Main Menu | TPHS Social Science Dept | TPHS Home  
Winston Churchill:
A Disaster of the First Magnitude (1938)

 

 
  On October 5, 1938, Britain's elder statesman Winston Churchill (1874-1965) delivered a speech in the House of Commons attacking the Munich agreement and British policy toward Germany.

... I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and that France has suffered even more than we have....

And I will say this, that I believe the Czechs, left to themselves and told they were going to get no help from the Western Pow-ers, would have been able to make better terms than they have got-they could hardly have worse-after all this tremendous per-turbation…

I have always held the view that the maintenance of peace depends upon the accu-mulation of deterrents against the aggressor, coupled with a sincere effort to redress griev-ances…. After [Hitler's] seizure of Austria in March... I ventured to appeal to the Govern-ment… to give a pledge that in conjunction with France and other Powers they would guarantee the security of Czechoslovakia while the Sudeten-Deutsch question was being ex-amined either by a League of Nations Commis-sion or some other impartial body, and I still believe that if that course had been followed events would not have fallen into this disas-trous state…

France and Great Britain together, espe-cially if they had maintained a close contact with Russia, which certainly was not done, would have been able to influence many of the smaller States of Europe, and I be-lieve they could have determined the attitude of Poland. Such a combination, prepared at a time when the German dictator was not deeply and irrevocably committed to his new adven-ture, would, I believe, have given strength to all those forces in Germany which resisted this departure, this new design… Such action would have given strength to all that intense desire for peace, which the helpless German masses share with their British and French fellow men....

... I do not think it is fair to charge those who wished to see this course followed, and followed consistently and resolutely, with hav-ing wished for an immediate war. Between submission and immediate war there was this third alternative, which gave a hope not only of peace but of justice. It is quite true that such a policy in order to succeed demanded that Britain should declare straight out and a long time beforehand that she would, with others, join to defend Czechoslovakia against an un-provoked aggression. His Majesty's Govern-ment refused to give that guarantee when it would have saved the situation…

All is over… Czechoslovakia recedes into the dark-ness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant. She has suf-fered in particular from her association with France, under whose guidance and policy she has been actuated for so long…

We in this country, as in other Liberal and democratic countries, have a perfect right to principle of self-determination, but it comes ill out of the mouths of those in totali-tarian states who deny even the smallest element of -toleration to every section and creed their bounds…

What is the remaining position of Czechoslovakia-? Not only are they politically muti-lated, but economically and financially, they complete confusion. Their banking, their railway arrangements, are severed and their industries are curtailed, and the movement of their population is most cruel… It is a tragedy which has occurred....

I venture to think that in the future Czechoslovakian state cannot be maintained as an inde-pendent entity. You will find that in a period of time measured only by months, Czechoslo-vakia will be engulfed in the Nazi régime. Per-haps they may join it in despair or in revenge. At any rate, that story is over and told… It is the most grievous consequence which we have yet experienced of what we have done and of what we have left undone in the last five years-five years of fu-tile good intention, five years of eager search for the line of least resistance, five years of uninterrupted retreat of British power, five years neglect of our air defenses. We have been reduced from a position of security, of safety and power-power to do good, power to be generous to a beaten foe, power to make terms with Germany, power to give her proper redress for her grievances, power to stop her arming if we chose, power to take any step in strength or mercy or justice which we thought right-reduced in five years from a position safe and unchallenged to where we stand now.

When I think of the fair hopes of a long peace which still lay before Europe at the be-ginning of 1933 when Herr Hitler first ob-tained power, and of all the opportunities of arresting the growth of the Nazi power which have been thrown away, when I think of the immense combinations and resources which have been neglected or squandered, I cannot believe that a parallel exists in the whole course of history. So far as this country is con-cerned the responsibility must rest with those who have the undisputed control of our politi-cal affairs. They neither prevented Germany from rearming, nor did they rearm ourselves in time... They neglected to make alliances and combinations which might have repaired pre-vious errors, and thus they left us in the hour of trial without adequate national defense or ef-fective international security…

We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude… Do not let us blind our-selves to that. It must now be accepted that all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will make the best terms they can with the tri-umphant Nazi Power…

If the Nazi dictator should choose to look westward, as he may, bitterly will France and England regret the loss of that fine army of ancient Bohemia [Czechoslovakia] which was estimated last week to require not fewer than 30 German divisions for its destruction…

...Many people, no doubt, honestly believe that they are only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compromised, and perhaps fatally endangered, the safety and even the in-dependence of Great Britain and France…[T]here can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi Power, that Power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy…

…[O]ur loyal, brave people… should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defenses; they should know that we have sus-tained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equi-librium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies:

Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.

And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.