The Jewish War on Hitler: Two Days in June, Three Historic Speeches
The following is an excerpt from the new book “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler,” by Rick Richman.
On June 18 and 19, 1940, three great leaders delivered three historic speeches: (1) the British prime minister, in an address still admired in Britain, America, and beyond; (2) a French general, in a speech now celebrated annually by his countrymen; and (3) a Jewish leader, speaking in New York to a crowd of 5,000 people, in an address largely unknown.
The leaders were Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Vladimir Jabotinsky.
Churchill spoke to the House of Commons on June 18, delivering a thirty-six-minute speech describing what Hitler would soon visit upon Britain. The mood in the House was subdued. Churchill urged members to forgo recriminations over the humiliating Dunkirk evacuation and to direct their attention instead to the future. The speech would ultimately be most remembered for a single sentence — its last:
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Churchill’s speech was a turning point, rallying the spirit of a people who, at that moment of national disgrace, lacked the military resources to achieve the goals Churchill set forth, but who possessed a national character to which he successfully appealed with his stirring words. Six months earlier, he had told the nation that the decisive factor in war and human history was not material, but spiritual: “above all, a cause which rouses the spontaneous surging of the human spirit in millions of hearts.” The June 18 speech expressed that cause for his fellow Britons.
On the same day, Charles de Gaulle, who had escaped from France and flown to London in a small plane, spoke to the citizens of France from a BBC radio studio. He sought to build a resistance against Marshall Pétain’s collaborationist government, which was arranging an armistice with Hitler.
De Gaulle — a general without an army — argued for fighting on:
Must we abandon all hope? Is our defeat final and irremediable? To those questions I answer — No! Speaking in full knowledge of the facts, I ask you to believe me when I say that the cause of France is not lost. The destiny of the world is at stake.
I, General de Gaulle, now in London, call on all French officers and men who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, with or without their arms; I call on all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, to get in touch with me.
The following day, de Gaulle broadcast a second speech from the BBC studio, calling on the soldiers of France, “wherever you may be,” to arise:
Faced by the bewilderment of my countrymen, by the disintegration of a government in thrall to the enemy, by the fact that the institutions of my country are incapable, at the moment, of functioning, I, General de Gaulle, a French soldier and military leader, realize that I now speak for France.
Posters quoting de Gaulle’s words appeared all over London, and on June 22, he gave a third radio address. His first address would eventually be remembered in France on a par with Churchill’s “finest hour” speech. June 18 is now a commemorative day in France, celebrated each year. De Gaulle’s address, delivered at France’s darkest hour, was the beginning of a resistance that would — ultimately and improbably — succeed.
JABOTINSKY’S JUNE 19, 1940, ADDRESS
The evening after Churchill gave his “finest hour” speech and de Gaulle the first of his “I speak for France” addresses, Jabotinsky took to the stage [for] a second time at the Manhattan Center.
That morning’s New York Times had reported on the “complete military and political collapse” of France. The German High Command’s war communiqué, published in the Times, reported that “[y]esterday alone far more than 100,000 prisoners were taken,” with “booty” comprising “the complete equipment of numerous French divisions.”
The Times published photographs of Hitler and Mussolini standing together before a cheering crowd in Germany, the Times headline reading: “Munich is Gay as Dictators Meet.” The dispatch reported that “all Munich [is] riding on the crest of an exhilarating wave,” bathed in the “bright sunlight of the thought that this war may now be almost ended.”
On its front page, the Times described the enthusiastic crowd Wendell Willkie had drawn in Brooklyn, where he said America “could best serve the cause of democracy by keeping out of the European war.”
France was the sixth nation to fall to Germany in fewer than nine months. An estimated 600,000 French lives had already been lost. Within weeks, Hitler would order the beginning of the Battle of Britain, at a time when Germany commanded at least two million more men-at-arms than Britain’s under-equipped and under-trained forces.
The British were an embattled people, whose leaders for years had left them unprepared for the German assault. The French were now living under a Nazi-controlled regime. But the British had a leader of extraordinary eloquence — whose words often drew inspiration from the Bible — and the French had an eloquent general addressing his countrymen, seeking to build a military force for his defeated nation. The Poles were reconstituting their own vanquished military to recover their land.
As for the European Jews, an almost unimaginable fate awaited them — for which they had neither a prime minister nor a general, much less a military to reconstitute. But they too had a leader of extraordinary eloquence, who had already organized a significant Jewish military force during World War I, and who now wanted them to join the fight again.
Jabotinsky called his June 19 presentation “The Second World War and a Jewish Army.” To generate maximum interest, he held a press conference at the Commodore Hotel, telling reporters that, just as he had felt in 1916 that Jews must participate in World War I on Britain’s side, he felt even more strongly now that the Jews must join the war, since they were the explicit targets of the Nazi barbarism: “It is up to us to offer sacrifice and help at least as much, if not more, than any other people.”
He told the press [that] he hoped “to get soon the Allied recognition of a co-belligerent Jewish Army, available on all fronts” — a force he thought could quickly exceed 100,000 men, recruited from the hundreds of thousands of refugees and other stateless Jews, and from the Jews of Palestine, where men were “ready to defend their own homeland and the Allied cause in the Middle East,” as well as from volunteers in neutral countries. And he thought a Jewish army would be of “tremendous moral significance”:
The example of Jews, long known as a most peaceful of peoples, volunteering in large numbers to fight for truth and sacrifice their lives, will inspire humanity to ever greater sacrifices at the present critical hour. It will easily upset the ridiculous whispering campaign still going on to the effect that the Jews want all others to fight in their interest, but they themselves remain at home.
In the first World War, where the very idea of Jewish military units was unfamiliar and strange, where both the Allied governments and Jewish opinion did still oppose it, 15,000 fighting Jews were easily got together from Palestine, England, the United States, Canada, and Argentine. This time, where the stakes are greater and the responsibility heavier, I am hopeful that progress will be both speedier and greater.”
More than 4,000 people arrived at the Manhattan Center that evening, filling the huge hall again beyond its stated capacity, with a standing-room-only crowd pressed against the walls.