The Americans have 1776, the French have 1789 and we have 1940. The date is not official for us the way it is for them; it marks no formal founding of a nation or republic. But the events of that year — specifically, Britain’s lonely stand against the Nazi menace — have acquired the status of a creation myth, the heroic and finest hour in which modern Britain was born.
Our children study the second world war in school and when we vote for our Greatest Briton we choose the hero of 1940, Winston Churchill. When David Cameron deployed his quasi-veto in Brussels in December, the headline-writers and cartoonists instantly reached for 1940 and the image of the solitary Tommy: ‘Very well, alone.’ Meanwhile, an unlikely Twitter sensation, with more than 200,000 followers, is RealTimeWWII, providing 140-character updates of what happened on this day and at this hour in 1940.
It’s not hard to fathom this centrality of the war, and particularly 1940, in our collective memory. It was, we tell ourselves, the moment — perhaps the last — when Britain stood unambiguously for good against evil. Others surrendered, others dithered, but we fought, even at a great and enduring cost in blood and treasure, for what was right.
That is the national, founding narrative of modern Britain. The United States has a version of it too, even if it does not enjoy quite the same mythic status. In this Saving Private Ryan picture of America, the US was the lead force on the side of justice, represented by a ‘greatest generation’ which played the crucial role in defeating Hitler. It was all but a matter of manifest destiny: where else could America be but on the side of freedom against tyranny?
Yet now the events of 1940 are coming in for re-examination, both in fiction and in the cinema. I’m not impartial on this: my new novel, Pantheon, published under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, is set in 1940 and, drawing on some forgotten parts of the historical record, shows that our memory of that period is not as complete as we like to think.
Of course we know already that there were British voices opposed to military confrontation with Hitler’s Germany; central to the heroism of Churchill was his prescience in seeing the Nazi threat when others did not. But the popular-culture version of this history holds that by the time war broke out in September 1939, the appeasers had melted away and the country was united.
The truth is not so neat. A secretive organisation known as the Right Club, founded by the Scottish Conservative MP Archibald Maule Ramsay, was functioning well into the first year of conflict. Its membership list, contained inside a locked red-leather ledger, included MPs, peers and military brass as well as a smattering of aristocracy. When the club dined at the Russian Tea Room in Kensington, the fifth Duke of Wellington was in the chair. Close by was Lord Redesdale, father of the Mitford girls, including Diana (wife of Oswald Mosley) and the Hitler-worshipping Unity. Also on hand was Lord Lymington, who dreamed of an agrarian England populated by fair-skinned men and flaxen-haired maidens, living on an exclusively organic diet. Listed too in the ‘red book’ — now housed at London’s Weiner Library — alongside hardcore fascists such as Arnold Leese and the co-founder of the future National Front, A.K. Chesterton, was one Captain George Henry Drummond. Guests at Drummond’s parties at Pitsford Hall were expected to comply with an unusual dress code: Nazi uniform. All the better for admiring the hall’s swimming pool, the floor of which was decorated with a swastika.
Viewed today, the Right Club and its affiliates — among them the Anglo-German Fellowship, the Imperial Fascist League, the Nordic League, the White Knights of Britain and the English Mistery — seem a mere lunatic fringe. Its badge, featuring an eagle killing a snake alongside the initials P.J. — ‘Perish Judah’ — probably strikes us as ridiculous rather than sinister. We would perhaps adopt a similar attitude to Ramsay’s alternative rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’:
Land of dope and Jewry
Land that once was free
All the Jew boys praise thee
Whilst they plunder thee.
But Churchill regarded the Right Club and its ilk as sufficiently dangerous that within days of taking over as Prime Minister he had interned the key players of British fascism. Mindful that Britain’s prospects looked bleak to terminal in 1940, and anxious that a public fearing imminent invasion would be receptive to talk of a negotiated peace, Churchill regarded the anti-war camp as anything but absurd. Ignoring parliamentary privilege, he had Ramsay dispatched to Brixton jail in May 1940; the MP remained behind bars until 1944.
Yet the challenge to the received wisdom of Britain’s uncomplicatedly noble stance in 1940 comes from the left as well as the right. We like to believe that we fought the second world war out of high principle as well as self-preservation. On the left that sentiment is especially strong, casting this as a war motivated by moral revulsion at Nazi ideology. And yet some of the leading lights of the pre-war British left — among them names still revered by progressives today — were in thrall to an idea we would now regard as horribly close to Nazism. The idea in question was eugenics and its admirers included William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Marie Stopes as well as the New Statesman and the Manchester Guardian. For some, support for the eugenic aim of improving the quality of the national stock meant devising policy that would encourage those of superior intellect and moral worth to reproduce (so-called ‘positive eugenics’), while for others, it meant persuading, or even coercing, those deemed inferior to have fewer children or none at all (‘negative eugenics’).
Thus Beveridge could propose that those with ‘general defects’ should be denied not only the vote but ‘civil freedom and fatherhood’. Keynes advocated the widespread use of birth control, because the working class was too ‘drunken and ignorant’ to be trusted to keep its own numbers down. Shaw could write, ‘The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man’ and looked forward to a ‘Democracy of Supermen’. The New Statesman declared in July 1931: ‘The legitimate claims of eugenics are not inherently incompatible with the outlook of the collectivist movement.’ Meanwhile Russell dreamed up a wheeze that eluded the imagination even of Nazi Germany’s eugenicists. He suggested the state issue colour-coded ‘procreation tickets’. Those who dared breed with holders of a different-coloured ticket would face a heavy fine.
Few dared to talk this way after 1945, once the world had seen where the logic of eugenics led. But before the war a British leftist like J.B.S. Haldane felt no hesitation in warning that ‘Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of “undermen”.’ Translated into German — Untermenschen — that’s a sentence to make you shudder.
It’s not that these people were Nazis; most were committed British patriots who supported war against Germany. The point, rather, is that some of the thinking we associate with Nazism and rightly find repulsive was not the exclusive preserve of Germany. It resonated even here.
If we Brits need to have a more candid reckoning with the reality of 1940, so too do the Americans. Eugenics found a receptive audience there too, with some heavyweight academic and financial backers including one John D. Rockefeller. At one point the US was the world leader in sterilisation of the ‘weak’. But more important is just how close the US came to staying out of the war against Hitler. A beautifully made film due out later this year, Hyde Park and Hudson, which stars Bill Murray as Franklin Roosevelt, turns on that very point. It shows George VI (Sam West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) arriving at the President’s summer residence in June 1939 to plead for US support in the coming war. FDR may have been sympathetic, but US public opinion was unconvinced.
The drama in Pantheon similarly relies on the fact that by the summer of 1940, when Britain was fighting for its life, Americans were debating whether to fight. September of that year saw the launch of the isolationist America First Committee, which had soon recruited a staggering 800,000 members — among them the future president Gerald Ford — making it the largest anti-war movement in US history.
It’s been convenient to forget the influence and reach of that movement, or of the passionately anti-intervention German-American Bund (itself the subject of a forthcoming novel, An American Decade by Richard Aronowitz). Similarly, few would now believe that the foreign policy plank of the Republican party platform for the 1940 election was all but lifted verbatim from a full-page isolationist newspaper ad part-funded, albeit covertly, by the Third Reich.
In other words, it was not inevitable, still less our destiny, that Britain and America would fight the good fight against Nazism. It was a choice that, at times, hung by a thread; that could, had the politics played out even slightly differently, gone the other way. The year 1940 was epic, but not as clear-cut or straightforward as our collective myth-making suggests. Which only makes it more intriguing.
Pantheon, by Sam Bourne, is published by HarperCollins.