Follow by Email

Friday, 26 January 2018

The ironies of fellow-travelling with Nazi Germany

The Nazi German policy of economic autarky received an unexpected endorsement in the house journal of Goering’s five-year plan, the keystone of the programme. It was written by Sir Josiah Stamp, arguably the forgotten figure of British sympathy for Nazi Germany. Stamp supported inter alia “reasonable counter-action of Jewish domination.” Stamp began as a tax inspector, taught himself economics and became a senior figure in the British industrial and financial world, chairing the London, Midland and Scottish Railways. He went on to become an adviser to Neville Chamberlain’s government, championing with some perversity Chamberlain’s rigid sound money policies, which were diametrically opposed to the Nazi economic strategy. Astoundingly he was seriously considered as a replacement Chancellor of the Exchequer when Downing Street sought to take revenge on Sir John Simon for leading the Cabinet revolt that forced the declaration of war. By multiple ironies Stamp (by then a peer) was killed by a German bomb in 1941 along with his eldest son and heir. The British legal fiction that it is the eldest who died first when it is impossible to determine for certain the sequence of deaths, meant that Inland Revenue received two sets of death duties.

Tension started to mount once again in Austria. The government had got wind of a Nazi plot to mount a coup and raided the offices of the Committee of Seven and arrested the party’s deputy leader, Dr. Leopold Tavs. In a typically twisted elaboration the plot featured the planned murder of Franz von Papen the German ambassador, who had long outlived his usefulness to the Nazi regime. The initial justification circulated was inflammatory statements made by Tavs in a Prague newspaper but in reality it was planned to put Tavs on trial for treason. Mindful of contacts between Tavs and Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, Germany applied severe pressure to abandon the plan.

Hot on the heals of the constitutional crisis that removed the nationalist Wafd prime minister and his replacement by a court figure, King Farouk celebrated his marriage to the seventeen year-old daughter of a lady-in-waiting and a judge. The celebrations featured a 101 gun salute, fireworks and free public banquets for the population of Cairo. It was all very colourful and popular but it was hardly a substitute for anything approaching genuine political engagement with the country.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Rearmament by intrigue

Sir Charles Bruce-Gardner (as his name had officially been since the New Years Honours list) was appointed as Chairman of the Society of British Aircraft Manufacturers. The ostensible reason for his appointment was that the growing complexity of aircraft manufacture as a slew of technological innovations transformed aircraft utterly and the expansion of the Royal Air Force meant that it was no longer feasible for the post to be occupied by a senior executive from the industry who would also have his own business to superintend. Quite how Bruce-Gardner’s previous career in the coal and iron industries made him an appropriate candidate was not explained. The clue to the true explanation lay in the statement that the Air Minister Lord Swinton had been told of the appointment, by implication and in fact after it had been decided. The government had been under public pressure in Parliament for the slow pace of rearmament and privately the aircraft companies were complaining bitterly of their relationship with the Air Ministry. Swinton’s abrasive approach was rather to blame for the latter. Bruce-Gardner was very much the candidate of 10 Downing Street. He was held in high esteem by Montagu Norman, the Governor of the Bank of England and inveterate string-puller, who, in turn was a close collaborator of Sir Horace Wilson, Neville Chamberlain’s Civil Service eminence grise.

The lights appeared finally to have gone out completely on France’s experiment with left-wing government in the guise of the Front Populaire. Leon Blum, architect of the Front Populaire government had thrown in the towel in June the previous year although his Socialist Party remained in the government of the Radical Camille Chautemps and Blum remained a minister. The collaboration was not a happy one and Chautemps decided to remove the Socialists. It was proof of the underlying instability of democracy under the Third Republic. Chautemps proved no stronger a head of government than Blum had been.

The British press reported the murder on the outskirts of Shanghai in Nanking of three old women, one young one and three males of unspecified age by a single Japanese soldier in search of drink and sex. It reported that this and other “less serious incidents” had caused disquiet in Shanghai. This seems to have been the closest that British public got to being informed of the of the huge atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese army in china, above all in Nanking, where tens of thousands had been raped and murdered.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Isolationists aim to clip Roosevelt's foreign policy wings

The strength of isolationist sentiment in the USA can but gauged from the fact that, when it finally came to a vote in Congress, a well-worn isolationist proposal was only narrowly defeated. Senator Louis Ludlow had proposed that the Constitution should be amended so that the USA could only declare war if this was approved by a national referendum unless it had actually been attacked. In the aftermath of the Japanese sinking of the USS Panay fears of war rose to a point that the Ludlow Amendment was brought forward. Ludlow himself was a nonentity who achieved nothing else but spoke for a powerful section of politicians and the public. President Roosevelt is supposed to have swung the Irish American vote away from its traditional isolationist stance and the “discharge petition” which would have made for a full-scale debate was only defeated by 209 votes to 188. Whilst this support was well short of the two-thirds majority that would have been needed to amend the Constitution the vote was another shot across the President’s bows. De facto the Ludlow Amendment was designed to impose permanent  neutrality - it is hard to imagine that its sponsors foresaw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour - albeit deeply impractical as a proposition. It served, though, as a shibboleth for the forces of isolation that kept the USA out of the Second World War until Pearl Harbour. Even had the Ludlow Amendment been passed Roosevelt would then have been allowed to declare war. 

The Spanish Republican army achieved its immediate tactical objective for the major offensive launched just before Christmas of taking the town of Teruel. The occupation of Teruel gave the Republicans a propaganda victory but little else. It had come at the cost of high casualties on both sides in fighting conducted in exceptionally bitter winter weather. More important, it was anything but a major strategic victory. The Nationalists still had ample resources available with which to counter-attack. The Republican strategy was flawed: in a war of attrition Franco held all the cards.

The British White Paper on Palestine proved to be a remarkably feeble exercise in prevarication that succeeded in nothing but antagonizing both sides. The government was accused of “oscillating” between one side and the other: shifting between apparent concession to one and then reversing the policy. The idea of partition was not – as had been expected – entirely discarded but the there was no thought of forcibly separating the Jews and Arabs, which the Jews saw as the only way to make partition work.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Diplomatic and military preparations: wrong and right steps, wrong and right reasons

The professional head (Permanent Under Secretary) of the British Foreign Office Sir Robert Vansittart was moved to the newly created post of Chief Diplomatic Adviser. This was spun as a promotion but in reality he had been dismissed; all he could do was to write the prolix and rambling minutes that were his trade mark. He had benefited from the mis-placed support of Sir Warren Fisher, Head of the Civil Service, and had arguably been over-promoted. He was obsessively anti-German but was unable to persuade his political masters of the dangers posed by Hitler. His place was taken by Sir Alexander Cadogan who was far more professional and pragmatic but did little to resist Neville Chamberlain’s policy of positive engagement with Germany, now more usually called appeasement.

The British government finally announced that the new naval base in Singapore would open the following month after £9m of expenditure. It had been a political football for a number of years, but had finally been driven to completion as proof of Britain’s commitment to the defence of its Pacific possessions. The project was militarily flawed. Much of its defence was entrusted to the RAF which had lobbied remorselessly for the task on the basis of the air force’s supposed greater flexibility and cheapness. Singapore’s artillery defences pointed out to sea and gave no defence inland from which Japanese forces stormed the city five years later.

The BBC began to make news broadcasts in foreign languages. The first was in Arabic. This was the birth of the World Service which remains a gold standard for objective and unbiased news reporting. Ferocious battles were being fought in Whitehall over preparations for propaganda machinery to counter the efforts of the dictator states but this step which  excited little comment or controversy was to prove far more effective and enduring.