What existed in Europe in the 1930s were mostly democratic authoritarian systems. Systems that had closed down open political competition, but did so with the support of the majority, often the enthusiasm of the majority. The idea of choosing your own rulers had been greeted with initial enthusiasm, but when people tried it they found it mostly produced weakness and deadlock. So when competent authoritarians took over, this was generally welcomed. Franco’s Spain was the only real dictatorship, based on winning a Civil War with most of the army but slightly less than half the population, and never tested in a referendum.
Had France and Britain stalemated Nazi Germany, and perhaps later won with US support, it seems unlikely they would have had the same (imperfect) commitment to extending democracy and winding up empires that occurred in the actual war, in which the Soviet Union destroyed about two-thirds of German power. Churchill was scornful of the Soviet Union as late as January 1940, when the Maginot Line seemed secure and the Soviets were having trouble against the Finns, who were even better adapted to cold-weather warfare than the Russians were. He saw it as a confirmation of all of his prejudiced – the same prejudices he had set aside a couple of years later:
“The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent. They have exposed, for all the world to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force. Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been dispelled in these few fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle. Everyone can see how Communism rots the soul of a nation; how it makes it abject and hungry in peace, and proves it base and abominable in war.” (Collected Speeches)
By the autumn of 1940, things were very different. France had surrendered. Churchill wanted to fight on, but had little hope of victory. He had to widen the war to have any hope of winning it.
If one could go back in time (very unlikely) and if one wanted to see the war end with a compromise peace in 1940 (very moot), one might have drafted a speech for Hitler that might have made all the difference. Something like:
“People of Britain, I never wanted a war with you. I do not wish to harm your empire. Before the war, I was in favour of you keeping all you had, except perhaps for Ireland’s desire for full independence and Spain’s claim to Gibraltar. But since neither country helped Germany when the war’s outcome was doubtful, I see no need to do anything for them.
“The issue is no longer doubtful. France has been defeated and made peace. If you insist on a long war, German power can destroy you. But I do not wish this. I do not want to create a legacy of British bitterness for future German leaders to face, perhaps incompetently.
“Since you made war on me, I cannot let things go back to what they were. But I would be satisfied to have military control of Gibraltar, Malta and the Suez Canal, without demanding changes in how the non-military population is governed. And I want a binding promise that never again will your navy impose famine on Germany or any other countries by blocking imports of food which we have become dependent on. As for Germany’s former colonies, I am moderate on the issue and might be willing to see existing arrangements continue with suitable concessions.
“I do not seek any occupation of any part of Britain, and will gladly withdraw from the Channel Islands. Likewise from France, Holland, Denmark and Norway, as soon as I am assured that any restored exiled rulers will not be hostile. And I must insist that you do not permit Poles or other hostile forces to operate from your territory. You are otherwise welcome to keep them, ship them out to your colonies or otherwise get rid of them, just as it pleases you.”
Such a moderate offer would almost certainly have been accepted. It’s unlikely that Hitler wanted any more. It would at least have been foolish for him to carry on a war in the hope of more. For unclear reasons, he never said it. And so the war widened.
Note also, had the war ended in 1940, millions of Jews would have survived who were in fact killed in the later extermination program. This began when Nazi Germany realised that Britain would not make a compromise peace. Knew that Nazism was either going to win decisively or be crushed utterly, so they had nothing to lose by going to extremes.
Of course the British decision to continue the war had nothing to do with the Jews under Nazi control. These could have continued to be a useful labour force doing ordinary jobs within Germany, had Hitler chosen to play it that way. Most German Jews had fought loyally for the Kaiser, and it’s likely that many would have decided they were German first, had Hitler given them the option. Jews elsewhere would have mostly cooperated in the hope of surviving the war. Instead he chose to deport them to some unspecified location in the east. He create the conditions in which mass extermination occurred, almost certainly with his knowledge and approval.
Mass killing of Jews in Germany, Poland etc. would have been unlikely to have happened had Britain not fought on in 1940. But most people get this reversed and think that this sad consequence of the war continuing past 1940 was the noble and self-sacrificing reason that the British Empire went on fighting.
The British government was fighting to save its Empire, and to preserve the remnants of the global dominance it had had since 1759. It showed a striking lack of interest in the fate of East European Jews, even though the Poles and others told them just what was happening. Only when the war was almost won was it realised that this would make good propaganda. That was one way of evading British guilt.
This is an exerpt from White Knights in Blue-Collar Armour, which is mostly about US attitudes.