Ian Aitken: Equal and opposite wartime shame for left and right in World War II

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: September 6, 2009 Last modified: September 4, 2009

I still have a vivid memory of the day, 70 years ago this week, when Neville Chamberlain finally admitted personal defeat in his campaign to buy off Hitler with bits of other people’s countries and went on the wireless to declare that a “state of war” existed between Britain and Germany. It was a bright Sunday morning, and my parents and I were in the sitting room of our top floor flat in north London to hear Chamberlain broadcast to the nation.

Neither my father – who had been badly wounded in the Great War and was not long back from fighting on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War – nor my mother were under any illusions about what lay ahead. But in spite of that, they were grimly satisfied that at last this country had officially joined the fight against fascism which they and others on the British left had been conducting for almost a decade.

Being a normal 12-year-old boy with a sound grounding in the Biggles stories of Captain WE Johns, I had fewer reservations and was greatly excited by the prospect of a real war on my doorstep.

When Chamberlain finally finished his gloomy recital of self-justification and apology, I remember stepping over to the window to see what a war looked like. Sure enough, as if on cue, the air raid sirens started up their baleful wail. It was beginning already.

Across the road from our flats, there was a bus stop and a big red London bus was just drawing up at it. A man in a grey suit was sprinting to catch it – until he heard the sirens and immediately stopped running. I could see at once what had gone though his mind: he didn’t want to be thought to be running because he was afraid of the air raid. Like a true Brit, I concluded, he would rather miss his bus than be seen as a coward.

What may have prompted him was the sight of a large number of terrified women bursting out of the delicatessen shop down below our flat and running across the road towards the park on the other side. In that park, just a few days earlier, council workers had dug a series of interconnected trenches to serve as makeshift air-raid shelters. The women were heading for the very questionable but extremely muddy protection they offered.

However, it wasn’t an air raid; that would have to wait for another nine or 10 months. What had happened was that a nervous spotter in the Observer Corps had mistaken a stray British plane for a German bomber and pressed the panic button. His error was quickly detected and, before my neighbours had got their shoes dirty in the trenches, the steady note of the All Clear was sounding. Slightly shame-faced, the ladies trailed back to their shop.

What followed was the so-called “phoney war”, during which Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and his minions (among them the much admired R A Butler) were doing their best to hold off a real war in the hope that a deal could still be achieved with Hitler.

I see there is now an attempt by some right-wing historians to deny the truth of this and revive the reputation of Chamberlain and his crew. But the truth is on record – not least in the extraordinarily frank diaries of “Chips” Channon, Butler’s bag carrier in the House of Commons.

The shame inflicted on the nation by the “Men of Munich” was a major factor in ensuring the eventual defeat of the Conservative Party in the 1945 general election. But there was to be an equal and opposite shame inflicted on the left by Josef Stalin, as a direct consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It happened soon after the British Communist Party had flung itself into a campaign to prosecute a successful war against the Nazis.

The official party line – which my father, as an active CPer, enthusiastically supported – was contained in a pamphlet called How to Win the War, written by the CP’s charismatic leader, Harry Pollitt. It was a somewhat impossiblist document, since it called for the removal of the entire Chamberlain administration and its replacement by a popular front government – in which, of course, the tiny Communist Party would have a major role.

Alas, Stalin had a different idea. No doubt keen to fulfil his side of the bargain in his pact with Hitler, he issued instructions to Communist parties across Europe to oppose the war, on the bizarre grounds that it was an imperialist conflict. Obedient as ever, the CPGB did an instant about turn, withdrew Pollitt’s pamphlet and removed its author from his job.

The switch probably had very little impact in this country, since the CP was pretty weak here (it was a different matter in France). But it had a major impact on me and my family, because my father simply could not stomach the new line and left the Communist Party.

As a result, there has never been the slightest likelihood that I would ever become a Communist. I am grateful for that deliverance.