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Issue 37, April 1999

Britain and the Nazis

The Chamberlain-Hitler collusion, by Alvin Finkel and Clement Leibovitz, The Merlin Press Ltd., 1998.
Reviewed by Paul Ursell

CONVENTIONAL HISTORY teaches us that Britain can be proud of its role in World War Two: the entire nation stood up as one to defend democracy and the rights of smaller nations, and to defeat the tyranny of fascism.

If you hold this view, reading The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion will shock. You will find out that the British ruling class found nothing abhorrent in the Nazis. They welcomed Hitler's regime (as they did Franco's and Mussolini's), encouraged Germany to re-arm, and fully expected to work in alliance with it, right up until 1939. The book dispels the idea that Chamberlain desired a deal with Hitler because he was na?ve or wanted to avoid bloodshed. Indeed much of Chamberlain's hopes rested on encouraging Germany to go to war - against the Soviet Union.

The authors also don't miss the chance to show how incompetent the ruling class can be. At several key moments, Chamberlain was hard to find because he was shooting grouse. His foreign secretary only agreed to do the job on condition that he could carry on his shooting on Saturdays, and another adviser felt that Hitler's foreign minister could be trusted because, 'he talks English very well'! The book is a little weaker, however, at exposing Churchill's fascist sympathies. These details combine to give an interesting insight into the workings of international diplomacy. As early as 24 October 1933, shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, the British ambassador to Germany was informed that Germany will "seek a certain expansion in Eastern Europe". Britain making no comment meant that this was accepted.

Sir Nevile Henderson, Britain's ambassador to Germany between 1937-39, wrote in October 1939 that, "There are in fact many things in the Nazi organisation and social institutions… which we might study and adapt to our own nation and old democracy". As for Hitler, "if he had known when and where to stop: even, for instance, after Munich and the Nuremburg decrees for the Jews", he would be acclaimed as a great world leader.

  'Knowing where to stop' was the key. The Nazis could have a free hand in Eastern and Central Europe. The British ruling class could accept Hitler's actions in Austria, Czechoslovakia, etc. They could accept it up until the point Nazism threatened the 'West', (ie Britain's markets and colonies).

Certain passages show how issues were presented very differently for private and public consumption. A few days before Chamberlain was due to make a strong statement against Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia he sent word to the Nazis by several channels to ignore these comments and that their previous privately-negotiated position still held. Democracy has never been high on the ruling class's agenda. Chamberlain saw the public as "an immense mass of very ignorant voters of both sexes whose intelligence is low and who have no power of weighing evidence".

The British ruling class was keen for Germany to re-arm because they saw in the Nazis a natural ally and potential saviour against communism. Chamberlain wrote to the King expressing the idea that Germany and England would be "the two pillars of European peace and buttress against communism". When in 1936 the Rhineland was re-militarised the cabinet actively opposed French plans to stop it. Cabinet minutes show that they felt that if the French plans succeeded Hitler would be overthrown and the German communists would benefit.

This became the constant refrain of the Chamberlain government. They would justify Germany's invasion of Austria in February 1938 on the grounds that the two countries had decided to peacefully unite. Hitler was told that, because of the large Sudeten German population in Czechoslovakia, Britain would not oppose 'her next goal' - invasion. Britain was, however, concerned that he act in such a way as to minimise public concern!

Manipulating public opinion was constant. During September 1938 Chamberlain had three meetings with Hitler, each lasting several days. Two days before the last meeting in Munich he announced the distribution of gas masks and the digging of trenches. These orders had no military value but were designed to induce support for a deal.

  In fact, everything was subordinated to this goal. When reports of 'Kristallnacht' (the pogrom against the Jews) reached Chamberlain he exclaimed: "Oh, what tedious people these Germans can be! Just when we were beginning to make a little progress". Like Austria or Czechoslovakia it was not the Jews he was concerned for but that it would make an alliance more difficult to forge.

Hitler was bothered by public opinion too. He was concerned that, whilst he may be able to strike a deal with Chamberlain and the ruling class, they would not be able to stick to it. Interestingly, the book says the great irony was that the change in Britain's positive attitude to the Nazis was not brought about by the annexing of more territory but by Hitler actually conceding some! The book even points to an exact day when policy began to alter. On the morning of 17 March 1939 Henderson met his German counterpart to discuss the best way of excusing Germany's action in Czechoslovakia. Yet, by the evening, Chamberlain declared Germany's action illegal! What changed? Britain heard that the Nazis had agreed to cede the former Czech province of Ruthenia to Hungary. This signalled that Hitler had put on hold plans to attack the Soviet Union and was most likely looking West.

The British ruling class had staked too much to simply give up on the idea of a pact. But from now on they pursued a 'double-barrelled' strategy of continuing secret negotiations while preparing for conflict. Some of these negotiations were aimed at 'moderate' Nazis like Goering. 'Moderate' meant that they may be convinced to look East rather than West!

The aptly-titled chapter, A Confusion of Enemies, details the great lengths to which Britain went, despite being officially at war with Germany, to get an agreement with the Nazis to wage war on the Soviet Union. Britain and France sent thousands of troops and bombers to Finland hoping it may provide an excuse to undermine the entire Soviet Union.

The authors are a bit timid to see the class (they tend to use the word 'elite') relations at play. Of course, the British ruling class has all the most vile prejudices: Henderson said, "I would view with dismay another defeat of Germany which would merely serve the purposes of inferior races". But the main factor in seeking an alliance with the Nazis was economic - to divide up spheres of influence to suit the rich of both countries.

  Reading this book you are sometimes left wondering if the authors would have been happier had the British ruling class waged war earlier on Germany. They are, therefore, in danger of missing the point that all ruling classes will use any method to defend private property. Viscount Amery, former colonial secretary, tells us he has some misgivings about fascist dictatorships but they "may well have a future not as a substitute, but as a compliment and corrective to purely arithmetical democracy". Here you have the cold, calculating voice of capitalism. Particularly with the enormous postwar strengthening of the working class, the ruling class would be loathe to hand over control to fascists. They burnt their fingers with Hitler. Nonetheless, dictatorial methods - and the fascists - are held in reserve.

This also means the book doesn't clearly identify the working class as the only force that can challenge and prevent dictatorship and fascism. The authors proceed a little in this direction when they say it was not the voice of the elite but the people who stood against Hitler. The purpose of studying this period of history must be precisely to politically re-arm our class and in this, perhaps, the book falls short. But if it helps provide the facts to make the case against fascism then, maybe, it is worth an hour or two of your time.

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