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.


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