Tories Made a Europe Fit for Fascists
By Gwydion M. Williams
Many have asked whether Britain actually lost both World Wars?
It is certainly true that new allies were needed in order to emerge as technically a victor?
Few historians would dispute that the British Empire was much weaker after World War One, despite reaching its maximum size. It was forced to treat the USA as an equal. And Britain’s rulers were also alarmed at the notion that France was now the strongest power on Continental Europe.
The Fall of Singapore vin 1942 vastly damaged Imperial prestige, and gave the USA clear dominance over Britain.
So it is not a foolish question.
But it is also the wrong question.
Split ‘British Interest’ into Left and Right, and you get a much clearer answer. One that shows very clearly where the guilt lies.
On most issues, Tories were the main offenders. And the Left was not entirely wrong even on the issue of weapons spending. Britain and France already had enough military power to curb Hitler’s rise or to save the Spanish Republic. They just didn’t use that power.
The Tories used their power with what might have seemed ‘benevolent roguery’ – as did the pre-1914 Liberal elite who made extensive secret plans for a war to break Germany. But these plans went so badly wrong that they later chose to pretend they had never existed.
World War One weakened Britain’s grip on Ireland so much that the long-standing dispute over Home Rule was settled, at least for Southern Ireland. And Britain had to fight a war to prevent an independent Irish Republic emerging. Gain a limited victory by winning over some of those who had fought for that Irish Republic for an acceptance of Home Rule and Partition.
At home, the 17th-century pattern of Tories / Conservatives and Whigs / Liberals was finally displaced by the rising Labour Party, which formed a minority Government in 1923.
Globally, the new Communist International was now a challenge to both Imperialism and the right of the Ruling Class to rule. Before 1914, challenges to both had been marginal.
And the new borders made after World War One had not created the stability that would have resulted from breaking up Germany into three or four smaller states. (It had only been unified since 1870 and there were many cultural, political and religious differences.) Instead further instability was created by fragmenting the Austro-Hungarian Empire full of displaced minorities. Something like a Danubian Federation would have been much more natural, and avoided many future tragedies.
A Second World War was widely expected. And once it became clear that the Bolsheviks had won in Russia, it might easily be a war to suppress this new Soviet Union.
In this context, the Centre-Right that ruled the British Empire saw Italian Fascism as very useful. And the general instability was seen as useful in making France dependant on a close alliance with Britain.
A much deeper study of the same issues
Then when unstable Germany got Hitler as its 13th Chancellor, the rulers of Britain were quite friendly to letting him move by stages from Chancellor to unchallenged Dictator. He was allowed to build up his armed forces, violating the Versailles Treaty. And also allowed a series of foreign-policy triumphs, beginning with the re-militarisation of the Rhineland.
We know now that had Britain threatened war over this, over the unification with Austria or with the threat of war over his demands on Czechoslovakia, he would have had to back down. The German Army did not think they could win such wars, and were ready to remove him.
Was this really a misjudgement by Britain’s experienced and well-informed leaders? Or was it a calculated that if Hitler fell, German Communism might revive?
Was it even a hope that Nazi Germany would end up waging war against the Soviet Union? Suppress the biggest threat to the global power of the British Empire, at very little cost to the British ruling class?
To admit this would make them look like outsmarted fools. They ended up needing the Soviet Union to save them from Hitler.
Unscrupulous cunning by Stalin produced this very unexpected outcome. A much more natural result would have been Nazi Germany attacking the Soviet Union, while the West stood neutral.
World War Two was a major victory for all of the forces of Britain’s Left. A major defeat for the Tories and other right-wing forces. Their cherished Empire lost its core with Indian Independence, and unwound over the next few decades. They survived by becoming subordinate to the USA, at that time well to the left of most Tories.
Labour in the wartime coalition did a lot to prepare for their 1945 victory
This last will sound very strange to most people. But things changed a lot after the Suez Crisis of 1956, when the USA demonstrated to the fading British Empire and French Empire that they were helpless in the face of US power. And requiring Israel to return to the borders it had secured in 1949.
Politics in both Europe and the USA shifted well to the left in the 1960s. But the US mainstream shifting less and ending up rather to the right of the British and Continental-Europe mainstream.
Back in the 1930s, the USA was a rather radical and subversive force from the viewpoint of the British centre-right. Fascism was in many ways closer to their values.
The soft attitudes to fascism were no accident or misunderstanding. They were a logical part of politics that was to fail disastrously.
And it counted for plenty that the rulers of Britain were fairly friendly, at a time when the British Empire was the world’s only Superpower.
Italian Fascism very nearly failed in 1924.
This overlooked fact is shown in detail by Michael Foot in a half-forgotten work called The Trial of Mussolini.
In 1924 and later, the Tory government and the Centre-Right treated fascism as a positive idea wherever Parliamentary Democracy yielded a result they did not like. Helped it spread within Europe, and throughout the world.
Nor was this in any sense a betrayal of their traditions. Democracy was a subversive fringe idea until the last quarter of the 19th century.
The basis of the original Tory Party was sympathy for Royal power within an agreed Parliamentary system. A system where the House of Lords was powerful, and where a majority of seats in the House of Commons were dominated by a few hundred rich families.
Parliament is not a democratic institution. It is a mediaeval heritage that was adapted for the rising forces of democracy. And which has not served them very well.
Parliaments also tend to fail when they are added to an alien society. They resemble the Cargo Cults of some Pacific Islands – close mimicry of the externals and the essentials are missed.
A regular system of rival parties works only when politics is treated as a game with rules – almost as a sport. The antagonism has definite limits.
Privileged Britons liked the political freedoms that a Parliamentary system gave them, and their considerable freedom to criticise their rulers. This did not mean they wanted the same freedoms extended to other men.
And definitely not to women.
Nor to colonial subjects – Britain’s North American colonies were at odds with a government favoured by George 3rd, but solidly backed by a majority of MPs in an undemocratic parliament. In an era when General Elections happened over several weeks, it would have been perfectly possibly to have given a colonies a few MPs of their own. Adam Smith even proposed this in The Wealth of Nations – published 1776, when it was much too late for such a cure. But before that, the Westminster Parliament lived up to its description as ‘the best gentleman’s club in London.
Even men like George Washington were not wanted there. He had been lieutenant colonel and second-in-command of the 300-strong Virginia Regiment. But when he sought to become an officer in the regular British Army, he was refused.
Ruling classes tend to be smart at ruling the existing system, but very bad at making timely reforms and concessions to keep the system stable. And are mostly offended and indignant when it collapsed on them.
This is happening right now. The elite of the Anglosphere, along with their tame thinkers and publicists, do not see themselves as greedy bunglers who wasted the enormous opportunities in the 1990s. Instead they ask us to rally behind them in the face of unexpected outbreaks of evil in Middle-Europe, the Islamic World, Russia, China and the militantly Hindu Republic of India. And the utterly unexpected fact that death rates from Covid-19 match very closely the strength of New Right ideas.
In the late 18th century, White Racism did not have a definite grip on the Empire. Britons in India mixed freely with the local elite, including marrying their woman and accepting the offspring as part of the British elite. This never entirely died, with aristocrats from the Indian Subcontinent being let into British aristocratic circles where most colonial administrators would not be wanted. But in India, power was firmly in the hands of those defined as White. And unlike colonies where there was a white majority, those with a majority deemed racially inferior were dominated by officials appointed by Britain even when they had some sort of elected body.
The British Empire was parliamentary from 1688, but democracy for middle-class white males was resisted until 1832.
No serious prospect of any sort of democracy where those defined as being of the White Race did not have a secure majority. Where they were few and nearly powerless they might be allowed to vote. Where it might matter, they were excluded.
Not democratic for most white males until the 1880s. And the 1870s also saw the end of the public voting that had traditionally made it hard for those with votes to defy the will of the local grandees.
This was particularly significant in Ireland, where the Home Rule League came from nowhere to win 60 out of Ireland’s 101 seats in 1874. The first election where the rich could not intimidate the mostly middle-class voters.
There was an understood hierarchy within what was called the White Race. The prospect of an elected Home Rule government dominated by Roman Catholic voters in Ireland was unacceptable to many Britons. It looked likely to lead to Civil War in 1914, when the First World War confused the process.
That World War was technically about a refusal by Serbia and Russia to allow a proper investigation into Serbia’s use of terrorism and assassination to gain control of Bosnia. There was good cause to suspect: their Security Services were dominated by Dragutin Dimitrijevic and otherers who had deposed and murdered a Serbian king who was soft on pushing the Serbian claim to Bosnia.
Western histories used to speak of ‘Gallant Little Serbia’ and cover this up. And have been evasive ever since the West decided in the 1990s that any Serbian claim to Bosnia was an abomination.
Other issues counted for more. France wanted majority-German sections of Alsace-Loraine, against the will of the majority living there. But the main motivation was the British Empire’s desire to break the rising German Empire. German along with the USA had built industrial bases that were superior to Britain and were ending its brief reign as the Workshop of the World.
Foot’s work takes the form of a trial in which Mussolini illustrates how close he was to mainstream politicians.
This might have come out if a real trial had happened. But since Italy switched sides, they got away with a lot.
“In October 1943, the Allied leaders had established the United Nations War Crimes Commission, an independent body tasked with investigating and recording the evidence of war crimes, and identifying where possible the individuals responsible; and reporting to the Governments concerned, when there was prima facie case for the prosecution of those individuals. Indeed, by March 1948 the Commission identified and listed more than 1,200 Italian nationals, who could have been held accountable for heinous war crimes, and in particular those committed on the territories of Ethiopia and Yugoslavia…
“Despite these initiatives, apart from the 40 trials the British conducted in Italy immediately after the end of the conflict, no Italian nationals would be held accountable for the commission of international crimes.”
Some were executed or otherwise punished by the Italians themselves. And Mussolini was lynched. It has been suggested that he was deliberately given to his enemies to stop him talking, but I rather doubt this. Still, it is a pity we never got to hear his side of things.
As it happened, only German Nazis faced an International Tribunal. And the German state had undeniably operated gigantic death camps in Occupied Poland. All sorts of unwanted populations were destroyed there, including non-Jewish Poles. But Jews were the main victims. And the gigantic scale of the killing was shown by vast numbers of flourishing Jewish communities that had few survivors or no survivors.
Six million Jews was the SS estimate. And the common use of the figure obscures the fact that several million more were also killed. It was definitely a monstrous crime.
It is also worth mentioning that at least eight million non-Jewish Germans died in a war that Hitler could have ended favourably at several points.
My estimate is that Hitler caused 45 to 52 million deaths in a war he had no need to fight. 34 to 41 million for military ends. Perhaps 11 million killed by a death-machine that drained resources from the war and helped defeat him.
And had the conventional was gone otherwise, the USA could have used its newly invented nuclear bombs to win. These, of course, would not have come so soon without German-Jewish scientists that he drove out, as well as Jews in the USA who were motivated by his declared enmity.
The most crucial individuals mostly get overlooked. Einstein’s famous letter did not convince the US administration that a useful atomic bomb could be made in time to be used in the current war. Britain had also been investigating, and the initial estimated were that several tons of uranium would be needed to start a chain reaction. This meant that it might be a useful source of industrial power, but that bombs would be impossibly large. So unimportant did it seem that a detailed calculation was left to expatriate German physicists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls: Jewish refugees from Hitler but also technically ‘enemy aliens’.
Unexpectedly, they found that a few kilograms of the right isotope of uranium would explode with the energy of thousands of tons of dynamite. Separating it from common uranium was tricky, but the US managed it. German might have managed it had one of their scientists made the right calculations, and only after the war was it clear that they had not.
Hitler’s extremism was in the end self-defeating. But it still came close to success.
It was also rather an accident that it came to be seen as an anti-Fascist war rather than an anti-German war. Italy might well have stayed neutral, as Spain and Portugal did. And given the close ties with Britain, having Italy as an ally seemed possible:
“As World War II began, Ciano and Viscount Halifax were holding secret phone conversations. The British wanted Italy on their side against Germany as it had been in World War I.”
With a neutral Italy, all of the right-wing politicians who had been fond of him would not have been as embarrassed or discredited as they in fact were.
If you try to map past mainstream politics onto modern ideas, you find it increasingly matching the Hard Right and even the Far Right.
Those governments mostly did not use the same methods as fascism, but mostly because they were securely in control.
Almost all governments used torture, and brutal types of execution.
Before the 19th century, all accepted slavery, though sometimes it was of a mild sort.
I’d say that Marx got it right when he identified the main cause as the undermining of small properly and personal security by the growth of capitalism.
The Right mostly get this wrong. And our current New Right have proved to have no competence over major decisions that change or preserve societies across the decades.
Marxism a good beginning, but not the blighted post-Stalin version that Moscow pushed.
Hysteria against Marxism leads to twisted views, because the Cold War was won by the West accepting many values once seen as Marxist.
Right-wingers often show superficial cleverness. Thus the 1958 film version of The Quiet American reverses what Graham Green saw. But he was right, and trying to save the incoherent government they created in South Vietnam was a disaster for the USA.
The big problem with lying is that it is not true. Live life in a cloud of lies and you become ineffective.
Britain’s democratically elected government was broadly pro-Fascist until at least March 1938, when German demands on Czechoslovakia became an issue. And in the end they sold out Czechoslovakia.
It only became clearly anti-Fascist when Italy declared war in June 1940, and then only because Churchill would not make peace after a decisive defeat.
If you can call Trump or Pinochet fascist, then the Polish government created by Pilsudski was definitely fascist.
Problems Magazine, Issue 42, 2nd Quarter 2020. July 1920.
See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/ for other issues.