Category Archives: nationalism

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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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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FDR and the “Jewish Problem”

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2276-2301:

President Roosevelt was on the same page. He envisioned an ambitious transfer of populations that would solve both the immediate refugee crisis and the East European “Jewish problem” over the long term. “It must be frankly recognized that the larger Eastern European problem is basically a Jewish problem,” he maintained in January 1939.

The organized emigration from Eastern Europe over a period of years of young persons at the age which they enter actively into economic competition, and at which they may be expected to marry, is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The resultant decrease in economic pressure; the actual removal over a period years of a very substantial number of persons; the decrease in the birthrate and the natural operation of the death rate among the remaining older portion of the population should reduce the problem to negligible proportions.

Roosevelt appointed the geographer Isaiah Bowman, then president of Johns Hopkins University, to lead the search for an appropriate refuge. Bowman had previously served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was head of the American Geographical Society from 1915 to 1935. In the years 1938–42, Bowman directed a project at Hopkins to research possibilities for refugee resettlement around the globe. The goal of the project, in Roosevelt’s words, was to locate “uninhabited or sparsely inhabited good agricultural lands to which Jewish colonies might be sent.”

Bowman and his team surveyed settlement sites on five continents, and his reports circulated widely in government and humanitarian circles. Not coincidentally, however, he did not seriously consider the United States as a potential destination (aside from a cursory examination of Alaska). Bowman firmly believed in eugenics and in natural racial hierarchies. He actually introduced a new Jewish quota at Johns Hopkins in 1942 and also banned African American undergraduates from the university. He was personally convinced that the United States had reached its “absorptive capacity” with respect to Jewish immigrants—even as he lamented declining birthrates among white, middle-class Americans.

At the international level, then, the most critical years of the Jewish refugee crisis before World War II were spent searching the globe for a new refuge, dumping ground, or homeland for European Jews. The Madagascar plan remains the most infamous resettlement scheme, since the Nazis themselves favored it. But the IGCR [Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees], in cooperation with British, American, and Jewish agencies such as the JDC and the World Jewish Congress, considered a range of territories for potential Jewish resettlement. British Guiana, Angola, the Dominican Republic, Northern Rhodesia, Alaska, and the Philippines were among the most widely discussed possibilities. At huge expense, and in a nakedly colonial tradition, intergovernmental and humanitarian organizations dispatched teams of experts in agricultural science and tropical medicine on fact-finding missions to these far-flung destinations. They wined and dined dictators; surveyed the climate, soil, and “natives” in supposedly “underpopulated” lands; and speculated about whether urban Jews could be transformed into farmers who would “civilize” colonial outposts.

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Arbeit Macht Frei in Postwar Europe

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2719-32:

Economic logic generally set the limits of humanitarian solidarity in postwar Europe. The employment contracts offered to refugees were often highly restrictive, designed to keep them in low-paid or undesirable jobs for as long as possible. Belgium’s “Operation Black Diamond” imported 32,000 DPs as miners, but required them to work a full two years in the mines before they were allowed to seek employment elsewhere. As of 1949, 8,000 had returned to refugee camps in Germany, unable to tolerate the harsh conditions. Other employment programs were similarly restrictive. Britain’s “Westward Ho!” program enabled 82,000 migrants from Eastern Europe to emigrate to the UK, but confined refugees to employment in mining, textiles, agriculture, or domestic service, rather than allowing them to move freely between jobs or professions.

The French government, with its ongoing anxieties regarding population growth, was initially among the most eager to recruit DP labor. The French military commander Pierre Koenig immediately recognized that East European DPs “represent a human and labor resource that we will have a high interest in using to the advantage of our country,” and he urged French authorities to recruit the best workers. In 1948, the French government even set up its own vocational training courses for refugees in the French zone of occupied Germany. Conditions for foreign workers in postwar France were notoriously poor, however, and that hampered recruitment efforts. Ultimately, the IRO resettled only 38,107 East European refugees in France between July 1, 1947, and December 1950. The bulk of refugees were headed to the New World. In the same period, the United States received 238,006 refugees, Israel 120,766, Australia 170,543, and Canada 94,115.

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When Poles Pined for Colonies, 1930s

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1766-90:

By 1930, the Polish Bandera had become the Maritime and Colonial League, a pressure group that raised funds for the navy and lobbied the government to pursue colonial interests. The league boasted 1,200 branches and 250,000 members as of 1934, and directly linked colonial demands to emigration, as well as to Poland’s perceived crisis of overpopulation. Colonial advocates argued that emigration had been the primary “solution” to Poland’s overpopulation crisis before World War I. But with the closing of international borders in the 1920s and 1930s, “another solution has arisen again . . . attaining our own colonial territories.”

In the wake of Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, Polish colonial advocates felt increasingly entitled to a place in the sun. “We Poles, like the Italians, are facing a great problem of accommodating and employing a large population increase,” insisted the Maritime and Colonial League. “We Poles, like the Italians, have the right to demand that export markets as well as areas for settlement be opened to us, so that we may obtain raw materials necessary to the national economy under conditions similar to those enjoyed by the colonial states.” In September 1936, Foreign Minister Józef Beck even formally appealed to the League of Nations for colonies—preferably those taken from Germany after World War I (he was unsuccessful). Popular pressure for Polish colonies culminated in the Maritime and Colonial League’s “Colonial Days” festivities in April 1938, a series of nationwide parades and celebrations attended by around ten million Poles.

Poland continued to lobby the League of Nations for colonies right up until the outbreak of World War II. A memo submitted in 1939 proposed that the League’s colonial mandate system, which governed former Ottoman territories, be extended to Africa. The new African mandates would then be parceled out to European states according to “their capacity for colonization and their real economic and demographic needs.” Of course, the Polish delegation insisted that Poland be placed at the top of the list. Poles had already “provided the proof” of their skill as colonizers, “by transforming the virgin forests and uncultivated plains of Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Siberia into arable land,” the memo asserted. “In particular the tenacity of labor, love of the land and pioneering spirit of the Polish peasant has rendered him invaluable.” In response to British and French objections that redistributing African colonies would harm the “interests of indigenous populations,” the Polish delegation invoked the brotherhood of white men. “There exist rural populations in Europe whose economic standard of living are particularly painful, and whose interests are worth at least as much as those of the black population in Africa. By closing off access to colonial territories to overpopulated nations, the great powers betray the interests of the white race. This treason endangers the solidarity and entente among peoples.” Not surprisingly, nations situated on Europe’s imagined margins seemed to have the most invested in maintaining the privileges of white Europeans—and in asserting their membership in the club.

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Booker T. Washington in Austria-Hungary

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 892-922:

In 1910, Booker T. Washington and the University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park set out for Europe. Their goal was to determine what was propelling millions of Europeans to American shores. “I was curious . . . to learn why it was that so many of these European people were leaving the countries in which they were born and reared, in order to seek their fortunes in a new country and among strangers in a distant part of the world,” Washington explained. Eschewing “palaces, museums, art galleries, ancient ruins, monuments, churches, and graveyards,” he embarked on an inverted grand tour, determined to immerse himself in the “grime and dirt of everyday life.”

Washington’s self-proclaimed mission was to hunt for “the man farthest down” on the European continent. In this quest to explore “the worst” that Europe had to offer, he found rich terrain in Austria-Hungary. During their two-month scavenger hunt for misery, Washington and Park toured Cracow’s Jewish ghetto, Prague’s YMCA, Bohemian mines, Hungarian farms, Viennese slums, Adriatic ports, Galician border towns, and tiny Carpathian villages.

Booker T. Washington hoped that by locating the man farthest down in Europe, he would not only diagnose the root causes of emigration but also find new salves with which to heal American social and racial inequalities. “I believed . . . that if I went far enough and deep enough I should find even in Europe great numbers of people who, in their homes, in their labour, and in their manner of living, were little, if any, in advance of the Negroes in the Southern States,” he reflected. “I wanted to study first hand . . . the methods which European nations were using to uplift the masses of the people who were at the bottom in the scale of civilization.” As he projected the racial politics of the American South onto the terrain of the Austrian empire (which he identified as part of “Southern Europe”), he found many parallels. By the time he returned home, he had concluded that the situation of the Slavs of Austria-Hungary was “more like that of the Negroes in the Southern States than is true of any other class or race in Europe.” Not only were Slavs, like African Americans, “an agricultural people.” They were also distinct from and discriminated by what Washington called “the dominant classes” of Austria-Hungary. “Although they were not distinguished from the dominant classes, as the Negro was, by the colour of their skin, they were distinguished by the language they spoke, and this difference in language seems to have been, as far as mutual understanding and sympathy are concerned, a greater bar than the fact of colour has been in the case of the white man and the black man in the South.” Indeed, Washington concluded that the peasants, workers, and Jews of Eastern Europe actually lived in more debased conditions than African Americans in the South. “There are few plantations in our Southern States where . . . one would not find the coloured people living in more real comfort and more cleanliness than was the case here,” he observed, after touring a desolate Bohemian farm. “Even in the poorest Negro cabins in the South I have found evidences that the floor was sometimes scrubbed, and usually there was a white counterpane on the bed, or some evidence of an effort to be tidy.”

By the time he returned to America, Washington was so disturbed by the poverty he encountered in Austria-Hungary that he began to sympathize with the American movement to restrict immigration. The arrival of millions of destitute East Europeans threatened to create a new kind of “racial problem” in America, he warned. “Whatever else one may say of the Negro, he is, in everything except his colour, more like the Southern white man, more willing and able to absorb the ideas and the culture of the white man and adapt himself to existing conditions, than is true of any race which is now coming into this country.”

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