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Friday, 29 December 2017

Empires; soft hard and downright homicidal

In a mildly eccentric piece of timing the new constitution of southern Ireland came into effect on Wednesday 29  December. Its principle features were to change the name of the country from the Irish Free State to  Eire and to bring into being the office of Uachtaran or President, which has since evolved into that of head of state in the full sense. Eire was described as a member of the Commonwealth but in practice it had become an entirely independent country. The King of Britain was “recognized” albeit most emphatically solely for purposes of foreign relations with no role in internal politics whatever. The British press instantly skewered one of the ambiguities thrown up by the pretence of having their King as the symbol of Eire’s diplomacy. Eire’s diplomatic representative to Rome was accredited to the King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia, implying that George VI recognized Fascist Italy’s conquest of Ethipoia whilst wearing his (non-existent) Irish crown but not when he was wearing his other ones.

Eire was an independent country that went through the sham of being part of the British empire. Egypt was a British dependency that went through the sham of being an independent country. King Farouk understood that his interests and those of Britain were broadly aligned in opposition to any reform of the state (much like the Indian princes). Farouk could never quite reconcile himself to the Wafd a popular national movement even though he had accepted Nahas Pasha, a Wafd leader, as Prime Minister. Farouk’s latest bout of wobbles provoked a stern response from the Wafd which threatened to expel any minister who agreed to serve under anyone Farouk appointed to replace Nahas. The British were caught in a cleft stick: Farouk's preferred option of rule by lightweight Court figures was not tenable long term, but a strong Wafd ultimately spelt the end of British rule.

The Soviet Union found an original way to mark the “joyous” celebrations to mark the twentieth anniversary of the foundation of one of the pillars of the democratic socialist state: the Cheka secret political police, heir to the Tsarist Okhrana and ancestor of today’s FSB. The names of eight former ministers and civil servants shot for their crimes against the state were announced amidst appropriate publicity for such an important move to protect the workers.

Friday, 22 December 2017

A gigantic massacre is overlooked

The Japanese army occupied the city of Nanking after an ineffectual resistance by the disorganised Chinese army. The Japanese troops launched into an orgy of rape and murder of helpless civilians. The violence was essentially spontaneous, on the age-old pattern of victorious troops sacking a conquered city after a severe campaign but the leadership of the Japanese army did almost nothing to hold them back. The total number of people killed has never been reliably established and serious estimates run from some tens of thousands to 300,000. Western newspapers reported that the invaders were behaving brutally, but the full scale of the horror somehow remained largely unknown. John Rabe was a German businessman working in the city and he worked heroically to mitigate the atrocity and on his return to Germany attempted to publicise the massacre but, mindful of the damage that this might do to its ally Japan, the Nazi government silenced him.

At a ceremony to mark the completion of the first 2,000 kilometers of motorways (Autobahnen) in Germany, Hitler announced that the long-promised people’s car (Volkswagen) would go into production at the rate of hundreds of thousands per year. Beyond generalized comments on its cheapness, quality and reliability, he disclosed almost nothing about the vehicle. Together with the extension of the Autobahn network to a total of 12,000 kilometers the car would be an emblem of the civilization and progress that Nazi rule brought to Germany.

The Spanish Republican army launched a major offensive to capture the city of Teruel. It was the main centre in a long salient of Nationalist held territory that reached deep into the western third of the country that was still held by the Republic. This salient extended almost to the Mediterranean. The attack also aimed to draw Nationalist troops away from a planned renewal of the assault on Madrid. The battle was fought in the worst winter weather for many years and was one of the bloodiest combats of the Spanish Civil War. It achieved nothing and further depleted the Republic’s already weak military resources.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Perils of air-travel and peace-keeping

To almost no-one’s surprise Italy withdrew from the League of Nations in a very belated protest at the League’s entirely ineffectual sanctions imposed on Italy for the invasion of Abyssinia. The public announcement provided Mussolini with the opportunity for a theatrical speech in front of a crowd estimated at 100,000. In practice it was more of an affirmation of Fascist Italy’s ability to defy censure of its conduct by any other country. The move was instantly applauded by Germany which reiterated its determination never to rejoin the League however it might be reformed. For the couple of years that it was left to exist the League had dwindled into a talking shop for the non-dictator countries.

As the Japanese army tightened the noose on Nanking, the next Chinese city on its list, warships of British and US navies standing by on the Yangtse  to protect their nationals in the region came under fire from Japanese artillery on the river bank. The US gunboat Panay was sunk and the HMS Ladybird damaged with fatal casualties. In the context of the military operations under way these incidents were quite insignificant but they excited widespread interest and protest in the UK and US which rather monopolized newspaper attention. Probably unintentionally the Japanese had succeeded in focusing attention away from a vast atrocity that was about to be unleashed.

The well-known left wing Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson had a few eventful days. She had accompanied her party leader Clem Attlee on a mission to Spain to observe the Civil War, lending the small crumb of moral support to the Republican that the British cross-party policy of firm “non intervention” permitted. She flew back from Paris in a violent thunderstorm and her plane, Imperial Airways' Horatius,  was damaged by a lightning strike. Undaunted, she led the move to secure a second reading in Parliament for a bill to curb the grosser abuses of the hire-purchase industry the day after her return..

Friday, 8 December 2017

Tea or purge?

Alexander Barmin of the Soviet legation in Athens fled to Paris to seek political asylum. He had found colleagues refiling his desk and received insistent invitations to join the master of a Soviet vessel docked at Piraeus for tea. It was the midst of Stalin’s purges and a number of Bramin’s colleagues had survived their returns to Moscow only very briefly. Then, as now, tea parties with the wrong people were apt to have fatal consequences. Barmin was one of the very few intended victims of the purges to escape entirely.

Leslie Hore-Belisha the British Minister for War pursued his drive to impose his own stamp on the army and, quite incidentally, attract publicity. A number of the army’s senior generals were replaced with some of them being removed from their posts summarily. This, so ran the stories, was all in the interests of rejuvenating the army’s leadership. Hore-Belisha’s choice as Chief of the Imperial General Staff was Viscount Gort VC who was not yet fifty. Gort was a man of immense courage but little intellectual ability or organising talent. He sadly failed to use the last year and a half of peace to drive the modernisation that the army desperately needed.

The government of the Czechoslovakia was coming under growing pressure from its ethnic (or more accurately linguistic) minority populations. The representatives of the 3m or so Sudeten Germans had long been vocal and persistent critics – with the backing of Berlin - of what they portrayed as oppression by the Czech majority and they were now joined by the 80,000 Polish population centred on Teschen in the far East of the country. When Germany absorbed the Sudetenland ten months later, Poland helped itself to Teschen. Solidarity in the face of Nazi expansionism was sadly lacking.