WAR-A UNITED PEOPLE
September 11, 1939
Freedom and Order, Selected Speeches 1939-1946 , pp. 40-45.
Aweek has passed since this country found itself at war with Nazi rule in Germany, and to-day we are a united people more closely knit one to another in our common resolve than at any time in our history. More united, if that were possible, and certainly no less determined than when, some twenty-five years ago, we pledged ourselves to fight in a good cause. For such a cause we are fighting with one heart and mind to-day.
How has this come about? What is it that has levelled the internal barriers—the party and political barriers—and brought our people to be of one mind?
First, we have a good conscience. The White Paper which the Government recently made public and which disclosed the story of the ten days that preceded the outbreak of war has made it clear beyond a doubt that the Government not only strove to keep the peace, but took great risks for peace.
And yet there was this difference between the days which preceded the outbreak of war in1914 and the period through which we have just passed. It has sometimes been said that if before the last great war we had made our position more plain and clear, peace would have been saved. I am not concerned this evening to argue whether that was a right or a wrong view. To-day one fact stands out and it is this, that before war broke out we did all that
words could do to make our attitude unequivocably clear to Germany's rulers so that—and here I use the Prime Minister's own words—there should be no "tragic ambiguity". Neither this German Government nor any German Government in the future will ever have justification for saying that there was doubt as to the action which we must take. Our position was put before the world for all to see long before the German Government decided to submit its fate to the dread arbitrament of war.
You may remember the famous story of the Roman Envoys who went to Carthage before the first Punic War. Confronted by the Carthaginian Senate their spokesman said: "I have here two gifts, peace and war, take which you choose."
No such grim alternative was given to Herr Hitler. Every inducement was offered him to enter the way of peaceful negotiation. The Polish Government had accepted this principle of negotiation. Herr Hitler deliberately and with set purpose made negotiation impossible. Instead he chose to embark upon a war of naked aggression, and this country and France have in consequence fulfilled their undertaking to Poland, an undertaking with which you are all familiar, an undertaking into which we had entered with full publicity before the world as long ago as last April.
The German Chancellor carried cynical dissimulation so far as finally to invade Poland because Poland had failed to accept peace proposals which she had never even received from the German Government. There has never been a more flagrant mockery of international good faith.
We have always desired to live and let live. We considered that there was no dispute that could not be resolved by peaceful means if once the threat of force were removed, and other nations have shared our point of view. Poland was always ready to negotiate, as Czechoslovakia was ready to negotiate a year ago. Herr Hitler has preferred force. He has made the choice; he must suffer the decision. For us now there will be no turning back. We have no quarrel with the German people, but there can be no lasting peace until Nazism and all it stands for, in oppression, cruelty and broken faith, is banished from the earth. This is an issue that admits of no compromise.
First, then, our conscience is clear.
But secondly, our memory is long. Herr Hitler has claimed that his sole aim was to remedy the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles, which he contended was the root of all evil. This it was, we are told, which had forced him to build his colossal armaments, to
march his legions into Austria, to imprison its Chancellor, to absorb Austria into the German Reich. This it was that compelled him to break faith with the British and French Governments, and despite his pledge, so recently and so solemnly reaffirmed, to invade and subdue Czechoslovakia and to attempt to reduce her people to the status of hewers of wood and drawers of water. This it was that left Herr Hitler—we are assured—with no alternative but to turn against Poland with whom some five years ago he had solemnly signed a pact which was to run for ten years. And a pact, you will recall, which laid down that the status of Danzig and the Polish Corridor would, by consent of both Poland and Germany, remain unchanged until 1944.
Faced with such a catalogue of broken vows and discarded pledges, how is it possible to escape the conclusion that the Treaty of Versailles was not a grievance to redress, but a pretext for the use of force?
Five times in the last eighty years the rulers of Germany have embarked with only the slightest pretext upon a war of aggression. Against peaceful Denmark in 1864, against Austria in 1866, against France in 1870, against the whole world in 1914 to 1918, and now against France, Poland and Great Britain in 1939.
With such a record her present rulers, had they been honest and sincere, might well have thought that they should accept to negotiate with nations who wanted nothing more than to live at peace with Germany, and who, as the documents which have been published show, excluded no subjects from peaceful discussion.
Herr Hitler and his Nazi associates would have none of it. Flouting all the lessons of history, ignoring or deriding even their own country's experience of British character, they preferred yet once more the path of lawlessness, the path of misery and of bloodshed, the path of anarchy and want. Let the Nazi leaders ask themselves now to what destiny they are leading the German people.
Our conscience then is clear. Our memory is long, and thirdly, our determination is unshaken.
This war has broken out in circumstances which have no parallel. Herr Hitler is invading Poland with the help of overwhelming numbers and the merciless use of the air arm, while he acts on the defensive in the west. These methods are leading to strange illusions among the Nazi leaders which had best be dispelled at once. Let there be no mistake about this. Our determination to see this war through to the end is unshaken. We must make it clear to the Nazi leaders and if we can to the German people that this country —as the Prime Minister said—has not gone to war about the fate of a far-away city in a foreign land. We have decided to fight to show that aggression does not pay, and the German people must realize that this country means to go on fighting until that goal is reached. It is already evident that the Nazi Government seeks to delude its people into thinking that a quick victory won in Poland will be followed by the indifference or the capitulation of the western democracies. That is not the truth. The people of this country are ready to fight a very long war to the bitter end if that must be to rid the world of Hitlerism and all that Hitlerism implies.
In the meanwhile, let the Nazi leaders take heed and let us all take encouragement from what has been happening in the British Commonwealth of Nations during the last few days.
One by one the free peoples of that great association have been accepting the risks and responsibilities which the United Kingdom has taken upon itself. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, each in turn has given the answer to the challenge, each in turn has made the cause its own.
And not only these great Dominions, but India also. The Colonies, too, have offered their aid. From all quarters of the globe have come messages of loyalty to the Sovereign and offers of help. Once more, Britain stands armed and resolved with her sister nations at her side.
For some of us the challenge has come a second time in our generation. There must be no second mistake. Out of the welter of suffering to be endured we must fashion a new world that is something better than a stale reflection of the old, bled white.
It had been better could we have set ourselves to the task in a world of peace. Herr Hitler has decided otherwise. Nazism, however, is but a passing phase. Like all systems built upon force it cannot endure—in the long roll of history it will count but as a spasm of acute pain. The suffering will be bitter, the devastation wide. But what really matters is what follows after. Can we do better this time? Can we finally rid Europe of barriers of casts and creed and prejudice? Can frontiers and faiths, language and commerce serve to unite nations and not divide them? Can we create a true unity in Europe? Can we set before it a common aim of service, can we inspire it with common ideals of freedom, toleration and mercy? This is what must be. While the Nazi system exists it cannot be, and so the Nazi system and all that it implies must be swept away.
By Herr Hitler's own decision our new civilization must bebuilt through a world at war. We would have wished itotherwise. But our new civilizationwill be built just the same, forsome forces are bigger thanmen, andin that new civilization will be found libertyand opportunity and hope for all.