Today Winston Churchill is presented as the arch-opponent of the evil Adolf Hitler.
Yet before the Second World War, Churchill was an outcast – regarded even in his own party as a relic from past times.
Churchill was one of few voices in the Tory party who argued that if Hitler gained control of Europe he would pose a mortal threat to Britain and the British Empire.
His opposition to Hitler did not flow from aversion to fascism – he admired Italian leader Benito Mussolini and believed Hitler was good for Germany as long as he did not threaten Britain.
Yet in the spring of 1940, when the war began in earnest, Churchill – the one senior Tory figure to oppose appeasing Hitler – became the only realistic choice to become prime minister.
Hitler seized Norway and Denmark. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain resigned after Labour refused to join a coalition government. Labour indicated that it would serve under Churchill.
Hitler attacked France. The French ruling class had experienced a mass strike wave four years before. In 1871 defeat at German hands had led to working class revolution in Paris. Now they decided capitulation to Hitler was the safest option.
The small British army in France began planning its evacuation, without telling its allies.
For millions of working people, the collapse of the French was proof that the ruling class could not be trusted to fight fascism.
Churchill had to rely on his friends in the press and the Labour Party to launch a campaign against the Tory appeasers. That required stressing that this was an anti-fascist war.
In the summer of 1940, pro-war left wingers were deployed against Tory defeatists. Churchill hoped this was a short term expedient. He was not fighting fascism as such, but defending the British Empire.
Yet Britain had no means of defeating Hitler. In August 1940 British forces were dispatched not to the English coast, but to defend the Suez Canal, the link to India, and oil in the Middle East.
Britain suffered a series of crushing defeats at German hands in North Africa and Greece.
Churchill’s only hope was to pull in the US. The US was prepared to provide munitions so Britain could resist Hitler – but at a price.
The US president Franklin Roosevelt sent Churchill 50 First World War vintage destroyers. In return Britain ceded naval bases in Canada and the Caribbean. The US forced British companies to sell their US investments.
In July 1941 Germany invaded Russia. Hitler expected it to collapse. It was a near thing. Russian leader Joseph Stalin refused to believe that Hitler would renege on his promise of friendship and did nothing to prepare.
German tanks powered east, capturing millions of prisoners who were killed, starved or used as forced labour. Behind them extermination squads began murdering Jews and carrying out reprisals.
Stalin relied on nationalism, declaring it was a patriotic war and warning that German conquest would herald barbarism.
Eventually, desperate Russian resistance and the onset of winter stopped the German army before it reached Moscow. Hitler’s gamble on a rapid victory had failed. He was trapped in a war of attrition in which the enemy states held the economic advantage.
The decision to begin the mass murder of Jews and other people seen as “sub-humans” began as the war turned against the Nazis. For Hitler and the Nazis, the eradication of European Jewry became one “victory” they could achieve.
The US prioritised the war in Europe, seeing control there as crucial to the post-war world order. They demanded an Anglo-American invasion of occupied France.
The British would always be junior partners in such an operation and countered by prioritising operations in the Mediterranean – crucial to Britain but a sideshow for Hitler – and by unleashing aerial bombing of German cities aimed at maximum civilian deaths.
Eventually the US prevailed and in June 1944 Anglo-American forces landed in Normandy and began advancing east.
Most German forces were deployed against the Russians who secured victory at a terrible cost.
Stalin would be satisfied with control of Eastern Europe. The US went further, creating a new world order based on US might and free trade.
This effectively forced the dismantling of the British Empire – the main thing Churchill had fought to save.