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Friday, 14 December 2018

Eighty years ago, Neville Chamberlain accidentally pleases an anti-Nazi crowd, Germany admits it wants to force out its Jews and a visitor to London heralds a new chapter in appeasement

Quite by accident Neville Chamberlain delivered a speech that delighted its mainly anti-appeasement audience which proceeded to hi-jack the event for their own ends. In itself the occasion was innocuous: a formal dinner given by the Foreign Press Association. It was the Germans themselves who made the largest contribution to transforming the occasion into a near anti-Nazi demonstrationevent. At the last moment they had taken umbrage at some barely contentious comments by the Prime Minister. His predecessor Lord Baldwin had been savagely attacked in the German press for his rather tame remarks when launching a fund to support Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Chamberlain had defended him. German correspondents and diplomats pulled out of the dinner at the last moment leaving a good number of glaringly empty places. The audience then proceeded to treat Chamberlain’s bland speech as though it was an aggressive affirmation of the democracies in opposition to  Nazi Germany. His references to Anglo-German friendship were heard out in near silence. A statement that Britain would stand by France was treated to sustained applause which became hysterical when he emphasised that Britain and France were close. A passing reference to the recently signed trade agreement with the US provoked frantic cheers.

German press articles made plain that the recent swathe of anti-Jewish measures were intended to force Jews to emigrate for their good and that of Germany. As a special concession it was accepted that the Jewish community might be allowed access to securities held mandatorily in blocked accounts at German banks to pay the imminently due first instalment of RM250m of the RM1bn fine imposed on them.

Hjalmar Horace Greely Schacht, the President of the German Reichsbank paid an unusual visit to London. Its declared aim was to permit discussion with Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. Norman and Schacht were accustomed to talking at the monthly meetings of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, the bank for central banks that the two men had been instrumental in founding and to which they devoted considerable attention. Montagu had missed the last few meetings, in part because of illness, and wanted to make this good. The close ties between the two men were also of interest to figures in the British government, notably Sir Horace Wilson a close collaborator of Norman’s,  who were musing over ways to improve relations with Germany.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Eighty years ago, Britain engages in imaginary conscription, France engages in imaginary diplomacy and the railways look to war for financial salvation

Since the end of the Czech crisis rumours had swirled that Britain would bring in some form of compulsory national service. Without this kind of measure it was hard to imagine Britain fielding more than the entirely token land army that the existing regular and territorial (part time volunteer) arrangements permitted. This notion had gradually been diluted to suggestions that the government would bring in a compulsory register of people potentially to be called up. It was finally announced with great fanfare that the government was going to do something almost as good: a purely voluntary register. The claim that the register could easily be converted to a compulsory one appears to have been used to silence government  MPs who had supported a compulsory measure in the first place and were disappointed at a half-measure obviously calculated to cause minimum annoyance to Germany.

The final chapter of the Munich “settlement” was conducted in an atmosphere of grim farce. The German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, went to Paris to sign a Franco-German declaration of friendship on the pattern of Neville Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” scrap of paper that he had got Hitler to sign for him at the end of the Munich conference and of which he was immensely proud. Chamberlain had refused to warn the French that he was going to do this, still less to discuss it with them beforehand. In the ensuing game of keeping up with the neighbours the French had to content themselves with a signature from the foreign minister rather than the F├╝hrer himself but this in no way diminished the practical significance or value of the move (zero on both counts). Ribbentrop publicly underscored the hollowness of the proceedings by receiving the Italian ambassador to France at his hotel, lending tacit support to the barrage of territorial demands against France that Mussolini had just unleashed. It also provided a reminder that the Berlin-Rome axis was not going to be shaken by either party indulging in a few pleasantries with a western democracy.

The British railway companies stepped up their assault on the regime of price controls that they felt left them at a disadvantage compared to road hauliers. A high profile delegation briefed the Conservative Parliamentary Transport Committee at the House of Commons on their case. Ominously this included the claim that the companies would need to be in good financial shape to meet the burdens they would have to bear in an “emergency”, the near-universal euphemism for war.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Eighty years ago, a maverick Duchess takes on the government, a failed general strike rings the death knell of the Front Populaire and some Nazi advice on humour

The Duchess of Atholl applied for the Chiltern Hundreds and announced she would fight an immediate by-election in Kinross and West Perth, which she had represented as Unionist M.P. since 1923, standing as an independent. She had resigned in protest at the government’s foreign policy. She was something of a maverick having enthusiastically supported the Spanish Republicans unlike almost all government MPs. She had published a book defending the Republic, earning her the nickname of the "Red Duchess."  The opposition parties did not field candidates leaving the by-election as a straight race between the Duchess and the official government candidate on the question of appeasement. The scene was set for what was later described as the dirtiest by-election ever fought.

France’s Front Populaire which had been leading an ever-more shadowy existence was finally dealt a death blow. In protest against worsening labour conditions, the Communist CGT union called a general strike. It proved an abject failure. Edouard Daladier’s centre-right government responded brutally with the arrest of hundreds of strikers particularly those in the public sector. The strike collapsed after barely a day. 

In a speech to a Nazi Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy) cultural symposium the propaganda minister Josef Goebbels addressed the question of what was acceptable as humour and what was  not. He claimed to be tolerant of light-hearted and inoffensive political humour, with the assertion that the National-Socialists were not over-sensitive, and in case of need had jokes with which to defend themselves. However he fulminated on jokes that touched “the holiest matters of the national life.” “Why not” he suggested “make jokes against the Jews to repay those they told against the Germans?”