In November of 1942, following the Allied victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill said:
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
As ever, Churchill found a pithy way to convey many different messages with just two dozen words. To British minds at least, El Alamein was a turning point in WWII. It was the place where the democratic powers engaged in the war were finally able to push back their totalitarian enemies. In one sense the Egyptian town was literally a turning point, as it represented the furthest point of advance by the Axis forces in North Africa. It was also a turning point in terms of success. The Second Battle was a decisive victory and the first successful major Allied offensive. As Churchill later wrote in his memoirs:
It may almost be said, “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”
Victory in North Africa was vital for the Axis forces, and hence for the Allies too. Earlier in the conflict, the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Sahara had seen Britain vying with Italy in a see-saw contest. The arrival of Germany’s Afrika Korps, under the command of Erwin Rommel, had changed that, and the Axis forces were now making sustained progress towards their goal. They pushed further and further East, towards the shipping routes through the Suez which played a crucial role in transporting supplies to the Allies. At this time Britain was already suffering a severe problem with getting the resources needed to sustain the fight. Britain faced a very real danger of starvation. As an island, Britain needed to import vast amounts of food from North America. Britain also badly needed American equipment. To pay for it all, Britain had to resort to vast amounts of borrowing. Even so, U-boat attacks on supply ships in the mid-Atlantic threatened to force Britain’s surrender without the need for an invasion of its soil. These attacks reached a peak in 1942. German submarines sunk a total of 1,159 ships that year, more than they had in 1939, 1940 and 1941 put together. Conversely, German control across North Africa would have been the solution to what ultimately proved the most debilitating limitation of the German military, their lack of fuel. Germany had the tanks and aircraft to execute remarkable blitzkrieg tactics, rapidly capturing large swathes of territory. They used the blitzkrieg to great effect, first in Western Europe and then in Russia, but the Axis powers were unable to supply the quantities of oil needed for a sustained fight. German control of the Middle East would have solved that problem.
Rommel began as the aggressor at El Alamein, though his attacks were borne of desperation. The Axis supply lines were stretched, making it too easy for the Allies to attack and interrupt their flow. Too few reinforcements were being sent anyhow, as Germany directed ever more resources to the front in Russia, which was stalled in the face of bitter Winter conditions and intractable Russian defenders. The Axis advance towards the oil fields of the Caucasus had been depleted in the punishing Battle of Stalingrad. Rommel needed to win soon or he would inevitably be overmatched and defeated by the Allies. As well as the manpower and resources that came from the British Commonwealth, he would soon have to contend with the American forces as well. The USA only entered the war in late 1941, and their initial focus was solely on the fight with the Japanese in the Pacific. However, they had earlier stretched the bounds of neutrality by providing naval protection to the Atlantic convoys that Britain depended upon. Having regrouped in their Pacific conflict with the Japanese, the US would soon extend their field of operations to North Africa. Rommel needed to act decisively. The British, with the assistance of the Commonwealth nations of India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, had methodically assembled superior numbers of troops and equipment. At El Alamein, Rommel had roughly half the number of tanks and troops at the disposal of the Allies. With little prospect of further matériel reaching him anytime soon, Rommel had to attack now if he was to have any hope of consolidating the Axis gains. In the First Battle of El Alamein, Rommel had hounded the poorly organized Allied forces under the command of General Auchinleck, but been unable to break through and secure a victory. Auchinleck was dismissed. His eventual replacement was Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, a man who emphasized planning, coordination and the morale of the common soldier. Despite Rommel’s best efforts, the superior forces of Montgomery’s British Eighth Army prevailed and permanently blunted the Axis drive to take North Africa, Suez and the Middle East.
The victory at El Alamein served a symbolic purpose, which Churchill grasped. The democracies of mainland Europe had all fallen to Germany. Russia was suffering staggering losses on the Eastern Front in a desperate bid to slow the German advances. Churchill needed a victory to boost flagging British morale. At the same time, the war was a long way from being won, so Churchill had to temper any jubilation. His words were carefully chosen to do that. Victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein was also important to Churchill himself. He had replaced General Auchinleck even though the general has held El Alamein in the first battle. Churchill was also facing the threat of a motion of no-confidence in the British House of Commons if the sequence of Allied defeats continued. He badly needed a victory to secure his own political position as wartime leader.
So why am I telling you all this? I find the history fascinating in itself, but this story of events from over sixty years ago still offers many parallels to challenges we face at the start of the 21st Century. The struggle for El Alamein was pivotal. At this point in the war, the pendulum, which had been swinging in favour of the despotic Axis powers, had reached its limit and began to swing back toward the Allied democracies. However, the victory for democracy in WWII was only partial. There would not have been an Allied victory, if the totalitarian Soviet Union, with its extraordinary willingness to lay down the lives of its citizens in its defence, had not been part of the alliance. The Eastern Front consumed enormous quantities of Axis manpower and resources that would otherwise have been focused on taking Britain and North Africa. At the end of the war, the autonomy of Western Europe was reinstated, and Japan was eventually integrated into the democratic fold. On the other side of the scales, Stalin encompassed Eastern Europe within his authoritarian grip, and the seeds of further war and repression were sown widely, in places as diverse as China and Iran. Although history was punctuated with a long Cold War, more recent decades have apparently seen the pendulum continue to swing further towards democracy. The Soviet Union collapsed, Germany reunified, and the former Warsaw Pact countries have by and large deposed the Communist oligarchs that used to rule them. Spain democratized following the death of Franco. Elsewhere, in places like China, Korea and Vietnam, brutal regimes have been limited in scope or softened their approach. But might this pendulum now being reached its pro-democratic limit, and be about to change direction again?
Political power is determined by a mix of basic ingredients. Those ingredients are essentially the same as those that featured in our potted history of El Alamein and the surrounding circumstances of WWII. To begin with there is freedom of the people and political expression. For years, the democratic US, with an isolationist streak to its culture, dithered as a neutral. This only meant the scale of the task it faced was much larger when they eventually joined the fighting. Britain dithered too in the early stages, first with appeasement, then by toying with the prospect of peaceful coexistence with Nazi Germany and inaction during the phoney war. Britain also wasted important military resources through a misguided excursion on to mainland Europe to bolster the defensive lines of its allies. This excursion achieved nothing and would have been a complete loss were it not for the Dunkirk evacuation. It was only when Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister that Britain started to properly focus on the essential tasks needed to win a war against Germany. In contrast, the Soviet leader Stalin may have made many countless errors, but was able to maintain an absolute control that enabled his nation to defend resolutely and bounce back from devastating losses. Soviet citizens had little choice but to work and fight tirelessly. They laid down their lives in terrible numbers in the Battles for Moscow and Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad, but they did not capitulate for fear of terrible reprisals. Others worked tirelessly to rebuild the Soviet industry far away from enemy lines, and this industry would eventually be able to not only replace the enormous Soviet losses, but overwhelm its enemies. Attitudes to personal liberty and the process of national decision made a difference to how ruthlessly the war effort was pursued. Different beliefs about a person’s rights and entitlements, what they should expect from life and how much they should be prepared to suffer, are just as important in determining how the would is governed today.
Other ingredients from history still feature prominently in the current mix. Food, energy, industry, trade and transport all played an important part in the story of events around November 1942. They are all just as important now. The availability of these resources, who controls them, how they are controlled, and the uses they are put to, will greatly determine what kind of world we live in. Morale and vision are important too. In order to inspire people, they must have a vision of what they want to do. Churchill cut through any pretensions to finding peace with the Germans and hardened the resolve to fight. He unified Britain around a message of stubborn defiance and total war. Hitler offered his own vision, which he used to unite the German people. His message was world domination and racial purity. Today, we still find similar extremes in the opposing visions of how the world should be run. The content of these visions are important, but so too is the extent to which they are used to bring groups of people together. A sense of common purpose, or its absence, will also shape the future for democracy.
WWII hastened the decline of one superpower, and bolstered the rise of two others. Great Britain, even when drawing upon the enormous reserves of its Empire, was barely able to contend with the focused industrial might of Germany. As an island nation, it could not even feed itself. Without trade, and enormous borrowing to pay for the imports it needed, Britain would have soon been defeated. In contrast, the demands of fighting a war helped to lift the USA out of recession and put its workers back into employment in order to service its phenomenal industrial output. Financing Britain through loans was a natural, and ultimately profitable, corollary to America’s rejuvenation. Today we may be seeing the emergence of different flows of industrial output and capital in the world economic ecosystem. Recent events have turned back the clock in Britain to a level of borrowing not seen outside of wartime. The same events have confirmed and underlined the shift in polarity of the US economic model. The US, which was once an industrial powerhouse, creator of wealth and exploiter of vast natural resources, may be entering a period of terminal decline. It supplies less of its own demands, is dependent on finance from other nations and is the importer of an unprecedented share of the world’s energy reserves. Meanwhile, countries like China are on the industrial rise. Control of valuable energy resources has enabled a diverse group of nations like Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to invest in their futures and extend their influence. New alliances are emerging, as strange in their own way as the bedfellows that WWII made of Japan and Germany or the US and Soviet Union.
Lest we forget, we are also at war today. Though the Iraq War continues to wind down, the war in Afghanistan persists as a staging ground in the nebulous ‘War on Terror’. The terrorist antagonists seem to be as international in scope as WWII was, though the ultimate goals on either side are much harder to identify. Where we can identify goals, they represent alternative visions of human liberty and morality that are seemingly impossible to reconcile. This conflict is harder to plot on a map than WWII, but its impact is just as real. It insidiously changes our perceptions of human nature. The product of fear and the tightened security it provokes is an unmeasured drain on economies, diverting resources from other uses. It also opens up new fronts in the ethical arguments about personal responsibility for our actions.
These are our present conditions. It is easier to judge history and execute hindsight, than to look ahead and anticipate the future. But the future is often determined by events that take place before people properly consider the possible consequences, just as the rise of the Nazis in Weimar Germany was as much a product of the crippling national debt imposed through WWI reparations as they were the product of ages-old racial antipathies. These conditions will shape the future of democracy, and hence of how people are governed and the lives they live. This point in time is a good time to take stock, see where we have come from, and where we are going to. I am not going to do that all now – this site is called halfthoughts for a reason – but I am going to explore these themes further in a series of upcoming posts. What I will say is that Churchill was right about El Alamein being the end of the beginning. The war continued for another three years, but the tide had turned with the aggressors forced backwards from then on. The events that unfolded subsequently could not be confidently predicted at the time, but they were profound. One of those events, to use another phrase coined by Churchill, was the drawing of the Iron Curtain across Europe. We live in times of change that are as dramatic, in their own way, as the period that lead up to that battle in November of 1942. They will determine how the human race will live in the 21st Century. Let us look ahead, and draw some analogies with history, in the hope we can better understand what the future has in store for democracy, and for all of us.