By Margery B Donis
‘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.’
‘What is peace, O jesting Chamberlain?’
Such might have been the words of the few prophets in the late 1930s when Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, returned from Munich waving his infamous piece of paper and saying those words, ‘Peace with honour.’ The incident is seen today as having bearing only on the events that followed it--events which ultimately climaxed in the eruption of the Second World War. But to look back now on his statement and his whole-hearted pursuit of peace amidst a turbulent world plummeting irrevocably into war, we might find behind the words a man, behind the man a mind, and behind the mind a hundred, a thousand, a million minds; all--unconsciously, perhaps--thinking the same thought and wanting the same thing. Chamberlain was not jesting. He was in dead earnest, desperately seeking a way to keep his country from war. Today, our question may not be ‘What is peace?’ though that is a question I propose to address, but ‘What is honour?’
The greatest wars in history have all been in some way moral wars--if not inherently, made so by their proponents in order to gain support. To choose the greatest wars of history would, of course, be a difficult, if not impossible, task. War is by nature a deeply biased thing. There will be wars which come to mind automatically to a South African that will never occur to the Norwegian. But some wars are considered by most western peoples as very great. Yet there is a universally known war--a great and terrible war, one which affected every continent but which nearly all who remember will agree to be, indeed, a moral war.
It was the war Chamberlain fought to avoid.
The Second World War, which lasted over six long years (from September, 1939, to August, 1945), was not called a world war for no reason. There was no continent on the globe it did not influence. There have been other great wars--there have been arguably more moral wars. But none was as extensive, as terrible, and as remarkable as World War Two. It is rightfully called a world war.
I do not choose this war merely because it is the best known war to English speaking people of this day, nor merely because there are men and women alive today who witnessed it, though both considerations are great and have a large bearing on the reason. I make my choice, rather, because the Second World War was arguably the greatest, most influential, and most moral war of the 20th century. In such respects it can be compared only with the First World War, which was not as far-reaching, not as well-remembered, and has few veterans alive today.
It is, in the words of Virgil, ‘Useless to tell again tales already plainly told.’ World War Two was a disastrous, catastrophic, devastating war which destroyed more than the lives of millions of soldiers and hundreds of towns and villages. Any one who has studied history has studied this second great war and knows of all its atrocities. I do not need to repeat them.
One may say, this war ended nearly seventy years ago. Why then do we still speak of it? What bearing does it have on today?
That is a great and foolish question--a question which more and more people ask as time goes on. What is the past? It is gone. Why look back? Today, people look into the future. But the future changes nothing. The past is what changes the present. The Second World War has as much influence today as it ever did while it was raging. But we do not always realise it. Sometimes we must ask that question.
To look at the atrocities committed during the war makes us wonder if Chamberlain was not right in his pursuit of peace. Indeed, peace is a noble goal, often an admirable goal, but sometimes it is not an honourable goal.
Any sane, intelligent person must admit that war is horrible. Barbarities happened. The hand of death stretched out too rapidly over too great a number. But is ‘peace’ the answer? Is ‘peace’ honour, in every situation? Even if it is to avoid such a horrible war as was World War Two?
There can be little argument that the contest in the first half of the 1940s was moral. Adolf Hitler is a name that will ‘go down in infamy’--indeed, has gone down in infamy. I am sure that is irrefutable. Next to the devil, he is the universal symbol for all that is evil. As a man with total power, he committed unthinkable brutalities. The immortal symbols of the Nazi regime are not the Aryan race Hitler longed for, nor the thousand-year Third Reich he promised. The things that live on to remind us of the most dreadful period in German, perhaps European, history, are concentration camps, gas chambers, reprisals, and purges. The violence of Nazism has obliterated all trace of anything good in it. Yes, men agree, the Second World War was a moral war.
Chamberlain spoke of ‘peace with honour.’ But, as I have asked before, what is honour?
William Pitt the Younger, a Prime Minister for somewhere near twenty years at the end of the 18th century, had a different view than Chamberlain on the matter, in his great speech against Napoleon in . He said;
‘...There is no extremity of war, there is no extremity of honourable contest, that is not preferable to the name and pretense of peace, which must be in reality a disgraceful capitulation, a base, an abject surrender of everything that constitutes the pride, the safety, and happiness of England....’
What Chamberlain fought for was not what he thought it was--honourable avoidance of what would necessarily be a cataclysmic war. His was a regrettable mistake. He made treaties with a man who couldn’t and wouldn’t keep treaties if they went against his own desires. He argued against war, he fought against war, to save lives he knew would have to be lost if his country fought Germany. Those lives were lost, but were they lost wrongfully?
Nazism fell in 1945, and with it fell a great and terrible disease that was growing in Europe and elsewhere--the disease of Fascism. From Oswald Mosley in Britain to Vidkum Quisling in Norway, Fascism was like cholera--extremely contagious and likely to be terminal. But Fascism practically disappeared with Hitler’s suicide. Nor was it the only thing that began to disappear with the death of the Nazi Empire. Anti-semitism fell, and Communism, Faschism’s ugly, hated step-sister, began to appear as the cancer it really was.
Today, one must wonder how there can be any doubt that the Second World War was necessary. It was the only way to stop Hitler’s wild pursuit of power and the destruction of the Jews and other races, and this should be obvious today. Hitler’s terms for peace were like those of Napoleon, in other of Pitt’s words;
‘[The French were] determined to accept of no terms of peace but such as . . . could only be accepted by this country by a surrender of all its interests and by a sacrifice of every pretension to the character of a great, a powerful, or an independent nation.’
Chamberlain is not to be indited. He is a man since gone who tried to do best for his country, was condemned by many for his actions, but who did, at any rate, value his honour. We cannot go back today and refight the Second World War, even should we wish to. But it was even more influential than it seemed at the time, and so were the times leading up to it.
What was honour in those days? Honour, a fleeting, intransient idea, is only as honourable as men make it. There seems to be no absolute honour. Honour is a creation and endowment of man, and therefore its honourableness must be measured by man. In some cases men make their own honour, in other cases, society gives it to them. Honour for a man--personal honour--must be stated shortly, then, as a moral code.
A moral code may seem intransient too--it is merely, one might say, a way of looking at the world. But that is not so. A moral code is the way men live or know they should live. It is a man’s moral code that defines his honour--this is why one man’s dignity is another man’s disgrace. Society’s honour must be, then, a generally accepted, communal moral code. But it is the individual’s moral code that I wish most to discuss. And it is in this idea of a moral code that honour becomes understandable--because there is either a good moral code or a skewed moral code, and in right and wrong, there are absolutes.
Chamberlain’s moral code must have followed the English moral code of centuries--fight for the weak, help the man who’s fallen, uphold the principles of faith, loyalty, and honesty. His would have been an honourable moral code. Hitler’s moral code was irrefutably different--get what you want when you want it, at the expense of the weak, over the body of the fallen, dismissing faith, loyalty and honesty when you can’t use them. Though he (a man who never smoked or drank on principle) would never have said it in this way, the actions of the Nazis and of their leader spoke it through a megaphone to the world. Why would Hitler and his party, especially propagandist Dr. Goebbels, never state what truly was their moral code? Because there is, and always will be, an actually absolute moral code. And it was a form of this absolute code that most of Europe held at the time of the Second World War.
It is hard to deny--I dare anyone to deny--that the generally accepted, societal moral code of today is a diminutive, shrunken code compared to that absolute moral code--the Judao-Christian moral code--generally accepted in the western world from the Medieval Ages up into the 1900s. It was this code that made men protect women and children with their lives. It was this code that told men it was wrong to steal and kill unarmed persons. It was this code that, in a smaller way, made men open doors for ladies and children stand up for the aged. It was this code that made men fight for their principles.
These things still exist some places, in a small way. But the formerly widely-accepted Judao-Christian values of marriage, family, faith, and country have begun to fall aside and leave the individual to make his own moral code and his own honour. What is even worse, they have left society to make a moral code for the individual.
What is honour, Mr. Prime Minister? Chamberlain felt it to be best for Britain to keep out of war. But to all appearances, that was impossible. The Munich agreement annexed the Sudetanland to Germany in order to appease her power-hungry dictator. This coincided with Chamberlain’s moral code--doing best for his country, above all else. But in doing so, he ‘betrayed’ Czchechoslovakia, which was later invaded and overcome by the Nazi empire. Winston Churchill, later to become Prime Minister himself, had this to say against the Munich Pact;
‘We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat... you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi régime. We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude...we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road...we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting". And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. 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.’
This, then, is honour--a man’s moral code. True honour is the perfect moral code which God placed in the heart of man at the beginning. False honour is the skewed moral code man made for himself through centuries since the fall. But where does peace come in? Why fight for it as desperately as Chamberlain did? And why, today, is it even more desirable than ever?
I must say that it all still springs from that moral code. It began in World War One, this quest for peace, this pursuit of happiness without fighting. But it shouldn’t make sense this way. Why should there suddenly be a hatred of war, so shortly after Queen Victoria’s death and her wide, global empire? The Royal Navy was the greatest on the globe. The British Army was strong as ever. King Edward VII had reigned for nine years, through the Second Boer War in South Africa, and King George V had been on the throne for but four years when the First World War broke out.
The world in the 1910s was changing. Socialism had begun to spring up, powered flight was progressing rapidly (the Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912), and women in Britain were fighting for the vote. But, in many ways, the world was still the same. Countries in Europe were still power-hungry and imperialistic. And Germany, longing for world domination, was getting ready to war with France.
There were multitudes of pacifists during the First World War. It was, indeed, a terrible war which devastated Europe’s economies and lands as well as her armies. During the war, such disillusioned men as Wilfred Owen wrote dark and dismal poetry. After the war, such men as Ernest Hemmingway wrote dark and dismal books. Many of these men could not justify the death and destruction the war caused. And there is one good explanation. They had forgotten what they were fighting for.
The twenty years between the two world wars were ones of socialism, fascism, and communism. Lenin’s Soviet Russia, which rose with the Bolsheviks in 1917, had grown into a dreadful communist nation under Josef Stalin. Franco’s fascist government in Spain triggered the Spanish Civil War. And Adolf Hitler became ‘der Fuhrer’ of Germany in 1933 and began kicking down the ladder by which he had ascended. In 1939, King George VI was on the throne in Britain, Hitler was ruler in Germany, Roosevelt was President of the USA, famed Mussolini was dictating in Italy, Hirohito was emperor in Japan, and Stalin was carrying out his own cruelties in Russia, while allying with the Nazis.
And Chamberlain wanted peace.
Today, more than ever, people want peace. It is a cry from every new political candidate, a catchword in newspapers, a symbol on children’s pajamas and backpacks. It is thought to have begun in the 1970s, with the hippy movement. But I sometimes wonder if it did not begin in WWI, when men began to forget their moral code--and that it was worth fighting for.
What is peace? A freedom from war? Freedom from strife? The absence of death? Why do men want peace? Do they desire it so that they will not have to make sacrifices to uphold their principles? That is not an honourable peace, but ‘a base, abject, and disgraceful’ peace. Do they desire peace that men will not die? That, indeed, is honourable. But can it be?
The world was created peaceful. But near the beginning there was a disruption, a ‘revolution’, and paradise was lost. Since then, war has become more and more common, more and more destructive. Man’s ability to make great scientific and technological discoveries has ennabled him to make more and more dangerous weapons. And man will do that. It is the nature of the universe. The second law of thermodynamics states that the disorder of the universe must always either increase or remain the same. I think it is the same way with peace. Each war affects the world, and often leads to another war. Sometimes, by great effort, men can avoid war, and maintain peace. But sometimes that is not desirable. Sometimes, that is not honour.
Chamberlain made the Munich agreement to maintain peace, but in doing so he delivered Czchechoslovakia into the hands of the Nazis, who would enslave her. The United States fell out of the Vietnam war in 1975 in response to a nation-wide cry for peace, but in doing so it delivered Vietnam into the hands of communists.
Why did we leave Vietnam? Why did we forsake a country fighting against tyranny and opression--fighting for liberty, as we have fought in our own history? Were we satisified with what we had, intent on keeping our delicate peace, unwilling to fight for others who wanted the same things our forefathers wanted?
Why do men fight? Why do men war? Evil men are willing to fight for what they should not have, for principles that are not right. Are we too weak, too cowardly, too passive, to fight for what we should have, for principles that are right? Peace is not something that one automatically has. Peace must be fought for. No one understands peace until he has fought and experienced strife. Peace today has become a mere word; an excuse that exempts us from fighting against the wrong things in the world.
War should be avoided, but the enduring morals of the Bible sometimes demand to be fought for. The words of Patrick Henry’s famous ‘liberty or death’ speech still echo in the halls of American history two hundred years later. In it, the patriot demanded;
‘Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!’
Is it? John C. Calhoun, South Carolinian Senator in the mid-1800s, spoke thus of war;
‘War has something ennobling about it, and, with all its horrors, brings into action the highest qualities, intellectual and moral.’
I quote William Pitt again, once more speaking against peace with Napoleon;
‘There may be danger; but on one side there is danger accompanied with honour, on the other side, there is danger with indelible shame and disgrace. Upon such an alternative Englishmen will not hesitate.’
Peace is not to be bought at the price of our principles. Is any man’s life so precious that he will forsake his honour, his principles, and his faith, to save it?
‘Gentlemen,’ said Patrick Henry, ‘May call peace; peace. But there is no peace.’
Men must know what it is they want, and they must know what they are willing to pay for it. Without a firm faith in and loyalty to the moral code, the world will never find true peace, but only a semblance of it--a peace that is selfish, artificial, and will never satisfy.
Peace is precious. Chamberlain knew that to be so. But, like all worthy, noble, and really important things, it sometimes must be fought for.