Peace, Spurned

Column by Jim Davies.

Exclusive to STR

In October 1944, Christian Günther, the Swedish Foreign Minister, relaxed with a group of journalists and casually mentioned a telegram sent to him on June 17th, 1940 by Björn Prytz, then his envoy in London.

When the news of his remarks reached London, it threw the then Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, into a tizzy: “It is most undesirable that this misrepresentation of British policy in 1940 should gain credence among the Swedish intelligentsia . . . .”

Accordingly, eager to show its even-handed neutrality, the Swedish government placed the Prytz telegram back under wraps, where it stayed hidden from history for 21 years, after which Prytz himself mentioned it in a broadcast. [1] I was unaware of it until last month.

What so embarrassed the Brits was the content of the telegram, and the light it sheds on the cataclysm of WWII. On the day he sent it, Prytz had met with R.A. Butler, under-secretary in the Foreign Office, in an office next to that of his boss, Lord Halifax, with whom Butler had conferred during the discussions. Prytz was assured that:

“No opportunity for reaching a compromise peace [with Germany] would be neglected if the possibility were offered on reasonable conditions, and no 'diehards' would be allowed to stand in the way.”


This was dynamite. The “diehard” certainly referred to Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for just five weeks, and the assurance certainly came from Halifax, who had been his rival for that appointment, and it was given to Prytz just a few hours after the French government had capitulated to the German one. It was, in essence, a statement that the British Foreign Office was interested in a deal with Germany and that if an offer were made, Halifax would make sure Churchill didn't get in the way – and that Halifax expected to replace him.

So the awesome question, affecting the fate of scores of millions of human lives, is: Were any “reasonable” terms placed on the table, shortly after June 17th, 1940?

They were.

That day was Hitler's high point. In a few weeks, his armies had vanquished France, long-time adversary of his country. He was master of Europe . . . except for that island to the North. His plans for expansion of the Third Reich did not (at that stage, at least) include a costly war against Britain but a cheap one against the USSR. So he made a rather generous offer to Churchill: leave me alone in Europe, and I'll leave you alone to your worldwide Empire.

Hitler's address to his Reichstag on July 19th, 1940 included several very plain hints that an agreement with England was desirable, for example, “I . . . appeal once more to reason and common sense in Great Britain . . . . I can see no reason why this war need go on . . . .” According to Pat Buchanan's book (reviewed here), Alan Clark, an aide to Margaret Thatcher, said “Hitler actually offered peace in July 1940 before the Battle of Britain started.” Buchanan writes that “The speech was followed by diplomatic approaches to [Britain] through Sweden, the United States and the Vatican” and the clearest of these seems to be the one made to the UK Ambassador in Stockholm, Victor Mallet, via Hitler's legal advisor Ludwig Weissauer and the Swedish high-court judge Ekeberg. Its terms were:

1. The British Empire retains all its Colonies and delegations
2. Germany's continental supremacy won't be questioned
3. All questions concerning the Mediterranean and its French, Belgian and Dutch colonies are open to discussion
4. Poland. A Polish state must exist
5. Czechoslovakia must belong to Germany

In other words, Britain was to leave Hitler to run continental Europe, but would be left free to run its empire. In the new circumstances of June 17th, with Britain's only ally just defeated, its armaments abandoned in Flanders and its air force outnumbered three to one, it's hard to see these as other than very “reasonable.”

According to historian Paul Johnson's Modern Times (p. 368), Chamberlain had noted in his diary on May 26th, 1940 that Churchill had told his War Cabinet that “If we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies, he would jump at it”, but this is so out of character for Churchill that I wonder whether Chamberlain or Johnson or both had their wires crossed; for by June 17th, Churchill was, as Prytz reported, the “diehard” opponent of any compromise. Yet that outline is almost exactly what Hitler did offer. It is an enormous tragedy of modern history that the two sides, evidently so close, did not get together.

Whether or not Churchill did briefly flirt with the idea of making peace, by June 17th he was clearly opposed to it, with Halifax in disagreement; and by July 22nd, he had outmaneuvered Halifax, who was instructed that day formally to reject the German offer. Churchill used his political and remarkable oratorical skills to do so. On June 4th, right after Dunkirk, he had told the House of Commons that Britain would fight on “if necessary for years, if necessary alone” in one of his best known perorations, “We shall fight on the beaches.”

On June 18th – the day after Prytz sent his telegram – Churchill spoke again, delivering his “This was their finest hour” speech; “if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.” Another signal to his friend FDR to hurry to his aid – but by giving it, he showed that he knew quite well that Britain could not defeat Germany alone, and therefore that the scope of the war would greatly increase. Perhaps he did not guess by how much – but as a lifelong student of wars, he knew very well that, once started, they are awfully hard to limit and end.

The House, and the nation, were duly inspired. The cost of his stirring patriotic appeal was appalling; 450,000 of his countrymen were killed, its economy was ruined, its empire fit only to be dismembered and, after the anticipated US intervention, a worldwide, massive total of 50 to 80 million lives were lost. One of the great ironies is that by obtaining US “help,” the UK did lose its empire – surrendering the role of “world leadership” to America, just as I believe FDR always intended; had the two squabblers of 1940 made peace, it would have been retained. That presumes, admittedly, that Hitler could be trusted (very doubtful) or at least that he would be unable to challenge the UK while holding down conquered peoples to his East (rather likely). In the meantime, Britain would have built up adequate defenses.

Churchill said (in November 1942) “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”--but in fact, that's just what he did. You start – or culpably continue – a war, you cannot know how it will end up.

Had the Chamberlain/Halifax view prevailed instead in June 1940, most of that devastating loss would have been avoided. Hitler would very likely have conquered the USSR, and placed Russians under Fascism instead of Communism; one can debate which evil is the greater, but the Ukrainians thought the former was the lesser. There would have been no European war for FDR to join, so he would not have bothered to start a Pacific one. Jews would most likely have continued to be expelled from the Reich, but might well have avoided most of the Holocaust, whose scale was greatly increased only after America entered the war.

So, would the “whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for . . . [have sunk] into the abyss of a new dark age”? I don't think so. Fascism is repulsive, and its extension in 1940-41 to countries with milder governments would have been a regression for sure, but – except for the Nazi obsession with Jews – we already have a fascist regime here in 2014 America, in some ways worse than 1940 Germany's. It is not irreversible, and nor would Hitler's have been irreversible. Socialism in all its forms destroys wealth as well as freedoms, and as the German Empire decayed economically, there would have arisen a resistance, a movement to abolish government--just as there is here, now.

Such is the high cost of silver political tongues. Such is the wickedness of patriotism. Such is the folly of entrusting power to a man who wrote, in 1916, “I love this [First World] war. I know it's smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment--and yet--I can't help it--I enjoy every second of it.” Such is the risk of allowing governments, with their inherent power to wage wars, to exist.

1: Source: Sweden, the Swastika and Stalin, John Gilmour, pages 50 and 271.



Your rating: None Average: 10 (1 vote)
Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


Alex R. Knight III's picture

Well written, Jim.  Was unaware of the unaccepted dubious olive branch.  As an adjunct, have on the way a 1941-42 1,000 + page volume by Hitler, Mein Neu Ordnung (My New Order).  Should be interesting.  I also have on deck Soldiers of Misfortune.  Please type that into the search engine and find an excellent series of articles by Jacob Hornberger on that book.  For some reason, I can't provide hyperlinks to STR while using this browser (IE 11).

Thunderbolt's picture

The wickedness --and effectiveness--of public school indoctrination and centralized power radiate in your article. "Such is the high cost of silver political tongues. Such is the wickedness of patriotism." Your grasp of history is amazing. It is striking that I cannot recall having learned that Hitler presented a reasoned alternative to this bloodbath, except from you. In essence, perhaps Germany defeated Britain and the U.S., but it took about 70 years to become apparent.

Jim Davies's picture

Thank you, T-bolt. This was only one of several German offers to end the war. Perhaps it was the most explicit - I've not delved in to the others. Hess' 1941 flight was designed to be interpretable either way; if he succeeded it would be a triumph for the Führer; if it failed (as it did) Hess was to be scorned as a lunatic acting on his own. Don't let's imagine Hitler was a pacifist, of course; he never wanted a 1939 war in the West and wished to end it ASAP, but only so he could focus force on Russia.
The currents of British opinion in this period are interesting. Broadly, the working class hated Fascism out of some sympathy for Communism, the Nazis' stated prime enemy. The aristocracy (not having read von Mises) was terrified of Communism and so saw Fascism as a useful bulwark against it; that was the origin of the Chamberlain - Halifax camp. The middle class wished to avoid war and was generally conservative and patriotic. But in mid-1939 there was a huge swing of opinion against the man who had broken the word he gave at Munich; and from then on, Chamberlain was a prisoner of the voter, and of his own folly in bending to FDR's will in March by "guaranteeing the integrity of Poland."
Had an armistice been agreed in mid-1940, I think the UK public would have swallowed the pill. Horrid memories of 1914-18 were still fresh.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Thanks Jim, for bringing this to our attention. This is a great instructive story about the lunacy of Churchill.

Jim Davies's picture

War-crazy, indeed. Yet he did, for sure, have a way with words. Here's one:
Lady Astor: Mr Churchill, you are drunk!
Churchill: Lady Astor, you are right. However, you are ugly. And tomorrow morning, I shall be sober.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Yes, I also remember that he once wrote something like the biggest problem with the world was that there weren't enough wars. Do you think he had syphilis of the brain? His father had it bad for a long time, and I have to wonder if it was transmitted to Winston. Even the canonical Manchester bio has that information.

Jim Davies's picture

The syphilis theory is possible, Lawrence, but I doubt it and hope it's wrong.
His father Randolph may have had and transmitted the disease, but even that is doubtful - a brain tumor is also likely. In Winston's case, if he had a malady he could not help, it makes him less than responsible for the evil be caused; he'd deserve sympathy more than blame.
In any case, Winston's mental powers were stong enough for him to manage the political game until age 80, when some strokes took him out of it. He lived until age 90, despite a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking. He was almost fearless; his love of warfare was genuine; he fought in South Africa and, after being eased out of government in 1915, volunteered for the front in France.
"Evil" is a mysterious thing. As reasoned here, I reckon it's not so much that people are evil, rather that it's what almost anyone may do when handed power over other people.