For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilised order in the world.
…Such a principle, stripped of all its disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right; and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole of the British Commonwealth of Nations would be in danger. But far more than this – the peoples of the world would be kept in the bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of security of justice and liberty among nations would be ended.
— King George VI, Broadcast on the Outbreak of War, 03 September 1939.
In his personal diary, the Sovereign revealed that he was “relieved” that Britain was finally at war with Germany, after ten days of intensive negotiations over Poland had come to naught. To those of us looking on from a distance, relief may seem like an odd feeling to have, especially when contemplating war. But then we have not endured three years of the Rt. Hon. Arthur Neville Chamberlain as our first minister, who was busy preparing morsels of other countries in the vain hope that, after gobbling up enough Rhineland, Austrian and Czech hors d’oeuvres, the fascist madman on the Continent could be sated. I’ve no doubt that over time, as Hitler blustered and Chamberlain folded—once, twice, and three times—the King had privately come to the conclusion that some brave nation in Europe would have to face facts, take up its sword, and run the German through. Certainly his wartime deeds and stoic bravery helped restore both the prestige of the monarchy and British morale. It has been reported that both the King and Churchill had wanted to be aboard HMS Belfast for D-Day; probably just as well that they couldn’t. Both the King and the Prime Minister going ashore on the first day of the invasion would have torn the fabric of space-time with too much epic awesomeness.
Some of the most poignant and prophetic words about German belligerence in the tense autumn of 1939 belong, improbably, to a Czech diplomat—Mr. Jan Masaryk. He was Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to Britain; at least until he resigned in protest in September of 1938. The catalyst, naturally, was Chamberlain signing away the Sudetenland to the Third Reich. Speaking in London on August 27th, 1939, Masaryk offered up this candid and accurate assessment:
…One thing is very definitely sure. If the war starts, it will be Hitler who is the guilty party. I do not wish to deny that the unbelievable policy of the Western democracies has helped Hitler to this fortunate or tragic position. History will prove that most efficiently and conclusively.
…If there is even a vestige of the Munich spirit left to initiate these negotiations, they are doomed to be a dismal failure.
The only possible chance of success without bloodshed is for Hitler to climb down from the Trojan Horse on which he has galloped from Munich to Berlin, and then to Vienna, Memel, Prague and so forth, and now toward Warsaw. From now on he must walk, even walk backwards a bit.
Let me be perfectly frank; I believe I have the right to be so. If Hitler attempts another bloodless victory for vulgar gangsterism, and the world—including the United States of America—let him get away with it, I have no illusions about the future of the European civilisation.
— Jan Masaryk to the BBC, 27 August 1939
Oh that we would have such discernment today.
RELATED: Publius at Gods of the Copybook Headings recounts the early days of the “Phony War”, leading off with Chamberlain’s declaration of war.