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Friday, 13 July 2018

Eighty years ago: Nazi art displayed in all its poverty, hard news on Stalin's purges and diplomatic double standards in China

Hitler opened the second national exhibition at the House of German Art in Munich. It was intended as a counterweight to the kind on non-representational and modern art that Nazism loathed as an essentially Jewish construct. His speech was long on bombast but short on substance as to the exhibits. Indeed he confessed that the previous year’s effort had shown how disappointingly little the Nazi cultural message had been understood. This year the number of exhibits had risen but this reflected the inclusion of formerly Austrian artists who had been citizens of the Reich since the Anschluß earlier in the year. He lauded Italian generosity in allowing the export of the Discobulus of Myron but his praise of classical sculpture rather reinforced the absence of any creative force under Nazi cultural policy.

NKVD general Genrikh Lyushkov appeared at the news conference in Tokyo following his defection to the Japanese forces in Manchukuo. Lyushkov had been a leading figure in Stalin’s purges but had recognized that a summons to return to Moscow meant that he himself was to be killed. He planned to arrange for his family to escape as well but this failed and they were all murdered. Lyushkov was one of the most high-ranking and knowledgeable defectors from the Soviet Union ever. He explained simply that the victims of the purges were simply those whom Stalin distrusted, innocent of any crime. He explianed that the confessions of old Bolsheviks such as Kamenev and Zinoviev presented at their show trials had been extracted by torture and also gave figures for the total numbers of purge victims: 1,000,000 civilians and 100,000 military. The Soviets pretended that Lyushkov was an impostor to try to soften the impact of his revelations. He also brought with him a mass of operational intelligence on Soviet forces in the Far East and later collaborated in a plan to assassinate Stalin. His fate is uncertain but it is suspected that his Japanese hosts murdered him in 1945 when their defeat was inevitable because of the volume of unfavourable facts that he had learned about them since his defection.

In China the retreating Chinese forces paused at Kiukiang. Here they damaged British owned warehouses by transforming them into strongpoints and destroyed a steel pontoon belonging to Standard Oil of New York. These attracted strong formal protests from the western ambassadors concerned. The Japanese took advantage of their air superiority to bomb towns on the Yangtze River inflicting some 200 civilian deaths but there was no protest from western diplomats in Tokyo.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Eighty years ago, Germany takes another step towards a war economy, Franco puts killing Republicans ahead of battlefield victory and Palestine erupts into bloodshed again

Germany’s transformation into a state-planned autarkic economy took another major step with the introduction of labour conscription. The construction, steel and metal-working industries were to have the first claim on conscripted workers. Other industries were to be ranked in descending order of importance with Herman Goering as Commissioner for the five year plan having the final say. Exporting industries were to have some privileges but this was clearly a move towards mobilisation for war conditions; the construction industry, of course, embraced the massive efforts being made to construct the Westwall fortifications along the border with France.

The weakened Republican forces in Catalonia were in a poor position to resist a focused Nationalist drive on Barcelona which would probably have spelled the end of the campaign in the East. Franco’s German advisers pushed him to adopt this strategy but he refused and broadened the offensive to create a broad corridor to the sea. There was little strategic rationale for this but a prolonged slogging match would grind down the Republican troops using the Nationalists growing superiority in heavy weapons and air power. Making sure that his opponents would never be able to challenge him again was more important to Franco than a quick victory.

The fragile truce had lasted a few months in Palestine but now practically broke down. Violent incidents including targeted killings and bomb attacks erupted across the region. Both Jews and Arabs were involved in what seemed to be largely spontaneous acts. A curfew was declared.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Eighty years ago, two forgotten rearmers step up, anti-appeasement shows its family firm weaknesses and the democracies play arms control make-believe

With little fanfare the Air Ministry made two key appointments that were to shape the performance of the aircraft manufacturing industry into the Second World War. Air Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman was given the production remit in addition to his existing job as the air member for research and development. He was to be assisted by Ernest Lemon as Director-General of Production. Lemon came from railway company L.M.S. where he had modernized the depot, repair and engineering infrastructure. He did not know the aircraft industry but he understood how to organize industrial units. Now almost unknown, Freeman and Lemon were responsible for the transformation of the British aircraft industry into a powerful and efficient entity, capable of far more rational efforts than the German air industry at that stage. Sadly the appointment of Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production in 1940 began the legend that the industry had been in dire need of reform up till then and that Beaverbrook had transformed it single-handed thus winning the Battle of Britain. In reality Beaverbrook’s crude, headline figures driven methods almost destroyed the patient, structured work of Freeman and Lemon.

Duncan Sandys had married Winston Churchill’s daughter and been elected as an MP in 1935; he was an officer in a Territorial Army anti-aircraft unit. He gave notice of a detailed Parliamentary question on anti-aircraft defences and found himself threatened with prosecution for revealing military secrets. Presented with a perfect opportunity to hammer home the government’s desire to hide the inadequacy of anti-aircraft defences behind excessive secrecy, Sandys with Churchill’s support over-played his hand by bringing the matter before the Committee of Privileges as an infringement on the constitutional rights of an MP. An easy presentational win was transformed into a procedural slogging contest, incomprehensible to the public and which played to the government’s built-in strengths. The episode was emblematic of the weaknesses in Churchill’s campaign against appeasement. But for his father-in-law Sandys would barely have counted as an MP. He was a considerably more impressive figure than Randolph Churchill, the other family member of Winston's parliamentary group, but that is not saying very much. Sandys's marriage was not a success either.

In a sad, faint echo of international control of naval armaments Britain, France and the USA agreed to lift the permissible tonnage for battleships to 45,000 tons from 35,000 tons. Gun sizes were to held at 16 inches. The hope was expressed that the Soviet Union would accept these limits, tantamount to a public declaration that neither Germany not Japan was going to pay the slightest attention having withdrawn from the old system. To add a further layer of irrelevance, the USA was preparing to fit 18 inch guns in contravention of the new agreement to counter a Japanese move in this direction.