In March 1938 Winston Churchill, long a member of the British Parliament, rose to address Commons, but also the British people. Germany had just annexed Austria, and it was clear Adolf Hitler was preparing for a war of European conquest. What was happening in Germany, Churchill averred, was a threat to freedom and democracy. “The gravity of the events” the world was witnessing, he said, “cannot be exaggerated.” Writing a column fortnightly in a widely circulating London newspaper, Churchill warned afterward that German fascism needed to be forcefully opposed, and that Nazi sympathizers, of which there were many in England, including the king who had recently abdicated his throne, Edward VIII, should they gain control of the government would destroy British democracy. His call for a mutual European defense pact to oppose German expansion went unheeded.
In September 1938, Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, traveled to Munich to sign an agreement with Hitler. Hitler had just annexed the Sudetenland, a western area of Czechoslovakia bordering on Germany, arguing that the large German population in the region justified Nazi occupation. Chamberlain pledged that Britain would not declare war on Germany if Hitler promised to halt his aggressive expansion and militarism. Hitler had no intention of honoring his promise, and subsequently did not. Again, Churchill rose in Parliament, on Oct. 5, condemning Chamberlain’s action, calling it a “total and unmitigated defeat.” Labeled a colossal appeasement, Chamberlain’s capitulation has ever after been seen as the primary example of the error of appeasement. The bully not confronted is the bully empowered.
Criticism of Churchill was harsh. He was called an alarmist, divisive, a warmonger. Debate was intense, especially after he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939. Some opponents sought to drive him from government. But he was steadfast, and his determination to show the fascist threat to democracy won him allies, and eventually wide support across the country.
Becoming prime minister in 1940, Churchill was Britain’s wartime leader. It is for his determination to warn about and to oppose fascism that Churchill is most celebrated in popular culture. Those who battled and died in western Europe and in the Pacific and Asia fought not only for national independence but also for government based on the consent of the governed, for democracy, the principle Churchill so unswervingly defended.
A week ago, on Sept. 1, President Joe Biden delivered an address to the nation from Independence National Park in Philadelphia, standing in front of the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the U.S. Constitution was debated and approved. He warned that American democracy is under attack, is threatened by MAGA Republicans who do not believe in democracy, who in their raw pursuit of power at any cost seek an authoritarian government where the people’s will is disregarded, where there is no government based on the consent of the governed, but instead on the diktat of the few in power, where voting is intimidated and any electoral outcome unfavorable to the authoritarians is labeled corrupt. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans” he said, “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” A week earlier, speaking in Maryland, the President called the Trump authoritarian philosophy something “like semi-fascism,” a philosophy that threatens “not just our personal rights and economic security,” but “our very democracy.”
Criticism of Biden’s Philadelphia speech has been harsh. The National Review called the speech “blundering and insincere.” The Washington Post editorial board said it was too partisan, and National Public Radio thought it was too political. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy labeled the speech “divisive.” President Biden defended his talk, insisting that what he said was true, and the American people need to know what the country faces.
Saying that most Americans do in fact believe in democracy, Biden urged that those who do are not powerless, that “we are not bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy.” We have a responsibility to defend, protect and stand up for democracy. That is the work of our time, he said, of our generation, to make our nation “free and fair, just and strong, noble and whole.”
Many have applauded the president’s warning. Marc Murial of the National Urban League thought is was what many Americans wanted to hear. A union carpenter who witnessed the speech agreed; “you gotta get the truth out,” he said. Bill Kristol of the Republican Accountability Project told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, “If Trump wins in 2024, democracy is dead.”
If Biden’s speech had echoes of Churchill’s warnings before World War II, there’s a reason: The current threat to American democracy is very real.
Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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