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Friday, 24 November 2017

Another prominent Briton visits Hitler at Berchtesgaden

The British government’s attempt to present Lord Halifax’s visit to Germany as an “unofficial” exercise began to look exceedingly threadbare when Halifax travelled on from Berlin to see the Führer at his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. Ostensibly Halifax had gone to Berlin to attend the International Hunting Exhibition but travelling the extra 700km or so to Bavaria made plain his journey’s true purpose. Halifax long afterwards claimed to have mistaken Hitler for a footman when he first saw him but there is no sign that he treated him with anything less than the deference due to a head of state at the time. The talks did not produce any immediately practical results, but Halifax did refer to the possibility of boundary changes in eastern Europe, a tacit signal to Hitler that Britain had no objection in principle to revision of the Versailles settlement.

Official statements that Maxim Litvinov the Soviet Foreign Minister was a “great and worthy” champion of the regime dampened speculation as to his future. These had been prompted by his rapid and unheralded departure from the token and ineffectual Brussels conference on the Japanese invasion of China combined with the extension of Stalin’s purges to senior diplomats from military officers and Party functionaries. Litvinov who remained in office for another couple of years proved to be one of the few old Bolsheviks who survived Stalin’s suspicions and jealousy during the great purges although there is some suspicion that his death in 1951 was not natural.

The weakness of British aviation policy was cruelly exposed when Parliamentary pressure forced the government to open an inquiry by Lord Cadman into civil aviation. Anomalously the Air Ministry was responsible for both civil and military and was not felt to be doing particularly well on either score. It was accused of neglecting commercial aviation because it was more of a service ministry for the RAF. Britain’s leading airline, Imperial Airways, was an unhappy blend of a private company under state control, unsure whether it was a commercial business of a national flag carrier. Its aircraft were old and unsuitable.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Hunting for appeasement

The International Hunting Exhibition opened in Berlin with great fanfare and high hopes. In those days hunting was unquestioningly seen as a bond between men of all of all countries, a mark of masculine endeavour.  Captain Brocklehurst’s 27,000 mile return journey to Central China to bag a rare Giant Panda with a single shot was considered a great achievement. (The stuffed body can still be seen in Macclesfield Museum). Brocklehurst was praised as a representative of the spirit that sent the British Empire participants to Berlin with no interest in winning any of the prizes; the trophies themselves were sufficient. This year, though,  the Exhibition had a visitor from Britain  with a more practical mission to improve amity amongst men. Lord Halifax, the Lord President of the Council, was attending in his capacity as a Master of Foxhounds, but with the task of meeting the Führer to open a constructive dialogue to address the question of European tensions. It was the first serious step in Neville Chamberlain’s programme to appease Germany. Doubtless the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden would have admitted that his own qualifications in venery – as an occasional gun – were far inferior to his Cabinet colleague’s even though he could fairly claim to know rather more about diplomacy. The Führer was happy to welcome Halifax even though he deplored hunting himself and merely indulged the passion of General Goering, who had been Reichsjagdmeister (Reich hunt master) since early in the regime.

There was every reason to worry about European tensions. Germany was issuing semi-official complaints about the behaviour of both Austria and Czechoslovakia, prompted by little more than generalised aggression. This was especially uncomfortable for Austria in the light of Germany’s newly reinforce friendship with Italy, the one power which had any specific interest in discouraging German ambitions north of the Brenner Pass. Switzerland was beginning to back away from even its half-hearted involvement in the League of Nations. A national initiative to restore absolute neutrality was being prepared, triggered by (entirely unjustified) fears that Article XVI of the League’s Covenant mandating military action against an aggressor. Chamberlain was especially contemptuous of Article XVI which he saw as a dangerous potential trigger of conflict.

The Japanese army continued its remorseless advance against weak Chinese forces following the fall of Shanghai. Landings on the bank of the Yangtze heralded a move on the next major city Soochow with a population of 1,000,000 or so. Japan enjoyed almost complete air superiority.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Duke of Windsor's relaunch as friend of the industrial worker collapses under weight of its own absurdity

The former British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald died at sea one month into a three month holiday to South America. He was only 71 but he had already been showing signs of premature senility for over a year. He had stepped down from political office in May at the same time as Stanley Baldwin had stepped down as Prime Minister. Macdonald’s death closed finally two chapters in British political history. He had led the Labour Party into power twice, including its first ever government. He had, though, broken with most of the Party in 1931 to form a National Government to apply what we would now call austerity policies to tackle the Great Slump. It remains an open question as to whether more reflationary policies would have been any more successful. Neville Chamberlain’s government was still “National” in name but in practice it was Conservative.

The Duke of Windsor’s attempt to relaunch himself as a public figure collapsed in abject failure when he cancelled plans for a tour of America in the face of protests from organised labour. The tour was to have been organised by his recent friend Charles Bedaux, who owned the Chateau de Candé where had married in May. Bedaux’s system of time and motion study was widely used in the US and was regarded as the successor to the much-hated discipline of Taylorism as a brutal tool to regiment the labour force. Coupled with the Duke’s recent visit to Germany as the guest of Robert Ley, head of the Reich Labour Front the Nazi umbrella organisation for industrial workers, this rather undermined the Duke’s claims to be undertaking a neutral investigation of labour conditions in the US.

Italy was accepted as a signatory of the Anti-Comintern Pact together with Germany and Japan. The move had little practical but enormous symbolic significance; any form of serious engagement between Fascist Italy and the Soviet Union would have been highly improbable but its alignment with Berlin and Tokyo marked the practical end of British dreams that somehow the two Fascist powers could be manipulated into mutual hostility. The collaboration between Italy and Germany was cemented in new anti-Semitic initiatives. Under the cloak of opposing British colonialism in Palestine the Italian radio station in Bari broadcast pro-Arab propaganda into the region. Josef Goebbels opened an exhibition entitled “The Wandering Jew” in Munich and part of the launch programme was a theatrical show featuring anti-Semitic quotations from Luther, Goethe and Bismarck together with an abridged version of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Sling along with max

Even the Royal Navy began to move with the times and to adjust the accommodation it offered to sailors to their requirements. Following the 1936 Review of Service Conditions it made extra long hammocks available for extra tall seaman. Admittedly these were only stocked at the home dockyards and yards abroad had to request them specially. As before it fell to the goodwill of sail-makers to provide hammocks for very small ratings such as the one who can just be seen at the back on the left.

With remarkably little fuss the Postmaster General announced an innovation that lasts to this day. The BBC was to begin making news broadcasts in foreign languages. He emphasised that this was to be unvarnished news and not propaganda. Indeed the World Service as it was to become soon established itself as a benchmark for reliability in a world increasingly dominated broadcasting so dishonest as to verge on fiction.

The congress of the French Radical Party marked the final breach with the Socialist Party, formerly its allies in the Front Populaire. The Socialists were accused of breaching an electoral pact and losing the Radicals a substantial number of seats in the recent cantonal elections. There was also considerable hostility towards Air Minister Pierre Cot, formally a Radical but in reality a quasi Communist, who was accused (quite accurately) of supplying military aircraft to the Spanish Republicans in a telling register of just how little sympathy their cause enjoyed even at the left-centre of politics.