One can describe the Allies’ landing on Normandy’s beaches in the language of superlatives: the largest amphibian operation in history decisively contributed to ending the bloodiest war in history. And ending it in victory for the Good.
70 years later, we’ve come to take that conclusion for granted. But did it have to end that way? In an ‘alternate history’ novel called ‘Fatherland’, Robert Harris describes a victorious Nazi regime ruling over Europe in the 1960s, with USA as its still standing, but remote opponent. Thankfully, ‘alternate history’ ultimately means ‘fiction’. But in truth, that fiction was not far from becoming reality. Hitler did manage to either occupy or subdue the entire Europe – save for the British Isles. Britain remained unconquered, a defiant fortress behind its great seawater moat. It was down first and foremost to the fierce determination of its people and to the strength of its leaders, but arguably also to US assistance and to Hitler’s choice of aerial bombardments over immediate invasion. The successful defence of Britain – that last remaining bastion of European freedom – was what enabled D-Day and, eventually, V-Day. But that was not ‘an inevitable conclusion’; rather, it was ‘victory snatched from the jaws of defeat’. Had Great Britain fallen, reality would have closely resembled Harris’s ‘alternate history’ – and who knows for how many decades?
Even with Britain standing proud and USA adding its full might in 1941, World War II lasted six long years and (staggeringly, incomprehensibly!) claimed the lives of 70 million people, 50 million of them civilians.
I say ‘six years’, because historians generally view Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland, which began on September 1st, 1939, as the ‘official’ start of World War II. But the aggression that led to the war – in seemingly inexorable fashion –actually started much earlier.
Hitler became Kanzler (Chancellor, the official title of German Prime Ministers) in January 1933, as the leader of the largest party. No, it was not a coup; it was a round of parliamentary elections that brought Hitler to power. Had it happened in 2013, rather than 1933, ‘The Guardian’ would still refer to him as ‘the democratically-elected leader of Germany’ and would urge open and respectful dialogue with the ‘moderate National Socialists’.
Hitler’s ascent to power marked the start of a relentless series of aggressive moves. Almost immediately, he started to re-build the German army, with little regard for the limits imposed by the post-World War I peace treaties. In March 1936, he ordered Wehrmacht units to enter Rhineland (a demilitarised area), thus openly violating the peace agreements. Later that same year, Hitler intervened in the Spanish civil war, sending in German troops and armament. Next, he annexed Austria, after first undermining and then bullying its government into submission. That occurred in March 1938 and Hitler lost no time in moving onto the next target: Czechoslovakia. He started by stoking ethnic strife between the Czech majority and the German minority; to ‘protect’ the latter, he demanded the territory called Sudetenland; and, when that was ceded, proceeded to occupy the whole of Czechoslovakia.
That sequence of aggressions could not have been more ominous. Yet the rest of the world – however worried – allowed Hitler to have his way; it was only in September 1939, when Nazi Germany attacked Poland (and proceeded to occupy it in just one month) that Great Britain and France finally declared war. And even then, they initially abstained from large-scale military operations, still desperately clinging to the hope of a last-minute ‘accommodation’.
Given the repeated violations and acts of aggression (as well as Hitler’s ideology and domestic policies), that timid response is hard to understand and forgive. Nowadays, historians generally agree that, despite having invested heavily in re-building the German army, in 1936-1938 Hitler was still vulnerable. Even the Czechoslovak army – smaller, but well-equipped and entrenched in strong Sudetenland fortifications – could have presented a challenge for the Wehrmacht, especially if the latter would have had to fight also on the British-French and Polish fronts.
In the beginning, Hitler’s moves were still tentative: while re-militarising Rhineland, he was informed that French troops were being placed on war footing; a hesitant Führer decided to continue, but was apparently ready to order a retreat, had the French army actually crossed the border. But it did not; and the dictator learned that he could get away with it, that he was feared.
It was, however, the Czechoslovak affair that made the world war unavoidable. Bent on appeasing Hitler at all costs, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew several times to Germany, in order to ‘negotiate’ a solution to the ‘Sudeten problem’. He gradually acceded to Hitler’s every demand; finally, at Munich, in violation of his country’s solemn commitments to Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain practically ‘served’ it to Hitler on a silver platter, in return for mere promises. In retrospect, not only did this embolden Hitler and pulled the rug from under his opponents’ feet; it bolstered Germany’s still feeble economy and strengthened its army.
Although few remember it, the pre-war Czechoslovakia was a rich, relatively well-developed country, with a strong military industry (as an example, the famous ‘Bren’ machine gun, used by the British army throughout the war, had been designed in the Czech city of Brno and ultimately manufactured in Enfield).
According to Katriel Ben-Arie, Hitler’s Czech plunder amounted to
“3.5 billion Reichsmarks’ worth of gold, foreign currency and stockpiled raw material and finished goods [which] saved Hitler’s Reich from speedy economic collapse”
Niall Ferguson opines:
“Hitler gained immediately from Munich. With Czechoslovakia emasculated, Germany’s eastern frontier was significantly less vulnerable. In occupying the Sudetenland, the Germans acquired at a stroke 1.5 million rifles, 750 aircraft, 600 tanks, and 2,000 field guns, all of which were to prove useful in the years to come. Indeed, more than one in ten of the tanks used by the Germans in their western offensive of 1940 were Czech-built… To put it another way: it would prove much harder to fight Germany in 1939 than it would have proved to fight Germany in 1938.”
Yet on his return to England, Neville Chamberlain saw himself as ‘the saviour of peace’ – and was hailed as such. Speaking outside 10 Downing St., he boasted:
"My good friends, for the second time in our history a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time."
The British press and war-wary public generally agreed. The Manchester Guardian (the precursor of the current broadsheet – some things never change) triumphantly announced that “Europe has been saved”, albeit at the expense of a distant, unimportant country.
Churchill’s voice must have sounded like that of a crazed prophet of doom:
"England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war."
There is, of course, no doubt that Chamberlain and ‘the peace camp’ meant well – as did Churchill. This was not an argument between peaceniks and warmongers, but between self-delusion and realism. One does not stop a bully by appeasement – that only emboldens him; unpleasant as it may be, the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him.
Chamberlain and those who acclaimed him wanted peace; but peace was not on offer; war was to start just a few months later. Standing up to Hitler in 1936-1938 may have cost lives; but it would have saved countless others. As it happened, the ‘peace camp’s’ good intentions merely paved the road to a 6-years-long hell which devoured 70 million lives. Including the 4,414 Allied soldiers who died on June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy.
Just short of 23 years after D-Day (on June 5, 1967), in a different part of the world, another military operation was starting: waves of Israeli planes were taking off, their mission to bomb Egyptian military airfields and destroy that country’s airforce. The war that had just started was to last not six years, but six days; it was a different war, in almost every way.
But, like World War II, the main hostilities had been preceded by a dictator’s ever-bolder aggressive moves. An ex-officer who acceded to power through a military coup, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had invested heavily in building up the army, despite his country’s poverty. He had also forged military alliances with Syria and Jordan – the former was also politically united with Egypt, while the latter’s armed forces were placed under Egyptian command. This was accompanied by extremely aggressive rhetoric and by various border skirmishes with Israel. Finally, in May, Nasser ordered his army to enter Sinai and take positions at the border with Israel. Three days later, he ordered the UN peace-keeping force to leave Sinai – an order that the international organisation meekly obeyed. Finally, on May 22, Nasser declared a naval blockade, closing the Straits of Tiran (an international waterway controlling access to the Red Sea) to Israeli ships and trade. All three steps – massing troops in Sinai, expelling the peace-keepers and of course the naval blockade – were clear violations of the armistice agreements.
Nasser’s immediate intentions will remain a matter of debate among historians and political activists – with some seeing just an ill-judged exercise in brinkmanship and a botched attempt to extract political and military advantages; there is no real doubt, however, that in the longer term he was intent on wiping Israel off the map, if at all possible.
Israel found herself in a quandary: while Nasser’s moves constituted acts of aggression and in principle triggered the right to self-defence, the ‘international public opinion’ (and parts of the national one) were against war and called for ‘restraint’, ‘moderation’ and ‘international dialogue’.
At first, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol assented: he sent secret appeasement messages to Nasser and agreed to let the ‘international community’ solve the crisis. But attempts to organise an international escort to challenge the Egyptian blockade soon came to nothing; while paying lip service to ‘international law’, neither the UN nor USA, Britain or France were ready to enforce it. With the Egyptian forces massed at her Southern border, Israel had to mobilise its army, largely made up of reservists. This brought the economy to an abrupt halt; the ‘restraint’ was making Israel weaker, while emboldening Nasser, whose threats were becoming ever bolder.
On June 1st, an Israeli national unity government was sworn in. On June 4th, the new government ordered the Israel Defence Forces to take out the Egyptian airforce.
The Six Days War claimed the lives of more than 700 Israelis. Fortunately, we will never know how many lives it saved.
War is a terrible, horrible, hideous thing. What sane person likes or wants war? Yet bullies cannot be ‘appeased’, they need to be confronted. The only thing worse than a war is a longer and bloodier war. And the only thing worse than fighting a long and bloody war is losing it.