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Friday, 27 July 2018

Eighty years ago: Britain begins to dig itself into a hole in the Sudetenland, the Japanese army does the same in Manchukuo and the Nazis revere some recent martyrs

British involvement in the burgeoning crisis over the Sudetenland, German speaking area of Czechoslovakia, began to get under way properly although the full extent of the unspoken choices made by the British government was not entirely evident. The bilateral anglo-german dimension was emphasiszed by the “unofficial” visit to London of Captain Wiedemann, who had been adjutant to Hitler’s battalion in the First World War, recommended him for the Iron Cross and held a largely honorary position in the Nazi hierarchy. He met the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, but with no practical result beyond laying out aspects of the German position and vaguely signalling a willingness to have a dialogue. The British announced a “mediation” mission to Prague which was intended to bring considerably more by way of practical results. Recently retired Liberal politician Lord Runciman was to try to find common ground for an internally negotiated solution between the communities. His mission was portrayed as unofficial, but, in practice, the British government had become a principal in the crisis, upping the stakes considerably. The thinking behind this could be read in a speech to the House of Commons by Neville Charmberlain: the British government had feared that the Czech government would act too hastily (in other words, resist German demands) and that it required outside help to prevent this. Chamberlain seemed to anticipate that Runciman would succeed judging by his optimistic assessment that “there was a lightening of the atmosphere and a relaxation of the sense of tension which pervaded Europe six months ago” when he addressed the House of Commons. Experienced and sceptical members of the British Foreign Office took to labelling such utterances by the Prime Minister as “sunshine speeches”; more were to follow, which were to prove even more embarrassing in retrospect.

The German authorities confiscated copies of The Times which carried a leading article entitled “Homage to Murderers” criticizing the erection of a memorial and other solemn ceremonies to honour the martyrdom of Planetta and Holweber, the two Nazis hanged for the murder of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß and another eleven Nazis executed for their parts in the attendant putsch attempt four years before. With praise-worthy even-handedness The Times gave full coverage to the enraged reaction in the German media to such near-sacrilege. The Völkischer Beobachter blamed Dollfuß’s murder on the “filthy egoism” of the western states which had tried to maintain the Vienna “puppet state” against the wishes of the people. His killing was compared to Wilhelm Tell’s assassination of the Gessler, the Habsburg overlord of Switzerland. The gaol courtyard where Planetta and Holzweber died became a pilgimage destination for senior Nazis.

In far away Manchukuo the Japanese army stepped up its private and quite unofficial war against the Soviet Union. The frontiers in the area had never been very precisely defined, especially as the Japanese presence there was recent and entirely illegal. It was a prime location for a frontier dispute and the Japanese generals were not going to let the opportunity slip away. Led by about 90 tanks Japanese forces established a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Kalkhyn Gol river. The Soviets resisted doggedly and both sides suffered heavy casualties. The Japanese offensive ground to a halt as shell supplies ran short.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Eighty years ago: an emptily symbolic Royal visit, keeping the BBC weak and bloodthirsty rituals in Spain

The state visit to Paris of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth finally took place after having been postponed because of the death of the Queen’s mother. It passed off very successfully with gorgeous ceremony and spectacle all around. It seemed to echo the famous visit of Edward VII, the King’s grandfather, in 1903, which opened the way for the entente cordiale, laying the ghost of centuries of Anglo-French hostility and heralding the full-scale alliance of the two countries against Germany in the First World War. Appearances deceived: Britain and France were no nearer anything approaching a common front against Nazi Germany, still less a military alliance. Beneath the superficial goodwill Neville Chamberlain was terrified that the French alliance with Czechoslovakia might lead to a war with Germany if the Sudeten question were not settled in Germany’s favour. Britain would inevitably be dragged into such a war.

The new Director General of the BBC in succession to Sir John Reith was announced. He was Frederick Ogilvie, the President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast. He was an academic economist who had distinguished himelf by identifying tourism as an important economic force. He had no experience of journalism or broadcasting. He was a poor compromise between elements in the BBC who had hoped for an internal candidate and the heads of the Civil Service who had aimed for a civil servant, thus transforming the BBC into an undisguised arm of the state. In the eyes of the Civil Service chiefs, the BBC was already well-provided with “intellect and culture” and required no more at the top. Under Reith the BBC had practically surrendered its independence so  a weak Director General would be in no hurry to claw it back. A docile BBC was a key component in the media strategy that accompanied appeasement.

Franco’s Nationalist Spain celebrated the second “Africa Day” to commerorate the anniversary of the arrival of the rebel generals from Africa to begin the revolt against the Republican government. It featured lavish parades and bullfights rather as though military victory were already secure. The remaining Republican forces certainly had little prospect of winning but still staged a dogged resistance on the Teruel-Castellon front. On the one hand the Republican troops had little hope of quarter but on the other Franco had little interest in a swift and decisive victory. Killing as many Republicans as possible on the battlefield offered a practical version of the corrida with which he was entertaining the inhabits of the zones under his control.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Eighty years ago: Nazi art displayed in all its poverty, hard news on Stalin's purges and diplomatic double standards in China

Hitler opened the second national exhibition at the House of German Art in Munich. It was intended as a counterweight to the kind on non-representational and modern art that Nazism loathed as an essentially Jewish construct. His speech was long on bombast but short on substance as to the exhibits. Indeed he confessed that the previous year’s effort had shown how disappointingly little the Nazi cultural message had been understood. This year the number of exhibits had risen but this reflected the inclusion of formerly Austrian artists who had been citizens of the Reich since the Anschluß earlier in the year. He lauded Italian generosity in allowing the export of the Discobulus of Myron but his praise of classical sculpture rather reinforced the absence of any creative force under Nazi cultural policy.

NKVD general Genrikh Lyushkov appeared at the news conference in Tokyo following his defection to the Japanese forces in Manchukuo. Lyushkov had been a leading figure in Stalin’s purges but had recognized that a summons to return to Moscow meant that he himself was to be killed. He planned to arrange for his family to escape as well but this failed and they were all murdered. Lyushkov was one of the most high-ranking and knowledgeable defectors from the Soviet Union ever. He explained simply that the victims of the purges were simply those whom Stalin distrusted, innocent of any crime. He explianed that the confessions of old Bolsheviks such as Kamenev and Zinoviev presented at their show trials had been extracted by torture and also gave figures for the total numbers of purge victims: 1,000,000 civilians and 100,000 military. The Soviets pretended that Lyushkov was an impostor to try to soften the impact of his revelations. He also brought with him a mass of operational intelligence on Soviet forces in the Far East and later collaborated in a plan to assassinate Stalin. His fate is uncertain but it is suspected that his Japanese hosts murdered him in 1945 when their defeat was inevitable because of the volume of unfavourable facts that he had learned about them since his defection.

In China the retreating Chinese forces paused at Kiukiang. Here they damaged British owned warehouses by transforming them into strongpoints and destroyed a steel pontoon belonging to Standard Oil of New York. These attracted strong formal protests from the western ambassadors concerned. The Japanese took advantage of their air superiority to bomb towns on the Yangtze River inflicting some 200 civilian deaths but there was no protest from western diplomats in Tokyo.