself with allies he either despised (Italy) or wanted to destroy (the Soviet Union). At the same time, he was waging war against the country he would have preferred to have as his junior partner. "They want to extend the hand of the Germans to England," a high-ranking Nazi complained in Berlin.
An Attempt to Bomb the British to the Negotiating Table
In the end, Hitler reluctantly decided to bomb the British to the negotiating table. He likened himself to Martin Luther, who had been against opposing Rome but felt that he was left with no other choice.
At first, Hitler focused his attacks on ports, airports and armament factories. Day after day, German fighter planes and bombers appeared in the skies over southeastern England, forcing Churchill to stay away from his beloved Chartwell, which was in the Germans' flight path.
On the ground, many Englishmen anxiously looked on as the German Messerschmitts dueled with the British Spitfires and Hurricanes. The fast fighter planes created vapor trails that formed giant circular patterns in the sky, as metal parts and cartridges rained down on the gardens of Kent and Sussex.
The Royal Air Force was technically superior to the Germans. Its radar, guidance and warning systems were among the most advanced in the world. In addition, British aircraft factories were producing more planes than their German counterparts.
Most of all, Britain benefited from its island position. When British pilots were shot down, they could save themselves by parachuting into their own territory, possibly even flying new missions on the same day, while German pilots either drowned in the sea or -- if they were lucky enough to land on solid ground -- ended up in prisoner-of-war camps.
Although things were looking good for the Luftwaffe at first, Hitler would not win the so-called Battle of Britain.
On Aug. 24, 1940, the Germans bombed residential neighborhoods in London for the first time, probably by mistake. After that, Churchill gave the order to attack Berlin. Although he did not expect bombing the German capital to yield significant military benefits, it was "good for the morale of all of us."
Although Berlin suffered little damage, the attacks prompted Hitler to vow: "If they declare that they will attack our cities on a large scale, we will eradicate their cities."
Any sympathy Hitler might have had for the British had disappeared. The "Blitz," the British rendering of the German term "Blitzkrieg," had begun. London's air ride sirens howled night after night, and by the end of December 1940, about 14,000 people had died in the British capital -- burned, suffocated or crushed by wreckage.
Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons were also damaged, and Churchill's war cabinet moved to the cellar vaults beneath the Treasury on St. James's Park, which are accessible to visitors today.
The map room, with its large wall maps of the world and its candy-colored telephones, the kitchen with its cast-iron tableware -- everything still looks the same. Only the rats have disappeared and, of course, the unsavory odor of cigar smoke mixed with the stench of fecal matter coming from the chemical toilets.
Churchill and his cabinet ministers were not especially well protected in the facility, which was only adequately fortified later on. A direct hit would have put an end to the duel between Hitler and Churchill.
The Nazis regaled themselves with the destruction of London, but they were also puzzled. "When will that creature Churchill finally capitulate?" Goebbels asked himself. "England cannot hold out forever!"
But indeed, it could.
Churchill made a point of demonstratively trudging through the destroyed areas of London, Coventry and Birmingham. Photos depict him bent forward slightly at the shoulders, giving him an air of determination. Cartoonists drew him as a bulldog.
Get back at them, the people called out, and he did. The first major attack on a German city struck Mannheim in December 1940.
'I Shall Drag the United States In'
At the end of 1940, Hitler openly conceded that he could not force his rival to capitulate with his bombing campaign. He had already abandoned his half-hearted plans to invade Britain months earlier.
The two men were at a stalemate. Churchill was also unable to bring down his rival, because the British Army alone was incapable of defeating the Wehrmacht.
Churchill did have a plausible plan, and if we are to believe his son Randolph's account, he began putting his plan into action on May 18, 1940. On that morning, Randolph was waiting outside the bathroom door for his father, who was shaving. Suddenly Churchill stopped shaving and said, through the open door: "I think I see my way through." "Do you mean that we can avoid defeat?" Randolph asked. "Of course I mean we can beat them," Churchill replied, "I shall drag the United States in."
It was an obvious proposition for Churchill, whose mother was American and who was both fond of and familiar with the new superpower. But the US public wanted no part of the Europeans' fight. American arms shipments were modest, and although Churchill was eloquent in his warnings and appeals to Washington, even historians with a favorable view of Churchill believe that the situation would not have changed much if Hitler's ally, Japan, hadn't bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, thereby drawing the United States into the war.
Churchill danced for joy when he heard the news. "This certainly simplifies things," he told US President Franklin Roosevelt, "God be with you."
Hitler, too, was looking for new options and was puzzled that the British were holding their ground. Finally, he developed the original theory that the reason Churchill was refusing to yield was that he was secretly counting on the Soviet Union, which was still aligned with Hitler. Armed with this nonsensical notion, Hitler seriously resolved to attack Stalin, which had been his intention all along. "Once Russia is annihilated, England's last hope will be gone."
Hitler Invades Soviet Union
In May 1941, there was a significant decline in the German air raids on Great Britain, because the bombers were needed in the East. The Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union six weeks later.
What a compliment! Hitler believed that it was easier to conquer Moscow instead of London. Shortly before his demise in 1945, Hitler complained that Churchill was the "real father of this war."
With the attack on the Soviet Union, the British political system had been saved once and for all.
There was nothing more that Churchill could achieve.
He paid a high price for this success, because the war accelerated the decline of the overstretched Empire. It is an irony of history that it was Churchill, the imperialist, who was forced to expedite this decline. But as a political realist he had only one choice: a junior partnership with either democratic America or Nazi Germany. It wasn't difficult to recognize which of the two arrangements was more likely to further British interests.
Now that the Soviet Union and the United States had entered the war, it was time for Churchill to give up his position as Hitler's main rival, because the other Allies would bear the main burden of the war from then on. Although Churchill magnanimously promised his new ally Stalin all the assistance "that time, geography, and our growing resources allow," the British shipments were marginal. In fact, Churchill had been thwarting an invasion of the continent, the "Second Front," by the Western powers for some time, because he feared it would turn into a disaster.
"You British are afraid of fighting," Stalin said derisively. "You should not think that the Germans are supermen."
Civilians Were Primary Victims of British Bombings
Hoping to make a significant contribution to victory over the Nazis, the British began systematically bombing German cities in the spring of 1942. Despite his occasional doubts, Churchill was relentless. After viewing film of devastated German cities, he asked: "Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?"
Churchill even toyed with the idea of dropping poison gas on German cities, but his generals objected.
While the RAF attacks on armament factories and rail lines did shorten the war by several months, civilians were primarily the victims of its bombings of residential areas.
About 600,000 Germans died in the bombings, most of them women, old men and children. A number of cities were all but destroyed.
When Dresden was destroyed near the end of the war, in February 1945, even Churchill admitted that the bombings were "mere acts of terror and wanton destruction."
By then, the duel had been decided long ago, and the only decision remaining for the Allies was to determine what to do with Hitler and the Germans once they were defeated.
As he had done so many times before, Churchill vacillated between extremes, between a Carthaginian peace and chivalrous generosity. In the end, Stalin's and Roosevelt's ideas prevailed.
Churchill's Role in the Explusion of Germans from Easter Europe
Churchill did, however, contribute to the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe, as historian Detlef Brandes has shown. He did so by supporting (and thus legitimizing) the demands of the Polish and Czechoslovak exile governments in London. According to the Churchill, the Germans were to "be given a brief amount of time to gather the bare necessities and leave."
At first, he was referring to East Prussia and the Sudetenland, but he eventually included Pomerania and parts of Silesia in his plans.
It was one of Churchill's darkest hours when, at the Summit of the Big Three in Tehran in 1943, he picked up three matchsticks, which were meant to represent Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. He had already agreed to Stalin's demand that part of Poland was to go to the Soviet Union. Now he placed the matches together to illustrate the consequences: By pushing the Soviet match toward the West, he was also shifting the positions of the other two matches. Stalin found this depiction of Poland's westward shift amusing.
Of course, the Germans would have to vacate the territory that fell to Poland. As a result, several million people were ultimately rounded up, robbed and expelled, and tens of thousands died during the forced marches.
'A Tragedy on a Prodigious Scale'
Churchill later criticized the brutal behavior of the Poles and Soviets, calling it "a tragedy on a prodigious scale" -- as if ethnic cleansings had ever been anything but tragic.
And what was to happen to Hitler, who was ultimately responsible for the entire calamity by starting the war in the first place?
Before the Holocaust, Churchill toyed with the idea of banishing Hitler and other top Nazis to an isolated island, just as Napoleon had once been banished to Elba. Or perhaps he was simply tipsy when he voiced this idea.
But when the Holocaust began, such bizarre ideas were quickly taken off the table. Churchill learned of the Nazis' crimes after the British cracked the code the Germans had used to encrypt SS and police reports on the massacres of Jews in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.
In 1942, the prime minister told the cabinet that he would have Hitler put to death if he were captured -- without a trial and in the electric chair, like a "gangster."
For Churchill, Hitler was the "mainspring of evil."
As we know, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker a few days before Germany capitulated in 1945. As Churchill writes in his memoirs, it was a more preferable end for the Nazi dictator, after all.
He had finally prevailed, and the duel had ended.
In July 1945, when the victorious Churchill toured the ruins of Berlin, he asked to be taken to the bunker where Hitler ended his life. He was also shown the spot in the courtyard of the Reich Chancellery where the dictator's body was incinerated.
Of course, Churchill's visit was not announced ahead of time. Nevertheless, a large number of people gathered in front of the Chancellery, and when Churchill walked through the crowd, he was astonished to hear the Germans celebrate him as a hero. Only one old man shook his head disapprovingly.
And that was how it was with Churchill.
There are those who dislike him because he was an imperialist, because a single human life meant little to him, and because he lost his sense of perspective during the bombing war and endorsed ethnic cleansing.
In the end, however, we can only be pleased that he won the duel.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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