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Friday, 25 May 2018

Eighty years ago: An Imaginary Triumph for British Diplomacy, Euphemism Fails to Sugar the Pill of Rearmament In Britain and Rebranding Swims against the Tide of History in Germany

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The British government scored what it imagined was a diplomatic triumph when Germany appeared to obey a firm message that it was not to invade Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakian intelligence had deduced from German troop movements near the border than an invasion was imminent over the week-end. The British success was an illusion; no invasion was being prepared. Had the German army been in a position to do so, Hitler might have been spurred by the British ultimatum to launch an attack out of spite and defiance. He certainly wanted war with Czechoslovakia. The episode left the British with a dangerously exaggerated view of their ability to influence Hitler which would soon come back to haunt them.

The British domestic advocates of rearmament pursued their campaign on a topic that was more symbolic than practical. The creation of a Ministry of Supply (a euphemism for a resurrection of the Ministry of Munitions of the First World War) would have given a powerful signal of the government’s commitment to push rearmament forward but during a debate in the House of Lords Lord Zetland expressed the Cabinet’s firm opposition to the idea even though it was proposed by Lord Mottistone who was broadly a supporter of appeasement. At one level a Ministry of Supply would have run counter to the government’s vain hopes that rearmament could be pursued resolutely without disrupting civilian economic life severely. It would also have sent the kind of hostile signal to Germany that Neville Chamberlain was desperate to avoid. Winston Churchill further marked himself as a dangerous and irresponsible figure by supporting a Ministry of Supply in the Commons.

Adolf Hitler laid the foundation of the planned vast factory that was to build huge numbers of the car that was intended to bring private motoring to the masses. He also used the occasion to slip through a new name for the vehicle: Kraft durch Freude Wagen (strength through joy car). Kraft durch Freude  was the Nazi label for any pleasurable initiatives from vast holiday camps on the Baltic to compulsory gymnastics. Even abbreviated to KdF Wagen the name never caught on – possibly because only small numbers were made for civilian use before the factory was put to other work - and the plant still produces cars under the original name: the Volkswagen or people’s car.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Eighty years ago: Downing Street tightens its grip on air rearmament as the Nazi policy for Czechoslovakian shows its publc and private faces

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The British government suffered an acute embarrassment in the House of Commons debate on air rearmament.  Its case suffered from a number of factors: the delays inevitable in such a massive task, which involved both huge technological and industrial changes; distrust and suspicion between government and industry, fueled by the clumsy announcement of the possibility of buying aircraft from the US; the public row over the shadow factory scheme; perhaps most damagingly, the political sense that the question was not being treated urgently. The last point was unfair but still held the grain of truth that Neville Chamberlain was only a very reluctant rearmer, whose heart lay in diplomatic appeasement. The government was defended in the House of Commons by the junior air minister, Lord Winterton, as his senior, Lord Swinton, sat in the Lords. Winterton’s performance was feeble in the extreme and he was dismissed forthwith. Swinton by contrast was a competent and dynamic minister, but he, too, was sacrificed to appease the industry. 10 Downing Street’s nominee as head of the industry trade association, Charles Bruce-Gardner, was firmly in the ascendant. Swinton was replaced by a docile mediocrity.

The leader of the Sudeten Germans Konrad Henlein paid one of a number of visits to London. He was not yet a member of the Nazi Party and wore civilian clothes. He presented himself as entirely independent of Nazi Germany, simply a representative of a large part of the Czechoslovakian people who were oppressed because of the language they spoke. He did this most effectively and was taken for a rational, fair-minded man with a good and just case. It was an astute move as he had attracted considerable attention for a forceful speech presenting sweeping demands for Sudeten autonomy at Carlsbad. Provided the case was presented in terms of internal Czechoslovakian politics he was on safe ground; the key goal was to prevent people from recognizing that the true issue was German expansionism. In realty Henlein and Hitler had agreed to push for demands that the Czechoslovakian government would never meet as a prelude to German invasion. Unfortunately Henlein had taken ink in Group-Captain Christie, the unofficial British intelligence operative, who was otherwise entirely realistic about German intentions. Christie smoothed Henlein's way in London where he met Winston Churchill, Sir Archibald Sinclair, leader of the opposition Liberals, and a group of backbench MPs. As an opposition leader the protocol of the day meant that government ministers were deterred from receiving him, but the the public case in favour of the Sudetens was bolstered nonetheless.

Meanwhile in Berlin Sir Neville Henderson was treated to a rather more truthful presentation of what was at state. In an interview with the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop he was roundly abused for any inclination that Britain might show in something that did not concern it. However uncomfortable this might have been, Henderson was far too committed an appeaser for the conversation to weaken his support for Chamberlain’s policy.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Eighty years ago: roadblocks to rearmament

Rearmament in Britain staggered from one crisis to another. Full scale re-equipment of the Royal Air Force with modern aircraft and operating it on a war footing was beyond the resources of Britain’s small-scale, fragmented and poorly capitalized aircraft industry. It had long been recognised that other sectors would have to be mobilized, above all the motor industry, which had skilled workers and understood the techniques of mass-production. Lord Swinton the air minister had been working on the scheme of shadow factories, under which car companies would develop plants for aircraft production alongside their existing facilities. Unfortunately Swinton had a poor relationship with Lord Nuffield, Britain’s most powerful home-grown car maker, which boiled over into a public squabble. Nuffield had built his business from a single garage in central Oxford and still ran it a personal fiefdom (he owned his companies separately as personal possessions. The term "Nuffield Organisation" had no legal substance) was willing to join the scheme but insisted on retaining full control of the plants. 

France’s recently installed right-wing government under Daladier had secured a political mandate to govern and to pursue rearmament but it still faced severe economic challenges. There was persistent labour unrest and yet another slump in the value of the franc. The government took the forthright step of announcing that it would no longer try to support the currency but simply stated that it would fixed a minimum value against sterling (FF195 to the £). France had entered the sterling zone by default.

Spring was late in coming to Spain. Snow and rain reduced the battlefields to quagmires but Franco’s Nationalist forces continued to advance in the east of the country with active fronts both in Aragon and Levante. The Republicans put up dogged resistance helped by the inability of the Nationalists to use their air superiority in the bad weather. They were still forced back on the ground. Meanwhile the stream of Republican refugees making its miserable way over the Pyrenees to the safety of France continued to grow.