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Friday, 31 August 2018

Eighty years ago, as the tension over the Sudetenland is screwed up, Italy protects its family life and Britain protects its Royal deer

Tensions over Czechoslovakia mounted to fever pitch. It was widely expected that Hitler’s speech at the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg due in early September would mark the turning point. Most people in Britain feared that it would be an aggressive prelude to military action.

The atmosphere of crisis was fuelled by a high profile speech by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon at Lanark in Scotland. In reality he did nothing beyond restating the British government’s policy that it would support France without setting any particular restrictions to this support. Implicitly if France took military action to protect  Czechoslovakia Britain would join in. This was not welcome in Berlin. Further fuel was added to the fire by the retun of the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, to London for consultations. Lord Runciman continued his frantic shuttling between the various parties without reaching any agreement. Tension was also fuelled by moves on the other side of the table. The Sudeten German party declared that its members were free to act “in self-defence”. Its leader, Konrad Heinlein, visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Optimistic British press reports claimed that this visit had been endorsed by Runciman but it was an obvious escalation of the Sudetenes claims.

The socially conservative pretensions of the Italian Fascist regime emerged from a series of measures announced. The ranks of public service were to be barred to bachelors; only married men were to be allowed promotion. Moreover, junior civil servants would have to marry by the age of 26; senior staff would be permitted to delay the (evil) day by four years. The resulting incremental demand for home-makers would in part be met by capping the proportion of female employees throughout the public service and certain private firms at 10%.

The growing number of visitors to the Royal Parks around London had had the unfortunate consequence that the remainders of picnics for human beings had been fed to the Royal deer. These included food that was quite unsuitable for the poor animals - banana skins, orange peel, apples, chocolate, cake, biscuits, sweets and meat sandwiches – which they were unable to recognize as such. A formal Order was issued banning the public from feeding the deer at all.

Friday, 24 August 2018

80 years ago, the burial of a symbolic Front Populaire social measure, the perils of espionage in Nazi Vienna and the social whirl of Prague

As the Front Populaire government in France faded into memory, the Daladier government set about removing symbolic vestiges of what it had attempted to achieve in improving the lot of workers. The most famous of these were paid holidays and the a 40 hour week. The law mandating the latter had been passed in 1936 but it had never been properly implemented but remained on the statute book. Predictably it was highly unpopular with employers. Daladier did not abolish it but drove through a package of measures that undermined its provisions, notably giving employers the power to ompose poorly-paid supplementary hours on their employees. Two ministers resigned in protest but they were swifly replaced. One of the new ministers was Anatole de Monzie, a distinguished writer with a far right agenda, who served as a minister in the Vichy government. The 40 hour week was not to be a reality until the 1980s. Paid holidays, however, survived.

The Gestapo arrested the British passport control officer in Vienna Captain Thomas Kenrick for espionage. Kenrick was indeed the Secret Service’s man in Vienna but his status as PCO did not give himthe protection that an accredited diplomat would have enjoyed. He had also worked very hard to provide large numbers of Austrian Jews with visas to allow them to escape the Nazis after the Anschluß. In the midst of the Sudeten crisis the British government did not appear to make major attempts to free him, but he was eventually released.

Lord Runciman continued his exhaustive efforts at shuttle negotiation between the various conflicting parties in Czechoslovakia without any notable success. The newspaper reports of his doings came to resemble a society colum covering the doings of Runciman’s family who had accompanied him on the mission, notably his glamorous aviatrix daughter Margaret who flew herself to Prague.

The British Association meeting in Cambridge was especially eventful. A prototype automatic transmission car was driven around the town to the wonder of onlookers. Arguably the most distinguished archaeologist of the day, Professor Gordon Childe, launched a savage attack on the BBC for giving a platform to what he labelled as crank theories on the subject. Childe was a proponent of a rigorously theoretical school of archaeological interpretatation known as diffusionism as well as being a commited Marxist so his views might not have been entirely unbiased.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Eighty years ago: Berlin shares plummet and the value of German forces are talked up to a willing (insider) bear of French air power

There was another day of sharp falls in share prices on the Berlin stock exchange. Perhaps curiously the prospect of imminent war over the Sudetenland was not a major factor; the hardest hit major share was a major weapons maker, Deutsche Waffen- und-Munitionsfabriken. The falls were ascribed to Jewish investors liquidating holdings and growing concern at the Nazis’ autarkic economic policies.

The summer manoeuvres of the German army were widely publicized to emphasise to France and Britain that the Wehrmacht was well-prepared to invade Czechoslovakia if the Fuehrer decided to. The presence of army reservists was well-flagged as a way of advertising German reserves of manpower. The taunting local press coverage of the manoeuvres claimed that they were inspiring nervousness in Prague, which was described as an ally of the Soviet Union.

One of the most important foreign visitors to the manoeuvres was General Vuillemin, the chief of staff of the French air force, was there by long-standing invitation. He was, of course, treated to a full display of the Luftwaffe’s strength and he was correspondingly impressed. Indeed he reported to Paris that his own force would barely survive a week of combat with Germany. It was yet another contribution to the conviction in London and Paris that the democracies were incapable of military resistance.

Franco switched forces away from his offensive in Valencia to meet the stalled Republican attack on the Ebro in line with his strategy of annihilating his opponents on the battlefield. There was no other strategic rationale. After its initial success due to surprise the Ebro attack had ground to a halt a presented no threat of any kind. It had left the Republican forces trapped in a tactically unfavourable killing ground, ideally suited to the kind of battle Franco wanted to fight.