Appeasement and white power
The controversy about whether Winston Churchill should have made peace
with Hitler reawakens the British establishment's old concerns about race,
says Frank Füredi
A new row has broken out about whether Britain's interests would have been
best served by seeking peace with Nazi Germany. The latest controversy began
with the publication of Dr John Charmley's Churchill: The End of Glory,
which argues that by not responding to German peace overtures in 1940-41,
Churchill won the war but lost the empire. The debate took off in earnest
when former Tory minister Alan Clark wrote a supportive review of Charmley's
book in the Times (2 January 1993), in which he said that Churchill
should have saved the empire by making peace with Hitler after defeating
the Italians in North Africa in 1941. The argument is testimony to the growing
credibility of such revisionist currents in British historiography.
It is not surprising that this retrospective vindication of the policy of
appeasing Nazi Germany often focuses on the defence of the British Empire.
Appeasement had a key racial dimension. It claimed to represent not only
the interests of Britain, but also those of the white race.
Alan Clark's concern with the loss of Malaya and the Far Eastern Empire
to Japan is not surprising either. At the time, and in later years, Britain's
defeat in Malaya was seen as an irreversible blow to white prestige. Japan's
military triumph confirmed the worst fears of the appeasers, the most profound
of which was that war among the Western nations would assist the rise of
the 'coloured races'. In this vein, the case for the appeasement of Germany
was often expressed in the language of race.
During the first four decades of this century sections of the British establishment
were self-consciously concerned with maintaining the hegemony of the white
race. The rise of Japan, especially after it defeated Russia in 1905, was
interpreted as a formidable threat to the future of the white race. Many
foresaw the future in terms of a war between white and coloured races. From
this perspective Britain's alliance with Japan was an act of racial treachery.
In June 1910 one British author, Bertram Lenox Simpson, wrote angrily from
China that this alliance destroyed an 'absolute agreement among the white
powers' once and for all.
Concern about white disunity in the face of 'the rising tide of colour'
was not restricted to the right wing of the political spectrum. On the eve
of the First World War, leading Labour Party thinker Beatrice Webb saw the
'impending catastrophe' in racial terms. She feared a racial invasion 'by
outcasts from Southern Europe, mongrels from Algeria, and coolies from China'.
Such a threat, wrote Webb, 'seems to me a bigger tragedy than any hypothetical
defeat by an army of Germans'.
This sentiment survived well into the thirties. A wide cross section of
British opinion was prepared to allow Hitler's Germany access to overseas
colonies in exchange for a peace treaty. For some, appeasement meant white
solidarity. For others, appeasement represented the expedient of defending
British interests at the expense of the 'coloured' people of the colonies.
It was in this spirit that in January 1938 the foreign policy committee
of the British cabinet considered offering Germany territory in Africa.
Colonial appeasement enjoyed support from within the British establishment.
As the Times noted in August 1935, 'in England there are thoughtful
people who think that revision of the distribution of colonies is inevitable
sooner or later, and that the sooner the fact is frankly faced the easier
and less costly revision will be'. Church and trade union leaders echoed
this approach. The rights of the people who lived in the colonies were not
considered an issue in these deliberations.
In the end the proposal to appease the Nazis with colonies was not pursued.
The leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties realised that Hitler
could not be appeased. It was also evident that the credibility of Britain
and of the empire could not withstand the sordid spectacle of colonial appeasement.
Today's revisionist accounts of the war are attempting to minimise the moral
crisis of British imperialism, by suggesting that a different approach to
Germany could have maintained the empire. In fact, and contrary to Alan
Clark's claim, the policy of appeasement could not have saved the empire.
The series of spectacular Japanese victories in Asia exposed the shallow
foundation of European colonialism. Peace with Nazi Germany could not have
prevented the anti-colonial upheavals.
It is worth noting that even when the policy of appeasement had been shelved,
race remained a key concern of the British establishment. The Second World
War consolidated racial fears. Correspondence from throughout the empire
emphasised the theme of the decline of white prestige. In turn British ministry
of information experts were worried that anti-German propaganda in the colonies
might encourage anti-European sentiments in general.
The 'colour question'
A memorandum drawn up for the attention of colonial governments in November
1941 warned that strong anti-German propaganda might have dangerous consequences
for British rule. It noted that 'when the excuse for hating the Germans
has been removed, the sentiment may be transferred to what is uppermost
in the minds of all Africans', namely the 'colour question'. The memorandum
warned that 'having been encouraged to hate one branch of the white race,
they may extend the feeling to others'.
After the experience of Nazi Germany, the racial aspect of international
conflicts could not be discussed openly. The promotion of white solidarity
was discredited along with the policy of appeasement. But racial concerns
have not disappeared. And the racial silence of the postwar years is now
giving way to the rehabilitation of Western imperialism. The tendency to
contrast a stable and prosperous colonial Africa with the chaos of that
continent today is but one symptom of the new thinking. The revision of
history and the renewed promotion of appeasement provides the necessary
intellectual support for rehabilitating the racial culture of Empire.
Frank Füredi is the author of Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History
and Society in an Anxious Age, Pluto Press, £10.95 pbk.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993