Eighty years ago, the League of Nations enters its death throes, and the Germans unintentionally lay the foundations of a pro-Chamberlain myth

The League of Nations was in its last throes in Geneva. By a quirk of its procedure, the League’s Council had still been under the presidency of the Soviet representative, Ivan Maisky who was doubling as ambassador to London. As the main, if not only, task for the League was to respond to the Finland’s request for protection against the Soviet invasion, this was rather anomalous. In the normal course of events a new Council would have been elected the previous September but the outbreak of war intervened. Under the default procedure of applying alphabetical order, Belgium succeeded the Soviet Union in the presidency which papered over the cracks. The Soviet Union declined the League’s proposal of mediation in its dispute with Finland as it claimed to have no quarrel with the nation of Finland or its people, only against its – implicitly – illegitimate government. The Argentine tabled a motion for the expulsion of the Soviet Union.

Germany published its “White Book” on the outbreak of the war with the desperate goal of trying to shift the blame onto Britain. It did score a few points of – at that time – irrelevant historical interest. In its version of events, Britain had remained quiescent  for two days when Germany seized the remainder of Czecchoslovakia the previous March until the influence of the war-monger clique of Churchill and Eden had asserted itself. The German narrative made full use of the inescapable fact that Chamberlain had  infamously announced that the German move would not deter him from going on with his policy (appeasement). It was only when the domestic political impossibility of pursuing full-blown appeasement became clear, that Chamberlain began to go through the motions of trying to hold Germany in check. Perhaps because the truth was being broadcast from a tainted source, it has rather been forgotten by subsequent historians and the fiction that Chamberlain whole-heartedly abandoned appeasement in early 1939 has acquired the status of historical fact.

Commodore Harwood’s judgement of the intentions of the German surface raider, that he was hunting in the South Atlantic, proved correct. His force of three small cruisers caught the pocket battleship Graf Spee – mistakenly identified as the Admiral Scheer - in the River Plate estuary. The battle was lopsided; one far stronger German ship faced three weaker British vessels, which had a small advantage in speed but had to expose themselves to severe punishment to engage their opponent. Graf Spee‘s 11” guns were far superior to Exeter’s 8” armament and the 6” guns of Ajax and Achilles. She inflicted severe damage on the Exeter but in return Exeter damaged her fuel system and the threat of torpedo attack prevented Graf Spee from making an all-out attack on her tormentors. She withdrew towards Montevideo in Uruguay, leaving the three British ships between her and the open sea.


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