From his backbench seat in Parliament, Churchill badgered, "Germany is arming- she is rapidly arming - and no one will stop her." But Winston was seen as an alarmist distraction by the coalition government of Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties focused primarily on domestic issues.
The coalition partners agreed that economic problems engendered by the Great Depression were Britain's greatest threat and disarmament was the way to peace. It was difficult for anyone to face the prospect of another war after one million British and Empire deaths in the Great War less than twenty years earlier.
But Churchill would not be silenced. In a barrage of speeches, broadcasts and articles he raised public awareness of Germany's rearmament and Britain's lack of preparedness.
"In continental Europe the earth heaves and no one but is aware of the rumblings. There it is not just a matter of extravagance or 'labour troubles'; but of life and death, of starvation and existence, and of the fearful convulsions of a dying civilization." –John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of Peace
The devastation of the Great War created widespread social, economic and political distress in all countries. While the victorious powers struggled, Germany was in acute suffering.
In November 1918. the last month of the war, a revolution in Germany resulted in the establishment of the Weimar Republic - named after the city in which the new national government was formed. But, political factionalism and runaway inflation shadowed its every move. In 1922, a loaf of bread cost 163 marks. By September 19123, a loaf cost 1,500,000 marks. In November 1923, the price was 200,000,000,000 marks!
The United States and Britain helped stabilize the German economy with massive loans in 1924 and again in 1929. The 1929 stock market collapse, however, threw all the world's economies into the Great Depression, taking Germany to new depths.
Radical political movements gained ground as democratic governments seemed incapable of finding solutions to grievous and world-wide problems.
To the east, revolutionary, communist Russia suggested one answer. In the west, fascism came to power first in Italy in 1922 with Benito Mussolini. Each capitalized on the economic hardships of their people and promised a new path.
Adolf Hitler, a wounded, decorated soldier in World War I, became politically active in its aftermath. Despising the Weimar Republic as a symbol of Germany's defeat, Hitler joined the German Workers Party in 1919. By 1921 his gifts as a charismatic speaker, and his attractive ideology, propelled him to the leadership of what would become the Nazi Party (National Socialist German Workers Party).
"We cannot tell whether Hitler will be the man who will once again let loose upon the world another war... or whether he will go down in history as the man who restored honour and peace of mind to the great Germanic nation...."
Adolf Hitler established the Nazi party in 1925, intent on using democratic means to achieve power. Resentment of the Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, mass unemployment, and national pride brought increasing numbers of Germans to his cause as he lashed out at capitalists, communists, and Jews. While never achieving a majority in the German parliament (Reichstag), by 1932 Hitler and the Nazi party had become a formidable force.
With the support of conservatives who feared Bolshevism, the German people elected Hitler Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Later that year, after a mysterious fire burned the Reichstag building, Hitler proposed, and the Reichstag adopted, an Enabling Bill giving Hitler dictatorial powers. Hitler was now the sole leader- The Führer - of Germany.
Hitler abolished the trade unions and banned all other political parties sending their leaders to concentration camps. By the end of 1933, Hitler's camps held over 150,000 political prisoners and he began to round up beggars, prostitutes, homosexuals, and alcoholics.
It was only the beginning of purges and pogroms. In 1934, "The Night of the Long Knives," Hitler ordered the murder of 200 persons who had helped him to power but were now seen as threats. The "Nuremberg Law on Citizenship and Race" of 1935, reflecting the Nazi ideology of the "Master Race," denied German citizenship to Jews and made it illegal for them to marry "Aryans." "Kristallnacht," November 9-10, 1938, saw over 7,500 Jewish shops destroyed and 400 synagogues burned.
The centerpiece of Hitler's military program involved renouncing and reversing the provisions of the Versailles Treaty and rearming Germany.
The intervention of German forces on the side of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) gave notice to the world of Germany's new military power and the tactics it was prepared to employ.
Britain looked on, hesitant and distracted by her own domestic problems. Some thought Germany had legitimate grievances. Others thought a rearmed Germany might counter Russia. Some admired Hitler's improving economy and work programs. At first Churchill hoped that Hitler might prove good for Germany and Europe, but he quickly concluded otherwise.
"Germany... fears no one. She is arming in a manner which has never been seen in German history. She is led by a handful of triumphant desperadoes."
"The flying peril is not a peril from which one can fly. It is necessary to face it where we stand. We cannot possibly retreat."
While Hitler campaigned for rearmament, the powers victorious in the Great War practiced disarmament. Germany watched with amusement as others sought peace by reducing their armed forces.
Churchill's experience at the Ministry of Munitions and his understanding of aviation's importance in warfare made him acutely sensitive to the emerging German Air Force - forbidden by the Versailles Treaty. Contacts at home and abroad fed him information that he used to attack his government's policies.
Churchill argued that by the end of 1936 the German Air Force would be fifty percent stronger than the RAF and by 1937 "nearly double." In addition to demanding emergency acceleration of aircraft production, Churchill asked for research into anti-aircraft defense. "It is no exaggeration to suppose that a week or ten days of intensive bombing upon London would leave thirty or forty thousand people dead or maimed..."
Churchill also proposed a Ministry of Supply to prepare Britain's industry for wartime production. But, beset with the problem of unemployment and the depression, the government could not imagine placing Britain's industry on a wartime footing much less how to pay for it.
Churchill called 1934 and 1935 "The Locust Years" because time which should have been spent preparing to face Germany was fruitlessly eaten up. Churchill described the government's position as "...decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent. "
"Dear Germany, do destroy us last!"
Churchill's arguments about German military power - particularly air power - proved correct by the end of 1935. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin admitted, "...I was completely wrong. We were completely misled on that subject."
The remedy was not emergency preparation as Churchill recommended; it was appeasement - the settlement of grievances by peaceful means.
Germany's rearmament had breached the Versailles Treaty for years, but without reprisal. In March 1936, Hitler occupied the Rhineland - a violation that could not be ignored. Hitler offered a face-saving diplomatic agreement, and the British cabinet opted for this rather than war.
In 1937, Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister. He began to seek an accord with Germany, not only to avoid war, but also to limit spending on arms. He proposed to return African colonies to Germany.
In March 1938, Hitler occupied Austria. Churchill immediately responded, "Europe is confronted with a programme of aggression, nicely calculated and timed, unfolding stage by stage, and there is only one choice open... either to submit, like Austria, or else to take effective measures while time remains to ward off danger."
Winston continued, "If a number of States were assembled around Great Britain and France in solemn treaty for mutual defense against aggression; ...and if it were done in the year 1938... then I say that you might even now arrest this approaching war."
But Churchill's advice was out of step with prevailing opinion. For the leaders of Britain, the horrors of World War I were still fresh. Few could imagine anyone wishing another war. Also, the terms of the Versailles Treaty were harsh, and some thought allowances should be made. Finally, the French Army appeared to be a formidable deterrence to German aggression.
Churchill, in writing later about this period, advances claims for his foresight and castigates those who sought to avoid war through accommodations with Hitler - the policy of appeasement. But he neglects two elements.
As hard to swallow as British actions of the late 1930s were, they did buy time to prepare for war. The appeasers took the fall when war came in 1939, and have been taking the blame ever since. Churchill had a similar experience in 1915 with the Dardanelles debacle. This time, it was his good fortune to be out of power when decisions were made that would come back to haunt their makers.
"This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year, unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."
In the midst of Britain's scramble for peace through appeasement, Churchill predicted, "that the day will come when... you will have to make a stand, and I pray to God that, when that day comes, we may not find through an unwise policy, that we have to make that stand alone."
But, concessions continued as Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, an area of the new Czechoslovakia with a significant German-speaking population. Having no effective power to stop Hitler, Prime Minister Chamberlain, without Czech involvement, negotiated the partition of Czechoslovakia.
Churchill stormed, "The partition of Czechoslovakia under pressure from England and France amounts to the complete surrender of the Western Democracies to the Nazi threat of force."
Returning on 30 September 1938 from his last meeting with Hitler in Munich, Chamberlain announced, "My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time... Go home and get a nice quiet sleep."
Churchill remarked to a group of friends, "The sequel to the sacrifice of honour would be the sacrifice of lives, our people's lives."
"Many people at the time of the [Munich] crisis thought they were only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, but with every month that passes you will see that they were also giving away the interests of Britain, and the interests of peace and justice."
Within six months of the Munich agreement - the promised "turning point in Anglo-German relations" - Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. The next month, 15 April 1939, Chamberlain established the Ministry of Supply that Churchill advocated in 1936.
On 4 May 1939 in a Daily Telegraph article, Churchill predicted a "new outrage or invasion" by Hitler - most likely against Poland.
In July, Churchill forecast an alliance between Germany and Russia; the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed the next month. Germany was now free to attack Poland with Russian cooperation.
On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland.
The Polish Ambassador called Churchill, rather than the Prime Minister, with news of the attack. Churchill passed the word on to the war office.
Prime Minister Chamberlain's first reaction was to negotiate with Hitler, again. His Cabinet revolted, insisting on an ultimatum. When Hitler gave no response, Britain declared war on Germany 3 September 1939.
"This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland," Churchill declared, "We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man."