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Friday, 28 July 2017

Nazi economics, Old South "justice" and British liberalism

Nazi Germany’s push for economic autarky took another step forward with the announcement that the state-owned Reichswerke A.G. fur Erzbergbau und Eisenhütten General Goering was to build a steel plant in Salzgitter in the east of Prussia to process the abundant but low-quality iron-ore available in Germany particularly in that region. The company was named after Herman Goering in his capacity as Plenipotentiary for the Four Year Plan (he was promoted to Reichsmarschall only in 1940). The scheme was not popular with the established steel barons of the Ruhr to whom the added competition did not appeal but Goering secured their acquiescence. The Volkswagen car plant was built nearby at Wolfsburg in part to use the plant’s output. Under the somewhat less contentious name of Salzgitter AG the company has acquired a number of other steelworks and operates as a publicly traded entity following privatization in 1998.

The first, protracted phase of the Scottsboro case brought about by almost certainly fabricated rape allegations by two white women against a group of African-Americans in 1931 came to an end. The affair marks something of a watershed between the unchallenged white man’s “justice” abuse of the legal system and the recognition of the right to a fair trial irrespective of race. One defendant had been convicted of rape already and the trial at Decatur convicted a further three, one of whom was sentenced to death (as was usual at the time in such cases, although this was later commuted) and two to prison sentences of 99 and 105 years respectively. The weakness of the prosecution case was evident, however, in the decision to drop charges against the remaining four defendants who had been in custody for some years. Eventually all the convictions were overturned or the defendants pardoned, two posthumously.

A. P. Herbert’s private member’s bill to reform English divorce law finally passed through all the legislative stages after a bizarre and perplexing intervention by the House of Lords. Usually the citadel of conservatism, the Lords had passed an amendment shortening the duration of marriage after which divorce were possible to three years from the original five. Judges were also to be given discretion in “difficult cases”. Perhaps certain conservative strategists imagined that it would flush out allies in the Commons against the bill if it could be made to appear as excessively liberal, forcing extra debate which might be fatal to the bill as a whole.  The bait was not taken and the bill’s promoters in the Commons allowed it to pass as amended to general congratulation and pleasure. Along the way the bill had lost one of its useful reforms: shortening the waiting period between the decree nisi (the first stage of the divorce) and the decree absolute from six months to six weeks. It would have removed one of the great legal complications of the abdication crisis which left Mrs. Simpson legally married until May 1937; as is often now forgotten, Edward VIII thus left the throne in order to be able to marry a woman who was still someone else’s wife.  The six month interval remained in force until 1996.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Furious Debates on FDR's "Court-packing" Bill Claim a Victim

The struggle to pass President Roosevelt’s bill reorganizing the Supreme Court claimed a very high profile victim. The measures designed to allow the President to appoint sympathetic judges and thus to expedite legislation he favoured, had aroused immense controversy and opposition even from fellow Democrats: it had been labelled “the Court-packing bill”. It had been vigorously championed by Arkansas senator Joseph Taylor Robinson, leader of the Democratic majority and a key ally of the President. His style was naturally aggressive and over-bearing and this had produced some furious exchanges in the Bill’s already bitter battles through Congress. Robinson’s sudden death from heart failure was almost universally blamed on the strains to which he subjected himself. The President announced that he was still committed to the Bill but ultimately it failed. It is a moot question as to whether Robinson would have secured its passage had he lived.

The Labour Party succeeded in tying itself into an even tighter knot over its attitude towards the Spanish Civil War. Naturally it sought to capitalise on flaws in the government’s generally feeble policy but struggle to advance a worthwhile positive policy of its own. It opposed the government’s support of international “Non Intervention” in the war, which was generally held to favour the Nationalists, but conspicuously failed to present any particular form of intervention as a solution. The splits within Labour ranks were painfully exposed when the whips ducked out of a vote in the House of Commons by the Parliamentary device of having the debate “talked out” by a Labour member.

France’s new government under the Radical Georges Bonnet were confronted by yet another assault on the franc by the currency markets. Perhaps inevitably, it retreated from the Front Populaire’s policies of heavy government spending and brought in an array of cost-savings. Even the Socialist Party expressed support for the measures. Blum’s great experiment was at an end. To round things off the franc was formally devalued by about 15%.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor flirt indiscreetly with Nazi sympathizers in Spain and Portugal

The latest release of documents from the National Archives hugely fleshes out the record of the Duke of Windsor’s time in Spain and Portugal after fleeing France in 1940. The main lines of the story were already known but it appears that far from all of the telegrams from the German missions to Spain and Portugal had previously seen the light of day.

Churchill’s argument for suppressing the telegrams is valid insofar as they come purely from the German side and describe a Nazi intrigue to entrap him and they depend on the “assertions of German and pro-German officials”. Certainly, the documents must be read with the caveat that they give only an indirect picture of the Duke. However, unless the documents are entirely false, the “impression that the Duke was in close touch with German Agents and was listening to suggestions that were disloyal” is accurate. At best the Duke was wildly indiscreet, at worst treasonous. It would have required enormous naïveté on his part to be unaware of the risk (to put it at its gentlest) that his Spanish and Portuguese interlocutors would pass what he said on to the Germans.

Of course, the value of Duke in his varying incarnations  as a potential tool of German policy was very much a hobby-horse of von Ribbentrop and, to an extent, Hitler’s. The enthusiasm with which was still being pursued in 1940 by the German ministry of foreign affairs is nonetheless striking. The Duke’s repeated claims that the war would never have occurred had he remained King are evidence that German faith in him was exaggerated but not a complete fantasy.

To his credit the Duke believed that his abdication was final and was surprised at the thought of the Germans placing him back on the throne. The Duchess, though, seems to have been open to the idea the idea that the “course of the war” (presumably German conquest of Britain) might change the constitution in their favour. The Germans were prepared to fulfil the couple’s every wish. Ribbentrop described the “tendency of those wishes” as “obvious” although it is an open question whether he meant restoration to the throne or the Duke’s wishes that he set out to the Spanish minister for foreign affairs: for the Duchess to be recognised as a member of the Royal Family and for the Duke to be given an “influential” civil or military post.

The most damaging indiscretion reported by the Duke is the repeated idea that he might serve as an intermediary between Germany and the British government to bring about peace and that he foresaw himself returning to Europe from the Bahamas to perform this task. He explained his reluctance to take on the role immediately by tactical timing considerations but the telegram he sent asking to be told when “action was necessary” suggests

The Duke’s lack of discretion (and taste) beggars belief. He compromised himself appallingly by disclosing that he was leaving for the Bahamas under threat of court-martial. It is hard to see what he imagined this would bring him beyond demonstrating that he saw himself as a free agent. He openly described his brother George VI as “altogether stupid” and accused Queen Elizabeth of intriguing against him and in particular the Duchess. How far he genuinely distanced himself from the “Churchill clique” but these documents only add support to the image of the Duke as defeatist and “fifth column” (in the words of David Eccles the British agent particularly tasked with keeping an eye on him). 

Friday, 14 July 2017

Appeasement lags in Europe and tension builds in the Far East

Somebody must have reminded Neville Chamberlain that he had become the Prime Minister in a supposedly national government rather than a Conservative government supported by a couple of minor, fringe elements. A mass meeting of the supporters of the three parties concerned was held at the Albert Hall, which attracted a respectable audience of 8,000. The only precedent had been in the election year of 1935. The giveaway were the representatives chosen to represent the two minor parties: Malcolm Macdonald, son of the National Government’s begetter, and one of the tiny handful of National Labour MPs, and Sir John Simon for the National Liberals, a party affiliation that only dedicated historians will recall. Chamberlain’s 45 minute speech was felt to be rather perfunctory and the reference to the fact that it was his late father’s birthday, redundant. Beyond deploring the failure of his plan for the German Foreign Minister to come to London – appeasement was still very much on the agenda – there was little of consequence.

Not content with scraping a bit of territory from the USSR for its notionally autonomous Manchukuo region in in China, Japan resumed the process of eroding territory from China itself. A tactical withdrawal of troops from Wangpin was counter-balanced by a leaflet raid on Nanyuan. Japanese troop and naval strengths in north China were further increased.

In the US it was clear that something should be done to deter Japan. There was a financial/military left and right. The US Treasury announced an agreement on a three way transaction involving  gold and US dollar purchases by China matched by silver purchases by the US with the goal of bolstering Chinese finances as well as reflating the US economy. On a more practical level the State Department confessed bafflement at the failure to obtain general agreement for naval arms limitation and “reluctantly” announced that two new battleships would mount 16” guns in place of the less powerful 14” originally anticipated in negotiations.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Disappearance of Amelia Earhart Opens Decades of Conspiracy Theory

Spanish Republican forces launched a counter-attack against the Nationalist troops besieging Madrid in the Brunete sector. It achieved some local success but proved anything but decisive. The Republic’s military position was poor and this kind simply frittered away what resources remained.

Having established a comfortable position in northern china Japan resumed its attempts to squeeze territory out of the Soviet Union. In defiance of an agreement reached the previous weak between Litvinoff, the Soviet foreign minister, and Shigemetsu, the Japanese ambassador, Japanese troop landed on a few worthless islets in the Amur River. In response to Soviet protests the Japanese foreign ministry first declared it knew nothing of any such move and then asserted that Japan would be entirely within its rights to do so. As the Soviets had evacuated the islets in an attempt to defuse tension, it was clear that this particular issue was not one over which Moscow was going to go to war.

On July 2nd a heavily laden Lockheed Electra aircraft being flown by the celebrated aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae airfield in New Guinea. They were attempting a round the world flight and their next destination was a tiny island in the Pacific, Howland Island. They never arrived although increasingly faint and garbled radio messages were received. That was the last that they were heard of, ushering decades of speculation and conspiracy theory. Many claim that Earhart and Noonan fell prisoner of the Japanese and just recently an entirely ambiguous photographer has been trumpeted as “proof” of this.