Eighty years ago, Chamberlain nudges Warsaw towards talks with Hitler

Neville Chamberlain set out the British government’s policy towards the dispute between German and Poland over the status of Danzig. It was a sustained exercise in weasel vocabulary. At first glance it appeared to be a forthright declaration that the British guarantee to Poland would protect the country from Nazi aggression, but on closer examination, Chamberlain was clearly holding the door wide open for Germany to push it demands. The key giveaway was Chamberlain’s insistence that Britain had “guaranteed to give our assistance to Poland in the case of a clear threat to her independence.” Chamberlain implied that a unilateral German move on Danzig, which Poland decided to resist by force, would pose such a threat but stopped short of saying that Britain would apply the same logic. Chamberlain repeated that the existing settlement over Danzig could be improved upon, even if it was neither illogical nor unjust. He reminded his listeners that Colonel Beck, the Polish strongman himself, had stated that “all conversations are possible” if the Reich was willing to act peacefully. Chamberlains’ plea to “all concerned” not to let the issue pose a threat to peace, was a lightly disguised incitement to Warsaw to negotiate with Germany.

The RAF delivered what the British government hoped would be salutary proof of its potency to the German government with a large scale bomber exercise over France. The most important part of this was a non-stop return flight by Wellington bombers to Bordeaux in the course of a day. The unsubtle message was that these aircraft had sufficient range to bomber Germany from their bases in Britain. The RAF was over-claiming, but may not have been fully aware by how much. The Wellingtons did not have the defensive armament or speed to survive German fighter opposition as was to become painfully clear in the first days of the war. And they were the best of the RAF’s medium bombers. The RAF had neither the training nor the technology to conduct this kind of air raid by night. The other parts of the exercise also showcased the weakness of the RAF’s bomber force, featuring the woeful Fairey Battle, which was suicidally vulnerable, and the obsolescent Bristol Blenheim. The RAF described them as medium bombers, but their bomb loads barely entitled them to be called light bombers.

General Franco was determined to use his victory in the Spanish Civil War to crush any possible residue of opposition. The message he broadcast was that socialism was evil, the cause of the horrors of the civil war and that it was a crime ever to have espoused it. The veteran Socialist leader, Julian Besteiro, was put on trial for his life. There was almost no substance to the charges against him. Amongst the “positions of responsibility” that he had accepted from the Popular Front government was representing the Republic at George VI’s coronation and having discussions with British Cabinet ministers. Even organizing the surrender of Madrid to the Nationalists at the end of the war was presented as an attempt to save his own skin. Besteiro had held no serious political office during the Civil War. He was spared the death penalty but sentenced to thirty years in jail and died in prison the following year.


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