Monday 24 January 2022

Why are we wrestling over Munich – all over again?

This post first appeared on the Aspects of History blog...

Why are we arguing again about appeasement, the Munich crisis and Neville Chamberlain, UK prime minister from 1937-40?

The immediate hook is the film of the Robert Harris novel, Munich: The edge of war – and its obvious agenda to rescue Chamberlain for history.

You will remember, especially if you have seen the film - which has been available on Netflix from last weekend - that Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement handed over the northern region and defences of Czechoslovakia to Hitler without firing a shot.

The film itself is beautifully acted by an Anglo-German cast, and there is a brilliant performance by Jeremy Irons as an avuncular, inspirational Chamberlain.

I’m sure than Chamberlain was inspirational, in his way. But I am far less sure that we are right to regard Munich as tribute to what the historian AJP Taylor called “a triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”.

I have been fascinated by Munich because I have a family connection to those events – my great-aunt, Shiela Grant-Duff was Observer correspondent in Prague in the late 1930s and was engaged at the time in an increasingly desperate debate with Adam von Trott – who features in the film as the original of Paul von Hartmann, the anti-Nazi co-hero.

The other reason I have an interest is that I wrote a book about Munich (Munich 1938), with the context included – especially the plot to depose Hitler by his own generals the moment he had ordered an advance into Czechoslovakia, which Chamberlain so fatally undermined.

Two arguments have emerged that imply some kind of rethink might be necessary. First, that Hitler bitterly regretted not going to war in 1938 – though, as we saw in the film, he probably would have been deposed and shot if he had.

Second, was Chamberlain’s justification for getting Hitler to sign his paper promising never to go to war with Britain again: that the whole world would then see that he had broken his word.

But Chamberlain explained this to Lord Dunglass, his young PPS (later Alec Douglas-Home) on the plane home – not, as the film shows, to justify himself to Hugh Legat beforehand. It was actually a justification after the fact.

The problem was not that Chamberlain took no notice of the German army plot to depose Hitler. He never actually got that kind of approach in Munich. Partly because Adam von Trott was still living in China and still involved in his passionate debate with my great-aunt, which she described in her book The Parting of Ways.

Nor could he have done so at that stage anyway, as Irons-as-Chamberlain explains.

Yet Foreign Office officials in London and Paris had in fact already met representatives of the opposition, some months before. There was also a feeling among the British that they could not trust people who would betray their own government.

It wasn’t until 1943, when Dietrich Bonheoffer met George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, secretly in Stockholm, that the opposition took the British into their confidence by listing some of the conspirators – so many of the German army top brass. But even then, Anthony Eden would not, or could not, row back from the British position that they would insist on unconditional surrender, come what may.

The UK government definitely let down the German opposition to Hitler, and not just in 1938. But the real problem was what was done to Czechoslovakia in Munich.

The film makes it clear that the Czechs were not included in the four-partite conference. That was unfortunately only half true. In fact, there were Czech government representatives in the same building, but virtually under house arrest.

After the signing ceremony, Chamberlain and the French PM Daladier went to browbeat them into submission. “Can we not at least be heard before we are judged?” asked the Czech diplomat Hubert Masarik. The British and French shook their heads sadly.

The real problem with Munich was whether it is ever right to guarantee peace by forcing a smaller nation to accept invasion without fighting back.

It is true that war was avoided for a year – which gave both sides the chance to re-arm – but the Czechs had a sophisticated army which gave up without a fight, and 400 of their tanks (plus the factories that made them) became part of the Wehrmacht. When the British were forced back to Dunkirk 18 months later, they were pursued mainly by former Czech armour.

It wasn’t really the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength that so scared Chamberlain and his colleagues – the fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, then we and the French would be drawn in (and the Russians).

That is why, after the agreement was signed, the British and French ambassadors to Prague roused President BeneŇ° from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but they would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed.

The following day, BeneŇ° capitulated.

Ironically, Daladier recognised the truth - which is why he called his cheering Parisian crowd 'morons'. Chamberlain was appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge his own cheers at the same time.

But why are we having this debate now? (see what I wrote in Prospect, for example). Strangely, the divisions are along traditional lines, with the Timesthe very heart of appeasement in the 1930s – backing Chamberlain now.

Luckily, I’m not the only one defending the Churchillian version of events - the Financial Times has now weighed in against the appeasers.

The divisions in UK politics were resolved after Dunkirk by the sacking of most of the senior positions in the nation. And as Labour leader a generation later, Michael Foot opened his 1983 election campaign by accusing the Tories of still being the ‘guilty men of Munich’, a faint memory of his Guilty Men book about Munich in 1940.

Perhaps the establishment has yet to get over their wounds from 1940 – and they want traditional Conservatism back. Just as the current standard-bearer seems to be in difficulties.

Was it really a coincidence that, the day before the film came out, David Davis used the same words to Boris Johnson that Leopold Amery did to Chamberlain in the no-confidence debate after the Norwegian campaign?

Saturday 22 January 2022

How can we avoid our politics drifting the way of the USA?

This post first appeared on the RADIXUK blog...

What does a sceptical liberal do about great conspiracy theories like QAnon, the bizarre Republican party idea that Donald Trump is leading resistance to cabal of satanic paedophiles who have taken over the US government, led by his last presidential opponent Hilary Clinton?

I agree with Ben Rich last week – both that American politics seems to have descended into an abyss where facts no longer matter, compared to competing narratives, and that Gabriel Gatehouse’s BBC series is absolutely compelling on the subject.

Gatehouse dates the QAnon story to the death of Bill Clinton’s friend Vince Foster in 1993 – who killed himself by the Potomac and became the focus of an amazing series of stories, building on each other, via internet chat rooms into a whole parallel reality. And bizarrely spread partly by our very own Sunday Telegraph.

Now, I know from my past in television how quickly the death of politicians and gather about them the lurid patina of conspiracy. Like the death of the SNP vice chair Willie McRae, who is now widely regarded as having been murdered by the state, when in fact he killed himself (how do I know? I will explain another day…).

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories – for the reasons I set out before. But that does not make me entirely credulous about every official statement, no matter how many times I am told by the Left to “follow the science”.

In fact, like so many others who became politically aware during the 1970s, I’m not going to dismiss every scare story as nonsense. Because of that, I became a journalist and because of that that I presumably became a card-carrying Liberal at about the same time.

So yes, I am a sceptic, because I remember what happened with drugs like thalidomide. I am sceptical about the safety of 5G to human, animal and plant life – not because I believe it caused covid – but for the same reason I can’t believe that every vaccine is safe for everyone. They won’t kill most people, but there are a few for whom they can be dangerous.

Why? Because I remember the stories that have come and gone since 1980 which showed me that governments and establishments prefer their stories simple – especially when it comes to technological breakthroughs.

So when they vaccinated British troops bound for the first Gulf War in 1991 with a cocktail of different vaccines, there was a significant minority whose immune systems were overloaded – with disastrous effects.

So when a UK researcher discovered the human form of BSE – known by the tabloids as Mad Cow Disease and caused by adding dead cows to cattle feed - he was hounded out of his job by the security services.

This was not really the fault of politicians – which was how agriculture minister John Selwyn Gummer could find himself feeding his daughter a beef burger on live TV to show how safe it was. He was as much a victim of groupthink as everyone else.

That was how those middle class types who invested in Lloyds of London were hung out to dry some years later – because nobody official had accepted that, for the previous six decades, asbestosis had been killing people (more about this in my book Broke­).

So what should we radical centrists do when you are confronted with so many bizarre tales about vaccines and the real causes of the pandemic.

This is what I think we should do – because a sort of polite scepticism is probably the right stance for most official pronouncements:
  • To remember that deliberate conspiracies very rarely work – they are too complicated (like QAnon).
  • To know that if the future of fake food threatens to damage our health, they will eventually be discovered in the end – and those who failed to investigate will reap the whirlwind.
  • To seek out the voices that cling to objective reality.
Like, for example, the fearless American writer Bari Weiss (I have been listening to her fascinating investigation into the story of Amy Cooper – who lost her job and was driven from her home for calling the police about a black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park).

Because I don’t believe we have reached the level they have in the USA, where the competing narratives have disconnected themselves so completely from the facts that most people believe some kind of civil war is inevitable. In the UK, we need to avoid this kind of mob rule by clinging to civilised argument, both sceptically and optimistically.

The French philosopher Jacques Ellul used to say that, when you fight anyone, you get like them - and there is a sense that both sides of the American debate are getting increasingly like each other - certainly responsible for each other.

So let us end with what Bari Weiss says, in her review of the year since she resigned from the New York Times:

"Doomsday thinking is pleasing. Among liberals and progressives, I think it comes from a sort of self-indulgence and self-absorption. It makes you feel like the star of the show, struggling to survive under late capitalism, just one election away from the End of Democracy, and probably months from violent civil war. On the right, I think much of this comes from a kind of nihilism, or a justification for sitting back and doing nothing. Falling too deep into American catastrophe porn (let’s say, Libs of TikTok videos) lets you check out and take the blackpill. Liberalism tried and failed. These are the end times. Let’s get the popcorn and watch civilization collapse. But: What if America is actually in pretty good shape? What if we’re not in the last days, on the edge of slaughtering each other? Things always need improving. Suffering needs alleviating. (I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t think that.) But what if we took the panic level down a few notches...."