Saturday, 23 March 2013

'March 1939, The British Guarantee to Poland', Simon Newman.

Neville Chamberlain

This book is the author's PhD thesis and was published in 1976. It has been out of print for many years. I met the author at a party in December, and, just for fun, bought the book on my phone while we were talking. Naturally it came from a second-hand dealer, so he didn't make anything on the deal.  I didn't get round to looking at it for a while, but when I did I was fascinated. It is a kind of apologia for Neville Chamberlain, and you don't see much of THAT these days. He says Britain could have avoided war with Germany, either by containment or by capitulation. He doesn't use the latter word, but calls it "granting her requirements wholesale". (When did countries stop being called "she", I wonder? Not in 1976, clearly. Faintly distasteful, I find it.) He refers to "Britain's continued interest in maintaining the independence of the central and south-eastern European states, an interest which most historians do not generally concede". No, it appears they do not. And what actually happened to those central and south-east European states, hein? Other historians, including a pair called Gilbert and Gott, who I do not think were artists in suits pratting around with their own turds, and from whom Newman quotes extensively, call it thus: "Chamberlain's policy was to allow Germany a free hand in eastern Europe". That went well, then.

not the historians Gilbert and Gott
Newman says it is not true that most of the Foreign Office were against Chamberlain's appeasement policy. Halifax, as Foreign Secretary, although he was loyal, was no pacifist. He had written to his father in 1918, about Germany, "It goes much against the grain not to burn some of their towns." That's my boy, though I'd like to think I wouldn't have said that in 1918. Halifax was a High Anglican, who saw the Nazis as a threat to Christian civilisation (he wasn't far wrong there), whose biographer wrote that he saw any war which might come as a "crusade". The Government became unpopular on foreign policy in the late 1930s. However, the appearance of this was deceptive, as it usually is. You can see where I'm going with this, can't you? Labour under Tony Blair won the 2005 election easily, despite the cry-baby "Not In My Name" nonsense. My own doorstep verdict at the time was about a quarter for the action in Iraq, about a quarter against, and the rest didn't care. No Guardianista would believe me, because none of them talked to anyone except other Guardianistas at their dinner parties. In December 1938 there was a by-election in Kinross andWest Perthshire, fought by the Duchess of Atholl specifically on the issue of her opposition to Chamberlain's foreign policy. She lost, rather comprehensively.
misguided or malevolent? You decide

The whole book seems to be an attempt to rebut an earlier book called 'The Appeasers' by the said Gilbert and Gott. Did you know that in 1939 the Anglo-German Payments Agreement was still funding German rearmament? Nor me. It's all very readable, to a non-historian like me who is nonetheless interested in history and world events. Chamberlain told the Commons in March 1939, after the annexation of Czechoslovakia, that appeasement had failed and that the "spirit of Munich" had been violated. Quaintness, looked at from the 21st century: when an article appeared in the Nazi paper 'Volkischer Beobachter' denying that Germany had issued an ultimatum to Romania, Halifax as Foreign Secretary "suppressed the distribution of the report inside and outside the Foreign Office". Imagine trying that one now.

The book is chiefly about the process which led to the British guarantee to Poland, which was spun very successfully to the public at the time as a noble thing. Foreign Office papers of the time say "the value of Poland lay not in the capacity of her army to launch an an offensive against Germany, which was virtually non-existent, but in her capacity to absorb German divisions." Cynical, but true. And wise. Did Chamberlain understand this stuff?

Britain feared a German-Polish deal: they had reason to, as Poland had gone into alliance with Germany in the Sudeten crisis in "demanding the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia".

Gdansk, picture tripadvisor
Danzig (present-day Gdansk, in Poland, a fine city) was at the time a free city under the Treaty of Versailles, under the protection of the League of Nations. The League had a commissioner resident in Danzig, who could do nothing to halt or oppose Nazification and enactment of anti-Jewish laws there. There was even a British representative in Danzig, by the name of Gerald Shepherd, who wrote "Halifax now wanted Polish adherence to an anti-German coalition at all costs." And then he wrote "By encouraging the Poles to reject German terms for a settlement of Danzig, the British increased the likelihood that Hitler would resort to force in order to break the deadlock." So it was decided to plant a parliamentary question and put unequivocal support for Poland in the answer. Tactics don't change.

Newman's line is that you can't say appeasement never worked, because it was never really tried. And that the British guarantee to Poland was not deterrence, but a deliberate challenge. Interesting.

Perhaps people who are cleverer at history than I am might like to give their views in the comments. They'd be really welcome. Jew-hating will not, however, get in, and there's plenty of it around, especially on the Guardianista left, as any fule kno. The cry-baby bully-boys (TM Julie Burchill) who have been active in recent months will also be welcome to leave their comments. But their tactics are more extra-blog and personal, hein?


Anonymous said...

I am not a fan of Burchill - however, she seems to be totally in loeve with all thngs Israel - as witness her recent Desert Islands Discs extravaganza. She will not return to Bristyiol btu would like to go to Israel - so now learning Hebrew and thinks that all thing Israeli are fabtastic .

Anonymous said...

I had to read his book for my undergrad dissertation on Polish foreign policy in 1939. Just out of curiosity, what ever happened to him? While researching for the dissertation all I could find on Newman was that he wrote this book in 1976 and then disappeared off the face of the earth. I couldn't even be sure of his nationality! Does he have any plans on writing another history book?

Jane Griffiths said...

Simon Newman is very much alive, says he has no plans to write anything else, and lives in Strasbourg, France.