Eighty years ago, Hitler meets two generals turned political leaders and opts for the status quo

 


Hitler made a long journey to the south in his personal train Europa to meet the leaders of Spain and France, both friends of Germany but in no way friends of each other; they were riven by mutual distrust and predatory sentiment. Any move by Germany to strengthen ties with one would have affected relations with the other. Hitler set out with no strong ideas of what he wanted to obtain and the talks were essentially exploratory from him, which was just as well.

Hitler and Franco met at Hendaye just north of the France’s frontier with Spain. Franco arrived in an antiquated a leaky train once used by the royal family. He somehow deluded himself that he was negotiating from a position of strength and delivered a long list of the rewards that he expected for joining the war on Hitler’s side. These were presented in a long and pompous monologue, objectionable to Hitler who expected to subject his interlocutors to such torment, not suffer it himself. As these gains would mainly have come at the expense of France Hitler had to calculated closely the value of help from Spain; the consolidation of Vichy’s grip on the French empire notably in the repulse of de Gaulle at Dakar was a powerful reason not to alienate a regime capable of inflicting colonial difficulties on Britain. His generals saw little military value in Spain, primitive and ruined economically by the Civil War. Gibraltar meant little to his fundamentally central Europe and land war focused world view. Afterwards Hitler told Mussolini that he would prefer to half three or four teeth extracted than to go though another meeting with Franco.

Hitler met the Vichy leaders at an obscure railway halt called Montoire, chosen for its proximity to a long tunnel in which Hitler’s train could have hidden if British bombers had appeared. The initiatives for the meetings had come from the French side. The prime minister Laval was keen to extend collaboration but aimed for a formal, definitive peace treaty in exchange. What Petain hoped to attain is rather more mysterious, perhaps it was no more than developing a working relationship with the Führer. From the German point of view there was little extra to be gained, although they did secure a propaganda coup in the image of Petain and Hitler shaking hands, which Petain was incautious enough to permit.

There was no practical outcome to either set of meetings. With the campaign aginst the Soviet Union looming ever larger in German calculations, the south western edge of the Third Reich was slipping from interest and there was little to be gained from change.

The British government published figures from the casualties inflicted by German air raids in the single month of September: 7,000 people had been killed and over 10,000 seriously hurt. Up to the start of the month fewer than 2,000 had been killed in the entire war. It was grim proof that war had come to the entire British people with a vengeance. As well as the human damage, the Luftwaffe scored hits (almost certainly unintentionally) on high profile buildindings.The Central London YMCA was destoyed with heavy casualties and bombs   devastated part of Britain’s historical heritage; Holland House was the last grand aristocratic home to be swallowed by the expansion of London. It had been home to the Whig dynasty of the Fox family.

Under normal Parliamentary law Britain should have held a general election in November but the existence of a national coalition government of all major parties would have meant that its outcome would have had little practical effect and the process of organising one would have been exceptionally complicated. With minimal fuss Parliament voted to extend its life by a year. For the remainder of the war in Europe open opposition was to be limited to political gadflies, with contest by-elections as the usual battleground. One such political marginal was the Scottish far-left MP Emmanuel Shinwell, who got off to a good start by speaking out in defence of H. G. Wells, who was being criticised from hostile remarks about British public figures made in on his tour of the U.S.A. These were not especially robust – the worst seems to have been to call Lord Gort, former commander of the BEF, the “praying General” – but it was indicative of the mood of national sensitivity that they should have been taken so askance. It gave a foretaster of what was to happen to other public figures who appear to break national ranks. Wells was also speaking in the comfort and safety of the US.

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