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9 March 2021

From the NS archive: Paved with good intentions

22 December 1951: Churchill, Eden and the European Army.

By Anonymous

The Conservatives won the snap general election in 1951, called by Labour with the intention of increasing their parliamentary majority. It marked the beginning of a 13-year stint in opposition for Labour — and the return to power of Winston Churchill. Following the Second World War, countries across Western Europe — including Western Germany — were in conversation about forming a European Army, designed to strengthen Western Europe against the Soviet Union without directly rearming Germany and risking another nationalist uprising. If it were to go ahead, “the unification of Germany can only take place by act of war”, according to our correspondent. It fell on foreign secretary Anthony Eden to navigate these choppy diplomatic waters and steer Britain away from a plan that this writer considered dangerous and rash.


Time takes its toll. Seven years ago, when Mr Churchill and Mr Eden last went travelling together as Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, there was no doubt who was the boss. At Yalta the foreign secretaries danced attendance on the great men, and Mr Eden, like Mr Stettinius, was more noted for his looks than for his influence. Now the position is being quietly reversed. In Paris this week, while Mr Churchill gave the V signs and took the salute of the Garde Republicaine, it was the Foreign Secretary who led the serious discussions. His task was a delicate one. First, to assure the French that he and the Foreign Office have a firm hold of Mr Churchill and can prevent him restaging his role as a great Anglo-American war leader when he crosses the Atlantic; and, secondly, to remove the fear lest British policy should in any way be influenced by the various utterances of Mr Churchill as Leader of the Opposition.

These assurances were urgently necessary. Since 1945, Mr Churchill has played on two themes. The Leitmotiv of his Fulton speech was the special connection of Britain and America as English-speaking peoples. To this he added at Zurich the need to revive a German national army to fight alongside the glorious French army in the cause of freedom and democracy. On French ears both themes jarred and, when woven into a single Churchillian fugue, they produced a uniquely distasteful dissonance. The French are always suspicious that Britain is seeking to achieve an exclusive Anglo-American partnership and to persuade the Americans that continentals who speak no English belong to a lesser breed. Their suspicion of our perfidy is confirmed when the concept of English-speaking union is combined with the proposal for a revived German army.

It was no doubt in order to soften this discord that Mr Churchill travelled to Strasbourg in the summer of 1950, and personally launched the project for a European Army under a European political authority. This Strasbourg oration had been preceded a few weeks previously by a debate in the Commons on the Schuman Plan. On this occasion Mr Churchill divided the House in order to register his protest against the Labour government’s negative attitude to proposals for European economic integration. A few innocents at Strasbourg, therefore, may have imagined that he had now seen the error of his ways and was discarding both the special Anglo-American connection and the German national army in order to become a good European Federalist.

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It is doubtful, however, whether anyone concerned with high policy in Paris ever took Mr Churchill’s Strasbourg oration quite as seriously as that. By the summer of last year it was clear enough that, whatever party were in power, Britain would refuse to accept any proposal which could lead her into a European Federal Union. It was also clear that the Foreign Office favoured the “Little Federation” — that is, a United States of Europe based on Franco-German collaboration, but excluding Britain.

[See also: From the NS archive: When Job’s patience fails]

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At first sight this concept has its obvious conveniences — for Britain. If national sovereignty has become an anachronism in continental Europe, then why not let the continentals create their own United States of Europe? If France fears the revival of German militarism, then let Frenchmen initiate their own continental plans for economic and military integration of the Western Germans into the European community. In this way German rearmament could be begun, and the American Congressional pressure satisfied, without any sacrifice on the part of Britain. This was the Foreign Office plan, first evolved under Mr Ernest Bevin, then tentatively put over by Mr Morrison during his tenure of office, and now inherited by Mr Anthony Eden.

The trouble about the plan is that it is a too palpable example of sacred egoism. It demands everything of our allies and nothing of ourselves. Even more serious, it evades the desperately dangerous German problem which unites our interests with those of French democracy. So long as the European Army and the Schuman Plan exclude Britain, they give no security whatsoever against the re-emergence of an aggressive German nationalism. On the contrary, they provide a highly convenient framework under which the German nationalists and the Ruhr magnates can take control of Western Europe and mould it to their aggressive ambitions. The only French supporters of the “Little Federation” and the “Little European Army” are those reactionary forces which welcomed Ribbentrop in Paris before the war and collaborated under Petain in Hitler’s anti-Communist crusade. No wonder every European Socialist Party is opposed to the idea. No wonder that the Benelux countries are now nearly as suspicious of it as the sturdy Scandinavians.

Mr Eden is the first Foreign Secretary since 1945 who understands the German problem sufficiently clearly to see the danger of an insular British support for the “Little Federation” and the “Little European Army.” He knows the pressure which General Eisenhower is putting on M. Schuman, and he appreciates the validity of the French Foreign Minister’s plea that Britain’s role is to provide a makeweight in Europe against German power. As a good European, therefore, he will be sorely tempted to meet M. Schuman by contriving some form of British co-operation in the European Army, sufficient not only to make the project palatable to the French Assembly and to the Benelux countries, but also to soften the American accusation that Britain is once again sabotaging European unity. Why not, for instance, lock up one British division and part of our tactical Air Force in the European Army, if that will create concord when the Atlantic Powers meet at Lisbon in February?

[See also: From the NS archive: Stendhal’s Waterloo]

Before the Foreign Secretary succumbs to this temptation, he should recall the origin of this project. Its sole purpose, both in Mr Churchill’s and General Eisenhower’s mind, is to prepare the way politically for the rearmament of Western Germany. It would be a tragedy if Mr Eden’s first action as Foreign Secretary were to provide the good intentions whose use as paving stones was described by Dr Dalton in his vigorous and refreshing broadcast last Saturday. Dr Dalton indicated convincingly why German rearmament is the road to hell. If we are concerned with the purely military problems of Western European defence, we now know as a fact that they can be solved without a German contribution. By the end of next year the NATO forces in Western Europe will be strong enough to resist any Russian adventures and, if the Red Army were mad enough to move, those forces — so long as there were no German element in them — could make a fighting withdrawal across the German glacis to prepared positions on the Rhine. But, once German divisions are integrated into the European Army, this defensive strategy is denied us. For the  Germans will quite legitimately demand, as the price of their participation, the defence of the Oder line and a counter-attack to the Vistula. Hence the integration of German divisions in a European Army, so far from reducing the commitments of the other Atlantic powers, enormously increases them.

This purely strategic argument is reinforced by even more powerful political considerations. Sooner or later, the present arbitrary and intolerable division of Germany must be ended. But the integration of Western Germany into a “Little Federation,” strongly backed by the US, would exclude any agreed solution of the German problem. Once it is accomplished, the unification of Germany can only take place by act of war. And, whatever we may say or think today, the task of a European Army, once it has been built, will be to liberate the Germans of the Eastern Zone and restore Koenigsberg and Breslau to the Reich.

[See also: From the NS archive: New? We’ve always been new]

There is still time for Britain to block this fatal road, down which our neighbours in Europe are being slowly driven under insistent American pressure. Instead of facilitating the formation of the European Army, Mr Eden should go to Washington in order to demand on behalf of every nation in Western Europe, including the Germans, that one more effort should be made to solve the German problem by agreement with the Soviet Union. And if Mr Acheson replies that no such agreement is possible, Mr Eden will have a full and sufficient reason for taking Mr Churchill on yet another conducted tour — this time to Moscow.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)