Winston Churchill
A painting of Winston Churchill in his famous boiler suit
A library edition of his six-volume history of World War II

The Man Who Saved Europe

By Klaus Wiegrefe
Der Spiegel, August 20, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

Some 70 years ago, Hitler's Wehrmacht was chalking up one victory after the next, but then Winston Churchill stood up to the dictator. Their duel decided World War II.

Churchill declared that he had only one goal: "Victory — victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be." Hitler berated his rival as a "lunatic," "paralytic" and "world arsonist." Churchill called Hitler a "wicked man," the "monstrous product of former wrongs and shame," and said "Europe will not yield itself to Hitler's gospel of hatred."

The perseverance of the British was probably decisive in shaping the course of World War II. How else could the United States have launched an invasion of the European continent if the British Isles hadn't been available to it as a giant aircraft carrier? And what would have happened if Hitler could have shifted the divisions and bombers to the Eastern front that were tied up in the war against England? It wouldn't have taken Hitler much more to defeat Stalin.

Churchill has long been one of the icons of the 20th century. But as with all great historic figures who embark on the path to immortality, there is also a mythical component to wartime prime minister's achievements. His six-volume work "The Second World War" became a bestseller and was part of the reason he was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature. Churchill was more interested in seeing his painting appear alongside those of his ancestors in the family gallery and in the British Empire.

Hitler admired the victorious British. His early writings suggest that the Nazi would have preferred to become Fuehrer in the British Isles than in Germany. Hitler saw the Empire as a model for his racist empire. He dreamed of an "Aryan world order," in which the Germans would control Eurasia and the British, as their junior partner, would dominate the world's oceans. He envisioned death or slavery for a large share of mankind.

Hitler had hardly risen to power before Churchill began advocating a massive military buildup in Great Britain. At this point, he even believed that an alliance with the hated Soviet Union was the right thing for Britain. He had read parts of Hitler's "Mein Kampf," and he despised the dictator's methods, but this wasn't his greatest concern. Churchill was motivated by the traditional British balance-of-power approach. It was pure realpolitik, the same logic that prompted Churchill to turn against Stalin once again after World War II.

Churchill called upon his government to obstruct the Third Reich. But his warnings went unheard. Churchill received envoys from Berlin and met with Nazi Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, who sought to convince Churchill of the benefits of appeasement. Ribbentrop explained that the Germans needed Lebensraum in the Ukraine and Belarus. He assured Churchill that the Empire would be left untouched, but that the British would have to accept Germany's eastward expansion in return.

Hitler publicly berated Churchill as a "warmonger," while Churchill increasingly ignored diplomatic etiquette. By now he was sharply criticizing the persecution of the Jews. When World War II began a few weeks later, Hitler paved the way for Churchill's political comeback. Churchill had been right, after all. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed him to his cabinet, and in May 1940, Churchill finally succeeded him as prime minister.

Hitler became Churchill's unwitting ally by enabling the British to stage the biggest evacuation in their military history at Dunkirk. Most military historians believe that if the evacuation had failed, London would probably have had to sue for peace. Churchill assembled the expanded cabinet and explained that whether the British sued for peace or "fought it out," it would make no difference in the end, because Hitler would only seek to turn Great Britain into "a slave state." He argued that the British should continue the fight. Churchill gave magnificent speeches, and even the Nazis were impressed by his eloquence.

Hitler decided to bomb the British to the negotiating table. At first, he focused his attacks on ports, airports and armament factories. Day after day, German fighter planes and bombers appeared in the skies over southeastern England. But the Royal Air Force was technically superior to the Germans. Its radar, guidance and warning systems were among the most advanced in the world. In addition, British aircraft factories were producing more planes than their German counterparts. Hitler lost the Battle of Britain.

On August 24, 1940, the Germans bombed residential neighborhoods in London for the first time, probably by mistake. After that, Churchill gave the order to attack Berlin. Although Berlin suffered little damage, the attacks prompted Hitler to vow: "If they declare that they will attack our cities on a large scale, we will eradicate their cities." The Blitz had begun. By the end of 1940, about 14,000 people had been killed in London. The first big RAF attack on a German city struck Mannheim in December 1940.

Churchill planned to drag the United States into the war. But although Churchill was eloquent in his warnings and appeals to Washington, historians believe that the situation first changed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Churchill danced for joy when he heard the news. In June 1941, the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler believed that it was easier to conquer Moscow than London. The British political system had been saved. The Soviet Union and the United States would bear the main burden of the war from then on.

The British began systematically bombing German cities in the spring of 1942. Despite his occasional doubts, Churchill was relentless. About 600,000 Germans died in the bombings, most of them women, old men and children. A number of cities were all but destroyed. When Dresden was destroyed near the end of the war, in February 1945, even Churchill admitted that the bombings were "mere acts of terror and wanton destruction."

Churchill contributed to the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe by supporting the demands of the Polish and Czechoslovak exile governments in London. At the Summit of the Big Three in Tehran in 1943, he took three matchsticks to represent Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union, and placed them together. By pushing the Soviet match toward the West, he also shifted the other two matches. Stalin found this amusing.

In 1942, Churchill said he would have Hitler put to death if he were captured. Hitler committed suicide a few days before Germany capitulated in 1945. Churchill had won the duel.

AR  I recommend reading the original for this piece. It offers a good modern perspective on that summer 70 years ago when the political foundation was laid for the world we all grew up in.