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Friday, 30 November 2018

Eighty years ago, a maverick Duchess takes on the government, a failed general strike rings the death knell of the Front Populaire and some Nazi advice on humour

The Duchess of Atholl applied for the Chiltern Hundreds and announced she would fight an immediate by-election in Kinross and West Perth, which she had represented as Unionist M.P. since 1923, standing as an independent. She had resigned in protest at the government’s foreign policy. She was something of a maverick having enthusiastically supported the Spanish Republicans unlike almost all government MPs. She had published a book defending the Republic, earning her the nickname of the "Red Duchess."  The opposition parties did not field candidates leaving the by-election as a straight race between the Duchess and the official government candidate on the question of appeasement. The scene was set for what was later described as the dirtiest by-election ever fought.

France’s Front Populaire which had been leading an ever-more shadowy existence was finally dealt a death blow. In protest against worsening labour conditions, the Communist CGT union called a general strike. It proved an abject failure. Edouard Daladier’s centre-right government responded brutally with the arrest of hundreds of strikers particularly those in the public sector. The strike collapsed after barely a day. 

In a speech to a Nazi Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy) cultural symposium the propaganda minister Josef Goebbels addressed the question of what was acceptable as humour and what was  not. He claimed to be tolerant of light-hearted and inoffensive political humour, with the assertion that the National-Socialists were not over-sensitive, and in case of need had jokes with which to defend themselves. However he fulminated on jokes that touched “the holiest matters of the national life.” “Why not” he suggested “make jokes against the Jews to repay those they told against the Germans?”

Friday, 23 November 2018

Eighty years ago: Nazis follow mob violence against Jews with legal expropriation and Chamberlain looks forward to basking in French adulation whilst a railwayman pre-empts the PM unwittingly

The Nazi regime ground the Jewish community into financial abjection by fulfilling its pledge to make the Jews pay for the damage caused in the Kristallnacht pogrom. 20% of all assets owned by Jews above a modest threshold were to be appropriated by the state. Any insurance payments received for damage were to paid over to the tax authorities although, in a remarkable concession to even-handedness, this amount could be set against the new levy.

Neville Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax visited Paris. Like practically every single such contact between the British and French governments nothing wothy of mention was achieved but the fiction of a close alliance was maintained. Privately Chamberlain also felt that it gave the population of the French capital a valuable opportunity to express their thanks to him for having brought permanent peace to Europe at the Munich conference: "to pour[..] out their pent up feelings of gratitude and affection."

A delegation of senior executives of Britain's rail industry was received by the minister of transport. The most senior figures amongst the railmen was Lord Stamp, Chairman of the LMS.  They were seeking the removal of controls on their power to charge for freight which they claimed put them at a disadvantage compared to the road hauliers. This was not to be the first of Stamp's contentious negotiations with the government, which was to come back to haunt the Prime Minister little more than a year later.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Eighty years ago, the massive Crystal Night pogrom is not allowed to interfere with appeasement

As the remaining Jews in Germany had feared, retribution for the attack on von Rath in Paris came soon and it was terrible. Orchestrated by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, Reichskristallnacht (Crystal night) was one of the largest pogroms ever unleashed. Synagogues were burnt and Jewish owned shops were vandalized throughout the Reich. Dozens were killed and hundreds were arrested. It was followed by legislation that in practice stripped Jews of everything that they owned. The US was the only country to make any noticeable protest, withdrawing its ambassador “for consultations.” Neville Chamberlain complained privately that the atrocity might hamper his policy of appeasement and moaned that he might be forced to have to come close to criticizing Germany in public.

Mussolini finally reaped the harvest of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. The Anglo-Italian agreements signed at Easter finally came into effect as the withdrawal of some Italian troops from Spain triggered the final clauses. Lord Perth, the British ambassador in Rome, Lord Perth handed over to Count Ciano, the Italian foreign minister, his new Letters of Credence addressed to the King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia, thus acknowledging formal recognition by Great Britain of the Empire, in other words Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. Nine long months before Chamberlain had forced his foreign minister Anthony Eden to resign in order to set the ball rolling in this direction. Britain had obtained nothing in return. 

The government’s mastery of the House of Commons made itself felt. A Liberal amendment calling for the creation of a “Ministry of Supply” was soundly defeated despite the support of Winston Churchill. The name was a euphemism for the “Ministry of Munitions”, in other words a shorthand for a move to wartime economic conditions. In Chamberlain’s mind the Munich declaration had removed the threat of war, so the economy should move back to full peacetime conditions. He was also given the opportunity to squash any suggestion that Sir Horace Wilson might not be the proper person to advise him on foreign affairs. Civil servants were there to advise ministers on anything they were told to and it was, furthermore, deeply improper even to mention them by name in Parliament. His answer was wildly applauded by the government benches. In reality Wilson had acquired the status of privileged adviser on every topic under the sun and was an enthusiastic supporter of appeasement. He knew nothing of foreign affairs.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Eighty year ago a shooting in Paris sets the scene for horrors in Germany

Nazi Germany expelled with extreme brutality the 20,000 Polish Jews that it could find in the country. The son of one of these called Grynspan shot the German Ambassador to France von Rath, injuring him severely. Those Jews still in Germany knew that revenge would be exacted, and probably terrible revenge. The German press was dominated by news of the attack and one newspaper Der Angriff  blamed Winston Churchill.

The Battle of the Ebro was approaching its climax after months of attrition fighting. The Republican forces were now squeezed into their positions on the right bank of the river by steady Nationalist counter-attacks. In a last-ditch attempt to rescue the position the Republicans launched a probe across the Lerida river but the Nationalists did not rise to the bait.

The tide of US politics appeared as though it might be turning. The mid-term elections showed a clear shift towards the Republicans after eight years in which the Democrats had seemed to carry all before them. The balance of power still lay with the Democrats but the trend was worrying. The split of seats in the House of Representatives 252 (down from 330) against Republicans 165 (up from 90). One-third of the Senate was elected, and the actual return was 21 Democrats and 11 Republicans. The voting for State Governors, which took place in 32 out of the 48 States, resulted in the return of 17 Republicans and 15 Democrats. There were now 30 Democrat and 18 Republican Governors.