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Friday, 26 May 2017

Different Forms Of Power Projection

The Soviet Union made its first noticeable attempt at territorial expansion. A group was landed by aeroplane on the pack ice at the North Pole where they proceeded to erect a Soviet flag and a portrait of Stalin. This gave concrete substance to a decree of 1926 claiming the region in the abstract. Four scientists were left behind to spend a year at a newly built base, conducting experiments. Of course, the drift of the ice meant that they would have travelled some distance from the Pole over that period. Moscow was not distracted from the normal conduct of business by these excitements and a further 43 Trotskyites were shot in the Soviet Far East for their activities in wrecking the railways.

Belgium was wracked by controversy over an issue that followed the sharp divide between its two linguistic communities that is as bad today as it was then. A bill was presented before parliament granting amnesty to 300 or so citizens sentenced for treason under the German occupation during the First World War. 90% of these came from the Flemish (Dutch) speaking community and the campaign to pass the bill had distinct sectarian overtones. The vote had already been postponed once and large numbers had taken to the streets in demonstrations both for and against.

King George VI reviewed the Royal Navy fleet in impressive array at Spithead. The evening was somewhat spoiled by the BBC’s radio commentator, Lt.-Cmdr. Thomas Woodroffe. He had met some old shipmates in the wardroom of Nelson and celebrated appropriately, but to an extent that was all too evident to his listeners. He kept informing them that the “Fleet is all lit up” in increasingly slurred tones with the additional information that this was being done by “fairy lamps.” The spectacle was so magical that he declared that the fleet was in "fairy land" and when the illuminations were switched off claimed that it had disappeared entirely. He was briefly suspended by the BBC.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Communist Buses, Socialist Trams

The Coronation celebrations had proceeded in the face of a bitter and prolonged strike by London’s busmen. A meeting at the headquarters of the Transport and General Workers’ Union voted to continue the strike but made plain the divisions within the labour movement that it had thrown up. The T&GWU was only notionally the busmen’s representative. In reality the strike was being driven by elements very far to the left, notably the “Rank and File” committee. The busmen were trying to bring the trolley bus and tramway workers out in sympathy but the union’s official leadership was firmly opposed. Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the T&GWU, was resolutely anti-communist firmly blocked any union support for extending the strike to other transport workers. The busmen were on their own.

On the other side of the Atlantic another bitter industrial dispute presented almost a mirror image with “independent” steel producers holding out against – depending on your stance – union recognition or the closed shop. Two producers with 78,000 workers in the State of Ohio were confronting the CIO on the issue. Drastic action was brewing. The steel makers were laying in stocks of food at their plants in anticipation of a de facto siege by pickets, which would prevent non-striking workers from reaching their work.

The divisions within the Spanish Republic’s “national” government in Valencia never reached the open civil war suffered in Catalonia but they were savage enough. The vaguely centrist government of Largo Caballero finally succumbed and was replaced by one under Moscow’s candidate, Juan Negrin, the minister of finance. Weirdly Negrin’s avowedly authoritarian approach to government was applauded by right wing figures such as Winston Churchill, who failed to detect that Negrin’s agenda went further than controlling anarchist elements. But for this misunderstanding it would have been clear that the Spanish Republic was nnow dominated by Stalinist forces.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Echoes of the Future

George VI was crowned as King of Great Britain in an atmosphere of public contentment and happiness. After its worst year in a long while Britain's Royal house was showing that things were back firmly on an even keel though an orgy of the glorious pageantry it did so well. The existence of the King's elder brother, which might have been a potent spectre at the feast, was entirely ignored. Almost to the last moment, the politicians had feared that he might somehow contrive to spoil the day. The ceremony passed off very smoothly and the small wrinkles which caused the King agonies – a red thread used to mark the correct way round to place the crown on his head had vanished, prompting some small jiggling at the crucial moment. For the first time ever the ceremony was filmed (this will be shown on BBC Parliament tonight, Friday) although proposals to broadcast it on television did not lead anywhere, prefiguring the might battle fought over televising his daughter’s coronation in 1953.

In his last substantial contribution to Parliament before his long announced departure as Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin appealed for reason and agreement in an unusually bitter coal strike. In a phrase that excited no particular comment at the time and which appears to have been quite forgotten, he called for “Peace in our time”, little knowing that his successor would (inaccurately) go down in history for having claimed to have achieved this two years later at the moment of what seemed his greatest triumph, but soon turned to his moment of greatest ignominy. In reality Chamberlain said he had brought “Peace for our time” back from Munich.

At the end of his visit to Germany Baron von Neurath, the German Foreign Minister, made a statement declaring the aims of Italo-German collaboration in Spain to be inspired only by peaceful ideas and a spirit of understanding of the vital rights of the various European countries, Baron von Neurath asserted Italy and Germany were seeking only to safeguard the benefits of civilization and European history and to allow the Spanish people to exert its right to self-determination. They nurtured no hidden and selfish schemes. Even by the standards of Fascist propaganda this was an epic illustration of Goebbels’s dictum that once the big lie has been swallowed, the rest comes easily. The capture of a strategic town by Italian “volunteers” had just been announced with much fanfare.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Stalinism Progresses as the Last Symbol of Constitutional Rule in Germany Explodes

The Spanish Civil War took yet another turn for the worse as a civil war within a civil war developed in Barcelona. The uneasy coalition government had taken shift towards the Communists with the appointment of one of their number as Minister of Justice. They rapidly moved to take over the posts on the Catalan-French frontier previously controlled by anarcho-syndicalist CNT militias and then tried to take control of the Telefonica (telephone company) building in Barcelona, unofficially a CNT stronghold and a source of internal intelligence. Talks between the government and the CNT to restore harmony broke down and massive street protests degenerated into opened armed fighting with several hundred dead. Just as the bombing of Guernica exposed the reality of Franco’s nationalists to the outside world, the Republicans slipped into fratricidal conflict which would see power pass ever more into Communist hands.

Whilst Stalinism headed for domination in Catalonia, Stalin tightened his stranglehold in the Soviet Union. The de facto number two in the army hierarchy, Marshal Tuchachevsky, was demoted to a minor regional command. Dark hints of Trotskyite sympathies or even activities were spread, but in reality no alternative centre of power to Stalin was to be allowed to survive. His removal anchored the position of Marshal Vorishilov, the defence minister, who was a very pro-active participant in Stalin’s purges.

A brief era of air transport came to an end when the German airship Hindenburg exploded in flames in Lakehurst NJ after a transatlantic flight, killing about one third of the hundred or so people on board. Many survivors were badly burned. It was the last in a series of disasters that dogged large airships between the wars. Britain had abandoned the technology after the R101 disaster in 1929. The precise cause of Hindenburg’s loss has never been fully established and it is not even certain whether the hydrogen gas used for buoyancy caused (as opposed to feeding) the fire. Irrespective of the gas used, airships were proving too vulnerable to weather. Field Marshal Hindenburg had been the last flawed and feeble relic of constitutional rule in Germany; it was appropriate that the end of his aeronautical monument should be so conspicuous.