The Battle of Britain was fought just twenty-two years after the close of World War I, ironically called the “Great War,” or the “war to end all wars.” Great Britain had been on the victorious side of that bloody conflict, and for the first decade after the war’s end in 1918, it felt like it had won. But starting in about 1929, the narrative changed in a dramatic way as the nation began to realize the terrible price that it had paid. With the bitter reality setting in, England stopped feeling like a victor.
This staggering 180-degree shift was generated by a number of sources. A popular London play, Journey’s End, stunned its audiences with its antiwar theme. Books, many of them personal memoirs by those who had served in the Great War, began to appear, telling of the horror of that war. Newspapers and magazines began to focus on the stories that either had not been told or had not been believed: stories such as the stark truth that sixty thousand young Englishmen had fallen on the first day of fighting at the First Battle of the Somme.
Sixty thousand soldiers! Without gaining an inch of ground!
The antiwar fervor was fed by the grim facts. World War I had resulted in the death of almost one million of Great Britain’s finest, with twice that number wounded—this from a nation with a total population of only thirty million people. The war also left half a million widows and an unknown number of children without their fathers.
Such stunning figures simply could not be ignored.
The intensity of the antiwar fervor was remarkable, with pacifism coming into vogue not only in Britain but also throughout much of Europe. One well-known and not unusual example of the attitudes of the time came in 1933 when the Oxford student union approved a resolution that “‘this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country.’”^3 The same year, a victorious Labor Party candidate ran on the promise that he would close all recruiting stations and do away with the army and the air force. He called for England to set the example by demanding worldwide disarmament. And he wasn’t the only pacifist candidate to win.^4
The pacifist wave that rolled over England was also fed by other factors besides the terrible human cost of the previous war. Its time having come and gone, the once-great British Empire was on an irreversible downward slide. After generations of belonging to the most powerful nation in the world, the English found that sad fact difficult to accept. Traditional economic principles were in shambles as the nation found itself in the throes of the worldwide Great Depression. Nearly one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed. In some parts of the country, the unemployment rate was 70 percent. Britain’s export industry was dying. Hunger riots broke out. Feelings of betrayal and resentment boiled over, resulting in many symbols of wealth or privilege being attacked. In an embarrassing indication of the nation’s steep decline, the venerable British navy found its sailors rebelling as their wages were reduced.
While the ruling elite found imperialism still attractive, the working people were no longer enamored by its cost in money and men, leaving a philosophical vacuum that had to be filled.
In the midst of this political uncertainty, the Communist party emerged as an acceptable alternative, many of England’s intellectual elite enlisting in the Communist cause. Russia was held up as a great success story, visitors to Stalin’s sadistic empire having been brainwashed into believing that the fairy-tale harmony and prosperity created by the Russian propaganda machine were real.
With the Russian Bear rising up in Eastern Europe, a genuine fear that England might be the victim of a Communist revolution began to dominate the political thinking of the time.
But through this great fear, a ray of hope began to shine.
Unexpectedly, and with astonishing speed, Germany rose as a counterweight to the Communist Bear. Feeding on the seeming success of the Fascist rulers in Italy (though a tyrant, Benito Mussolini did appear to create stability and economic growth), the Fascist movement began to stir in Germany, a desperate country that was suffering not only from the ravages of the Depression but also from the shame of a lost war and the oppressive peace agreement that had followed.
With the rise of Fascism, a man named Adolf Hitler forced himself onto the national stage.
Some in England welcomed the new movement as a bulwark against a Communist wave sweeping over Europe. With a desire for peace at any cost, and the dread of Communism hanging over their heads, French and English leaders decided to befriend any anti-Communist government that might emerge in Germany.
Adolf Hitler was more than happy to oblige them.