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The Danube Basin

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March 24, 1938. House of Commons

The final two majestic paragraphs of this great speech on the failure of Britain to respond to the Nazi menace, were included with the rest of the speech Churchill’s collection of speeches, Arms and the Covenant (While England Slept in USA), but not in the Complete Speeches. Their editor, the late Sir Robert Rhodes James, explained that his text largely was taken directly from Hansard. This suggests a degree of editing by Churchill or his editor and son in the book. He was certainly an indefatigable reviser. If he did so in this case, he revised well.

The Prime Minister, in what I think it is not presumptuous for me to describe as a very fine speech, set before us the object which is in all our minds—namely, how to prevent war. A country like ours, possessed of immense territory and wealth, whose defences have been neglected, cannot avoid war by dilating upon its horrors, or even by a continuous display of pacific qualities, or by ignoring the fate of the victims of aggression elsewhere. War will be avoided, in present circumstances, only by the accumulation of deterrents against the aggressor. If our defences are weak, we must seek allies; and, of course, if we seek allies, alliances involve commitments. But the increase of commitments may be justified if it is followed by a still greater increase of deterrents against aggression.

I was very glad to hear the Prime Minister reaffirm in such direct terms our arrangements for mutual defence with the French Republic. Evidently they amount to a defensive alliance. Why not say so? Why not make it effective by a military convention of the most detailed character? Are we, once again, to have all the disadvantages of an alliance without its advantages, and to have commitments without full security? Great Britain and France have to stand together for mutual protection. Why should not the conditions be worked out precisely and the broad facts made public? Everyone knows, for instance, that our Air Force is tripled in deterrent effectiveness if it operates from French bases, and, as I pointed out in the House three weeks ago, the fact that an attack upon this country would bring the attacker into conflict with the French Army is another great security to us here. We are obliged in return to go to the aid of France, and hitherto we have always been better than our word.

Here, then, is the great security for the two countries. Do not conceal it. Proclaim it, implement it, work it out in thorough detail. Treat the defensive problems of the two countries as if they were one. Then you will have a real deterrent against unprovoked aggression, and if the deterrent fails to deter, you will have a highly organized method of coping with the aggressor. The present rulers of Germany will hesitate long before they attack the British Empire and the French Republic if those are woven together for defence purposes into one very powerful unit. Having gone so far, there is no safe halting-place short of an open defensive alliance with France, not with loose obligations, but with defined obligations on both sides and complete inter-staff arrangements. Even an isolationist would, I think, go so far as to say, “If we have to mix ourselves up with the Continent, let us, at any rate, get the maximum of safety from our commitments.”*

*The Government acted in this sense and a month later invited M. Daladier and M. Bonnet to London to discuss methods of concerting the defensive arrangements of the two countries.

Then we come to the case of Czechoslovakia. There has been a lot of talk about giving a guarantee, but I should be sorry if the grave issue now open in Europe were to turn solely on that point, cardinal though it be. Far wider decisions are called for; far larger interests are at stake. I listened with the utmost attention to all that the Prime Minister said about our relations to Czechoslovakia, and it seems to me that he has gone a long way in making a commitment. First, I was very glad to hear him reaffirm his adherence and that of the Government to the obligations of the Covenant of the League. Under the Covenant of the League we are not obliged to go to war for Czechoslovakia. But we are obliged not to be neutral, in the sense of being indifferent, if Czechoslovakia is the victim of unprovoked aggression. The Prime Minister seemed to me to go farther than those mere obligations of the League, and to indicate how very real was the interest which we took in affairs in that part of the world. Lord Halifax, speaking in another place, used language which is particularly important coming from the head of the Foreign Office. He said he had asked Field-Marshal Göring to repeat to him the assurances which he had given to the Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, and that this had been done by the German Government; and then Lord Halifax said: “By those assurances, solemnly given and more than once repeated, we naturally expect the German Government to abide, and if indeed they desire to see European peace maintained, as I earnestly hope they do, there is no quarter in Europe in which it is more vital that undertakings should be scrupulously respected.”

We not only have, therefore, the general obligations of the Covenant of the League, but we have this particular reference to special assurances given and received and noted. There is a third aspect. We have our agreement, which I have described, and of which the Prime Minister has reminded us, with France, and if France is attacked by Germany for going to the rescue of Czechoslovakia, no one can say that we shall not be involved—not legally, not as a matter of bond, but by the force of events. The Prime Minister used language which undoubtedly had the effect of making it perfectly plain that the course of war once started could not be limited, that no one could tell what would happen, that other countries would be drawn in, and he mentioned especially France and Great Britain as two countries which might be involved.

Taking all these points together, I cannot doubt that we have considerable commitments, and, personally, I am very thankful for any words that have been used which sustain that point of view. But this seems to be another case, if I may say so, of making very considerable commitments without gaining the full proportion of deterrent value. We are not taking the fullest steps in our power to stop the event occurring, and yet we are liable to suffer from it if it occurs. We are liable not only to be drawn in, but to be drawn in, perhaps, late in the day, and very likely in unfavourable circumstances. It is really for consideration whether, having gone so far, the bolder course might not be the safer. All attempts to bridge a twelve-foot stream by an eight-foot plank are doomed to failure, and the plank is lost. It is a concession, no doubt, to bring forward a nine-foot plank, but again that may be lost. The great point in view is to achieve the object, and to produce the effect of an adequate deterrent.

The question does not turn upon an automatic permanent pledge. What I should be inclined to ask if these matters could be at any time reconsidered is not that a permanent or automatic pledge should be given, but that now, on this present occasion, in the circumstances which surround us at the moment, with the rape of Austria before our eyes, Great Britain should say, “If the Germans march in upon this State of Czechoslovakia without even waiting for an impartial examination, perhaps by a commission of the League of Nations, or some other body, into the position of the Sudeten Deutsch and the remedies offered for their grievances—if in those circumstances an act of violent aggression were committed upon that country, then we should feel, on this occasion, and in this emergency, bound to act with France in resisting it.”

Such a declaration, although limited to this particular emergency, although limited until a tribunal has examined the position and until the negotiations now proceeding have reached their conclusion—such an assurance would, I believe, do a great deal to stabilize the position in Europe, and I cannot see that it would very seriously add to our risks.

I must say that I myself have not felt during this crisis that there is an immediate danger of a major land war breaking out over Czechoslovakia. I know it is very rash to make such a statement, but when there is so much natural, but misdirected, alarm in the country, now on one point and now on another, one must run some risks in stating one's honest opinion. At any rate, that is the assumption on which I base my argument this afternoon, and I will give my reasons to the House. The first reason is that, in the opinion of many good judges, Germany is not ready this year for such an ordeal as a major land war. The second reason carries more conviction to me, because obviously the first is based upon facts which one cannot measure and secrets which one cannot probe. It is that I cannot see that it would be to the interest of the rulers of Germany to provoke such a war.

Are they not getting all they want without it? Are they not achieving a long succession of most important objectives without firing a single shot? Is there any limit to the economic and political pressure which, without actually using military force, Germany will be able to bring to bear upon this unhappy State? She can be convulsed politically, she can be strangled economically, she is practically surrounded by superior forces, and, unless something is done to mitigate the pressure of circumstances, she will be forced to make continuous surrenders, far beyond the bounds of what any impartial tribunal would consider just or right, until finally her sovereignty, her independence, her integrity, have been destroyed. Why, then, should the rulers of Germany strike a military blow? Why should they incur the risk of a major war?

Moreover, I think it is to be considered that there are other, even more tempting lines of advance open to Germany's ambitions. A serious disturbance among the Hungarian population in the Rumanian province of Transylvania might offer a pretext for the entry of German troops, at a Hungarian invitation or without it. Then all the possibilities of the oil and food of Rumania would be open. Here, again, force may be avoided and virtual annexation may be veiled in the guise of a compulsory alliance. In the meantime the control of Vienna enables the economic fortunes of all the States of the Danubian Basin to be manipulated, exploited and controlled so as to favour German designs, and for the benefit of German finance, trade and arms. Why, then, should Germany go to the one place where she would encounter the veto of France, and of Russia, which has also made definite assurances? I do not think the Government would have run very much risk if they had added the full force of Great Britain to the French declaration about Czechoslovakia. They would not greatly have increased their commitments and they would have made assurance double sure.

But the story of this year is not ended at Czechoslovakia. It is not ended this month. The might behind the German Dictator increases daily. His appetite may grow with eating. The forces of law and freedom have for a long time known nothing but rebuffs, failures and humiliations. Their influence would be immensely increased by any signs of concerted action and initiative and combination.

The fact that Britain and France combined together at such a moment in such a cause would give them the strength and authority that they need in order to convince wavering States that they might find a good company of determined people to whom they might join themselves upon the basis of the Covenant and in accordance with its principles. On the morrow of such a proof of unity as could be given between Great Britain and France we might be able to make such an arrangement, or begin to make it, for the effective fulfilment of the Covenant. We might have a group of Powers, as it were Mandatories of the League, who would be the guardians of civilization, and once this was set up strong and real it would liberate us, at least over a long period, from the torments of uncertainty and anxiety which we now have to endure. Joint action on this occasion would make easier and safer the problem of dealing with the next occasion. If successful, it would certainly pave the way to more effective joint action in the enforcement of the non-intervention policy in Spain. Nations that have joined together to meet one particular emergency may well find, when they look around, that they have assembled forces sufficient to deal with other emergencies not yet before us, and thus we may gather an ever-growing company, ranged under standards of law and justice, submitting themselves to principles that they are ready to enforce: and thus, by military and moral means combined, we may once more regain the ascendant and the initiative for the free peoples of the world and throughout the Empire.

Do not let anyone suppose that this is a mere question of hardening one's heart and keeping a stiff upper lip, and standing by to see Czechoslovakia pole-axed or tortured as Austria has been. Something more than that particular kind of fortitude will be needed from us. It is not only Czechoslovakia that will suffer. Look at the States of the Danube Basin. First and foremost there is Yugoslavia. That is a most powerful and virile State, three-quarters of whose martial people are undoubtedly in the fullest sympathy with the democracy of France and Great Britain, and are animated by an ardent hatred of Nazi or Fascist rule. They have a rooted desire to maintain themselves in their independence. Is nothing being done to ascertain what Yugoslavia would do, assuming that Great Britain and France were prepared to interest themselves in the problems of the Danube Basin? Yugoslavia might well be gained, and I am told that the effect of that on Bulgaria would probably be to draw her into the same orbit. Then there is Rumania, so directly menaced by the potential German movement to the East. These three countries if left alone, and convinced that there is no will power operating against the Dictators, will fall one by one into the Nazi grip and system. What then will be the position of Greece and Turkey?

I ask these questions, hoping that they may be carefully considered. Is it not possible that decided action by France and Great Britain would rally the whole of these five States as well as Czechoslovakia, all of whom have powerful armies, who together aggregate 75,000,000 of people, who have several millions of fighting men already trained, who have immense resources, who all wish to dwell in peace within their habitations, who individually may be broken by defeat and despoiled, but who, united, constitute an immense resisting power? Can nothing be done to keep them secure and free and to unite them in their own interests, in French and British interests and, above all, in the interests of peace? Are we really going to let the whole of these tremendous possibilities fall away without a concerted effort of any kind? If we do, let us not suppose for a moment that we shall ourselves have escaped our perils. On the contrary, we shall have multiplied our perils, for a very obvious reason:

At present Germany might contemplate a short war, but, once she has laid hands on these countries and extended her power to the Black Sea, the Nazi régime will be able to feed itself indefinitely, however long war may last, and thus we may weaken the deterrent force against war of that blockade to which the hon. Member who has just spoken referred. We should have removed another of the deterrents that stand between us and war. The Nazification of the whole of the Danube States is a danger of the first capital magnitude to the British Empire. Is all to go for nothing? Is it all to be whistled down the wind? If so, we shall repent in blood and tears our improvidence and our lack of foresight and energy.

I have set the issue before the House in terms which do not shirk realities. It has been said by almost all speakers that, if we do not stand up to the Dictators now, we shall only prepare the day when we shall have to stand up to them under far more adverse conditions. Two years ago it was safe, three years ago it was easy, and four years ago a mere dispatch might have rectified the position. But where shall we be a year hence? Where shall we be in 1940? In these next few months all these substantial countries will be deciding whether they will rally, as they would desire to do, to the standards of civilization which still fly over Geneva, or whether they will be forced to throw in their lot and adopt the system and the doctrines of the Nazi Powers. The Prime Minister spoke about the negotiations with Italy. I forbear to comment upon them, because I prefer to await the results when they are presented to us. I know no more effective means of aiding those negotiations than the creation of a Danubian block, and nothing that would make it more likely that any engagement entered into would bear fruit and be effective in the hour of serious need. I trust that the Government will do their utmost. If it is too late, the evil is upon us, but do not let any chance be thrown away of endeavouring to save this great area from being overrun, exploited and despoiled.

I now come to the second aspect of the deterrents which we are assembling against aggression—namely, national defence. I welcome very much the announcement that the Prime Minister has made in this respect, and particularly his decision to consult the trade unions. I know that he is averse from hasty decisions. No one can say that this is a hasty decision in the third year of rearmament. I was very glad also to hear the reassurance that drastic action will be taken to augment the speed of our air programme, of our air raid precautions system and of our anti-aircraft artillery. It is only a fortnight ago that my right hon. Friend told us he was satisfied that we were making the best and the most effective use of our resources. However, it appears that there were other resources not being used which now will be used in a greater effort. I regret very much that these additional resources have not been applied during the last two years, when the air programme was seen to be trailing so far behind. Not only did we start two years too late, but the second two years have been traversed at only half-speed.

The Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence said a fortnight ago in rebuking me: “I detected in Mr Churchill's demands a fundamental difference of opinion with the Government, for he contemplates a great deal more interference with industry than has hitherto taken place.”

I was sorry to be told I was in fundamental difference with the Government, and I am glad to know from the Prime Minister's statement that this particular fundamental difference is likely very soon to be removed. However, I must say I do not feel sure even now, after this latest decision, that the problem of rearmament is being dealt with on right lines.

Is the method of organization to be employed adapted to a nation-wide effort? Ought there not to be created, however tardily, a Ministry of Supply? Ought there not to be created a far more effective Ministry of Defence? Are there not problems pressing for solution which can be handled only by a Minister of Defence? Ought there not to be a Defence of the Realm Act giving the necessary powers to divert industry, as far as may be necessary, from the ordinary channels of commerce so as to fit our rearmament in with the needs of our export trade and yet make sure that rearmament has the supreme priority?

I will venture to echo the question which was posed by Mr Amery last week. Is our system of government adapted to the present fierce, swift movement of events? Twenty-two gentlemen of blameless party character sitting round an overcrowded table, each having a voice—is that a system which can reach decisions from week to week and cope with the problems descending upon us and with the men at the head of the dictator States? It broke down hopelessly in the War.

But is this peace in which we are living? Is it not war without cannon firing? Is it not war of a decisive character, where victories are gained and territories conquered, and where ascendancy and dominance are established over large populations with extraordinary rapidity? If we are to prevent this bloodless war being turned into a bloody war, ought not His Majesty's Government to adopt a system more on a level with the period of crisis in which we live?

Let me give a warning drawn from our recent experiences. Very likely this immediate crisis will pass, will dissipate itself and calm down. After a boa constrictor has devoured its prey it often has a considerable digestive spell. It was so after the revelation of the secret German air force. There was a pause. It was so after German conscription was proclaimed in breach of the Treaty. It was so after the Rhineland was forcibly occupied. The House may recall that we were told how glad we ought to be because there would be no question of fortifying it. Now, after Austria has been struck down, we are all disturbed and alarmed, but in a little while there may be another pause. There may not—we cannot tell. But if there is a pause, then people will be saying, “See how the alarmists have been confuted; Europe has calmed down, it has all blown over, and the war scare has passed away.”

The Prime Minister will perhaps repeat what he said a few weeks ago, that the tension in Europe is greatly relaxed. The Times will write a leading article to say how silly those people look who on the morrow of the Austrian incorporation raised a clamour for exceptional action in foreign policy and home defence, and how wise the Government were not to let themselves be carried away by this passing incident.

All this time the vast degeneration of the forces of Parliamentary democracy will be proceeding throughout Europe. Every six weeks another corps will be added to the German army. All this time important countries and great rail and river communications will pass under the control of the German General Staff. All this time populations will be continually reduced to the rigours of Nazi domination and assimilated to that system. All this time the forces of conquest and intimidation will be consolidated, towering up soon in real and not make-believe strength and superiority. Then presently will come another stroke. Upon whom? Our questions with Germany are unsettled and unanswered. We cannot tell. What I dread is that the impulse now given to active effort may pass away when the dangers are not diminishing, but accumulating and gathering as country after country is involved in the Nazi system, and as their vast preparations reach their final perfection.

For five years I have talked to the House on these matters—not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. Look back over the last five years. It is true that great mistakes were made in the years immediately after the War. But at Locarno we laid the foundation from which a great forward movement could have been made. Look back upon the last five years—since, that is to say, Germany began to rearm in earnest and openly to seek revenge. If we study the history of Rome and Carthage, we can understand what happened and why. It is not difficult to form an intelligent view about the three Punic Wars; but if mortal catastrophe should overtake the British Nation and the British Empire, historians a thousand years hence will still be baffled by the mystery of our affairs. They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory—gone with the wind!

Now the victors are the vanquished, and those who threw down their arms in the field and sued for an armistice are striding on to world mastery. That is the position—that is the terrible transformation that has taken place bit by bit. I rejoice to hear from the Prime Minister that a further supreme effort is to be made to place us in a position of security. Now is the time at last to rouse the nation. Perhaps it is the last time it can be roused with a chance of preventing war, or with a chance of coming through to victory should our efforts to prevent war fail. We should lay aside every hindrance and endeavour by uniting the whole force and spirit of our people to raise again a great British nation standing up before all the world; for such a nation, rising in its ancient vigour, can even at this hour save civilization.