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SEPTEMBER 30 1938 contained the fateful minutes during which Britain’s “national government” prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart Edouard Daladier signed an agreement in Munich together with nazi Germany’s Hitler and fascist Italy’s Mussolini.
This “authorised” Germany’s armed forces to cross Czechoslovakia’s till then strongly fortified borders where they touched those of Germany and Austria, and to occupy some 11,000 square miles of the country’s outer edges — the Sudetenland.
The invasion proceeded promptly on October 1 without resistance, as Edvard Benes, the Czechoslovak leader, had been intimidated into surrender. Nazi occupation of the country’s much weakened residue, including Prague, unaddressed by the devils’ pact, was deferred until the following March.
As troops crossed the border, greeted by German-speaking allies subsidised by the nazis, Chamberlain arrived back in England.
Waving a sheet of paper bearing his and Hitler’s signatures at the airport (a supplementary declaration supposedly freeing both countries from future war with each other), he claimed to have achieved “peace with honour,” and repeated this from a Downing Street window, adding: “I believe it is peace in our time.”
Had he substituted the word “war” for “peace,” he would have been accurate.
France’s prospects for continued independence had been wrecked by Daladier. As US journalist William Shirer (future author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) wrote in his diary: “France has sacrificed her whole continental position and lost her main prop in eastern Europe.” Britain, of course, with its empire and its considerable navy, was militarily much stronger than France.
The reasoning of the nazi leader underpinning the Munich agreement was straightforward; that of Chamberlain and Daladier not much less so.
Harold Nicolson MP, formally “National Labour” but unsympathetic to Chamberlain, insightfully pinpointed the British Establishment’s dilemma in his diary entry of June 6: “People of the governing classes think only of their own fortunes, which means hatred of the Reds. This creates a perfectly artificial but at present most effective secret bond between ourselves and Hitler. Our class interests, on both sides, cut across our national interests.”
Nicolson was one of some 30 Establishment-minded MPs who questioned the Chamberlain line. Among these was the much smaller but firmer dissentient group fronted by Winston Churchill, who was committed to preserving Britain’s empire and place in the world, even if this meant fighting alongside the Soviet Union.
The scene for Czechoslovakia’s handover had been set by Chamberlain as far back as March 24, when he told the Commons that Britain should neither promise support for Czechoslovakia if attacked, nor for France if it flew to its aid. He went further on May 10 when he told US journalists that he was ready for a pact with the fascist powers.
Soviet ambassador to Britain Ivan Maisky informed his diary on March 8: “A particularly important trait of Chamberlain’s character is his highly developed ‘class consciousness’.”
This governing class solidarity assisted him and many Conservative MPs to understate the nazi danger to Britain and to the world.
Hitler’s Mein Kampf, published first in two volumes, the first in 1925 and the second a year later, offered potent evidence as to the threat level, but the Chamberlainites chose to look away.
Mein Kampf declared, as Shirer’s history recited, that there must be “a last decisive struggle” with France, “the inexorable enemy of the German people,” enabling Germany “finally to give our people the expansion made possible elsewhere.”
Germany’s self-preservation need for “living space” — Lebensraum — and for the “fist” to obtain what “amicable methods” could not, was fundamental to Hitler’s outlook.
“If land was desired in Europe, it could be obtained by and large only at the expense of Russia.”
Mein Kampf became, as communist Rajani Palme Dutt (Daily Worker editor 1936-8) explained in his classic work World Politics (1936), “the official … unrepudiated statement of policy of the … ruling dictatorship of Germany.”
He quoted from the officially circulated 1936 edition as follows: “For Germany the only possibility for the carrying out of a sound territorial policy lay in the winning of new land in Europe itself … this could in general only happen at the cost of Russia…”
A further quotation read: “If we speak of land in Europe today we can only think in the first instance of Russia and the border states under her influence … The giant State in the East is ripe for collapse.”
But the nazis needed allies in Europe. Hitler identified only two, England and Italy. He explicitly stated that this would enable preparations to be made “to reach a final reckoning with France.”
Subsequently, Germany “must one day become lord of the Earth.” Which meant that Britain would also have to go down.
Dutt’s analysis was penetratingly succinct: “How does nazi policy propose to realise these aims? The method is set out with extreme clearness, and involves: (1) division of the other powers in Europe, utilising British support to paralyse France; (2) the organisation of subsidiary nazi movements in all the states bordering on Germany … (3) the preparation of war, to be launched as soon as the necessary process of rearmament is complete and the international situation is ripe.”
Immediately after World Politics was published in the summer of 1936 came the generals’ revolt against the new democratic government of Spain, speedily supported militarily by Germany and Italy. March 1938 brought the incorporation of Austria into the Reich.
In his 1964 history of the international communist movement, The Internationale, Dutt looked back three decades.
While most of us would consider his assessment there of what had gone wrong in “the first socialist state” seriously inadequate, his assertion that with the Soviet Union in the nazi firing line the Stalin leadership consistently sought world peace through security alliances cannot be contradicted.
Before Munich, Czechoslovakia’s alliances with France and the Soviet Union for defence against aggression barred Germany’s territorial expansion. France’s 100 French divisions, the Soviet Union’s far greater armed strength and the 40 divisions of the menaced Czechoslovakia represented a formidable obstacle.
Had Britain reinforced such a collective security arrangement, there would have been no occupation of any part of Czechoslovakia.
Dutt concluded: “The gate for Hitler could only be unlocked from within. This was the job of Neville Chamberlain.”
Hitler’s army was far short of readiness for a major war. During the summer, to avoid such a war, the nazi leader needed Chamberlain’s permission to dismember his victim.
This was given finally on September 30, supported by a cynical and systematic creation of a war atmosphere (highlighted by the distribution of millions of gas masks), calculated to encourage public backing for Chamberlain’s “peace.”
Chamberlain visited Hitler three times: at Berchtesgaden on the 15th, at Godesberg on the 22nd and at Munich on the 30th.
Churchill vividly characterised these one-sided meetings in the lengthy post-Munich Commons debate that followed: “At Berchtesgaden … £1 was demanded at the pistol’s point. When it was given (at Godesberg), £2 was demanded at the pistol’s point. Finally the Dictator consented to take £1 17s 6d and the rest in promises of goodwill for the future … We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude.”
Labour’s leader Clement Attlee had not dissociated himself from Chamberlain’s Munich mission. On September 28 he wished Chamberlain God-speed. Communist MP Willie Gallacher was alone in the House to shout dissent: “I would not be a party to what is going on here. There are as many fascists opposite as there are in Germany, and I protest against the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.”
During the post-Munich debate, Gallacher contributed: “If I were asked the question: ‘Did the Prime Minister save peace?’ I should answer with an emphatic ‘No.’ The Prime Minister saved Hitler.”
Attlee rightly designated the outcome as “a victory for brute force.”
In a letter days later former and future left Labour MP Jennie Lee wrote with deadly accuracy: “Chamberlain was fighting the class war intelligently and with deadly effectiveness when he made terms with Hitler … The capitalist peace has been kept which means the victims are all on one side, on our side.”
The second world war had stepped much closer.
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