Military history

5

The Locust Years, 1931–1935

The MacDonald-Baldwin Coalition — The Indian Collapse — All Germany Astir — Hindenburg and Hitler — Schleicher Fails as a Stopgap — Hitler Becomes Chancellor — The Burning of the Reichstag, February 27, 1933 — Hitler Wins a Majority at the Elections — The New Master — Qualitative Disarmament — 1932 in Germany — British Air Estimates of 1933 — Equality of Status in Armaments — “The MacDonald Plan” — “Thank God for the French Army” — Hitler Quits the League of Nations — A New York Adventure — Peace at Chartwell — Some Wise Friends — The Marlborough Battlefields — “Putzi” — The Attitude of the Conservative Party — Dangers in the Far East — Japan Attacks China — Accountability.

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT which resulted from the general election of 1931 was in appearance one of the strongest, and in fact one of the weakest, in British records. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, the Prime Minister, had severed himself, with the utmost bitterness on both sides, from the Socialist Party which it had been his life’s work to create. Henceforward he brooded supinely at the head of an administration which, though nominally National, was in fact overwhelmingly Conservative. Mr. Baldwin preferred the substance to the form of power, and reigned placidly in the background. The Foreign Office was filled by Sir John Simon, one of the leaders of the Liberal contingent. The main work of the Administration at home was done by Mr. Neville Chamberlain, who soon succeeded Mr. Snowden as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Labour Party, blamed for its failure in the financial crisis and sorely stricken at the polls, was led by the extreme pacifist, Mr. George Lansbury. During the period of almost five years of this Administration, from January, 1931, to November, 1935, the entire situation on the Continent of Europe was reversed.

* * * * *

On the first return of the new Parliament, the Government demanded a vote of confidence upon their Indian policy. To this I moved an amendment as follows:

Provided that nothing in the said policy shall commit this House to the establishment in India of a Dominion Constitution as defined by the Statute of Westminster…. And that no question of self-government in India at this juncture shall impair the ultimate responsibility of Parliament for the peace, order, and good government of the Indian Empire.

On this occasion I spoke for as much as an hour and a half, and was heard with attention. But on this issue, as later on upon defence, nothing that one could say made the slightest difference. We have now along this subsidiary Eastern road also reached our horrible consummation in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of poor people who only sought to earn their living under conditions of peace and justice. I ventured to tell the ignorant Members of all parties:

As the British authority passes for a time into collapse, the old hatreds between the Moslems and the Hindus revive and acquire new life and malignancy. We cannot easily conceive what these hatreds are. There are in India mobs of neighbours, people who have dwelt together in the closest propinquity all their lives, who when held and dominated by these passions will tear each other to pieces, men, women, and children, with their fingers. Not for a hundred years have the relations between Moslems and Hindus been so poisoned as they have been since England was deemed to be losing her grip, and was believed to be ready to quit the scene if told to go.

We mustered little more than forty in the lobby against all the three parties in the House of Commons. This must be noted as a sad milestone on the downward path.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, all Germany was astir and great events marched forward.

Much had happened in the year which followed the fall of the Bruening Cabinet in May, 1932. Papen and the political general, Schleicher, had hitherto attempted to govern Germany by cleverness and intrigue. The time for these had now passed. Papen, who succeeded Bruening as Chancellor, hoped to rule with the support of the entourage of President Hindenburg and of the extreme Nationalist group in the Reichstag. On July 20, a decisive step was taken. The Socialist Government in Prussia was forcibly ousted from office. The question put to the Prime Minister of Prussia when he said he would only yield to physical force was: “How much force do you require?” He was then carried away from his desk. But Papen’s rival was eager for power. In Schleicher’s calculations the instrument lay in the dark hidden forces storming into German politics behind the rising power and name of Adolf Hitler. He hoped to make the Hitler Movement a docile servant of the Reichswehr, and in so doing to gain the control of both himself. The contacts between Schleicher and Roehm, the leader of the Nazi Storm Troopers, which had begun in 1931, were extended in the following year to more precise relations between Schleicher and Hitler himself. The road to power for both men seemed to be obstructed only by Papen and by the confidence displayed by Hindenburg in him.

In August, 1932, Hitler came to Berlin on a private summons from the President. The moment for a forward step seemed at hand. Thirteen million German voters stood behind the Fuehrer. A vital share of office must be his for the asking. He was now in somewhat the position of Mussolini on the eve of the march on Rome. But Papen did not care about recent Italian history. He had the support of Hindenburg and had no intention of resigning. The old Marshal saw Hitler. He was not impressed. “That man for Chancellor? I’ll make him a postmaster and he can lick stamps with my head on them.” In palace circles Hitler had not the influence of his competitors.

In the country the vast electorate was restless and adrift. In November, 1932, for the fifth time in a year, elections were held throughout Germany. The Nazis lost ground and their 230 seats were reduced to 196, the Communists gaining the balance. The bargaining power of the Fuehrer was thus weakened. Perhaps General Schleicher would be able to do without him after all. The General gained favour in the circle of Hindenburg’s advisers. On November 17, Papen resigned and Schleicher became Chancellor in his stead. But the new Chancellor was found to have been more apt at pulling wires behind the scenes than at the open summit of power. He had quarrelled with too many people. Hitler together with Papen and the Nationalists now ranged themselves against him; and the Communists, fighting the Nazis in the streets and the Government by their strikes, helped to make his rule impossible. Papen brought his personal influence to bear on President Hindenburg. Would not after all the best solution be to placate Hitler by thrusting upon him the responsibilities and burdens of office? Hindenburg at last reluctantly consented. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler took office as Chancellor of Germany.

The hand of the Master was soon felt upon all who would or might oppose the New Order. On February 2, all meetings or demonstrations of the German Communist Party were forbidden, and throughout Germany a round-up of secret arms belonging to the Communists began. The climax came on the evening of February 27, 1933. The building of the Reichstag broke into flames. Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, and their auxiliary formations were called out. Four thousand arrests, including the Central Committee of the Communist Party, were made overnight. These measures were entrusted to Goering, now Minister of the Interior of Prussia. They formed the preliminary to the forthcoming elections and secured the defeat of the Communists, the most formidable opponents of the new régime. The organising of the electoral campaign was the task of Goebbels, and he lacked neither skill nor zeal.

But there were still many forces in Germany reluctant, obstinate, or actively hostile to Hitlerism. The Communists, and many who in their perplexity and distress voted with them, obtained 81 seats; the Socialists 118; and the Nationalists of Papen and Hugenberg 52. Against these Hitler secured a Nazi vote of 17,300,000 votes with 288 seats. Thus, and thus only, did Hitler obtain by hook and crook a majority vote from the German people. He had 288 against the other parties numbering 251; a majority of 37 only. Under the ordinary processes of civilised parliamentary government, so large a minority would have had great influence and due consideration in the State. But in the new Nazi Germany minorities were now to learn that they had no rights.

On March 21, 1933, Hitler opened, in the garrison church at Potsdam, hard-by the tomb of Frederick the Great, the First Reichstag of the Third Reich. In the body of the church sat the representatives of the Reichswehr, the symbol of the continuity of German might, and the senior officers of the S.A. and S.S., the new figures of resurgent Germany. On March 24, the majority of the Reichstag, overbearing or overaweing all opponents, confirmed by 441 votes to 94 complete emergency powers to Chancellor Hitler for four years. As the result was announced, Hitler turned to the benches of the Socialists and cried, “And now I have no further need of you.”

Amid the excitement of the election the exultant column of the National Socialist Party filed past their leader in the pagan homage of a torchlight procession through the streets of Berlin. It had been a long struggle, difficult for foreigners, especially those who had not known the pangs of defeat, to comprehend. Adolf Hitler had at last arrived; but he was not alone. He had called from the depths of defeat the dark and savage furies latent in the most numerous, most serviceable, ruthless, contradictory, and ill-starred race in Europe. He had conjured up the fearful idol of an all-devouring Moloch of which he was the priest and incarnation. It is not within my scope to describe the inconceivable brutality and villainy by which this apparatus of hatred and tyranny had been fashioned and was now to be perfected. It is necessary, for the purpose of this account, only to present to the reader the new and fearful fact which had broken upon the still-unwitting world: GERMANY UNDER HITLER, AND GERMANY ARMING.

* * * * *

While these deadly changes were taking place in Germany the MacDonald-Baldwin Government felt bound to enforce for some time the severe reductions and restrictions which the financial crisis had imposed upon our already modest armaments, and steadfastly closed their eyes and ears to the disquieting symptoms in Europe. In vehement efforts to procure a disarmament of the victors equal to that which had been enforced upon the vanquished by the Treaty of Versailles, Mr. MacDonald and his Conservative and Liberal colleagues pressed a series of proposals forward in the League of Nations and through every other channel that was open. The French, although their political affairs still remained in constant flux and in motion without particular significance, clung tenaciously to the French Army as the centre and prop of the life of France and of all her alliances. This attitude earned them rebukes both in Britain and in the United States. The opinions of the press and public were in no way founded upon reality; but the adverse tide was strong.

When in May, 1932, the virtues of disarmament were extolled in the House of Commons by all parties, the Foreign Secretary opened a new line in the classification of weapons which should be allowed or discouraged. He called this “qualitative disarmament.” It was easier to expose the fallacy than to convince the Members. I said:

The Foreign Secretary told us that it was difficult to divide weapons into offensive and defensive categories. It certainly is, because almost every conceivable weapon may be used in defence or offence; either by an aggressor or by the innocent victim of his assault. To make it more difficult for the invader, heavy guns, tanks, and poison gas are to be relegated to the evil category of offensive weapons. The invasion of France by Germany in 1914 reached its climax without the employment of any of these weapons. The heavy gun is to be described as “an offensive weapon.” It is all right in a fortress; there it is virtuous and pacific in its character; but bring it out into the field – and, of course, if it were needed, it would be brought out into the field – and it immediately becomes naughty, peccant, militaristic, and has to be placed under the ban of civilisation. Take the tank. The Germans, having invaded France, entrenched themselves; and in a couple of years they shot down 1,500,000 French and British soldiers who were trying to free the soil of France. The tank was invented to overcome the fire of the machine-guns with which the Germans were maintaining themselves in France, and it saved a lot of lives in clearing the soil of the invader. Now, apparently, the machine-gun, which was the German weapon for holding on to thirteen provinces of France, is to be the virtuous, defensive machine-gun, and the tank, which was the means by which these Allied lives were saved, is to be placed under the censure and obloquy of all just and righteous men….

A truer classification might be drawn in banning weapons which tend to be indiscriminate in their action and whose use entails death and wounds, not merely on the combatants in the fighting zones, but on the civil population, men, women, and children, far removed from those areas. There, indeed, it seems to me would be a direction in which the united nations assembled at Geneva might advance with hope….

At the end I gave my first formal warning of approaching war:

I should very much regret to see any approximation in military strength between Germany and France. Those who speak of that as though it were right, or even a question of fair dealing, altogether underrate the gravity of the European situation. I would say to those who would like to see Germany and France on an equal footing in armaments: “Do you wish for war?” For my part, I earnestly hope that no such approximation will take place during my lifetime or that of my children. To say that is not in the least to imply any want of regard or admiration for the great qualities of the German people, but I am sure that the thesis that they should be placed in an equal military position with France is one which, if it ever emerged in fact, would bring us within practical distance of almost measureless calamity.

The British air estimates of March, 1933, revealed a total lack of comprehension alike by the Government and the Oppositions, Labour and Liberal, of what was going on. I had to say (March 14, 1933) :

I regretted to hear the Under-Secretary say that we were only the fifth air power, and that the ten-year programme was suspended for another year. I was sorry to hear him boast that the Air Ministry had not laid down a single new unit this year. All these ideas are being increasingly stultified by the march of events, and we should be well advised to concentrate upon our air defences with greater vigour.

* * * * *

Under the so-called National Government, British public opinion showed an increasing inclination to cast aside all care about Germany. In vain the French had pointed out correctly in a memorandum of July 21, 1931, that the general assurance given at Versailles that a universal limitation of armaments should follow the one-sided disarmament of Germany did not constitute a Treaty obligation. It certainly was not an obligation enforceable apart from time and circumstance. Yet, when in 1932 the German delegation to the Disarmament Conference categorically demanded the removal of all restrictions upon their right to rearm, they found much support in the British press. The Times spoke of “the timely redress of inequality,” and The New Statesman of “the unqualified recognition of the principle of the equality of states.” This meant that the seventy million Germans ought to be allowed to rearm and prepare for war without the victors in the late fearful struggle being entitled to make any objection. Equality of status between victors and vanquished; equality between a France of thirty-nine millions and a Germany of nearly double that number!

The German Government were emboldened by the British demeanour. They ascribed it to the fundamental weakness and inherent decadence imposed even upon a Nordic race by the democratic and parliamentary form of society. With all Hitler’s national drive behind them, they took a haughty line. In July, their delegation gathered up its papers and quitted the Disarmament Conference. To coax them back then became the prime political objective of the victorious Allies. In November, the French, under severe and constant British pressure, proposed what was somewhat unfairly called “The Herriot Plan.” The essence of this was the reconstruction of all European defence forces as short-service armies with limited numbers, admitting equality of status but not necessarily accepting equality of strength. In fact and in principle, the admission of equality of status made it impossible ultimately not to accept equality of strength. This enabled the Allied Governments to offer to Germany: “Equality of rights in a system which would provide security for all nations.” Under certain safeguards of an illusory character the French were reduced to accepting this meaningless formula. On this the Germans consented to return to the Disarmament Conference. This was hailed as a notable victory for peace.

Fanned by the breeze of popularity, His Majesty’s Government now produced on March 16, 1933, what was called, after its author and inspirer, “The MacDonald Plan.” It accepted as its starting-point the adoption of the French conception of short-service armies – in this case of eight months’ service – and proceeded to prescribe exact figures for the troops of each country. The French Army should be reduced from its peacetime establishment of five hundred thousand men to two hundred thousand and the Germans should increase to parity at that figure. By this time the German military forces, though not yet provided with the mass of trained reserves which only a succession of annual conscripted quotas could supply, may well have amounted to the equivalent of over a million ardent volunteers, partially equipped, and with many forms of the latest weapons coming along through the convertible and partially converted factories to arm them.

At the end of the First World War, France, like Great Britain, had an enormous mass of heavy artillery, whereas the cannon of the German Army had in fact been blown to bits according to Treaty. Mr. MacDonald sought to remedy this evident inequality by proposing to limit the calibre of mobile artillery guns to 105 mm. or 4.2 inches. Existing guns up to six inches, could be retained, but all replacements were to be limited to 4.2 inches. British interests, as distinct from those of France, were to be protected by the maintenance of the Treaty restrictions against German naval armaments until 1935, when it was proposed that a new Naval Conference should meet. Military aircraft were prohibited to Germany for the duration of the agreement; but the three Allied Powers should reduce their own air forces to five hundred planes apiece.

I viewed this attack upon the French armed forces and the attempt to establish equality between Germany and France with strong aversion; and on March 23, 1933, I had the opportunity of saying to Parliament:

I doubt the wisdom of pressing this plan upon France at the present time. I do not think the French will agree. They must be greatly concerned at what is taking place in Germany, as well as at the attitude of some others of their neighbours. I dare say that during this anxious month there are a good many people who have said to themselves, as I have been saying for several years: “Thank God for the French Army.” When we read about Germany, when we watch with surprise and distress the tumultuous insurgence of ferocity and war spirit, the pitiless ill-treatment of minorities, the denial of the normal protections of civilised society, the persecution of large numbers of individuals solely on the ground of race – when we see all that occurring in one of the most gifted, learned, and scientific and formidable nations in the world, one cannot help feeling glad that the fierce passions that are raging in Germany have not yet found any other outlet but upon themselves. It seems to me that at a moment like this to ask France to halve her Army while Germany doubles hers, to ask France to halve her air force while the German air force remains whatever it is, is a proposal likely to be considered by the French Government, at present at any rate, as somewhat unseasonable. The figures that are given in the plan of the strength of armies and airplanes secure to France only as many airplanes as would be possessed by Italy, leaving any air power possessed by Germany entirely out of consideration.

And again in April:

The Germans demand equality in weapons and equality in the organisation of armies and fleets, and we have been told: “You cannot keep so great a nation in an inferior position. What others have, they must have.” I have never agreed. It is a most dangerous demand to make. Nothing in life is eternal, but as surely as Germany acquires full military equality with her neighbours while her own grievances are still unredressed and while she is in the temper which we have unhappily seen, so surely should we see ourselves within a measureable distance of the renewal of general European war.

… One of the things which we were told after the Great War would be a security for us was that Germany would be a democracy with parliamentary institutions. All that has been swept away. You have most grim dictatorship. You have militarism and appeals to every form of fighting spirit, from the reintroduction of duelling in the colleges to the Minister of Education advising the plentiful use of the cane in the elementary schools. You have these martial or pugnacious manifestations, and also this persecution of the Jews of which so many Members have spoken….

I will leave Germany and turn to France. France is not only the sole great surviving democracy in Europe; she is also the strongest military power, I am glad to say, and she is the head of a system of states and nations. France is the guarantor and protector of the whole crescent of small states which runs right round from Belgium to Yugoslavia and Rumania. They all look to France. When any step is taken, by England or any other Power, to weaken the diplomatic or military security of France, all these small nations tremble with fear and anger. They fear that the central protective force will be weakened, and that then they will be at the mercy of the great Teutonic Power.

When one considers that the facts were hardly in dispute, the actions of a responsible government of respectable men and the public opinion which so flocculently supported them are scarcely comprehensible. It was like being smothered by a feather bed. I remember particularly the look of pain and aversion which I saw on the faces of Members in all parts of the House when I said, “Thank God for the French Army.” Words were vain.

However, the French had the hardihood to insist that there should be a delay of four years before the destruction of their heavy war material. The British Government accepted this modification, provided that the French agreement about the destruction of their artillery was specified in a document for immediate signature. France bowed to this, and on October 12, 1933, Sir John Simon, after complaining that Germany had shifted her ground in the course of the preceding weeks, brought these draft proposals before the Disarmament Conference. The result was unexpected. Hitler, now Chancellor and Master of all Germany, having already given orders on assuming power to drive ahead boldly on a nation-wide scale, both in the training-camps and the factories, felt himself in a strong position. He did not even trouble to accept the Quixotic offers pressed upon him. With a gesture of disdain he directed the German Government to withdraw both from the Conference and from the League of Nations. Such was the fate of the MacDonald Plan.

* * * * *

It is difficult to find a parallel to the unwisdom of the British and weakness of the French Governments, who none the less reflected the opinion of their Parliaments in this disastrous period. Nor can the United States escape the censure of history. Absorbed in their own affairs and all the abounding interests, activities, and accidents of a free community, they simply gaped at the vast changes which were taking place in Europe, and imagined they were no concern of theirs. The considerable corps of highly competent, widely trained professional American officers formed their own opinions, but these produced no noticeable effect upon the improvident aloofness of American foreign policy. If the influence of the United States had been exerted, it might have galvanised the French and British politicians into action. The League of Nations, battered though it had been, was still an august instrument which would have invested any challenge to the new Hitler war-menace with the sanctions of international law. Under the strain the Americans merely shrugged their shoulders, so that in a few years they had to pour out the blood and treasures of the New World to save themselves from mortal danger.

Seven years later, when at Tours I witnessed the French agony, all this was in my mind, and that is why, even when proposals for a separate peace were mentioned, I spoke only words of comfort and reassurance which I rejoice to feel have been made good.

* * * * *

I had arranged at the beginning of 1931 to undertake a considerable lecture tour in the United States, and travelled to New York immediately after this speech. Here I suffered a serious accident which nearly cost me my life. On December 13, when on my way to visit Mr. Bernard Baruch, I got out of my car on the wrong side and walked across Fifth Avenue without bearing in mind the opposite rule of the road which prevails in America, or the red lights, then unused in Britain. There was a shattering collision. For two months I was a wreck. I gradually regained at Nassau in the Bahamas enough strength to crawl around. In this condition I undertook a tour of forty lectures throughout the United States, living all day on my back in a railway compartment, and addressing in the evening large audiences. On the whole I consider this was the hardest time I have had in my life. I lay pretty low all through this year; but in time my strength returned.

Meanwhile, at home our life flowed placidly downstream. At Westminster Mr. Baldwin adopted and espoused the main principles of Mr. MacDonald’s India Bill, the conduct of which in the Commons was entrusted to the new Secretary of State for India, Sir Samuel Hoare. The report of the Simon Commission was ignored, and no opportunity of debating it was given to Parliament. With about seventy other Conservatives I formed a group called “The India Defence League,” which during the next four years resisted the Government’s policy on India in so far as it went beyond the recommendations of the Commission. We fought the matter out at party conferences with a considerable measure of support, sometimes running very close, but always in a minority. The Labour Opposition voted in Parliament with the Government on the Indian issue, and it became, like disarmament, a link between the two Front Benches. Their followers presented an overwhelming majority against our group, and derided us as “die-hards.” The rise of Hitler to power, the domination of the Nazi Party over all Germany, and the rapid, active growth of German armed power, led to further differences between me and the Government and the various political parties in the State.

The years from 1931 to 1935, apart from my anxiety on public affairs, were personally very pleasant to me. I earned my livelihood by dictating articles which had a wide circulation, not only in Great Britain and the United States, but also, before Hitler’s shadow fell upon them, in the most famous newspapers of sixteen European countries. I lived in fact from mouth to hand. I produced in succession the various volumes of the Life of Marlborough. I meditated constantly upon the European situation and the rearming of Germany. I lived mainly at Chartwell, where I had much to amuse me. I built with my own hands a large part of two cottages and extensive kitchen-garden walls, and made all kinds of rockeries and waterworks and a large swimming-pool which was filtered to limpidity and could be heated to supplement our fickle sunshine. Thus I never had a dull or idle moment from morning till midnight, and with my happy family around me dwelt at peace within my habitation.

During these years I saw a great deal of Frederick Lindemann, Professor of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford University. Lindemann was already an old friend of mine. I had met him first at the close of the previous war, in which he had distinguished himself by conducting in the air a number of experiments, hitherto reserved for daring pilots, to overcome the then almost mortal dangers of a “spin.” We came much closer together from 1932 onwards, and he frequently motored over from Oxford to stay with me at Chartwell. Here we had many talks into the small hours of the morning about the dangers which seemed to be gathering upon us. Lindemann, “the Prof,” as he was called among his friends, became my chief adviser on the scientific aspects of modern war and particularly of air defence, and also on questions involving statistics of all kinds. This pleasant and fertile association continued throughout the war.

Another of my close friends was Desmond Morton.2 When, in 1917, Field-Marshal Haig filled his personal staff with young officers fresh from the firing-line, Desmond was recommended to him as the pick of the artillery. He had commanded the most advanced field battery in Arras during the severe spring fighting of that year. To his Military Cross he added the unique distinction of having been shot through the heart, and living happily ever afterwards with the bullet in him. When I became Minister of Munitions in July, 1917, I frequently visited the front as the Commander-in-Chief’s guest, and he always sent his trusted Aide-de-Camp, Desmond Morton, with me. Together we visited many parts of the line. During these sometimes dangerous excursions, and at the Commander-in-Chief’s house, I formed a great regard and friendship for this brilliant and gallant officer, and in 1919, when I became Secretary of State for War and Air, I appointed him to a position in the Intelligence, which he held for many years. He was a neighbour of mine, dwelling only a mile away from Chartwell. He obtained from the Prime Minister, Mr. MacDonald, permission to talk freely to me and keep me well informed. He became, and continued during the war to be, one of my most intimate advisers till our final victory was won.

I had also formed a friendship with Ralph Wigram, then the rising star of the Foreign Office and in the centre of all its affairs. He had reached a level in that department which entitled him to express responsible opinions upon policy, and to use a wide discretion in his contacts, official and unofficial. He was a charming and fearless man, and his convictions, based upon profound knowledge and study, dominated his being. He saw as clearly as I did, but with more certain information, the awful peril which was closing in upon us. This drew us together. Often we met at his little house in North Street, and he and Mrs. Wigram came to stay with us at Chartwell. Like other officials of high rank, he spoke to me with complete confidence. All this helped me to form and fortify my opinion about the Hitler Movement. For my part, with the many connections which I now had in France, in Germany, and other countries, I had been able to send him a certain amount of information which we examined together.

From 1933 onwards, Wigram became keenly distressed at the policy of the Government and the course of events. While his official chiefs formed every day a higher opinion of his capacity, and while his influence in the Foreign Office grew, his thoughts turned repeatedly to resignation. He had so much force and grace in his conversation that all who had grave business with him, and many others, gave ever-increasing importance to his views.

* * * * *

It was of great value to me, and it may be thought also to the country, that I should have the means of conducting searching and precise discussions for so many years in this very small circle. On my side, however, I gathered and contributed a great deal of information from foreign sources. I had confidential contacts with several of the French Ministers and with the successive chiefs of the French Government. Mr. Ian Colvin, the son of the famous leader-writer of the Morning Post, was the News Chronicle correspondent in Berlin. He plunged very deeply into German politics, and established contacts of a most secret character with some of the important German generals, and also with independent men of character and quality in Germany who saw in the Hitler Movement the approaching ruin of their native land. Several visitors of consequence came to me from Germany and poured their hearts out in their bitter distress. Most of these were executed by Hitler during the war. From other directions I was able to check and furnish information on the whole field of our air defence. In this way I became as well-instructed as many Ministers of the Crown. All the facts I gathered from every source, including especially foreign connections, I reported to the Government from time to time. My personal relations with Ministers and also with many of their high officials were close and easy, and, although I was often their critic, we maintained a spirit of comradeship. Later on, as will be seen, I was made officially party to much of their most secret technical knowledge. From my own long experience in high office I was also possessed of the most precious secrets of the State. All this enabled me to form and maintain opinions which did not depend on what was published in the newspapers, though these brought many items to the discriminating eye.

* * * * *

At Westminster I pursued my two themes of India and the German menace, and went to Parliament from time to time to deliver warning speeches, which commanded attention, but did not, unhappily, wake to action the crowded, puzzled Houses which heard them. On the German danger, as on India, I found myself working in Parliament with a group of friends. It was to a large extent composed differently from the India Defence League. Sir Austen Chamberlain, Sir Robert Horne, Sir Edward Grigg, Lord Winterton, Mr. Bracken, Sir Henry Croft, and several others formed our circle. We met regularly, and, to a large extent, pooled our information. The Ministers eyed this significant but not unfriendly body of their own supporters and former colleagues or seniors with respect. We could at any time command the attention of Parliament and stage a full-dress debate.

* * * * *

The reader will pardon a personal digression in a lighter vein.

In the summer of 1932, for the purposes of my Life of Marlborough I visited his old battlefields in the Low Countries and Germany. Our family expedition, which included “the Prof,” journeyed agreeably along the line of Marlborough’s celebrated march in 1705 from the Netherlands to the Danube, passing the Rhine at Coblenz. As we wended our way through these beautiful regions from one ancient, famous city to another, I naturally asked questions about the Hitler Movement, and found it the prime topic in every German mind. I sensed a Hitler atmosphere. After passing a day on the field of Blenheim, I drove into Munich and spent the best part of a week there.

At the Regina Hotel a gentleman introduced himself to some of my party. He was Herr Hanfstaengl, and spoke a great deal about “the Fuehrer,” with whom he appeared to be intimate. As he seemed to be a lively and talkative fellow, speaking excellent English, I asked him to dine. He gave a most interesting account of Hitler’s activities and outlook. He spoke as one under the spell. He had probably been told to get in touch with me. He was evidently most anxious to please. After dinner he went to the piano and played and sang many tunes and songs in such remarkable style that we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. He seemed to know all the English tunes that I liked. He was a great entertainer, and at that time, as is known, a favourite of the Fuehrer. He said I ought to meet him, and that nothing would be easier to arrange. Herr Hitler came every day to the hotel about five o’clock, and would be very glad indeed to see me.

I had no national prejudices against Hitler at this time. I knew little of his doctrine or record and nothing of his character. I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat, even though I am on the other side. He had a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose. I always wanted England, Germany, and France to be friends. However, in the course of conversation with Hanfstaengl, I happened to say, “Why is your chief so violent about the Jews? I can quite understand being angry with Jews who have done wrong or are against the country, and I understand resisting them if they try to monopolise power in any walk of life; but what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?” He must have repeated this to Hitler, because about noon the next day he came round with rather a serious air and said that the appointment he had made with me to meet Hitler could not take place, as the Fuehrer would not be coming to the hotel that afternoon. This was the last I saw of “Putzi” – for such was his pet name – although we stayed several more days at the hotel. Thus Hitler lost his only chance of meeting me. Later on, when he was all-powerful, I was to receive several invitations from him. But by that time a lot had happened, and I excused myself.

* * * * *

All this while the United States remained intensely preoccupied with its own vehement internal affairs and economic problems. Europe and far-off Japan watched with steady gaze the rise of German warlike power. Disquietude was increasingly expressed in Scandinavian countries and the states of the “Little Entente” and in some Balkan countries. Deep anxiety ruled in France, where a large amount of knowledge of Hitler’s activities and of German preparations had come to hand. There was, I was told, a catalogue of breaches of the Treaties of immense and formidable gravity; but when I asked my French friends why this matter was not raised in the League of Nations, and Germany invited, or even ultimately summoned, to explain her action and state precisely what she was doing, I was answered that the British Government would deprecate such an alarming step. Thus, while Mr. MacDonald, with Mr. Baldwin’s full authority, preached disarmament to the French, and practised it upon the British, the German might grew by leaps and bounds, and the time for overt action approached.

In justice to the Conservative Party it must be mentioned that at each of the Conferences of the National Union of Conservative Associations from 1932 onwards, resolutions proposed by such worthies as Lord Lloyd and Sir Henry Croft in favour of an immediate strengthening of our armaments to meet the growing danger from abroad were carried almost unanimously. But the parliamentary control by the Government Whips in the House of Commons was at this time so effective, and the three parties in the Government, as well as the Labour Opposition, so sunk in lethargy and blindness, that the warnings of their followers in the country were as ineffective as were the signs of the times and the evidence of the Secret Service. This was one of those awful periods which recur in our history, when the noble British nation seems to fall from its high estate, loses all trace of sense or purpose, and appears to cower from the menace of foreign peril, frothing pious platitudes while foemen forge their arms.

In this dark time the basest sentiments received acceptance or passed unchallenged by the responsible leaders of the political parties. In 1933, the students of the Oxford Union, under the inspiration of a Mr. Joad, passed their ever-shameful resolution, “That this House refuses to fight for King and country.” It was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations. Little did the foolish boys who passed the resolution dream that they were destined quite soon to conquer or fall gloriously in the ensuing war, and prove themselves the finest generation ever bred in Britain. Less excuse can be found for their elders, who had no chance of self-repudiation in action.3

* * * * *

In November, 1933, we had another debate in the House of Commons. I returned to my main theme:

We read of large importations of scrap iron and nickel and war metals, quite out of the ordinary. . We read all the news which accumulates of the military spirit which is rife throughout the country; we see that a philosophy of blood-lust is being inculcated into their youth to which no parallel can be found since the days of barbarism. We see all these forces on the move, and we must remember that this is the same mighty Germany which fought all the world and almost beat the world; it is the same mighty Germany which took two and a half lives for every German life that was taken.4 No wonder, when you have these preparations, these doctrines, and these assertions openly made, that there is alarm throughout the whole circle of nations which surround Germany….

* * * * *

While this fearful transformation in the relative war-power of victors and vanquished was taking place in Europe, a complete lack of concert between the non-aggressive and peace-loving states had also developed in the Far East. This story forms a counterpart to the disastrous turn of events in Europe, and arose from the same paralysis of thought and action among the leaders of the former and future Allies.

The economic blizzard of 1929 to 1931 had affected Japan not less than the rest of the world. Since 1914 her population had grown from fifty to seventy millions. Her metallurgical factories had increased from fifty to one hundred and forty-eight. The cost of living had risen steadily. The production of rice was stationary, and its importation expensive. The need for raw material and for external markets was clamant. In the violent depression Britain and forty other countries felt increasingly compelled, as the years passed, to apply restrictions or tariffs against Japanese goods produced under labour conditions unrelated to European or American standards. China was more than ever Japan’s principal export market for cotton and other manufactures, and almost her sole source of coal and iron. A new assertion of control over China became, therefore, the main theme of Japanese policy.

In September, 1931, on a pretext of local disorders, the Japanese occupied Mukden and the zone of the Manchurian Railway. In January, 1932, they demanded the dissolution of all Chinese associations of an anti-Japanese character. The Chinese Government refused, and on January 28, the Japanese landed to the north of the International Concession at Shanghai. The Chinese resisted with spirit, and, although without airplanes or anti-tank guns or any of the modern weapons, maintained their resistance for more than a month. At the end of February, after suffering very heavy losses, they were obliged to retire from their forts in the Bay of Wu-Sung, and took up positions about twelve miles inland. Early in 1932, the Japanese created the puppet State of Manchukuo. A year later, the Chinese province of Jehol was annexed to it, and in March, 1933, Japanese troops, penetrating deeply into defenceless regions, had reached the Great Wall of China. This aggressive action corresponded to the growth of Japanese power in the Far East and her new naval position on the oceans.

From the first shot the outrage committed upon China aroused the strongest hostility in the United States. But the policy of isolation cut both ways. Had the United States been a member of the League of Nations, she could undoubtedly have led that Assembly into collective action against Japan, of which the United States would herself have been the principal mandatory. The British Government on their part showed no desire to act with the United States alone; nor did they wish to be drawn into antagonism with Japan further than their obligations under the League of Nations Charter required. There was a rueful feeling in some British circles at the loss of the Japanese Alliance and the consequential weakening of the British position with all its long-established interests in the Far East. His Majesty’s Government could hardly be blamed if, in their grave financial and growing European embarrassments, they did not seek a prominent role at the side of the United States in the Far East without any hope of corresponding American support in Europe.

China, however, was a member of the League, and although she had not paid her subscription to that body, she appealed to it for what was no more than justice. On September 30, 1931, the League called on Japan to remove her troops from Manchuria. In December, a Commission was appointed to conduct an inquiry on the spot. The League of Nations entrusted the chairmanship of the Commission to the Earl of Lytton, the worthy descendant of a gifted line. He had had many years’ experience in the East as Governor of Bengal and as Acting Viceroy of India. The Report, which was unanimous, was a remarkable document, and forms the basis of any serious study of the conflict between China and Japan. The whole background of the Manchurian affair was carefully presented. The conclusions drawn were plain: Manchukuo was the artificial creation of the Japanese General Staff, and the wishes of the population had played no part in the formation of this puppet state. Lord Lytton and his colleagues in their Report not only analysed the situation, but put forward concrete proposals for an international solution. These were for the declaration of an autonomous Manchuria. It would still remain part of China, under the aegis of the League, and there would be a comprehensive treaty between China and Japan regulating their interests in Manchuria. The fact that the League could not follow up these proposals in no way detracts from the value of the Lytton Report. The American Secretary of State, Stimson, wrote of the document: “It became at once and remains today the outstanding impartial authority upon the subject which it covers.” In February, 1933, the League of Nations declared that the State of Manchukuo could not be recognised. Although no sanctions were imposed upon Japan nor any other action taken, Japan, on March 27, 1933, withdrew from the League of Nations. Germany and Japan had been on opposite sides in the war; they now looked towards each other in a different mood. The moral authority of the League was shown to be devoid of any physical support at a time when its activity and strength were most needed.

* * * * *

We must regard as deeply blameworthy before history the conduct, not only of the British National and mainly Conservative Government, but of the Labour-Socialist and Liberal Parties, both in and out of office, during this fatal period. Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation, obvious lack of intellectual vigour in both leaders of the British Coalition Government, marked ignorance of Europe and aversion from its problems in Mr. Baldwin, the strong and violent pacifism which at this time dominated the Labour-Socialist Party, the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality, the failure and worse than failure of Mr. Lloyd George, the erstwhile great wartime leader, to address himself to the continuity of his work, the whole supported by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Parliament: all these constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!