The global reaction to Israel’s attack on Hamas got me thinking about how, if we could travel back in time, the world of 2009 might have viewed some of history’s most consequential military confrontations
For instance, in August 1940, several months into Nazi Germany’s relentless raids over London, the British found an opportunity to respond. They sent 81 bombers to Berlin and, though most missed their targets, the attack damaged a school and dairy farm in Berlin’s suburb of Dahlem.
If, by chance, we could transport the politicians, the human rights groups and the media of today back to 1940, here’s what we might have learned from a news story a day after the British attack:
BERLIN, August 26, 1940 – British warplanes, responding to Nazi Germany’s bombing raids over London since May, launched strikes against Berlin’s power and railway stations last night, causing damage to a school and dairy farm in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem, officials said.
The British attacks signaled a major new phase of the German-British conflict, one immediately decried by leaders of national governments and human rights groups in Germany and Great Britain, across Europe, in the United States and throughout the Third World.
World leaders, who urged all sides to act with restraint, planned to meet in Geneva as quickly as possible to assess the situation. Several leaders phoned Britain’s Winston Churchill, seeking assurances that any British offensive would be limited and not escalate out of control.
The mood was perhaps best symbolized by the comments of France’s Marshal Petain, who has avoided taking sides in the conflict. “This,” he said, “is a very dangerous and unwarranted escalation.”
Activists quickly announced that they will hold anti-British demonstrations in Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Washington. A massive demonstration was planned for Trafalgar Square in London.
“We need words, not bombs,” said Robert Simmons, president of A World Without War, Britain’s leading human rights group. “I am embarrassed that our leader has chosen the path of conflict. We are planning our own show of force as we launch the biggest demonstration in British history.”
In Berlin, Nazi leaders quickly called in the worldwide media, giving reporters and photographers a tour of the damaged school and dairy farm. Families from the region say they fear for their children’s safety.
“I can’t live like this,” said a trembling Franz Hilbrandt, a handyman who lives with his wife and three children within a mile of the school. “Why would the British do such a thing?”
For months, British and German leaders have exchanged rhetorical fire, with Germany’s Adolf Hitler threatening the British mainland and Churchill promising to defend the homeland, shoot Nazi planes from the sky and exact revenge on the man he brashly calls the “Nazi beast.”
Hitler has complicated efforts to reduce tensions by refusing to stop his Luftwaffe from conducting its nighttime bombing raids. Those raids have inconvenienced the British people, forcing many to abandon their homes after sundown and sleep in the city’s underground subways.
Diplomats around the world have questioned whether Hitler has enough domestic support to order the air force to stand down. Some believe that other elements in the Nazi power structure hold greater sway over the military and that Hitler risks an overthrow if he orders a bombing halt.
Foreign policy experts also disagree about Hitler’s motives. A few believe the London bombings fit within a pattern of aggression against outside powers and reflect Hitler’s expansionist designs.
Most, however, believe the situation is more complicated. For one thing, they say, the Germans still smart over the humiliating Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. Not even Germany’s remilitarizing of the Rhineland, its annexing of Austria or its absorption of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland has alleviated its sense of national insecurity.
In fact, these human rights groups believe that, by striking back, Great Britain is playing into the hands of Germany’s leaders, giving them an excuse to ramp up the intensity of their raids. Rather than elevate the conflict, these groups are urging the British to work toward a diplomatic solution.
“Fine, we have shown that we can strike Germany,” said Bradley Hammond, a retired Member of Britain’s House of Commons. “What’s next, an invasion? How long will we be there, and how will it end?”