Eighty years ago, Chamberlain touts umbrella diplomacy, as Hitler wields rather more effective weapons

Neville Chamberlain set out his latest thoughts on policy to the unchallenging audience of the Conservative Women’s Associations. He was able to draw laughs with a reference to his taking the “old umbrella around again”, promoting his self-image as Europe’s travelling peace-maker, armed with his trusty “defensive weapon.” He was clearly unaware that Hitler had developed a violent dislike of the bourgeois, democratic “umbrella men” who sought ineffectually to restrain him, Chamberlain above all. Nothing in Chamberlain's speech was likely to change Hitler's belief that he had fully got the measure of the British prime minister. Chamberlain assured his listeners that measures such as the introduction of conscription were aimed at protecting Britain from attack, and nothing more menacing than that. He hoped that the Danzig issue could be settled by discussion and the closest he got to a threat was to state that if Germany attempted unilateral measures, this would start “a general conflagration in which this country would be involved.” The German press castigated the speech as an encouragement to the Poles to become even more intransigent. More insidiously, German comments came close to echoing the reaction to Rab Butler’s House of Commons speech (“Runciman in sight”) by focusing on Chamberlain’s manifest preference for a negotiated settlement.

The British government’s new enthusiasm for extending its protecting hand over the Balkans reached even further south with the announcement that Britain and Turkey would soon conclude "a definitive long-term agreement of a reciprocal character in the interests of their national security". This followed on from guarantees handed out to Greece and Rumania.  It was a nice piece of symbolism, but hardly likely to affect the plans of either Germany or Italy.

Hitler conducted a widely publicised tour of inspections of the fortifications being erected along the border with France: the Westwall to the Germans or the Siegfried Line to the British. It was a clear statement that Germany was braced to resist any attack by France, sparked by its guarantee to Poland or anything else. This was the military counterpart to Germany’s latest diplomatic advance: the formal pact agreed with Italy. This was due to be signed in another public demonstration of Axis solidarity, but the German newspapers were already giving it huge advance publicity.


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