This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
Unlike the First World War, which arrived relatively suddenly, the Second World War was preceded in the 1930s by a sense that conflict was looming. Daniel Todman opens the first volume of his history against this backdrop, considering the international crisis and how it shaped political and social developments in Britain. With key emphasis on the events of 1940, the book then explores the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 brought the US into the conflict.
Why did you decide to tackle such an enormous subject as the Second World War in the way that you have?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War and Britain’s part in it. But it struck me that the story of Britain in the war has often been written and understood separately, with a clear distinction between the fighting fronts and the home front. That seemed problematic, because the only way to think about how the war was fought and the impact that it had was to try to bring them together. That’s the guiding light for this project: how the interrelation of these stories, and how telling them together, changes our understanding of the war at different levels: economic, social and political.
The Second World War remains a huge reference point in Britain today but actually it isn’t terribly well understood – or, rather, it’s understood in different ways by different people. Some people know far more about a particular aspect of the war than I ever will, and one of the amazing things about writing a history of it is trying to find a way to tap into their expertise but also say something new for them – so they can think about how their particular aspect fits into everything else.
Another thing, which came to me through teaching at an undergraduate level, is that an awful lot of young people now don’t really have any knowledge of the war. Those people need a bigger, broader picture to be able to make sense of any particular detail.
How should we understand the Britain of 1937, when your book starts?
One of the reasons for starting in 1937 is to get a sense of a Britain that is very different from today. In many ways it was nothing like the nation of today – although we can see a lot of modern Britain emerging. So what I’ve tried to capture in the first chapters of my book is a sense of it simultaneously being a very modern place but one with continuities stretching much further back.
It was a country in which mass democracy had been a relatively recent arrival, with all sorts of worries about what that might mean. Yet it had emerged from the period of greatest anxiety in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. So actually it was a very stable place with a widespread democracy, even if people were arguing about what that was going to be. It was also a politically vibrant place, in lots of ways: there was a big ideological divide based on whether people were socialist or not, and that was a very important part of defining who people were.
It’s also important to understand that the First World War still had an abiding influence on Britain in the 1930s. There was still a widespread idea that the only way in which the sacrifice of that war could be justified was if peace was preserved. In the early 1930s that was about avoiding international war, which is why you see popular pacifism having such strength. But by the end of the 1930s that was very easily changed into seeing Hitler as spitting on the graves of a million servicemen by insisting on having a war – so it was seen as a war that needed to be fought. A unifying factor of the Second World War is that it was an anti-Hitler war.
In some ways, though, the idea of reaching a compromise was built into the British state by that point. There were many awful things about Britain in the 1930s, but it was still a nation that reached political compromises.
How did the personalities of Britain’s politicians – and how they interacted – shape the course of the war?
When I started writing this book, I didn’t want to put personalities into it, because I was thinking: “Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain… what a boring way of talking about the Second World War”.
And then, of course, when I started writing it, I realised that it’s impossible to understand the war without looking at these people and their personalities.
It’s important to assess these individuals’ role in a way that is balanced and interesting, and which gives readers a sense of how much individual influence mattered. One of the things that I try to do is to recast the war so that everything that happened to Britain in 1940 isn’t somehow down to Churchill. British resilience in 1940 is about a lot more than the force of his personality. But the war did give Churchill an extraordinary chance to shape not only how Britain fought but also – for good or ill – the Anglo-American relationship and Britain’s position in India.
At the same time, I bring out the role of other individuals who are sometimes overshadowed by Churchill’s colossal presence – not just at the time, but in his subsequent writing about the war. That includes other politicians – most obviously, Anthony Eden and Clement Attlee – but also lesser-known figures such as Arthur Purvis, the head of the British Purchasing Commission in North America, who played a really key role in trying to mobilise US industry for the war effort. So individuals matter – just not always the ones we think.
Why was Britain able to fight on after the defeat of France in 1940?
Although British power was declining, it remained an extremely strong and resilient nation. It was geographically blessed because you had to invade it over sea. It had a huge navy that, while not large enough to cover
all of the threats that it faced, was more than big enough to make sure the tiny German navy couldn’t launch an invasion in 1940.
It was also very wealthy, both in its assets and in what it could leverage in terms of its debts, which was out of everyone else’s league. The shock of the French defeat in 1940 was huge, and the fact that you had to renegotiate all the systems of trade was very challenging. In terms of making sure that you could keep importing things such as steel, having a stockpile of wealth that could be used quickly was very important.
The other side of this, of course, is that Germany was in no position to talk Britain out of the war. That’s part of the way in which I try to recast 1940 in this book, so that we see it in terms of British strength and German weakness. In a way, the only people who were more taken by surprise by what happened in France than the French and the British were the Germans. The German high command had not prepared at all for this dramatic change in the war. It’s very hard to see how they could actually have imposed themselves on the UK, and that’s the big difference between France and Britain.
Are there any other ways that you’d like people to see 1940 differently?
It’s important to recognise what a frightening moment 1940 was: that, whatever we think in retrospect, people believed there was a high risk of invasion. Respecting that and explaining why it was so disturbing is really important, because it helps to explain why Churchill’s political status was so high. It was not because people thought he was necessarily that good a prime minister, but because he was seen as a hero who stood up in 1940 when people were frightened.
But at the same time it’s important to ask what was shaping people’s lives in Britain in 1940. It may not have been bombs, terrifying though they were and as devastating an impact as they had in certain areas. Large parts of Britain were untouched, and what may have most mattered there was the shipyards opening again, or the price of food going up, or the financial problems caused to families by men being conscripted. That can be just as definitive at a personal level as any of the high politics we’ve been talking about.
At what point did you decide to finish this first volume, and why?
The book ends in December 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans finally joining the war and Germany’s declaration of war on America. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make this two volumes, because it means that I can replicate the structure of the war: from the end of 1941 what was essentially a European conflict, albeit one with global impact, became a world war. It’s the point at which you can see a lot of crises that were there since the 1930s in the far east and India breaking through with new strength. I wanted to end with a sense of one conflict ending and another beginning.
You write that this is the last point at which Britain had the power to shape world history. Why is that the case?
Britain ended the war much more powerful than it had been in 1940. In terms of its military, naval and aerial power, it was colossally strong. A lot of that was built on US finance but was none the worse for that.
But a lot of the things that happened in the second half of the war meant that this power was unsustainable as an alternative to the superpowers in the postwar era, both in terms of the cost of maintaining empire and trade and in military terms. There was a sense of a technological shift in the second half of the war, particularly the overwhelming effect of air power and how that changed how the war was fought and determined its end. Air power was developing so quickly and was so expensive that it proved beyond what Britain was able to maintain.
How would you like this book to change readers’ views of the period?
I would be overjoyed if it did two things. If it leads people who already think that they know something about the war to think about what they know and ask themselves how they know it, I’ll be ecstatic. And for people who think they don’t know anything about the war but know that it’s important, I’d like them to have a sense of the drama of the conflict but also of just what a complex event it was. The greatest service that you can do for your readers as a historian is not necessarily to change their ideas but to help them engage with complexity.
Britain’s War, Volume I: Into Battle, 1937–1941 by Daniel Todman (Allen Lane, 848 pages, £30).