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Friday, 16 March 2018

Eighty years ago Austria joins the Reich, Leon Blum attempts the impossible (again) and Spanish Republicans demonstrate their particular version of solidarity

Hitler’s response to the decision by the Austrian government to hold a referendum on its policy of maintain Austrian independence. He threatened military invasion and the Austrians crumbled. Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was replaced by Seyss-Inquart, the Nazi nominee. Schuschnigg was imprisoned and President Miklas detained for having hesitated to appoint Seyss-Inquart. Hitler drove to Vienna, receiving a rapturous welcome from what appears to have been the majority of Austrians. Austria was immediately integrated into the German Reich: the Anschluß. Germany’s anti-Jewish legislation was applied in the new province and the local population gave Jews an unofficial foretaste of their new destiny in spontaneous acts of criminal violence. The union of Germany and Austria had been forbidden by the Versailles treaty but so many of its clauses had been broken by Hitler with impunity that there was no appetite internationally to protest in any serious fashion.

What faint prospect there might ever have been of intervention was negated by the ongoing political crisis in France. Just months after the failure of his Front Populaire government Leon Blum set out again to attempt to square the circle of funding rearmament. His Radical predecessor had abandoned the effort in a huff after barely three months. In order to finance rearmament he needed a solid parliamentary majority, but the right-wing parties were not willing. The only alterantive was quasi autarky and currency control.

Franco’s Nationalists swiftly followed up the failure of the ill-begotten Republican offensive with a large-scale counter-attack in Aragon. Material superiority and better generalship led to an almost immediate collapse in the Republican defence. The two main Republican leaders, Andre Marty and Enrique Lister, displayed a dismaying lack of solidarity, either Communist or Republican, and proved to be far more adept at blaming the other for treasonous failure than organizing any kind of military defence. Wholesale executions of Republican troops for supposed desertion or cowardice did not improve morale.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Eighty years ago, the French political revolving door spins again, an Austrian worm turns and Stalin's hangman livens up his act

Closed due to termination of lease. Good riddance, provided the next lot isn't worse

The well-worn British joke about the restaurateur complaining that his best French waiter had had to go back to France “because it was his turn to be Prime Minister” might have been coined in the 1950s but it could equally have applied to the late 1930s. Camille Chautemps had led an exclusively Radical government since January but they had too few deputies to give him a majority in the Assembly. The Socialists and Communists refused him the support he needed to obtain wide-ranging powers to manage the economy by decree, which he believed was necessary to fund rearmament. He announced his intention of resigning after a mere seven weeks in office.

Goaded beyond endurance by German inspired or organized measures to bring Austria under Nazi control, Chancellor Schuschnigg announced a referendum seeking approval of his policy of national independence to be held the following Sunday. The measure caught Berlin unawares and there was no  immediate, public reaction.

Possibly aware that his public was becoming jaded with endless tales of mundane plots with foreign secret services, Trotskyism and industrial sabotage, Stalin’s chief prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky, introduced an entertaining tale of poisoning worthy of the Borgias into the current show trial. Expert medical testimony and, naturally, the confession of the defendant  himself was introduced as evidence that the once-feared head of the NKVD Genrikh Yagoda had murdered four people by a mixture of over-prescription of drugs and brutal exercise regimes. The victims included Maxim Gorky and his son. Gorky was too well-respected an old Bolshevik to have been judicially murdered in the ordinary course of business, so the availability of Yagoda’s confession offered an elegant solution to explaining the sudden and still unexplained deaths of the pair. For good measure Yagoda also confessed that he had planned to take over the Kremlin and install himself as Führer.

Friday, 2 March 2018

The hazard of aircraft development gives RAF fighters a mercifully large slice of the budget.

At least in terms of finance Britain was getting the bit between its teeth in the struggle to rearm again Nazi Germany. Military spending for 1938/1939 was to increase by 23% to £343m. The prime beneficiary was the RAF where spending was to rise 25%. This was six times as much as had been spent annually before the expansion began. The pattern of new aircraft development meant spending was weighted towards fighter aircraft rather than the bombers adored by the Air Marshals. Development of the Hurricane and Spitfire monoplane fighters was well advanced and they could be ordered in quantity whilst the far more complex four engine bombers that the air staff imagined would win the war lagged years behind. Wisely the air staff preferred to spend money on a smaller number of modern planes rather than larger numbers of obsolescent one. But for this, Fighter Command would have been in much weaker condition in the Battle of Britain.

The replacement of Sir Anthony Eden as Foreign Secretary by Lord Halifax attracted some unfavourable comment, in part because a member of the House of Lords was to hold a great office of state. RAB Butler his under-secretary in the Commons was then a relatively low profile figure. Halifax’s appointment was publicly welcomed by the Nazi regime. Halifax could be counted on to implement Neville Chamberlain’s conciliatory foreign policy and not to risk upsetting  Hitler. The previous autumn he had gone to Berlin and Berchtesgaden as Chamberlain’s unofficial representative.

The latest round of the show trials in Moscow by which Stalin was butchering leaders from earlier phases of the Soviet Union was shaken by the refusal of Nikolai Krestinsky to plead guilty unlike his fellow accused who docilely admitted to Menshevism, contact with the Trotsky family, British or German agents. Krestinsky went on to claim that all his previous statement had been a perversion of the truth. Calm was restored the following day when he retracted these statements, presumably after the NKVD had reasoned with him in its usual fashion overnight.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Exit of an acccidental opponent of appeasement

Anyone who might have doubted that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was fully in charge of British foreign policy was presented with unambiguous evidence that they were wrong. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden resigned suddenly and, despite a gentlemanly reluctance to go into the gory details on Eden’s part, this was obviously because they disagreed on policy. Eden was not opposed to appeasance as such - in fact it was he who came up with the word to describe British policy he was just  deeply suspicious of Mussolini’s trustworthiness, but such doubts counted for little with Chamberlain. Chamberlain imagined he could play Italy and Germany off against each other by pursuing constructive diplomacy towards both powers. He imagined he held a trump card in the form of British recognition of Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini, naturally, wanted this but never intended to play any real price. More insidious than disagreement on policy was Chamberlain’s habit of going behind Eden’s back, using a weird and wonderful array of unofficial emissaries to put his case. These ran from his half-brother’s widow to the legal adviser to the Italian embassy in London Adrian Dingli, Maltese born but Italian educated, who was run by the sinister figure of Sir Joseph Ball, the ex-spy who hovered in the shadows of Chamberlain’s premiership. Chamberlain's (other) eminence grise Sir Horace Wilson saw the flaws in Eden's personality and was not sorry to see him gone. By the accidents of history, Eden's resignation set him on the path to his own disastrous premiership almost twenty years later. Perhaps it is significant that the two strongest contenders for the title of worst twentieth century British Prime Minister  were Conservatives who disagreed on a point of foreign policy.

The Spanish Republicans’ calamitous offensive in the East unwound visibly and spectacularly as Franco’s Nationalists retook Teruel, the worthless goal that had lain at its heart. In a foretaste of the murderous squabbles amongst Republican leaders that were to come, the local commander Valentino Gonzalez (el Campesino) blamed Enrique Lister, another Communist, of having intentionally withdrawn forces so that he would be captured. In the event he escaped. The battle of Teruel cost both sides heavily in men and materiel; the Republicans could not make these losses good; the Nationalists could.

The Kuomintang armies of China pursued their strategy of trading space for time and gradually withdrawing in front of the advancing Japanese armies, better armed, disciplined and equipped. The comprehensive defeat of a tentative counter-attack amply demonstrated the wisdom of this strategy. It barely slowed down the Japanese advance on the Yellow River.