Friday, January 13, 2006

Books I'm Reading

Diary of A Nobody: Making Friends with Hitler

Making Friends with Hitler is almost a new genre. Ian Kershaw takes one of the least effectual and most pompous British politicians of the interwar years and uses his life to trace the history of the period in a seriously revealing way.

In fact, just to call Lord Londonderry the least effectual British figure of his age is unfair. He was a world class nonentity, otherwise outstanding only by his aristocratic birth and vanity. Already promoted above his abilities, he was dropped from his position as Air Minister in 1935 and spent the rest of his life in futile correspondence asserting that his estimates of the Nazi air power had been correct.

It is funnily reminiscent of Charles Pooter in that Victorian humorous classic, the Grossmiths' "Diary of a Nobody," vainly trying to correct the spelling of his name in the guest list of the Lord Mayor's reception in the local newspaper.

Londonderry continued his peevish self-justification even when much more accurate estimates were available. The British could count the Luftwaffe's aircraft as they flew over dropping bombs on their heads, and Londonderry persisted in thinking that he had been cheated out of the high positions that the parental sperm entitled him to.

Londonderry bestrode Europe like an escaped character from P.G. Wodehouse: his full name was Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-Stewart. He was not alone. Not even Wodehouse's fervent imagination could match a name like that of Admiral Reginald Aylmer Ranfuly Plunket-Ernle-Earle-Drax, who was the emissary that Premier Neville Chamberlain sent on a very slow boat to the Baltic - to negotiate an alliance with the Soviet Union in 1939. While most British wanted an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler, Chamberlain and Halifax his foreign secretary did not. As it happens, Stalin didn't either, not when he could cut a deal with Hitler but that is another story.

Londonderry was at the heart of all these events, and Kershaw's account of this unimportant but self-important figure shows the modern age in formation. Londonderry is the perfect thread to illustrate how the modern world was made. He was probably the last of a generation whose genealogy alone could propel him to high office, and even in the thirties, there was enough of a meritocratic principle to put a ceiling on the career of someone whose assets of wealth and blood were not matched by overmuch in the way of grey matter. One of his ambitions, already becoming atavistic, was to be Viceroy of India.

In Britain, Londonderry and others of his ilk lost the battle for an honorable place in history. The verdict of 1940 against the appeasers is even more potent against those like him who actually sought an alliance. He had been a constant visitor to Germany, chatting with Hitler, Goering, Ribbentrop and the rest of the Nazi leadership and it is his membership and support of various pro-German and pro-Nazi groups in Britain for which he is remembered, if at all. It is worth remembering just how pervasive the influence of these groups was, not least among newspapers like the Daily Mail that have subsequently wrapped themselves in spurious super-patriotism.

However, Kershaw, while not concealing the vapidity of his subject, does add some needed perspective to many of this group. For the majority, their concern was to avoid a re-run of the First World War, and an accurate perception of the vindictiveness of Versailles and its effects of Germany. When Hitler was putting down communists, Londonderry, a coal owner, was not too worried about the briskness of the Nazi assault on civil liberties, but Kristallnacht proved too much for his sensibilities even though he was imbued with the traditional background anti-Semitism of his milieu.

However Kershaw points out that appeasement was far from being the prerogative of the right. Many left wing pacifists took part in organizations like the Anglo-German Association and opposed British re-armament. Nor is it as self-evident in retrospect that the appeasers were totally wrong. Chamberlain certainly sold the Czechs down the river, but it was far from certain that Britain had the military strength to do anything much about it, and the Chamberlain government did accelerate the rearmament which meant that the British forces were actually better prepared, albeit still not really ready, when Britain and France did declare war.
Even Londonderry had played his part during his time in the Air Ministry, by launching the development program for the Hurricanes and Spitfires that won the Battle of Britain. Indeed, when he was in government in the new Northern Ireland, he tried unsuccessfully, to end the sectarian divide between protestant and catholic school systems, which apart from possibly averting much sectarian bloodshed since, puts him far in advance of Tony Blair, who is busily trying to put government funds into faith-based schools.

With sixty five years behind us, it is possible to take a more detached and less polemical view of the role of Londonderry and others. From the point of the view of the British ruling classes, and the British Empire, Londonderry and his ilk were quite right. The decision to fight Germany was almost suicidal. An alliance with Germany could have preserved much of the Empire, and perhaps more importantly, British industrial and financial strength.

This dilemma presented itself acutely in 1940, when Churchill took over from Chamberlain with a cabinet committed to war. Britain had only half the financial reserves with which it entered World War One, and was effectively standing alone. A useful addition to Kershaw's book is Clive Ponting's 1940, Myths and Legend a wonderful piece of revisionist history, which, in the course of destroying many now popular myths about the period (Churchill's most famous radio speech was actually delivered by an actor who normally played Larry the Lamb), details the crucial decision the Cabinet took. It was a heroic determination that merits more recognition. Knowing that Britain only had financial reserves to fight the war on its own until 1943, the government decided not to cut to a deal with Hitler, but to fight on, even if it meant effectively selling the country to the USA to do so.

That is what happened, and, as Ponting demonstrates, the US took full and fairly unscrupulous advantage of the fire sale. Not many Brits had much of a real stake in the Empire anyway, and humiliating though the process of a former super power voluntarily indenturing itself to Washington has been and still is, we can assume that it was less onerous than becoming a client state of Nazi Germany. Who knows, we may have euphemized even that as a "Special Relationship," and been offering troops to military adventures overseas to prove our usefulness to the boss man in Berlin.

And on that note of connecting the threads of the past together, Londonderry successfully fought international conventions against bombers - because he felt that they were necessary for economical policing of the Empire - like in Iraq. History is like that: it keeps returning to bite us.

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