Eighty years ago, all the isms become wasms

Before Europe strode forward into the new, twentieth century horrors of its own making, it took a step back to the diplomacy of the eighteenth century. Just as the “diplomatic revolution” immediately before the Seven Years war in 1756 saw traditional alliances overthrown, the German-Soviet “Non Aggression Pact” changed the face of the European political chess board. The move was all the more astonishing as it overrode the long-standing ideological hostility between capitalist Fascism and socialist Stalinism. In the words of a wag at the British foreign Office “all the isms had become wasms.” It should not have come as a surprise; the dilatory and uncommitted British attempts to build a front against Hitler with the Soviet Union had served to do little beyond convincing Stalin that Hitler spoke the same language as he did and that Chamberlain didn’t. The totalitarian dictatorships had far more in common than seemed outwardly possible. Hitler had long ago  destroyed any form of socialism in Germany so the Nazi hostility to Bolshevism served no more than rhetorical purposes. At the level of brutal power politics where Stalin and Hitler operated, the minimal morality of inter-state relations of two centuries was the norm. The clauses of the Pact which partitioned Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany were secret, but it was obvious that Hitler was being given a free hand to the East. In another echo of the eighteenth century when three successive partitions had divided Poland between Austria, Germany and Russia, Poland was doomed.

Hitler summoned his military leaders to Bavaria for him to brief them on his determination to destroy Poland by military force. The previous year Chamberlain had deprived him of the pleasure of destroying Czechoslovakia; this time there would be no repetition. Hitler knew that he faced no serious opposition from the west; he had seen the statesmen of Britain and France at Munich and they were pathetic little worms (armselige Würmchen).

The British façade of business as usual collapsed. First Chamberlain returned from his fishing holiday at the luxurious Scottish property of the ferociously anti-Semitic Duke of Westminster for an urgent meeting of the Cabinet. Next, Parliament was recalled for a “Special Session.” This made a mockery of Chamberlain’s resolute insistence on sticking to the practice of a long parliamentary recess in the final, fraught debate of the summer session barely three weeks before. Then, his huge majority had allowed him contemptuously to dismiss calls by Winston Churchill and others for only a brief vacation given the huge crisis that face Europe. Chamberlain had swallowed the barely credible claim which Hitler had fed to him via one of unofficial intermediaries on whom Downing Street had come to rely, that he was in no hurry to settle the Danzig crisis.


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