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Friday, 27 April 2018

Eighty years ago the Sudetenland emerges as the next flashpoint for a European crisis, Neville Chamberlain returns some lost property and the airship era comes to an end

Konrad Henlein, the leader of the “Sudeten” German-speaking population of Czechoslovakia issued an extensive list of demands to the Czech government. It was immediately endorsed by Nazi Germany. The next flashpoint for a serious crisis in Europe was now abundantly clear. The presence of 3.5m German speakers in Czechoslovakia was an anomaly of the Versailles Treaty and few would have argued against the justice of improving their rights as a majority, but Henlein wanted full autonomy. More sinister, he wanted a right to “profess German nationality.” The Sudetenland had never been a political entity, it had always been part of Bohemian crown lands. The notion that Sudetens could be German citizens led logically to the incorporation of Sudetenland into Germany.

Britain too was in process of tidying up one aspect of the greater mess of the legacy of 1914-1918 with the signature of a treaty with Eire. Britain was to give up control of the three naval bases in southern Ireland which it had retained as part of the “Imperial defence” of Eire. Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose the move. It is an open question how much the loss of the Irish ports weakened the Royal Navy’s campaign during the Battle of the Atlantic. The sea routes around the south of Ireland were vulnerable to air attack from occupied France so few convoys were routed through the area requiring short range naval escort. Ireland also received £10m financial compensation and Neville Chamberlain presented to the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera the binoculars that had been confiscated from him when he surrendered after the 1916 Easter rising.

The head of the Zeppelin airship company Dr. Hugo Eckener visited the USA to attempt to negotiate the easing of the ban on exporting helium to Germany under 1927 Helium Control Act. Both the ill-fated Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin 2, now the only airship left in operation, had been designed to use the safe, inert gas. The Act had originally been posited on helium’s supposed status as a strategic resource which had disappeared in 1936. However, it was kept in force as an economic sanction in reprisal for the Anschluß even though Eckener was an anti-Nazi.  Graf Zeppelin 2 made a number of propaganda flights lifted by hydrogen but the era of the airship had come to an end.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Eighty years ago: Hollow diplomacy, rearmament phony and real, and an impostor eco-warrior with a real campaign

Neville Chamberlain’s policy of constructive dialogue with the dictators (a.k.a. appeasement) produced its first demonstrable result when a series of agreements known as the Easter accords were signed.  with Fascist Italy was signed after months of negotiation. They amounted to little more than an agreement to maintain the status quo in the Mediterranean and the Near East. Italy committed itself to withdrawing its “volunteers” from Spain with very little by way of specific detail. The accords would not come into force until the volunteers had been withdrawn. There was no mention of the great prize for Italy: British recognition of its conquest of Ethiopia. The accords were trumpeted as the start of a new era in Anglo-Italian amity but they fell well short of detaching Mussolini from friendship with Hitler, the goal that lay behind Chamberlain’s policy. Italy had already accepted without protest the Anschluß of Austria to Germany which had occurred during the negotiations.

It was announced that the British Air Ministry was sending a technical mission to the USA to examine the possibility of buying aircraft for the RAF from there. It aroused violent protests from the British plane makers who were struggling to execute the RAF’s expansion scheme. Relations between the industry and its client had fallen into hostility and mistrust. The plane makers might well have interpreted the mission as an attempt to pressurize them into bending to the Ministry’s will. The US military aircraft industry was barely developed and the mission achieved little practical. The only aeroplane that was imported as a result was the Lockheed Hudson, a militarized airliner design, which gave useful but unspectacular service.

US rearmament was getting properly under way but this was focussed on the navy, which was essentially a weapon of defence against Japan. The Senate Naval Affairs Committee endorsed a Bill embodying President Roosevelt’s plans for 46 new vessels including three battleships and two aircraft carriers. This would represent a major expansion of the USN. Unlike the US aircraft industry there was already huge spare ship-building capacity. Only armour-grade steel supply could hold back production.

The death of the celebrity Canadian environmental campaigner Grey Owl triggered the revelation that, rather than being born in Canada of the first nations, he was a native Englishman called Archibald Belaney, who had invented the identity under which he lived. His perfect English accent helped to betray him. He also proved to be have been an alcoholic bigamist which further dented his reputation. The value of his work for beaver conservation and that of other wild animals is beyond dispute, but it was a sad story. It was also mildly enbarassing for King George VI who had invited him to deliver a talk to the Royal family at Buckingham Palace.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Eighty years ago: chickens trump an eagle, a bull with unusual horns and an officer caste with no backbone

In a magnificently staged demonstration of popular support crowds of ordinary Mexicans turned up to make donations to pay the debts of the foreign oil companies that President Cardenas had just expropriated. Chief amongst them was Mexican Eagle, hitherto a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. The donations ranged from jewellery to chickens; many of the demonstrators were women.

Léon Blum’s gamble to rearm France from the left failed. The Senate denied him the powers to impose a far reaching programme of debt-financed military spending backed up by exchange controls. It was light years away from anything the first incarnation of the Front Populaire could have imagined. Blum resign to be replaced by Edouard Daladier of the right-wing Radicals. He was promptly voted almost the same powers denied to Blum. Daladier broadcast a tough, resolute imagine, but many knew better and to insiders he was the “bull with the horns of snail”. 

Perversely enough the final proof that the German officer class had entirely surrendered to the Hitler regime came when a military “court of honour” exonerated General von Fritsch of the entirely spurious accusations of homosexuality that had been used to remove him when his colleague von Blomberg had laid himself open to dismissal by marrying a former prostitute and pornographic model. After von Fritsch’s name had been cleared not a single one of his fellow senior officers made any attempt to lobby for his reinstatement or even to display solidarity with him.