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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.

'Yellow peril'

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

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