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Friday, 19 October 2018

Eighty years ago, the dust settles after Munich but an air of unreality pervades

After the high drama of the Czech crisis affairs were slowly returning to normal although an air of make-believe floated around much of what was going on. Via Goebbels’s propaganda machine Germany was trying to paint British rearmament as an unjustified provocation designed to achieve huge superiority over Germany rather than a desperate attempt to catch up. Britain was accused to breaching the spirit of the Anglo-German “peace for our time” declaration. A supposed war-monger clique was blamed and Winston Churchill was ritually denounced. Stories were also floated that Britain and France were dragging their feet over disarmament proposals from Germany; these proposals were essentially imaginary. Germany held out an equally imaginary carrot in the form of a desire for a trade agreement which would allow British firms access to the German market, which was closed because of Nazi autarkic economic policy. Against this background of low-grade offensive, docile British newspapers claimed that relations with Germany had normalised and took as evidence the fact that the British ambassador to Berlin would be returning home Britain for two or three weeks leave.

As the British Parliament prepared to return to its normal pattern of activity with its traditional autumn opening, faint hints were dropped as to the strain under which the prime minister had come. He had in fact suffered a near nervous collapse after the strains of the crisis but some days of rest in Scotland when he could indulge in his favourite recreation of fly-fishing  had brought him back to an even keel. On his return he would have to conduct a small reshuffle of the Cabinet to replace Duff Cooper, who had resigned over Munich, and another minister who had died. The press loyally depicted this as part of routine business and did not admit that Duff Cooper’s departure was in any way representative of any wider concern at the abandonment of Czechoslovakia. There was a powerful reminder that the world was still a very threatening place: the new sitting would discuss some measure of national service

Italy continued its gentle move into alignment with Nazi racial policies. Jews were banned from working on the Italian stock exchange. It was part of the campaign to eliminate them from the “nerve Centres” of national life. The Fascist government did, though, back away from an earlier plan to expel all American Jews from the country. President Roosevelt had implied that the Italian and German origin minorities in Latin America were by some measures a threat to US security.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Eighty years ago, the Munich debate writes the future of British politics, Mussolini smudges the ledger of appeasement and bloodshed in Palestine is dripped over the Nazi score sheet

Over three days Parliament debated Neville Chamberlain’s diplomacy that led to the Munch agreement. The first was only noticeable for the restrained resignation speech of Duff Cooper, the only member of Cabinet to give up his position in protest. There was some concern in the government that there might be a significant rebellion in its ranks but in the end only a handful of MPs abstained and Chamberlain secured an overwhelming victory. The abstainers, though, were writing the future of Tory government for the next quarter century. They included the next three Conservative prime ministers, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan. It marked the moment that the first two, each heavyweights in their different ways, moved into internal opposition to the prime minister. Chamberlain had enjoyed a huge triumph at Munich but, invisible for nearly another two years, the tide of history had turned against him.

With perfunctory explanation the withdrawal of 10,000 Italian “volunteers” (in reality regular army units) was announced from Spain, perhaps a sixth of those engaged. A blizzard of obfuscating commentary from Rome attempted to distract observers from the suspicion that this wasa precondition for the still-awaited ratification of the Anglo-Italian Easter agreements. These anticipated the de jure recognition of the conquest of Ethiopia (“the Italian Empire” in Mussolini’s phraseology) but this had yet to be granted. Rome was keen to avoid the suggestion that the size of the withdrawal was calibrated to count somehow as meaningful progress towards disengagement in some diplomatic formula that would have to be resolved for Mussolini to receive the prize of recognition. Pride argued against admitting to being obliged to meet the Italian part of the bargain before the British met theirs. This was the end run to the process of negotiation that Chamberlain had forced Eden’s resignation to set in motion the previous February. The withdrawal was a pitiful reward for British appeasement, however reluctant Italy might be to acknowledge it.

The curve of violence moved upwards in Palestine. 19 unarmed Jews including women and children were slaughtered at Tiberias. There were also attacks on British forces. This all came at a convenient moment for Hitler who was always happy to pepper his speeches with references to British embarrassments in Palestine if London showed the least inclination to take a moral high ground as the German occupation of their spoils from Munich might have encouraged them to do..

Friday, 5 October 2018

Eighty years ago, Chamberlain returns from Munich with two pieces of paper. He is very proud of one.

The crisis over the Sudetenland reached its conclusion with the last minute four power conference at Munich. In the course of a single sitting that lasted well past midnight Britain, France, Germany and Italy decided that Czechoslovakia was to cede the area to Germany and signed a treaty accordingly. The only concession wrung out of Hitler was a small extension of the timescale for the transfer. Representatives of the Czech government were present at the Fuehrerbau Nazi headquarters in Munich but were only informed of their country's fate once it had been decided. The man who brought them the news was Sir Horace Wilson, personal advisor to prime minister Neville Chamberlain.

The following morning Chamberlain visited Hitler at his relatively modest flat bringing with him a sheet of paper that set out a declaration that Britain and Germany would live together harmoniously from thenceforth. He had prepared this entirely on his own inititiative, taking neither advice nor informing anyone else in advance. Hitler had little option but to sign the document. This was the piece of paper the Chamberlain brandished triumpahntly on his return to London claiming that it meant "peace for our time." 

There were wild celebrations in London and Paris as the statesmen returned. War had been averted and no-one thought of the price and most were content to share Chamberlain's optimism. In a dramatic departure from normal protocol King George VI invited Chamberlain to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace along with the Royal family to receive the acclamations of the crowds. The French prime minister Daladier took a rather more realistic view in private and muttered mainly to himself as his car drove through the cheering crows, "Ah, les cons, si ils savaient." (the fools, if only they knew).

The only significant dissent came from a member of the British Cabinet, Duff Cooper the minister for war who resigned almost immediately. He had little political weight and the press paid little attention.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Eighty years ago, a huge surge of relief as Chamberlain announces one final attempt to negotiate a solution to the Czech crisis ("a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing") as the Soviets free their hands in the East

Image result for hitler horace wilson

The hopes raised by Neville Chamberlain’s flight to visit Hitler at Berchtesgaden that there would be a negotiated settlement to thee Czech crisis began to fade rapidly. Hitler met Chamberlain again for a bilateral conference at Bad Godesberg on the Rhine which was supposed to find an equitable solution to the Sudeten problem which could then be put to the Czech government. The meeting ended with no such agreement being announced. The Czech army mobilized which was taken as a sign that Germany launch a military attack imminently, probably triggering an all-out war in Europe.

Chamberlain’s personal civil service adviser Sir Horace Wilson flew to Berlin to speak to the F├╝hrer. The public explanation for Wilson’s mission pointed towards war. It was given out that he was going to restate British support for Czechoslovakia with the implication that the German demands following Bad Godesberg were not acceptable. This was only half of Wilson’s task and he was probably the only man whom Chamberlain could trust to fulfil the other half which remained a closely guarded secret. Wilson was to make plain the Britain would do all it could to make the Czech government accept anything that the British and German governments might agree between them. 

Chamberlain broadcast to Britain and the Empire in terms that warned of impending hostilities over an issue that he plainly considered quite irrelevant, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war”. The point was driven home by repeating his words translated into French and German immediately afterwards. 

As if by a miracle the following day brought a surge of relief and renewed hope with the announcement of another leg of negotiations was announced. The news broke in one of the most theatrical moments the House of Commons had ever witnessed when Chamberlain was handed a note with the news which he then shared with the House. Germany accepted that the Czech question be put to a four-power conference at Munich, which would bring in Italy as well as the three powers – Britain, France and Germany – who had already been directly involved. Quite what right Italy had to be involved other than as peace-broker was unclear. 

Far away in the East of the possibility that the Soviet Union might find itself confronted with a war into which it could easily be drawn helped trigger the decision to put an end to the border war with Japan that had been continuing for some weeks. Commanded by Marshal Voroshilov the Soviet forces launched a massive counter-attack against the Japanese incursion on the Khalkin Gol. The Japanese units were rapidly surrounded and anihiliated. The Japanese had learned their lesson; thereafter the border remained quiet until the closing days of the second world war. The Soviet Union never faced the nightmare of a two front war.