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Friday, 26 October 2018

Eighty years ago, the end of a titanic battle in China, beautiful friendship amongst Fascists and a record changes hands

Three cities in China - Guangzhou (then known as Canton), Hankow and Wuhan – fell to the Japanese invaders in rapid succession. Guangzhou had been the largest major port left in Chinese hands and Wuhan was the inland communications hub that it fed. This marked the end of what remains one of the largest land battles ever fought which had begun in the spring of the year. About 1m Chinese soldiers had been engaged against some 400,000 Japanese. Like so much else to do with the Sino-Japanese war casualty figures are still uncertain but the Japanese army suffered up to 70,000 casualties. There is no reliable figure for Chinese losses especially as the human cost included hundreds of thousands killed in the Yellow River floods when river dykes were deliberately breached in a vain attempt to halt the Japanese. The Japanese succeeded in occupying territory but failed in their goal of annihilating the Chinese army, which was able to withdraw to central China and continue resistance.

The German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop made a surprise visit “of friendship” to Rome. Designed to capitalise on the close collaboration of the two countries during the Czech crisis the visit was intended to secure a formal treaty between the two Fascist states. Mussolini and his foreign minister (and son-in-law) Galeazzo Ciano had no difficulty in avoiding this goal, which even a competent diplomat would have struggled to achieve.

As if in symbolic recognition of the weakness of the Royal Air Force (which played a major part in Britain’s unwillingness to risk war with Germany over Czechoslovakia) Britain lost the record for high altitude flight which it had set in June at 16,440 meters. Lt. Col Pezzi of the Regia Aeronautica attained 17,330 meters comprehensively beating the British figure. In reality this was barely relevant as a gauge of progress in aviation technology. Pezzi’s aircraft was an open cockpit biplane Caproni Ca 161, firmly part of the obsolete design, and he wore a pressure suit more akin to a deep-sea diver’s outfit.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Eighty years ago, the dust settles after Munich but an air of unreality pervades

After the high drama of the Czech crisis affairs were slowly returning to normal although an air of make-believe floated around much of what was going on. Via Goebbels’s propaganda machine Germany was trying to paint British rearmament as an unjustified provocation designed to achieve huge superiority over Germany rather than a desperate attempt to catch up. Britain was accused to breaching the spirit of the Anglo-German “peace for our time” declaration. A supposed war-monger clique was blamed and Winston Churchill was ritually denounced. Stories were also floated that Britain and France were dragging their feet over disarmament proposals from Germany; these proposals were essentially imaginary. Germany held out an equally imaginary carrot in the form of a desire for a trade agreement which would allow British firms access to the German market, which was closed because of Nazi autarkic economic policy. Against this background of low-grade offensive, docile British newspapers claimed that relations with Germany had normalised and took as evidence the fact that the British ambassador to Berlin would be returning home Britain for two or three weeks leave.

As the British Parliament prepared to return to its normal pattern of activity with its traditional autumn opening, faint hints were dropped as to the strain under which the prime minister had come. He had in fact suffered a near nervous collapse after the strains of the crisis but some days of rest in Scotland when he could indulge in his favourite recreation of fly-fishing  had brought him back to an even keel. On his return he would have to conduct a small reshuffle of the Cabinet to replace Duff Cooper, who had resigned over Munich, and another minister who had died. The press loyally depicted this as part of routine business and did not admit that Duff Cooper’s departure was in any way representative of any wider concern at the abandonment of Czechoslovakia. There was a powerful reminder that the world was still a very threatening place: the new sitting would discuss some measure of national service

Italy continued its gentle move into alignment with Nazi racial policies. Jews were banned from working on the Italian stock exchange. It was part of the campaign to eliminate them from the “nerve Centres” of national life. The Fascist government did, though, back away from an earlier plan to expel all American Jews from the country. President Roosevelt had implied that the Italian and German origin minorities in Latin America were by some measures a threat to US security.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Eighty years ago, the Munich debate writes the future of British politics, Mussolini smudges the ledger of appeasement and bloodshed in Palestine is dripped over the Nazi score sheet

Over three days Parliament debated Neville Chamberlain’s diplomacy that led to the Munch agreement. The first was only noticeable for the restrained resignation speech of Duff Cooper, the only member of Cabinet to give up his position in protest. There was some concern in the government that there might be a significant rebellion in its ranks but in the end only a handful of MPs abstained and Chamberlain secured an overwhelming victory. The abstainers, though, were writing the future of Tory government for the next quarter century. They included the next three Conservative prime ministers, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan. It marked the moment that the first two, each heavyweights in their different ways, moved into internal opposition to the prime minister. Chamberlain had enjoyed a huge triumph at Munich but, invisible for nearly another two years, the tide of history had turned against him.

With perfunctory explanation the withdrawal of 10,000 Italian “volunteers” (in reality regular army units) was announced from Spain, perhaps a sixth of those engaged. A blizzard of obfuscating commentary from Rome attempted to distract observers from the suspicion that this wasa precondition for the still-awaited ratification of the Anglo-Italian Easter agreements. These anticipated the de jure recognition of the conquest of Ethiopia (“the Italian Empire” in Mussolini’s phraseology) but this had yet to be granted. Rome was keen to avoid the suggestion that the size of the withdrawal was calibrated to count somehow as meaningful progress towards disengagement in some diplomatic formula that would have to be resolved for Mussolini to receive the prize of recognition. Pride argued against admitting to being obliged to meet the Italian part of the bargain before the British met theirs. This was the end run to the process of negotiation that Chamberlain had forced Eden’s resignation to set in motion the previous February. The withdrawal was a pitiful reward for British appeasement, however reluctant Italy might be to acknowledge it.

The curve of violence moved upwards in Palestine. 19 unarmed Jews including women and children were slaughtered at Tiberias. There were also attacks on British forces. This all came at a convenient moment for Hitler who was always happy to pepper his speeches with references to British embarrassments in Palestine if London showed the least inclination to take a moral high ground as the German occupation of their spoils from Munich might have encouraged them to do..