Showing posts from October, 2016

Jarrow Marchers Create Unforgettable Image but Change Nothing

Saturday 31st October 1936

The Jarrow marchers reached central London after their 300 mile journey on foot. Of the 200 who had set out, only three dropped out on the way. The only woman in the group was the formidable Ellen Wilkinson, Labour MP for the constituency. The modern group statue with a woman carrying a baby and children at her side is a fiction. It rained torrentially for the last leg of the march, which contributed to a powerful historical image at the expense of their comfort. Wisely they did not use umbrellas.

The march created a powerful and lasting image of the effects of the depression, but had almost no contemporary political impact. The government maintained its refusal to meet the marchers although they were given tea at the House of Commons. A Communist attempt to slipstream on the publicity for the marchers with a demonstration in favour of arms for the Spanish Republicans was rebuffed.

A Brown Shirt at St James

Friday 30th October 1936

The new ambassador of Nazi Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop, presented his credentials to the King at St. James’s Palace. It was some months since his appointment had been announced, but he had delayed his arrival in London to make sure that his position in the Nazi hierarchy in Berlin was as secure as possible before taking the risk of a prolonged absence from the constant intrigues and jockeying for power at Hitler’s court.

Von Ribbentrop greeted the King in the conventional fashion. The obligation on German heads of mission to greet the heads of state to whom they were accredited with the Nazi salute was only introduced the following year, as von Ribbentrop famously demonstrated when he met the new King George VI. Ribbentrop had immense and largely delusional hopes of developing Anglo-German friendship based on King Edward’s supposed pro-German sentiments, but he had missed his moment, if it had ever existed.

Messy Legacy of the Scamble for Africa

Thursday 29th October 1936

The white settlers in Northern Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – were beginning to push for a measure of control of their areas, rather than merely being administered from London. Boundaries and politics in the region were the legacy of the confused final stage of the “scramble for Africa” in which Cecil Rhodes’s British South African Company had become a short-lived state-within-a-state. The area had passed under direct Imperial control in 1924, but there was nothing approaching an entity that could have attained Dominion status.

The settler leader Colonel Stewart Gore-Browne proposed a federal structure, which would split the central region which included the bulk of the white population, farming areas, railways and the mines from the other regions, which had changed little since before colonisation. Gore-Brown was looking towards closer collaboration with the settlers in Zambia across the Zambezi River. The Colonial authorities were sceptical and the anomalies and …

Germany's "Place in the Sun"

Wednesday 28th October 1936

In a speech at Berlin’s Sportpalast to assembled Nazi dignitaries Herman Goering coined a phrase that was to echo down the years in the course of an impassioned plea for Germany to attain self-sufficiency in raw materials. This would reverse the theft of Germany’s colonies by Britain. The world – Britain to the fore of course – grudged Germany her “place in the sun”. The fiction that Nazi Germany was remotely interested in colonies was to dog British notions of how to deal with Hitler almost until war broke out.
He blended self-pity with aggression. Germany was asked to pay for raw materials with gold, but the British had stolen her gold. The German housewife would wisely forego scarce meat in favour of plentiful fish. The whaling fleet would be strengthened to bolster the supply of fats. Synthetic materials would be used for clothes and rubber. German coal was already being transformed into fuel. There was no limit to what German industrialists and workers c…

British Press Reports Routine Divorce Case

Tuesday 27th October 1936

Divorce was still enough of a rarity for routine, undefended cases to be reported, albeit briefly and unsensationally, in national newspapers. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the way that the British newspapers covered the divorce hearing of Mrs. Ernest Simpson at Ipswich Crown Court, which alleged adultery between her husband and a woman not named in Court at the Hotel de Paris in Bray. The fact that she was represented by Norman Birkett KC, one of the country’s most prominent and expensive barristers might have suggested that there was something unusual about the case; it was a considerable expense to undertake for so simple a proceeding.

The British newspapers maintained a discreet but firm silence about Mrs. Simpson’s relationship with the King, the huge international press pack that had descended on Ipswich for the case and the Judge’s decision to hear the case before a closed Court.

Mild Punishment for Espionage

Monday 26th October 1936

Standards were rather different in 1936. An aircraft draughtsman convicted of espionage – supplying performance figures for military aircraft to a foreign power - was bound over to keep the peace for two years and no worse. The trial of Eric Camp was held in camera so no further details became public, including the fact that his paymaster was not, as most would have suspected, Nazi Germany, but the Soviet Union. Camps was a Communist.

Camp took advantage of his non-custodial sentence to go to Spain as a volunteer on the Republican side. He was no greater success as a soldier than a spy. Camps rapidly made himself unpopular with his comrades, by stealing cigarettes amongst other delinquencies.  His instructor believed he might be mentally unstable to the point of deserving to be expelled from the Party. He deserted.

Fascism In Belgium

Sunday 25th October 1936

The Belgian Rexist party attempted to stage a major demonstration, which might have prefigured some kind of coup. The Rexists were quite openly Fascist, but, unusually, espoused a militant version of Catholicism. Their name referred to “Christ the King” rather than more parochial forms of royalty. They had emerged as the largest political party in the spring’s elections. They drew support mainly from French speakers, but also, again unusually, from Flemish speakers.

Extensive government counter-measures blocked plans to stage an immense demonstration, but an impromptu effort on the Place St Gudule in Brussels led to violence. The Place was cleared by mounted gendarmes with drawn sabres and counter demonstrations by Socialists and Communists ended in bloodshed. Degrelle and two of his main lieutenants were arrested but rapidly released.

More Woes for British Air Rearmament

Saturday 24th October 1936

A story in the American press that Britain was to place a very substantial order for 300 military aircraft from the US Boeing Company could not have come at a worse time. The Air Ministry was already embroiled in the acrimonious fall out of the closure of the Wolseley Aero Engine Company, which had sparked a protest from the near-megalomaniac Lord Nuffield at the conduct of the shadow factory programme. The hint that RAF orders were being placed abroad would inevitably alienate British manufacturers.

Nor did it much help Boeing’s standing with the US authorities, who looked askance on scarce industrial resources being devoted to anything but building up the exiguous US Army Air Corps. Perhaps for this reason, the stories had specified that the machines would be built at Boeing’s Canadian works. In the event, the report proved false but it was another drop in the steadily filling bucket of mistrust between the British aircraft industry and its main customer, th…

True Gesture Politics in France

Friday 23rd  October 1936

The congress of Edouard Herriot’s Radical party in Biarritz, partner’s in Leon Blum’s Front Populaire coalition, was intended to send a warning shot across the bows of Blum for any inclination to move too far to the left. The political danger was real, but the event struggled to avoid descent into futility. In heated exchange the leader of the party’s left found himself defending the role of the Communist Party in the events of 1934 against the leader of the right wing. Even the presence of a Spanish militia man did not prevent the congress passing a resolution to avoid "ideological" crusades

Most embarrassing of all was the plan to manufacture a “Liberal” salute as a counterpoise to the Fascist salute, but, naturally, not all like it. It involved extending both hands above the head, which proved challenging for elderly and stouter delegates. It did not catch on.

German Climbers Encroach on British Turf

Thursday 22nd October 1936

Anglo-Germany rivalry had spread to the Himalayas. Not content with battling to establish mountaineering supremacy in its own backyard – notably the Eiger – Germany was taking on Britain in its Imperial turf, subtly rubbing in the embarrassment of suspending serious attempts on new peaks following Mallory and Irvine’s fatal encounter with Everest in 1924.

Led by the Bavarian Doctor Bauer a German team had come within 1,000 meters of the summit of Kanchenjunga in 1929 already, but in 1936 were able to put down a significant marker with the conquest of previously unclimbed Simvu following their success on Siniolchum in September. At a little below 7,000 meters neither peak rank in the world’s top 100 but the encroachment on a British frontier and a British sport was painful.

Front Fighters for Anglo-German Amity

Wednesday 21st October 1936

Germany’s various ex-servicemen’s associations were brought together into a single national body under the leadership of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha who combined  august lineage with enthusiastic Nazism. He led the National Socialist Motor Corps. The amalgamation had been accomplished with the some curious assistance of Joachim von Ribbentrop, who had taken no previous interest in veterans’ affairs.

The explanation lay in the simultaneous announcement that a delegation of German ex-servicemen would visit England, resuming a practice interrupted by George V’s death.  The diplomatic thinking behind this was not hard to decode. The Duke fancied himself as a link between Nazi Germany and his distant cousin Edward VIII. As Prince of Wales he had caused amazement and some outrage by calling publicly for the British Legion veterans' group to channel a friendly initiative towards Germany. Ribbentrop had just been appointed as the new ambassador to London.

Shadow Factory Casualty

Monday 20th October 1936

A flicker of trouble passed across the generally happy scene of the shadow factory programme of the Air Ministry under which established, large manufacturer in the automotive sector built military aircraft factories alongside their existing plants to provide extra capacity. One of the participating companies – fortunately one of the smaller ones – pulled out of the scheme just as it was being awarded a firm production contract.

Behind this lay the sad story of Wolseley, one of the pioneers of the British car and aircraft industries. It was well passed its pre First World War heyday and struggled on as a minor subsidiary of the giant Vickers combine. It had decided to abandon all aero engine work and was soon to vanish entirely.

Civil War Looks Like a War of Independence in Catalonia

Monday 19th October 1936

The arrival of the Republican President Azauna in Barcelona as part of a tour of the different battlefronts highlighted the special character of the war in Catalonia.

The general mobilization of all males between 18 and 40 years of age began in the region. It was another sign that the Spanish Civil War had become rather a war of independence for Catalonia and it was also looking like total war. Food rationing had been introduced to cope with shortage of basic commodities.

Evil of Bogus Drinking Clubs Finally to be Tackled

Saturday 18th October 1936

The government’s legislative programme for the upcoming Parliamentary session was beginning to take shape ahead of the King’s speech at the State Opening on 3rd November, the traditional forum for a formal announcement. The main thrust of the measures concerned the economy in one way or another. Coal-mining royalties, the imports of chilled and frozen beef, and the pensionable age for blind people would all feature. But it was not all deep seriousness. Space would be found for the national scheme for physical training, beloved of Neville Chamberlain.

And, of course, the “evil of bogus drinking clubs” established to flout the law on licensing the sale of alcohol was to be tackled. A private member’s bill to this effect had been withdrawn from the previous session on a government promise to legislate. Backsliding was not an option.

Awful Warning of the Perils of Divorce for Public Servants

Saturday 17th October 1936

It was announced that Elsie Schauffler’s play about the nineteenth century Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell was to be performed publicly in London at the New Theatre after a successful run in New York. It had already been performed privately at the Gate Theatre in April, but it had taken a battle of epic proportions with the Lord Chamberlain to win a license for a public performance. This ultra-conservative official of the Royal Court, who for purely historical reasons was the legal censor of the theatre, had demanded cuts in the text.

His particular objection was to the play’s suggestion that Parnell’s mistress, Kitty O’Shea, continued a sexual relationship with her husband once her affair with Parnell had begun. In the fifty years since scandal, not much had changed in British sexual morality. Parnell had been forced from politics,  when Captain O’Shea divorced his wife and involvement with a divorcee still spelled death for most careers in p…

Republican Presidential Campaign Despairs

Friday 16th October 1936

Senator Alf Landon, the increasingly obviously doomed Republican Presidential candidate, stepped up his attack on President Franklin Roosevelt. He described Roosevelt as the “Kerensky of the American revolutionary movement” although he did not seem able to identify its Lenin or Trotsky. He promised that Roosevelt would bring the country to a point where “every owner of a life insurance policy or bank account will see his savings evaporate”. As this had already happened to many Americans in the wave of bank failures of the Great Depression, this rather lacked impact.

This was clearly a move of desperation. The all-out denunciation of Roosevelt’s New Deal as a quasi-socialist programme marked the final abandonment of any Republican sympathy for the programme’s social goals. Originally Landon had been touted as a representative of a “Liberal” tendency within the Republican Party.

Belgian King Outflanks Maginot Line

Thursday 15th October 1936

Leopold III had acceded to the throne of Belgian in 1934 but had not made much of a mark. This was to change. After presiding at the first Council of Ministers for the first time in his reign, he made a speech on foreign policy that sparked near panic in British and French diplomatic circles. Quite rightly as it was to have fateful consequences four years later.

Leopold spoke out against involving Belgian in any system of alliances, arguing that good relations with her neighbours - Germany to the fore - was all that was required for her security, implicitly rejecting alliance with France. In part this reflected concern at the Franco-Soviet pact, in part the hostility of the Flemish Dutch-speaking half of the country towards France. A neutral Belgian destroyed whatever military logic there had been to France’s strategy of defending itself directly against Germany on the Maginot line. The undefended Franco-Belgian frontier was even longer.

Government Double Standards on Demonstrations

Wednesday 14th October 1936

Baldwin chaired his first Cabinet meeting since he left on his prolonged convalescent leave at the end of the Parliamentary session. The most urgent topic was how to deal with the provocative demonstrations organized by Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascists, which had triggered the Battle of Cable Street just over a week before. The idea was advanced that a law against wearing military-style uniforms – aimed squarely at the Blackshirts – might be passed. This was not universally acclaimed. The disturbances were blamed on conflict between Fascists and Communists, rather than on one side alone. The question was presented as one of public order only.

Silence on the on legitimacy of Fascist demonstrations stood in sharp contrast to the stance taken towards demonstrations by the left. The Cabinet also announced the surprising decision not to receive any deputation from the hunger marchers, who had set off from Jarrow a few days before and were soon expected in London. This…

German Economy on War Footing

Tuesday 13th October 1936

A speech by Rudolf Hess, the deputy Führer, brought a combination of favourable press comment and a slump on the Berlin stock exchange. Hess stridently affirmed that German national policy was to aim for the completest possible independence, in practice for autarky as set out in the four year plan with the goal of complete self-sufficiency. Implicitly the German economy was on a war footing.Wages and prices were to be controlled centrally.

The speech marked a defeat for the traditional free market views championed by Hjalmar Horace Greely Schacht, President of the Reichsbank, who would have preferred Germany to join other countries in economic collaboration. In practice this would have meant a devaluation of the Reichsmark, anathema to both Nazis and the middle classes.

Stanley Baldwin Returns to Downing Street

Monday 12th October 1936

Stanley Baldwin returned to Downing Street much restored after his two months’ recuperative holiday, fully fit to resume his duties. He had a very full in-tray. As well as the problems of Palestine and the aftermath of the Battle of Cable Street, the Secretary of State for Scotland had died suddenly. There were a string of high level callers and a Cabinet meeting to chair on the Wednesday.
Unknown to all but a few insiders, this was a far more brisk return to work than had been planned originally. He should have been based at Chequers, only coming up to London for Cabinet meetings. The explanation might lie in the fact that amongst the cases listed to be heard at Ipswich Crown Court was a divorce suit filed by one Mrs. Ernest Simpson.

End to Strike in Palestine but not to Unrest

Sunday 11th October 1936

An end was finally called to the general strike by Arab Palestinians. The decisive factor were direct appeals by the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the Imam of Yemen and the Emir of Transjordan to the Higher Arab Committee. The strike had failed to make an impact on the British and was becoming economically painful.

Tension was far from over. None of the long term grievances had been solved. Full scale armed attacks on British forces continued unabated.

Tactical Win for Austrian Nationalism

Saturday 10th October 1936

Austria continued to struggle on in its ultimately futile attempt to maintain a distinctly national identity in the face of pressure for closer ties with Germany. The Chancellor Schuschnigg dissolved the proto-Nazi Heimwehr, which had shown no appetite to obey the government decree of May absorbing all armed movements into a single, state-controlled body. Schuschnigg's attempt to position himself as a militant proponent of Austrian nationalism was a doomed exercise in riding the tiger of right-wing sentiment.

The move was facilitated by a quarrel between the Heimwehr’s leaders, Major Fey and Prince Stahremberg, which had been referred to the Chancellor for arbitration. The two Heimwehr ministers made a very token and brief withdrawal in protest at the dissolution of the armed wing before re-entering the government. The only permanent outcome was that Stahremberg retreated into private life and eventually exile.

Labour Moves Away from Pacifism

Friday 9th October 1936

The Labour Party started to back away from its initial unqualified support for the embargo on arms supplies to either side in the Spanish Civil War. The delegates at the party congress unanimously approved a statement accusing the Fascist powers of having broken their pledges to respect the embargo, although this was tempered by a call to investigate the question and – only if the accusation were proved – allowing the Spanish government to procure arms. The international committee supposedly overseeing the embargo was rapidly descending into a dispiriting political arena in which the Fascist power fought a verbal battle with the Soviet government with the democracies as impotent spectators. An eight hour meeting to discuss claims of embargo breaking led nowhere.

The author of the motion was Clem Attlee and the move away from unilateralist pacifism certainly bore his stamp. In another sign of a shift towards diplomatic activism, Hugh Dalton was elected Chairman of…

Distracting Tokenism in France

Thursday 8th October 1936

Legal bans on objectionable political movements have proved down the ages to be almost invariably futile. The Front Populaire had banned Colonel de la Roque’s  Croix de Feu movement in June, but he had simply set up the Parti Social Français to continue its work. The Croix de Feu began as an ex-servicemen’s association and it certainly displayed extreme right wing tendencies; its death's head emblem was to say the least ill-chosen, but it remains hotly debated as to how much it was proto-Fascist. It was vigorously nationalistic and thus did not indulge in the same ambiguous relationship with Nazism and Italian Fascism observed in the far right of other countries. Its potential threat to the government lay more in the kind of street action it had promoted in February 1934, when demonstrations and massive riots triggered by a huge financial scandal involving many established politicians , almost brought down the government.

The offices of the Parti Social Fra…

Wildcat Strike on London Buses

Wednesday 7th October 1936

The London bus service was severely disrupted by a strike. As so often with labour disputes, the precise reason was obscure. Apparently it had been triggered by changes to how the 63 route was operated. Traffic was heavy on one section and light on another so the route was split into two, with appropriate adjustments to capacity. This involved a net increase in the number of men and vehicles employed, but it seems that the mere notion of change to schedules was enough to provoke discontent.

The London bus service was a key battleground for the confrontation between the Communist Party and the established trade unions. The Communists had taken advantage of a long tradition of militancy amongst bus workers - depicted in Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield - to build membership in the sector, but found that this was something of a wasting asset. It left them with a choice between backing quasi-spontaneous and largely futile action, or acting as disciplined…

Trades Unions Drive Labour Stance on Rearmament

Tuesday 6th October 1936

The Labour Party Conference in Edinburgh took a baby step away from uncompromising pacifism. It passed a resolution calling for the armed strength of those countries still in the League of Nations to be “conditioned” by that of the dictatorships in view of the latter’s ever more lamentable behaviour. Mentioning the League was, of course, a sop to the massive sentiment in its favour, which contrived to ignore proofs of  that organisation’s complete ineffectualness.

The motion was passed solely on the block votes of the trades unions, mindful of the effect of rearmament on employment. The local political parties were opposed to anything that looked like support for a government programme, however feeble it might be. George Lansbury spoke out for the unreconstructed pacifist element and Sir Stafford Cripps on the extreme left hedged his bets rather. The most powerful support for the motion came from Hugh Dalton, whose prominence was a register of the weakness of th…

Military Campaign Takes Shape in Spain

Monday 5th October 1936

The military campaign in the Spanish civil war continued to take shape following Franco’s appointment as commander in chief of the insurgents. He claimed to have massed 150,000 troops, spear-headed by 15,000 Foreign Legionaries and Moorish troops for the operation. It was an uncomfortable reminder that Spain’s professional army was anything but representative of the country’s society.

Their prime stated objective was Madrid. The chief consideration was political here. In strategic terms it would make far greater sense of consolidate the areas under insurgent control in the South West, which was in fact what happened. Madrid held out for the Republic almost to the end.

A Legend is Born on Cable Street

Sunday 4th October 1936

Violence provoked by British Union of Fascist demonstrations had been growing for some time and reached a climax triggered by a march through eastern London, later celebrated as the “Battle of Cable Street”. The Fascist had intended to march through largely Jewish areas in uniform. Despite the provocative intent of the march and the risk of violence, the authorities did not ban it outright.

A large escort of 6,000 police was provided to protect the Fascists from an estimated 20,000 counter demonstrators, principally local Jews and Communists. The bulk of the violence was between police and counter-demonstrators. There were few casualties among the Fascists. Most of the 60 people arrested were counter-demonstrators. The legend that the Fascists were defeated is quite false, but the violence was a major motive for the passage of the Public Order Act, forbidding uniformed protests and requiring police permission for demonstrations, which is regarded as a major facto…

German Naval Challenge to Britain Takes Shape

Thursday 3rd  October 1936

Nazi Germany launched its first major capital ship since the First World War, the battleship (or battlecruiser by some definitions) Scharnhorst. The far smaller Deutschland class ships were classed as Panzerschiffe or in British parlance, pocket battleships. Following the signature of the Anglo-German naval treaty in 1935, she offered concrete proof that Germany would do what it could to challenge British naval supremacy, supposedly respecting the restrictions laid down in the Treaty.

In reality Germany flouted its provisions from the start. The tonnage of both Scharnhorst and her sister Gneisenau was given as 26,000 tons, but it was actually 32,600 tons. Until she was sunk at the Battle of North Cape at the end of 1943 on a sacrificial sortie conceived to prove that the Kriegsmarine’s surface units were capable of action.

Chamberlain Comes to Bury Baldwin and not to Praise him

Wednesday 2nd October 1936

Neville Chamberlain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the keynote speech at the Conservative party conference in Margate rather than the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who was still absent on a prolonged holiday, which he had taken on medical advice. This sent a clear signal that Chamberlain would replace Baldwin before too long. Chamberlain’s claim that “The time happily not yet arrived to make a final appraisement of Mr. Baldwin’s long and eminent service to his party and to his country” meant, of course, precisely the opposite, with  clear hint that the appraisement was unlikely to be overly favourable.

On the key question of military spending Chamberlain insisted no unnecessary expenditure was undertaken and was remarkably frank on his goals: a Navy large enough to defend Britain’s lines of communication, a tiny but well equipped army and a strong air force, but one that served as a deterrent and not as a means of aggression. The incoherence of Lab…

Front Populaire Staggers over its Latest hurdle

Wednesday 1st October 1936

The Bill devaluing the French franc was finally passed after a legislative marathon. It had been approved by the Chamber of Deputies after a debate of 25 hours but it had then been blocked in the Senate, where the Front Populaire government did not enjoy the same majority. It required significant concessions by the government to reach a compromise in the Senate. On top of all this, the Paris waiters were striking.

The original bill had included a number of social clauses, notably the reversal of the cuts in pensions made by the Laval government. These were removed entirely. The bill also gave the government power to control price increases made on the pretext of the devaluation, but these had been severely diluted from the original plans. Much was at stake for the government: its fall was actively contemplated and only an emphatic statement from the Radical leader Camille Chautemps that he would not displace Léon Blum defused this.