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The Munich Crisis : A Political Conspiracy?


John Simkin
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Ian Kershaw wrote a long article in the Guardian on Saturday about the Munich Crisis in 1938. It raises several important issues about the way historians attempt to reconstruct the past. It is a subject that is worth discussing. Here is the first part of the article. The rest of it can be found by following this link:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/aug/2....secondworldwar

Seventy years ago, Europe was plunged into the deepest crisis experienced since the end of the first world war, paving the way for the rapid descent into a new, even more terrible, world conflict. Few historical developments have been more extensively researched and reassessed than the critical events of 1938, and there have been fierce debates, in particular, about Hitler's aims. Did he have a clear ideological programme, a blueprint consistently followed? Or was he a brutal, unprincipled opportunist, with a gift for propaganda and lust for power, together with a sharp eye for exploiting the weakness of the western democracies? Could German aggression be attributed simply to Hitler's megalomania, or did it represent more deep-seated forces in society, particularly the strength of the military and of big business? Did Hitler, in other words, follow or break with traditional aims in German foreign policy?

Historians have wrestled with these questions over the years. But they have gradually arrived at some clear answers. We are currently enjoying a rush of major books about the Third Reich by British historians, and these books are noteworthy not least because they reflect the fact that there are now generally - if not universally - accepted conclusions about Hitler and the run-up to war.

An obvious starting point in the debate is the publication in 1961 of AJP Taylor's Origins of the Second World War, which set out to be controversial. For Taylor, Hitler was no more than an opportunist, operating without any plan or programme other than vague notions of expansion. Taylor's real villains were the appeasers in Britain and France whose political ineptitude opened the door. It was a maverick interpretation, which was heatedly contested. Hugh Trevor-Roper convincingly argued that Hitler was a man of ideas, however repulsive. Tim Mason, emphasising the economic pressures arising from German expansionism that made a drive to war inevitable, came close to claiming Taylor did not know what he was talking about. In Germany, Taylor's interpretation was scarcely taken seriously, but the antithesis of his approach was at its most forthright in a work that still forms the most fundamental assessment of prewar German foreign policy, Gerhard L Weinberg's masterly The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany, in which Hitler's goal of domination is absolutely central.

Recently, Adam Tooze's acclaimed study The Wages of Destruction (Penguin, 2006) has offered a novel approach - looking at Germany's long-term economic weakness in relation to the US as the key to German aggression. As a determinant of prewar foreign policy Tooze perhaps overemphasises Hitler's preoccupation with the threat from America. But he successfully adds increasing economic pressures on the Nazi regime to the ideological thrust that produced those pressures. And he is also one of the few historians to link the radicalisation of antisemitism to the growing proximity of war, as increased international tension underpinned notions of a "world Jewish conspiracy" behind US policy.

Jonathan Wright has produced the incisive Germany and the Origins of the Second World War (Palgrave, 2007), while German foreign policy is also explored, as part of the structure of the Nazi regime, in Richard J Evans's The Third Reich in Power (Penguin, 2005) and, with particular focus on Hitler's role, in my own biography of the German leader.

So what are the generally accepted conclusions? Hitler had no plainly defined programme. But to dismiss him as merely an opportunist would be wrong. He did have a limited but inflexible framework of ideas that gave consistent direction to his leadership. Its twin tracks, embedded in a sense of race as the key determinant in history, were "removal" of the Jews and expansion to the east to obtain land to secure Germany's future. Both imprecise, distant goals served, once Hitler had taken power in January 1933, as guidelines for action for every facet of the regime, without ever having to be spelt out in overt policy terms. Much was adapted to rapidly changing circumstances - but within the parameters embodied by Hitler's ideological "vision".

Before 1938 there was no incompatibility between Hitler's long-term goals and the interests of the military (and other sections of the power elite) in the build-up of German armed force, renewed national strength and standing, and the profits to be made from an expanding armaments industry. But, as would become ever more apparent from 1938 onwards, Hitler was not just following traditional lines of German policy. Taylor's characteristic throwaway line that "in international affairs there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was a German" (leaving aside the fact that he was actually Austrian) is misleading. Hitler could indeed build on expansionist traditions in the German power elite. But his increasingly unassailable leadership position and his racial obsessions distorted those traditions, then took policy into uncharted territory as the war progressed - producing ultimately the moral and physical ruination of his country.

If even in retrospect it hasn't been easy to arrive at a clear assessment of Hitler's aims, it is little wonder that contemporaries inside and outside Germany were unsure how to deal with him. The year 1938 marked the high-tide of the attempts of the western democracies to appease Hitler. "Munich" is still a byword for the ignominy that attaches to Chamberlain's attempts to buy off Hitler at the expense of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain's reputation cannot be rescued. But recognition of the grave errors of judgment of policy-making in the 1930s has come to be seen in the perspective of the realistic options open to the British government at the time.

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Ian Kershaw frames the debate over the causes of the Second World War as being between A. J. P. Taylor and himself and his followers. Taylor is described as a “maverick” whereas Kershaw and his friends have come to accepted conclusions about “Hitler and the run-up to war”.

Taylor’s book “Origins of the Second World War” is dismissed by the claim that the author “set out to be controversial”. The suggestion is that he was concerned more about sales than the truth. This is an unfair attack on Taylor. All his books were controversial in the sense that he rejected mainstream interpretations of the past. Taylor did not always get it right but he was determined to question the dominant ideology.

Kershaw argues “For Taylor, Hitler was no more than an opportunist, operating without any plan or programme other than vague notions of expansion. Taylor's real villains were the appeasers in Britain and France whose political ineptitude opened the door. It was a maverick interpretation, which was heatedly contested.” It has definitely been questioned by Kershaw who is keen to protect the reputation of appeasers like Neville Chamberlain.

I personally do not support Taylor’s view of Hitler as a solely pragmatic politician. Nor do I accept Kershaw’s view that Chamberlain and his fellow appeasers were well-meaning politicians who found themselves in a very difficult situation and had no other option but to do a deal with Hitler in 1938.

There is another way of looking at this crisis that is not dealt with in this article. That is, Chamberlain and other governments in the western world, were trying to persuade Hitler to destroy the communist regime in the Soviet Union. There was no real attempt to deal with the growth of fascism until the outbreak of war in 1939. Even then, we were not fully committed to this war and spent the next 18 months trying to secret negotiate a deal with Nazi Germany.

The attempt to portray the Second World War as a crusade against fascism was began in 1939 and has continued ever since. It has been so successful that it now has become part of the dominant ideology. However, this is not supported by the facts.

An important part of this false historical narrative is to place a great emphasis on the way that the Nazi’s treated the Jews. However, this is only part of fascist ideology. In fact, it is not a very important part of the ideology. It could be argued that it was an optional aspect of fascism. You only have to study Hitler’s actions after he gained power to see what comprised the main objectives of the Nazi movement.

Hitler became dictator of Germany with the passing of the Enabling Bill on 23rd March 1933. It should be noted that all political parties in Germany, except the communist and socialist parties, voted for this measure. This included the powerful Catholic Party. Of course, large numbers of communist and socialist members of the Reichstag were unable to vote as they had already been arrested and sent to Hitler’s concentration camps. It was not the Jews who were the first inmates of these concentration camps. The initial inmates were trade union officials and left-wing political activists. Although a significant percentage were born Jews, they had embraced atheism and were in the camps for their political rather than their religious views. This is one of the reasons why Hitler believed that socialism was a “Jewish conspiracy”. He made a great deal of the fact that Jews had played an important role in the development of socialism. That is true, the philosophy of equality was very appealing to those who had suffered centuries of discrimination.

Did western governments begin their campaign against fascism with the overthrow of democracy and the establishment of concentration camps in 1933? No, they did not. In fact, Hitler got a lot of praise for dealing with the “socialist” problem. The conservative government was envious of the way that Germany could now control the trade union movement. So also were the owners of industry who felt that their economic problems were being caused by high wage levels negotiated by trade unionists. This view is reflected in the editorials of newspapers in Britain of the time. Nor was it just the tabloids such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail that took this view. The Times was also a great supporter of the changes taking place in Germany.

In many ways the key event in this narrative was the Spanish Civil War. On 16th February, 1936, Spain elected a government made up of several left-wing political parties. General Francisco Franco and fellow military leaders attempted to overthrow the government in July 1936. On 26th July, Hitler announced his intention of sending military aid to the fascist movement in Spain. The Popular Front appealed for help from France, Britain and the USA. The governments refused. As a result, the International Brigade was formed and individuals from all over the world went to Spain to defend democracy.

Hitler was then able to test out his latest military technology against the defenders of democracy in Spain. Even so, the Conservative Party, including Winston Churchill, refused to join in this campaign against fascism. As a result, fascism won in Spain and Hitler was given a clear message from western governments, as long as the target is a left-wing government, we will not try to stop your aggression.

Hitler’s next move was to test western resolve by invading Austria on 12th March, 1938. It was clear that the only way to stop German aggression was for Britain and France to form a “Grand Alliance with the Soviet Union. The appeasers of course refused to do this as they wanted Hitler to destroy communism for them.

Kershaw defends Chamberlain’s unwillingness to support the idea of a Grand Alliance with the claim that in itself this would have triggered a war. This is nonsense. British intelligence had already been informed that Hitler’s generals would overthrow him if he attempted to start a war on two fronts at the same time. In fact, we were informed this would happen if Britain and France had resisted Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland in March, 1936.

Kershaw is part of the campaign to rewrite the history of the 1930s and 1940s. This period does not reflect Britain’s campaign against fascism but an attempt to destroy communism. The policy was a disaster. Not only did it cause the unnecessary deaths of millions of people but made the communist regime in the Soviet Union even stronger.

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Its been a while since I read a lot about this topic, but I did read the Tooze book recently. It's main point is that the German Economy was not nearly as strong as some have made it out to be--ie nearly the equivelent as Britain and the US around this time. Tooze spends half the book with economic stats in way that it quite convincing; It altered my opinion of Germany's economic stregnth.

From this book it sort of emerges that the Drang Nach Iraq .. . I mean Osten was more of an economic necessity-- if Germany was to be a dominant power-- as opposed to one more foible of a guy with a funny walk.

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Its been a while since I read a lot about this topic, but I did read the Tooze book recently. It's main point is that the German Economy was not nearly as strong as some have made it out to be--ie nearly the equivelent as Britain and the US around this time. Tooze spends half the book with economic stats in way that it quite convincing; It altered my opinion of Germany's economic stregnth.

From this book it sort of emerges that the Drang Nach Iraq .. . I mean Osten was more of an economic necessity-- if Germany was to be a dominant power-- as opposed to one more foible of a guy with a funny walk.

It is interesting to compare the US and German economy in the 1930s. Both Roosevelt and Hitler used similar methods to end the economic depression. Both were based on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Although seen as a left-wing bogeyman, Keynesian economics saved capitalism from communism. The 1930s Depression appeared to show that Marx was right when his writings exposed the fundamental flaw in laissez-faire economic liberalism.

Keynes argued that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing high unemployment and deflation. In other words, the hole in the system could be sealed by government spending. Hitler did this by taking complete control of the economy, including direction of labour and control over wage-levels. Roosevelt did it by legislation (the New Deal).

By 1932 over 30 per cent of the German workforce was unemployed. In the 1933 Election campaign, Hitler promised that if he gained power he would abolish unemployment. He was lucky in that the German economy was just beginning to recover when he came into office. However, the policies that Hitler introduced did help to reduce the number of people unemployed in Germany.

These policies often involved taking away certain freedoms from employers. The government banned the introduction of some labour-saving machinery. Employers also had to get government permission before reducing their labour force. The government also tended to give work contracts to those companies that relied on manual labour rather than machines. This was especially true of the government's massive motorway programme. As a result of this scheme Germany developed the most efficient road system in Europe.

Adolf Hitler also abolished taxation on new cars. A great lover of cars himself, and influenced by the ideas of Henry Ford, Hitler wanted every family in Germany to own a car. He even became involved in designing the Volkswagen (The People's Car).

Hitler also encouraged the mass production of radios. In this case he was not only concerned with reducing unemployment but saw them as a means of supplying a steady stream of Nazi propaganda to the German people.

Youth unemployment was dealt with by the forming of the Voluntary Labour Service (VLS) and the Voluntary Youth Service (VYS), a scheme similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps introduced by Roosevelt in the United States. The VYS planted forests, repaired river banks and helped reclaim wasteland.

Hitler also reduced unemployment by introducing measures that would encourage women to leave the labour market. Women in certain professions such as doctors and civil servants were dismissed, while other married women were paid a lump sum of 1000 marks to stay at home.

By 1937 German unemployment had fallen from six million to one million. However, the standard of living for those in employment did not improve in the same way that it had done during the 1920s. With the Nazis controlling the trade unions, wage-rates did not increase with productivity, and after a few years of Hitler's rule workers began to privately question his economic policies.

The American people were always uncomfortable with government spending and under pressure from the electorate, manufacturing went down and unemployment went up in 1938. However, the outbreak of war in 1939 solved that problem for the American economy. Look for example at the unemployment levels between 1933 and 1944 (percentage of labour force): 24.9 (1933), 21.7 (1934), 20.1 (1935), 16.9 (1936), 14.3 (1937), 19.0 (1938), 17.2 (1939), 14.6 (1940), 9.9 (1941), 4.7 (1942), 1.9 (1943) and 1.2 (1944).

These figures suggest that it was war rather than Hitler and Roosevelt’s economic policies that really brought an end to the depression.

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