In October 1944, Christian Günther, the Swedish Foreign Minister, relaxed with a group of journalists and casually mentioned a telegram sent to him on June 17th, 1940 by Björn Prytz, then his envoy in London.
When the news of his remarks reached London, it threw the then Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, into a tizzy: “It is most undesirable that this misrepresentation of British policy in 1940 should gain credence among the Swedish intelligentsia . . . .”
Accordingly, eager to show its even-handed neutrality, the Swedish government placed the Prytz telegram back under wraps, where it stayed hidden from history for 21 years, after which Prytz himself mentioned it in a broadcast.  I was unaware of it until last month.
What so embarrassed the Brits was the content of the telegram, and the light it sheds on the cataclysm of WWII. On the day he sent it, Prytz had met with R.A. Butler, under-secretary in the Foreign Office, in an office next to that of his boss, Lord Halifax, with whom Butler had conferred during the discussions. Prytz was assured that:
“No opportunity for reaching a compromise peace [with Germany] would be neglected if the possibility were offered on reasonable conditions, and no 'diehards' would be allowed to stand in the way.”
This was dynamite. The “diehard” certainly referred to Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for just five weeks, and the assurance certainly came from Halifax, who had been his rival for that appointment, and it was given to Prytz just a few hours after the French government had capitulated to the German one. It was, in essence, a statement that the British Foreign Office was interested in a deal with Germany and that if an offer were made, Halifax would make sure Churchill didn't get in the way – and that Halifax expected to replace him.
So the awesome question, affecting the fate of scores of millions of human lives, is: Were any “reasonable” terms placed on the table, shortly after June 17th, 1940?
That day was Hitler's high point. In a few weeks, his armies had vanquished France, long-time adversary of his country. He was master of Europe . . . except for that island to the North. His plans for expansion of the Third Reich did not (at that stage, at least) include a costly war against Britain but a cheap one against the USSR. So he made a rather generous offer to Churchill: leave me alone in Europe, and I'll leave you alone to your worldwide Empire.
Hitler's address to his Reichstag on July 19th, 1940 included several very plain hints that an agreement with England was desirable, for example, “I . . . appeal once more to reason and common sense in Great Britain . . . . I can see no reason why this war need go on . . . .” According to Pat Buchanan's book (reviewed here), Alan Clark, an aide to Margaret Thatcher, said “Hitler actually offered peace in July 1940 before the Battle of Britain started.” Buchanan writes that “The speech was followed by diplomatic approaches to [Britain] through Sweden, the United States and the Vatican” and the clearest of these seems to be the one made to the UK Ambassador in Stockholm, Victor Mallet, via Hitler's legal advisor Ludwig Weissauer and the Swedish high-court judge Ekeberg. Its terms were:
1. The British Empire retains all its Colonies and delegations
In other words, Britain was to leave Hitler to run continental Europe, but would be left free to run its empire. In the new circumstances of June 17th, with Britain's only ally just defeated, its armaments abandoned in Flanders and its air force outnumbered three to one, it's hard to see these as other than very “reasonable.”
According to historian Paul Johnson's Modern Times (p. 368), Chamberlain had noted in his diary on May 26th, 1940 that Churchill had told his War Cabinet that “If we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies, he would jump at it”, but this is so out of character for Churchill that I wonder whether Chamberlain or Johnson or both had their wires crossed; for by June 17th, Churchill was, as Prytz reported, the “diehard” opponent of any compromise. Yet that outline is almost exactly what Hitler did offer. It is an enormous tragedy of modern history that the two sides, evidently so close, did not get together.
Whether or not Churchill did briefly flirt with the idea of making peace, by June 17th he was clearly opposed to it, with Halifax in disagreement; and by July 22nd, he had outmaneuvered Halifax, who was instructed that day formally to reject the German offer. Churchill used his political and remarkable oratorical skills to do so. On June 4th, right after Dunkirk, he had told the House of Commons that Britain would fight on “if necessary for years, if necessary alone” in one of his best known perorations, “We shall fight on the beaches.”
On June 18th – the day after Prytz sent his telegram – Churchill spoke again, delivering his “This was their finest hour” speech; “if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.” Another signal to his friend FDR to hurry to his aid – but by giving it, he showed that he knew quite well that Britain could not defeat Germany alone, and therefore that the scope of the war would greatly increase. Perhaps he did not guess by how much – but as a lifelong student of wars, he knew very well that, once started, they are awfully hard to limit and end.
The House, and the nation, were duly inspired. The cost of his stirring patriotic appeal was appalling; 450,000 of his countrymen were killed, its economy was ruined, its empire fit only to be dismembered and, after the anticipated US intervention, a worldwide, massive total of 50 to 80 million lives were lost. One of the great ironies is that by obtaining US “help,” the UK did lose its empire – surrendering the role of “world leadership” to America, just as I believe FDR always intended; had the two squabblers of 1940 made peace, it would have been retained. That presumes, admittedly, that Hitler could be trusted (very doubtful) or at least that he would be unable to challenge the UK while holding down conquered peoples to his East (rather likely). In the meantime, Britain would have built up adequate defenses.
Churchill said (in November 1942) “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”--but in fact, that's just what he did. You start – or culpably continue – a war, you cannot know how it will end up.
Had the Chamberlain/Halifax view prevailed instead in June 1940, most of that devastating loss would have been avoided. Hitler would very likely have conquered the USSR, and placed Russians under Fascism instead of Communism; one can debate which evil is the greater, but the Ukrainians thought the former was the lesser. There would have been no European war for FDR to join, so he would not have bothered to start a Pacific one. Jews would most likely have continued to be expelled from the Reich, but might well have avoided most of the Holocaust, whose scale was greatly increased only after America entered the war.
So, would the “whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for . . . [have sunk] into the abyss of a new dark age”? I don't think so. Fascism is repulsive, and its extension in 1940-41 to countries with milder governments would have been a regression for sure, but – except for the Nazi obsession with Jews – we already have a fascist regime here in 2014 America, in some ways worse than 1940 Germany's. It is not irreversible, and nor would Hitler's have been irreversible. Socialism in all its forms destroys wealth as well as freedoms, and as the German Empire decayed economically, there would have arisen a resistance, a movement to abolish government--just as there is here, now.
Such is the high cost of silver political tongues. Such is the wickedness of patriotism. Such is the folly of entrusting power to a man who wrote, in 1916, “I love this [First World] war. I know it's smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment--and yet--I can't help it--I enjoy every second of it.” Such is the risk of allowing governments, with their inherent power to wage wars, to exist.
1: Source: Sweden, the Swastika and Stalin, John Gilmour, pages 50 and 271.
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