The Times of Appeasement, 1930s

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 842-62:

The Times of London, then co-owned by another member of the Astor clan, John J. Astor, was at the time the daily journal of the British establishment. As Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign minister, put it, in prewar Britain, “Special weight was held to attach to opinions expressed in its leading articles [that is, editorials], on the assumption that these carried some quality of government stamp, if not approbation.” The newspaper fervently supported appeasement throughout the 1930s, to the point that it was willing to tolerate and even embrace Hitlerian tactics. Following the “Night of the Long Knives,” a series of shocking political murders carried out on Hitler’s orders in mid-1934, the newspaper soothed, “Herr Hitler, whatever one may think of his methods, is genuinely trying to transform revolutionary fervour into moderate and constructive effort and to impose a high standard of public service on National-Socialist officials.”

In 1937, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, confided to his Geneva correspondent, “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their susceptibilities.” According to the Times’s own official history of itself, published in 1952, those who opposed appeasement were all too often “intellectuals, utopians, sentimentalists and pacifists satisfied with a programme of resistance without the means of resistance.” The Times’s history, with extraordinary nerve, blames those hotheads for making the disastrous policy of appeasement necessary, arguing that the newspaper, “like the Government, was helpless in the face of an apparently isolationist Commonwealth and a pacifist Britain.” What this explanation fails to note is that the role of a leading newspaper is not just to follow opinion but to try to shape it, especially when a major government policy rests on faulty assumptions. And it certainly is not the role of a newspaper editor to suppress news on the grounds that it might bother people or force government officials to reconsider their policies.

King Edward VIII himself, during his eleven-month reign in 1936, supported appeasement. According to one account, when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the king called the German ambassador in London to tell him that he had given Prime Minister Baldwin “a piece of my mind.” To wit, “I told the old-so-and-so that I would abdicate if he made war. There was a frightful scene. But you needn’t worry. There won’t be war.” The king actually would abdicate for other reasons later that same year. During the war, his rightist views and contacts would become a persistent worry for Churchill and British intelligence.

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Battle of Britain Advantages, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1849-76:

The whole theory of fighter defence was created to avoid what they called “standing patrols.” If you were guarding the country by having aeroplanes up all the time, you ran out of engine hours and you were on the ground when the attack occurred. So the RAF developed a system of reporting incoming raids. First, he used radar to plot the aircraft as they were approaching Britain and then he used the Observer Corps to spot them when they’d crossed the coast. All the information was fed to a filter room and then to an operations room where you got a picture of the developing raids plotted on a table. That picture would be three or four minutes old but it was sufficiently up to date to get the fighters off when they were really needed.

Thus the characteristic image of the Battle of Britain that we have today is of young tousle-haired pilots lounging near their aircraft, not flying but ready to go aloft at a moment’s notice. In historical retrospect, the British air defense system was the equivalent of a human-powered computer, a remarkable real-time information-processing system that worked so well in conserving British aerial resources—aircraft, pilots, and staff attention—that it was one reason the Royal Air Force actually grew more powerful with the passage of time in 1940. A second reason was that British aircraft factories finally swung into high gear.

The third reason that the British prevailed in the Battle of Britain was German incompetence in waging an aerial offensive. Contrary to the Teutonic reputation for martial skill, the Luftwaffe’s approach was “astonishingly amateur,” concluded Bungay, amounting to “little more than flying over England, dropping some bombs on various things to annoy people, and shooting down any fighters which came up as a result.” It is no accident, Bungay adds, that the military service operating so incoherently was the only one of the German armed forces led by a Nazi politician, Goering, who before going into politics had been a pilot during World War I. Hitler supposedly liked to say that he had a conservative army, a reactionary navy, and a Nazi air force. That politicized air arm flew into English airspace unprepared for what it would encounter. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, who flew a Messerschmitt 109 fighter, recalled being surprised on a fogbound day: “I experienced a Spitfire formation all of a sudden coming up from behind, having a clear line of fire and I wondered how this was even possible. Having no visibility whatsoever, from above nor from below, how was it possible that an enemy formation was able to get into a firing position from behind?” The answer, of course, was the well-tuned British radar and early warning system.

The Germans in their days of pride also consistently overestimated the damage they were doing, believing in mid-August 1940 that the British had only 300 working fighters available. In fact, they had 1,438—which was twice as many as they had on hand just six weeks earlier. The kill ratio always favored the British, who lost a total of 1,547 aircraft while destroying 1,887 German ones. On top of that, because most of the aerial combat took place over England, British pilots could fly many missions in one day, with their aircraft reloaded with ammunition in under four minutes. And when they were shot down, they often could parachute to friendly soil and fly again, while parachuting Germans who survived became prisoners of war, and those who ditched in the frigid waters of the channel often were lost either to drowning or hypothermia. (For the same reasons, the RAF lost more bomber crew members during this period than it did fighter pilots—801 from Bomber Command versus 544 for Fighter Command.)

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The Middle-class RAF, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2053-64:

Moreover, it was not the gentlemanly army, nor the powerful navy, but the Royal Air Force that played the most significant role in 1940. The air force was a distinctly middle-class organization, carrying with it a whiff of gasoline and engine lubricants.

Both Orwell and Churchill noticed and commented on the middle-class nature of the RAF. Orwell observed that it was “hardly at all . . . within the ruling-class orbit.”

Indeed, one historian has noted that there were jibes at the time that its members were “motor mechanics in uniforms,” not unlike the nameless men who chauffeured the rich. Evelyn Waugh, always alert to class differences, has a character in one of his novels set during World War II bemoan the fact that a senior Royal Air Force officer has been allowed to join an elite dining club. This gaffe occurred, the character explains, because it came during the Battle of Britain, “when the Air Force was for a moment almost respectable. . . . My dear fellow, it’s a nightmare for everyone.” Aspects of the class system did manage to persist in the RAF. Members of some “auxiliary” units formed by the wealthy and titled of London amused themselves, recalled one pilot, Hugh Dundas, by referring to the regular RAF as “the coloured troops.” Class differences also reached into the cockpit—RAF officers generally enjoyed the helpful privilege of flying the same aircraft every day, while sergeant pilots were assigned whatever machine was available.

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Waking the Bureaucracy, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1668-82:

Even as he was rallying the nation and trying to bolster the French, Churchill also was working full time on another major task: waking the soporific British bureaucracy. His work in this area, while if anything underappreciated, arguably helped the war effort as much as his oratory did. One of the biggest problems facing the British internally when he took office was the lethargy of the government during the first nine months of the war. “Chamberlain [had] presided efficiently over the Cabinet,” recalled Sir Ian Jacob. “Business was managed in an orderly fashion; but nothing much happened.” One surprising sign of this official indolence is that Britain should have been revving up its industries as it mobilized for a large war, yet unemployment increased from 1.2 million in September 1939 to 1.5 million in February 1940.

Churchill, upon becoming prime minister, reacted to the “sedate, sincere, but routine” attitude of the Chamberlain government by firing a daily barrage of personal memos that shook both military leaders and senior civilians. The memos often were tagged with a bright red label demanding “Action This Day,” a device Churchill first used at the height of the Dunkirk crisis, on May 29, 1940. His notes, wrote one aide, were “like the beam of a searchlight ceaselessly swinging round and penetrating into the remote recesses of the administration—so that everyone, however humble his rank or his function, felt that one day the beam might rest on him and light up what he was doing. In Whitehall the effect of this influence was immediate and dramatic. . . . A new sense of purpose and urgency was created as it came to be realized that a firm hand, guided by a strong will, was on the wheel.” As another wartime aide remembered it, “All round Whitehall people sat up and took notice.” They began working on nights and weekends—just as Churchill did.

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Fake News in Spain, 1937

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1153-70, 1262-68:

On the afternoon of May 7, some six thousand additional government troops arrived, and the fighting ended. Again, Orwell was impressed by how well these rear-area units were equipped, compared with his front-line unit. To his disgust, the government blamed all the fighting on POUM, because it was the weakest of the leftist factions.

Watching all this, Orwell arrived at some conclusions that clashed with leftist conventions of the era. At a time when leftist solidarity was considered mandatory, the right thing to do, Orwell began to harbor suspicions. Observing the fighting in Barcelona between different antifascist factions, he noted, “You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police.”

In effect, the events in Barcelona forced him to examine the left as he once earlier had scrutinized imperialism and capitalism. He concluded, “The Communist Party, with Soviet Russia, had thrown its weight against the revolution.” It was determined to systematically wipe out the anticommunist parts of the left—first POUM, then the anarchists, and then socialists.

But to say this in public was a form of modern heresy. Orwell realized, with shock, that the left-wing newspapers did not report the situation accurately, and did not want to. Rather, they willingly accepted lies. “One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right,” he wrote. This set him on his life’s work, to push continually to establish the facts, no matter how difficult or unpopular that might be.

On May 10, 1937, he left Barcelona to return to the front, where the POUM was still deployed, despite being suppressed back in Barcelona by the government whose territory it was defending. On May 11, the POUM was denounced in the Daily Worker as “Franco’s Fifth Column.” Posters appeared on Barcelona walls with the headline TEAR THE MASK, showing a face marked POUM, and a fascist face underneath it. It was classic “big lie” propaganda.

The POUM soldiers at the front there had not been told that they were being denounced in Barcelona, and the newspapers from the city remained quiet about the purge.

From Spain on, his mission was to write the facts as he saw them, no matter where that took him, and to be skeptical of everything he read, especially when it came from or comforted those wielding power. This became his faith. “In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts,” he wrote a few years later. He continued:

I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various “party lines.”

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1930s ruling class “wicked or merely stupid”?

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 792-801:

In his wartime memoirs, Churchill would refer to the 1930s as his time “in the political wilderness.” Some modern academics have disputed the extent of his political exile, but the facts, and contemporary observations, are on Churchill’s side.

Churchill’s road back to power was long and hard. He remained a wanderer for much of the decade, out of step with his times, which were epitomized by the resolution of the Oxford Union, a university debating society, in February 1933 that it would “in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” The nation’s leaders, often in sympathy with the tone of the Oxford discussion, embarked upon a policy of appeasing Germany, making concessions from a position of weakness.

The nature of appeasement—what it was, how to implement it, when to stop it—became the key issue of British politics for most of the 1930s.

It is important here to remember that a narrow but strong strain of sympathy for fascism, and even for Hitler, ran through part of the English aristocracy. Most prominent of those seen as friendly to Germany was Lord Londonderry, a relative of Churchill’s who served in the Cabinet in the early 1930s and then briefly was leader of the House of Lords. Orwell once commented that “whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.”

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Cold War: Ransoming Emigrants

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3613-27, 3658-74:

The profile of migrants transformed in the 1970s, as dissident intellectuals and celebrity defectors began to take center stage. There had always been a place in the West for intellectual and cultural luminaries from Eastern Europe. The “ideal” East European emigrant throughout the early Cold War had not, however, been a scientist, doctor, or novelist. He or she was a farmer, a miner, a domestic servant, or a factory worker—someone willing to work hard for low wages and fuel booming postwar economies in the West. That image subtly shifted in the late 1960s and the 1970s. In part, the sociological profile of actual emigrants changed, as the refugees who fled Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1968, in particular, tended to have a higher education. Western economies were also transforming. The 1970s brought oil shocks, growing restrictions on immigration in Western Europe, and the rise of technology and service-based industries. The “ideal” refugee from Eastern Europe—the least threatening immigrant—was now an engineer, intellectual, or tennis star, not a factory worker who would compete for ever scarcer manufacturing jobs.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, several Eastern bloc governments introduced reforms that attempted to “normalize” relations with the West and with emigrants abroad. These initiatives did not reflect a change of heart regarding emigration in Eastern Europe. Rather, they represented efforts by desperate governments to raise foreign currency. Socialist regimes were searching for new ways to placate dissatisfied citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Consumer goods—everything from televisions and washing machines to blue jeans and automobiles—were powerful currency in this quest for legitimacy. East European governments largely financed the shift to a consumer economy with loans from the West. Repaying these loans was possible only with a continuous influx of foreign currency, which flowed into the country along with tourists and visitors from the West, or in the form of remittances from migrants working abroad.

Whereas socialist governments had once bitterly denounced the “human traffickers” who lured their citizens to the West, they now willingly brokered a trade in migrants for their own purposes.

Romania also ransomed Jews and Germans for profit. The exchange of Romanian Jews for money and agricultural products had begun covertly after the Second World War. A Jewish businessman in London named Henry Jacober served as the middleman between private individuals in the West and the Romanian secret service. Jacober traded briefcases full of cash, typically $4,000 to $6,000 per emigrant (depending on the individual’s age and educational status), for exit permits to the West. When Israeli intelligence officials got wind of the deals, they decided to get in on the scheme, with the approval of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. At Khrushchev’s insistence, the Romanians began to demand agricultural products instead of cash. Soon Romanian Jews were traded for everything from cattle and pigs to chicken farms and cornflake factories. The ransom of Jews continued under the rule of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu after 1969. The price of exit could go up to $50,000, depending on the migrant’s age, education, profession, family status, and political importance. Israel refused to pay for young children and retirees.

Selling Jews was so profitable that the ransom scheme expanded to include ethnic Germans, who were sold to West Germany for suitcases stuffed with U.S. dollars. Germans, like Jews, were priced on the basis of their educational attainment and ransomed for rates ranging from $650 for an unskilled worker to $3,298 for an emigrant with a master’s degree or equivalent. Romania also received interest-free loans from West Germany in exchange for releasing Germans. In the mid-1970s, Ceausescu famously boasted, “Jews, Germans, and oil are our best export commodities.” Around 235,000 Jews and 200,000 Germans escaped Romania through these deals. During Ceausescu’s regime alone, an estimated 40,577 Jews were ransomed to Israel for $112,498,800; West Germany made payments of at least $54 million in exchange for exit permits for German emigrants.

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