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Winston Churchill: The key figure in the war against Hitler

After the huge losses of the First World War, England was massively weakened. And when, 20 years later, Germany hit the continent again with war, London had little to counter it. But Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, persuaded his compatriots to keep fighting - and thus became a key figure in the later Allied triumph

It starts like an annual report - and ends with drums and trumpets. The new Prime Minister opened his inaugural speech with a rant, almost bored. Winston Churchill speaks about the war cabinet, the occupation of the military departments, the rules of procedure for the next parliamentary session. Only after three minutes does the tone change. And now the words are difficult and "I have nothing to offer", says cutting like sword blows. Churchill finally, "as blood, hardship, tears and sweat."

It's a phrase the country has been waiting for. A sentence that promises an end to the tactics, the procrastination, the endless debates. A sentence that heralds the end of politics, etiquette and goodwill. A romantic phrase. A sentence for heroes. Because this May 13, 1940 is a day on which even sober, pragmatic England calls for heroes. The major German offensive on the western front had started three days earlier, now the Wehrmacht is advancing over the Netherlands towards the French border and over the Ardennes and Meuse towards the Channel coast. And, it is to be feared, the British Isles will soon be threatened as well - which are not yet adequately equipped for war.

Diplomacy, civilization and international law have failed. Now only the ancient values ​​can help: strength, determination, courage. Such a romantic idea of ​​war is what the new prime minister embodies. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Churchill's world is that of the English saga in which the hero Beowulf hunted down a monster. For Churchill, war is not simply a misfortune - but, as he will put it a few weeks later in another speech, the finest hour: the “most glorious hour” a collective can experience. Perhaps it was Churchill's oversized birthplace, Blenheim Castle in Oxfordshire, one of the most extensive palaces in the British Isles, that sparked his will to greatness.

Perhaps it was its builder, Winston's ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, hero of the War of the Spanish Succession around 1710, who made the young Churchill long for powerful deeds. Perhaps it was Sir Randolph Churchill, the father, politician, daredevil, and knight of scandal with a fur coat and walrus beard who gave him a taste for hussar pranks. He will later set monuments to both of them in multi-volume biographies.

Winston Churchill and his youth

Randolph Churchill dies when his son is 20 years old. It cannot be said that he knew him well. "Three or four intimate conversations," Winston will later recall, had, all things considered, with his father.

But perhaps it is precisely the inaccessibility in the eyes of the lonely child that makes him superhuman, forcing the unbroken contempt of his father Churchill all his life to fight for the respect of the absent with strong deeds. "Boys who lack the attention of their father", he will later console himself, often develop special "independence and strength".

Even when he was still at school, Lord Randolph disparaged his son as "this boy". Insults him as a failure, and threatens him with breaking off all relationships when he twice botched the entrance exams for the Sandhurst military academy.

And this contempt will not leave 73-year-old Churchill alone: ​​one day, he tells his own son, the dead Randolph appeared to him in his country house - but before Winston could finally tell him about his successes, he was the father disappeared again.

Churchill's youth is already a war: “an uninterrupted series of painful experiences”. The coolness of the mother ("I loved her tenderly - but from afar"). The bloody regime at the upstairs St. James School in Ascot, where it “beats with the birch rod” - “blows so terrible” that he lives “a life of fears for two years”. The dull drumming at the boarding school in Harrow, which drives him on an internal study strike and leaves him with almost no education - “a time full of discomfort, compulsion and senseless monotony”.

So dark is this youth, this struggle for spiritual survival, that the early death of his father in 1895 comes like a liberation - and the military discipline to which the young hussar lieutenant now submits arouses in him downright hymnic feelings: “It is quite a thing own magic in the clang and flash of a trotting cavalry squadron; and gallop increases the stimulus to pleasure. "

There are hardly any women’s stories in this tough, martial world of men. It is not love that brings him to life, but the danger to life: “How nice to imagine that you would have been only 19 years old in 1793 - and had more than 20 years of war against Napoleon ahead of you!” He enthuses once .

But even on the threshold of the 20th century, Churchill still managed to find his wars. He travels to all the arenas to which the far-reaching influence of his mother can bring him.

He becomes a battle-wanderer of death, a fascinated tourist of the carnage, who walks across the decks of ships in Napoleonic posture, pale and red-haired, financed by articles he sends to English newspapers.

In Cuba in 1895 he joins Spanish troops, who put down an uprising in the interior of the country, and gets intoxicated with the bullets that “clap into the sighing palm trees”.

From the Conservative Party to the Liberal camp

In 1897 he went to India at his own expense to enjoy the skirmishes on the northwestern border. The following year he made his way to Sudan, where, in the midst of the “sublime grandeur” of the Battle of Omdurman, he shot a spear-armed rebel: “How quickly you can kill a person! But I didn't worry about it. "

In the South African Boer War, Churchill finally succeeded in a coup in 1899 that made him famous. When the enemy raids a British armored train, they take command of the locomotive, kidnap them with the wounded on board - but are taken prisoner himself. But he escapes from the camp and, hidden in a freight wagon under balls of wool, arrives in neutral Mozambique.

The homeland is delighted with its hero. Even the path to politics, his father's profession, is now open to him: “Politics is almost as exciting as war,” he exults, “and just as dangerous.” And indeed: the 1900 elections put him in the lower house. During a visit to New York, the American writer Mark Twain introduces him as the "hero of five wars, author of six books and future Prime Minister of England".

A few years later, Churchill at least made it to the office of Minister of Economics, then Minister of the Interior (and not least by changing from the conservative to the liberal camp).

“You will ask: What is our policy?” Says Churchill now, on May 13, 1940. His voice grows darker, broods and growls. “I reply: Our policy is to wage war, on water, on land and in the air, with all our might and with all strength that God can give us; To wage war against a monstrous tyranny unsurpassed in the sinister, dismal catalog of human crime. "

"That," concludes the Prime Minister, "is our policy."

The reference to God is not a religious statement. Churchill does not believe in a God, but in Providence - which, he is convinced, has great things in store for him too. And he believes in the survival of the morally stronger.

The silver bullet for this is the struggle: "We are not made for it", he announced in one of the first speeches of his political career, "to find peace in this world."

And still in 1943, in the midst of an unprecedented slaughter of nations, he will declare that war brings out the best in people. He has nothing but contempt for the artisans of politics, the “shopkeepers and ironmongers”. He sees himself as the new Napoleon Bonaparte.

Churchill and the First World War

In 1911, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith made a clever move to render “Liliput Napoleon”, as his colleagues called Churchill, harmless by creating an enemy outside of England: he made the young star Minister of the Navy - precisely because of a crisis in Morocco War with the Germans threatens.

As the commander of the world's largest fleet, Churchill is now in his element. He tirelessly reorganized naval power in order to make it fit for a war that he is looking forward to.

“Everything is striving towards catastrophe and collapse”, he wrote to his wife shortly before the actual outbreak of war in 1914, shuddering with relish at his own thirst for blood: “I am enthusiastic, armed and happy. Isn't it terrible to be built like that? "

The longed-for war becomes England's victory - but Churchill's defeat. In April 1915 he orders a loss-making (and as it turns out: nonsensical) landing operation near the Turkish town of Gallipoli in order to force Germany's allies there to surrender and then attack Austria from the Balkans. However, the Turks successfully defend the sea close. 44,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives in the attack.

On May 17, 1915, the government decides to sacrifice the unsuccessful warrior: Churchill loses his post and is henceforth just a minister with no portfolio. "I'm done," he mumbles, "I'm done with." And his wife worries that he might die of grief.

What does a hero do who is not allowed to fight? “Like a sea monster that has been fished from the depths of the sea,” he fears, “to burst due to the drop in pressure”. He tries to sneak into the beloved war as a soldier and to be hired as a commander - but all the army allows him is to lead a battalion in Flanders, where he leads delousing campaigns. Members of parliament and diplomats on tour at the front let the humiliated knight be shown in his trench like an exotic animal.

And it is luck for him, but little consolation, that a service meeting calls him out of his dugout at the moment when a direct hit hits there. But soon after the war, Winston Churchill, now domesticated again as a multipurpose specialist minister, happily found a new enemy: socialism. In 1919, during the Russian Civil War, he calls - albeit unsuccessfully - on the British army to intervene on the side of the whites on a massive scale.

It is his urge to “strangle the adder in the cradle”, such “dull, greasy figures” like Lenin and Trotsky, those “profileless grimaces” with “exotic names”. And the Social Democratic Labor Party, which is just about to make its first big appearance (“a serious national misfortune”, as Churchill finds it), is for him little more than an offspring of precisely these “deadly poisonous snakes”.

With such an enemy, any compromise is impossible. At times, the hatred of all leftists even brings him close to the fascist movements that arose in Italy and elsewhere in response to the supposed socialist threat. In Mussolini, the "Roman genius", he sees the "greatest legislator of our time".

Return to the Conservative Party

But hardly anyone in Britain seems to share these views - not even in the Conservative Party, to which Churchill returned in 1924, after 20 years as a liberal.

The tactics of his new old party friends, who want to integrate the Labor Party into the system instead of destroying it, only fills Churchill with bitterness. Indulgence is not worthy of a hero - not even against peaceful rebels like Mahatma Gandhi, the “defiant advocate” who, as Churchill puts it, “half-naked” challenges the Empire.

And so he resigned from the conservative shadow cabinet in 1931 in protest against England's compromises with the Indian independence movement, and from then on reacted with grim malice to all reconciliation efforts.

His party friends leave the dead man in parliament, but no longer offer him a public office. For years Churchill languished in idleness, sullenly walled around his country estate, an old felt hat on his head.

He plants trees, creates ornamental ponds, breeds goldfish and butterflies. He paints and writes, surrounded by Napoleon and Wellington busts, cared for by eight domestic servants, a governess, two secretaries, a chauffeur, three gardeners and a valet. He shows visitors his typing office - immediately falling into nostalgia: "When you consider that I once commanded the fleet ..."

One topic preoccupied him more than any other during all of his “years in the desert”: Germany's regaining strength. Time and again, in parliamentary speeches and countless articles, he describes Hitler's rearmament as a threat to peace in Europe.

Public opinion in the United Kingdom is determined by others: the representatives of the appeasement, the policy of appeasement around Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. They believe that Britain exhausted its economic strength in the First World War and that a second would ruin the country - even if it ended in victory.

They hope that Hitler will limit himself to Central and Eastern Europe and spare the British sphere of influence. And they fear that London could remain on its own in its fight against German expansion - after all, neither the USA, France nor the Soviet Union show any inclination to intervene in the gruesome events in the center of Europe.

In this climate of hesitation, Churchill is the lonely caller. As soon as he takes the floor, the benches in the House of Commons empty. He alone does not see Hitler as a power politician with predictable interests, but as evil, the absolute enemy. The Munich Agreement of 1938, celebrated by appeasement supporters as an act of peace, in which the heads of state of France and Great Britain agree to the German annexation of the Sudetenland, Churchill condemns as a “total and unmitigated defeat”.

Churchill becomes Prime Minister

"Silent, grieving, abandoned and broken, Czechoslovakia sinks into darkness," he railed. And adds: "Don't think this is the end."

Soon afterwards, after the German defeat of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain also loses his last illusions. On September 1, 1939, Hitler's troops invaded Poland. Two days later, London declares war on Berlin. And on the same day Chamberlain calls Churchill back to the government as Minister of the Navy.

His first major act as master of the fleet was not crowned with success: the Germans' attempt by his battleships to cut off the war-important Swedish ore by occupying the Norwegian port of Narvik was preceded by an invasion of the neutral country.

But unlike in the First World War, the military failure cannot harm the politician Churchill this time - the respect he has earned for his intransigent attitude towards Germany is too great for others. And when the House of Commons fails to deliver a clear vote of confidence at the end of a two-day debate over the Norwegian disaster Neville Chamberlain, it is clear to most observers that Churchill will be the coming man to head the country.

The major German offensive on the western front begins on May 10th. Chamberlain resigned that same day. And the king appoints the 65-year-old Churchill as premier.

"I felt a deep relief," he later recalled. “I finally had power over it all and was able to give orders. I had the feeling that I was walking with fate. "

At three o'clock on May 10th he goes to bed and sleeps dreamlessly.

Britain's new politics

Now, three days later, Churchill's voice has every reason to be bright and triumphant. “Victory,” he crashes. "Victory at any price, victory in spite of all the horror, victory, however long and arduous the way there may be."

Then his tone becomes somber again. “Because without victory there is no further life. No survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire stood for; no survival for the centuries-old urge and impulse of the human race to strive towards its goal. "

Finally the voice swings up, becomes full of anointing, floats with pathos: “But I take on my task full of energy and hope,” he says. And ends with the words: "Come on, let's go forward together with united strength."

Indeed, Churchill unites the forces of the country - but above all, he unites them in his own person. He systematically removes the tacticians of appeasement from the war business, appoints one as Minister of Justice, the other as Head of Education, and sends two others as ambassadors to Madrid and Washington.

When Chamberlain dies of cancer six months after taking office, Churchill also takes over the chairmanship of the Conservative Party from him. In addition, he invents the department of a “defense minister” who can issue instructions to the war, navy and aviation ministers - and thus makes himself commander in chief for all branches of service.

First of all, he puts the whole country in uniform. His first bill, passed on May 22nd, forces every citizen to devote himself and his property retention to the service of war.

Soon the army was drilled on the beach promenades, and war authorities were in command in requisitioned hotels. Shelters in public parks and private gardens can hold nearly two million people.

If there were a million unemployed before the outbreak of war, every British man is now used to the maximum; the factories emit war material day and night; aircraft production rose from 3,000 in 1938 to 15,000 in 1940.

Churchill's Course and World War II

The British follow Churchill's course with enthusiasm. His pathos spreads to the whole people, fuels pride and a sense of community. Crockery with the portrait of the prime minister becomes a success. Journalists enthusiastically submit to the censorship. Class barriers seem to have become meaningless, and strangers get closer to each other over tea and bomb alarms. The birth rate is increasing.

The British endure the rationing of gasoline and clothing, meat, butter and sugar without complaint. They create gardens for self-sufficiency, and keep poultry and pigs in the backyard.

And when, after the rapid success of the Wehrmacht, the British expeditionary corps was facing annihilation in Dunkirk at the end of May 1940, everything that was seaworthy swarmed out to bring the almost 400,000 encircled Allied soldiers home.

Probably no war-participating state mobilizes its citizens as thoroughly as the United Kingdom. In 1944, 22 percent of the country's workforce was in the service of the army, 33 percent worked in the war industry. Factory workers dedicate their free time to civil defense, bank employees their night hours to air raid protection.

Women from Scotland, Wales and Northern England replace 100,000 recruited railway workers, move up as sweats in the shipyards, as conductors on buses - shocking! - in pants. The volunteers of the "Home Guard" guard coastlines, factories and airfields with the joyful zeal with which one pursues a hobby. Some are disappointed that they cannot shoot themselves - and compensate themselves for missed combat operations in the capture of shot down Air Force pilots.

Churchill's role in London

While the country homogenizes itself in camouflage colors and becomes invisible to the German bombing raids in the dark at night, Churchill stylized himself as a dandy, as in all the previous decades: the walking stick, the Havana cigar, the spotted bow tie, the eccentric hats, and finally the reflexive "Victory" sign.

Like his opponent Hitler, he likes to get up late. His bed becomes the command center; here he reads reports, dictates orders, talks to his staff - in a red dressing gown, a cigar in his mouth and the cat Nelson at his feet. He pours his work lunches with a bottle of “Pol Roger” champagne and rounds it off with brandy; after the siesta he uses whiskey and soda. Sometimes he already drinks a bottle of wine for breakfast. "I think that alcohol is a great support in life," is his credo.

At the same time, he often works until four in the morning, sometimes calls his subordinates over to him around midnight - and keeps them busy in between so that his wife warns him of the danger “that your colleagues and co-workers will tell you because of your rough, sarcastic and generally reject imperious behavior ”.

Sometimes he visits the fighting troops, enjoys the "refreshment from adventure", is disappointed when the expected air raid does not materialize. He roams the ruins of London and Coventry, receives homage and cheers. Then again, on nights of bombing, he retreats to the “Cabinet War Rooms” under St. James Park, the dressing gown embroidered with golden dragons, the steel helmet in hand.

"We will fight on the beaches, we will fight in the landing sites, we will fight in the fields and in the streets, we will fight on the hills, we will never surrender," he announced.

And in order to show the world that his government “will stop at nothing”, he even had the fleet of France, who was once a friend, shelled off the Algerian coast, which is now collaborating with the Germans and refusing to give the British its ships: almost 1300 French sailors are killed in the attack.

The alliance with the USA

The hesitations in their own country have fallen silent - now the task is to mobilize those who hesitate abroad. The alliance with the United States, Churchill knows, is essential for victory - so he ceaselessly bombarded its President Franklin D. Roosevelt with requests, requests for weapons aid or intervention.

England's downfall, he prophesies, would mean Hitler's rule over the Atlantic and thus threaten America's security. And sometimes he asks, shaking his fists in the sky, for German bombs on England, in order to finally get the Americans to intervene.

But there are elections in the United States, and Roosevelt has to take into account that his country is little inclined to a European adventure.

In addition, the votes that England have already lost are increasing - forcing Churchill to adopt the paradoxical tactic of simultaneously painting defeat on the wall and promising victory.

After all, the US declares its willingness to send weapons and ammunition across the Atlantic as “loans”, that is, without immediate payment - although for those in the know there is no question that the “loan” can never be repaid in full.

But officially Roosevelt remains neutral. And despite all the unfriendly acts, Hitler does nothing to force him to take part in the war. Churchill corresponds and corresponds, sending hundreds of messages across the Atlantic to Roosevelt.

A “European of the 19th century”, as the historian Isaiah Berlin will later put it, is writing to a “child of the 20th century” - a ditch that, with all mutual respect, seems deeper than the great water.