Martha Gelhorn believed Spain was the place to stop fascism.
John Cornford died for the same belief.
So did hundreds of volunteers in the International Brigades who were convinced that the war in Spain was a prelude to a bigger confrontation between democracy and the totalitarianism of Hitler and Mussolini.
The main reason we remember their bravery today - and that so many books are still published each year about the Spanish Civil War - is that they were right. The brutal, aggression that enabled Franco to destroy a democratically elected government and impose a rigid and ruthless totalitarian system that endured until his death in 1975 REALLY was a threat to world peace.
The problem was that the people who recognised the threat in Spain were what we might call early adopters – a term used to describe them after 1939 was “premature anti-fascists.” (Explain the problems “premature anti-fascists” faced with recruitment to the armed forces in WWII etc.)
While they fought and argued for democracy, the democratic governments of Western Europe pursued a policy of appeasement. Appeasement meant, literally, appeasing the dictators by giving them a little of what they wanted in the hope that it would satisfy them sufficiently to prevent them seeking to take more by force.
Treaty of Versailles – perceived injustice to Germany territorially, militarily, financially.
Fears of war – memories of WWI were immensely powerful. Many politicians of the 1930s had served on the Western Front. All knew many friends and colleagues who had and several who had not returned.
Confusion between the threat posed by Nazi Germany and that posed by Stalin’s USSR.
Appeasement, the policy of making concessions to the dictatorial powers in order to avoid conflict, governed Anglo-French foreign policy during the 1930s. It became indelibly associated with Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Although the roots of appeasement lay primarily in the weakness of post-World War I collective security arrangements, the policy was motivated by several other factors.
Firstly, the legacy of the Great War in France and Britain generated a strong public and political desire to achieve ‘peace at any price’. Secondly, neither country was militarily ready for war. Widespread pacifism and war-weariness (not too mention the economic legacy of the Great Depression) were not conducive to rearmament. Thirdly, many British politicians believed that Germany had genuine grievances resulting from Versailles. Finally, some British politicians admired Hitler and Mussolini, seeing them not as dangerous fascists but as strong, patriotic leaders. In the 1930s, Britain saw its principle threat as Communism rather that fascism, viewing authoritarian right-wing regimes as bulwarks against its spread.
The League of Nations was intended to resolve international disputes peacefully. Yet the League’s ineffectiveness soon became apparent. In 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, the League condemned the action. However, without either the weight of the US or the power of its own army, it was unable to stop Japan. By 1937, Japan had launched a full-scale invasion of China. In October 1935, the League imposed economic sanctions but little more when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. In March 1936, a cautious Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, forbidden under Versailles. The feared Anglo-French reaction never came. In the League’s council, the USSR was the only country to propose sanctions. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin ruled out the possibility.
Germany and Italy now realised that the democracies were seeking to avoid confrontation, so both countries continued to ‘test the limits’. During the Spanish Civil War, Hitler and Mussolini contravened the ‘Non-Intervention Agreement’, sending troops, equipment and planes to back the rebels. Their intervention was ignored by the international community. When Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, the pattern of appeasement had already been set. In March 1938, Hitler’s Anschluss (union) with Austria was once again met with Anglo-French impotence and inaction.
Czechoslovakia had been created under Versailles, and included a large German minority mostly living in the Sudetenland on the border with Germany. In mid-September 1938, Hitler encouraged the leader of the Sudeten Nazis to rebel, demanding union with Germany. When the Czech government declared martial law, Hitler threatened war.
On 15 September, Chamberlain met Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Without consulting the Czech authorities, he pledged to give Germany all the areas with a German population of more than 50 per cent. France was persuaded to agree. Hitler then altered his criteria, demanding all the Sudetenland. At the Munich Conference on 30 September, Britain and France agreed to his demands. Chamberlain was confident that he had secured ‘peace for our time’.
Appeasement was not without its critics. Churchill believed in a firm stand against Germany, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden resigned in February 1938 over Britain’s continued acquiescence to fascist demands. The left-wing also attacked Chamberlain’s blindness. In March 1939, when Germany seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia, it was clear that appeasement had failed. Chamberlain now promised British support to Poland in the case of German aggression. A misguided belief in ‘peace in our time’ was replaced by a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of war.
In 1940, three British journalists published a book Guilty Men. They published under the pseudonym Cato, because they all worked for Lord Beaverbrook and he had friends among the politicians they blamed. We now know that the three journalists were Michael Foot – later leader of the Labour Party, Frank Owen, a Liberal MP and Peter Howard a Conservative MP. In Guilty Men they called for the removal from public office of 15 politicians most responsible for appeasement and labelled appeasement as “deliberate surrender of small nations in the face of Hitler’s blatant bullying.”
Sadly, journalism’s support for appeasement had been almost as complete as the political consensus. The most widely known examples of support for appeasement or worse come from the two mass market conservative papers, the Daily Mai l and the Daily Express.
Lord Rothermere, owner of the Mail, was a friend of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and he directed the Mail's editorial stance towards support for them in the 1930s. In 1933 Rothermere penned a notorious leader column headlined “Youth Triumphant". It praised the new Nazi regime's accomplishments, and was subsequently used as propaganda by them. In it, Rothermere predicted that "The minor misdeeds of individual Nazis would be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing upon Germany".
Rothermere and the Mail were also editorially sympathetic to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Rothermere wrote an article entitled "Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in January 1934, praising Mosley for his "sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine". This support ended after violence at a BUF rally in Kensington Olympia later that year. The Mail abandoned all sympathy for Nazism and Fascism as soon as the war began and behaved patriotically throughout.
Beaverbrook’s Express was no wiser. It crusaded for appeasement (and, eccentrically) for closer relations with Russia too.
Beaverbrook had been in tentative contact with Ribbentrop since 1937, and had – admittedly in the name of European stability – been preaching a conciliatory attitude towards Germany through his newspapers. An Evening Standard leader opined in September 1937: 'The chief error in British policy towards Germany is a matter not so much of actions as of attitudes.
For years past British politicians have spoken harshly of Nazi Germany purely because it is Nazi … is it not possible to sweep that atmosphere away?'. On learning of Ribbentrop's appointment as Foreign Minister in March 1938, Beaverbrook wrote to congratulate: 'It is with real pleasure that I hear today of your appointment … I know full well that you will take full advantage of your great authority and immense power … you will have the loyal support of my newspapers.'
In September 1938, the Daily Express famously declared that Britain would 'not be involved in a European war this year, or next year either'; Beaverbrook kept on declaring it to the bitter end, though, like Rothermere, he adopted an entirely patriotic stance once Britain went to war. It is ironic indeed that the searing polemic, Guilty Men did not mention Beaverbrook. It should have done – but we know why it didn’t.
BUT though the behaviour of the two popular mass market leaders confirmed the dangers of subjugating a newspaper to the obsessions of a single megalomaniac proprietor, and the chronic myopia that such a practice could create, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were not alone. Most of the press lined up in favour of appeasement. So did the BBC.
The news department of the Foreign Office worked hard to persuade newspapers that appeasement was in the public interest. Ministers and senior officials maintained close contact with editors and with the BBC – in some cases very close indeed (e.g. Geoffrey Dawson and Neville Chamberlain). The official view – expressed in 1938 – was that careful briefing and lobbying had ensured that “projection of the government’s foreign policy could be conducted quietly and smoothly without giving the impression of propaganda.” (Adamthwaite, P293)
An American State Department official put it less generously: “Through this entire crisis what has surprised me is that the governments of the democracies have not taken their people or their parliaments into their confidence. “ (Cited in Adamthwaite, P293)
The Times (Gossen writes that, during the most important years of appeasement “… the most powerful editor on Fleet Street, Geoffrey Dawson, willingly oversaw the debasement of one of democracy's most cherished institutions and traditions - an uncompromised press serving as a guarantor for "public" freedoms of speech. From the lofty heights of being considered Britain's crown jewel of journalism, The Times stooped to become during the 1930s an organ of government propaganda. In the process, it distorted "public opinion" to the extent that the general "public's" ability to influence national policy was immeasurably weakened. The Times was also seriously compromised when its prior policy of being prime critic of governmental decision-making was reversed in the cause of partisan advocacy. The result was a dangerous lag in "public" perceptions of the perilous course on which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's foreign policy was leading the country until the virtual outbreak of war.” I agree. Perhaps the worst excess committed during this period when Dawson was prepared to go to almost any length to support his friend the Prime Minister, was the Times’ treatment of its Berlin Correspondent, Norman Ebbut.
Ebbut had been in Berlin as a correspondent for the Times since 1925. He had been the newspaper’s chief correspondent since 1927. He was fluent in German. His accuracy and intelligence were widely admired by fellow journalists. William Shirer, the eminent American reporter, described him as ‘by far the best-informed foreign correspondent in Germany during the 1930s.”
From 1933 onwards he found his work was often cut and re-written in London. He complained that this editing sometimes distorted the meaning. When it did so, it seemed to distort his meaning so as to make his article less offensive to the Nazis. In the early days of the regime this involved little more than blaming Communist street-fighters for episodes of violence from which the Nazis benefited.
The Nazis did not like Ebbut. They considered him dangerously independent minded and sought to persuade the Times to replace him with a reporter who would actively support their cause. This the Times refused to do – but as the nature of the Nazi regime became more and more apparent to him, Ebbut became more critical. He described Hitler as a populist with the gift of the gab – not a visionary. He refused to do as Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, requested. He sought out news from unofficial sources.
Ebbut was no reckless passionate hero. He often focused on issues less dramatic than the persecution of the Jews. So, for example, he wrote in detail about Nazi repression of the Christian Churches. And, as early as 1934, he wrote to his employer giving twelve examples of recent articles that had been cut in such a way that the meaning was distorted. In one story the printed version concluded that “the recent period of activity in the German religious conflict has now ended.” It also omitted all references to Hitler. Ebbut’s unedited copy survives. It reveals a very different opinion i.e. that Hitler’s guarantees of religious freedom are being blurred by “the intervention of the police or state or semi-state organs.”
The implication is that Ebbut fears he is being censored. He complained repeatedly – but the Times commitment to appeasement of Hitler always took precedence. He confided in his American colleague, William Shirer, who wrote in his diary in 1935:
“Ebbut has complained to me several times in private that The Times does not print all he sends, that it does not want to hear too much of the bad side of Nazi Germany and has been captured by pro-Nazis in London. “ (Cited in McDonough, P418)
Ebbut’s deputy, Douglas Reed, expressed the opinion that after January 1935 it seemed that Geoffrey Dawson suppressed articles warning about German rearmament. Many Times journalists complained about Dawson’s active promotion of appeasement. Some said the paper was even more obviously pro Anglo/German friendship when his deputy, Barrington-Ward, was responsible for the edition. Several Times journalists including A.L. Kennedy (1936) and Godfrey Win (1938) resigned from the paper over its pro-appeasement, pro-German stance.
Times readers were seriously misled by their newspaper. They mattered a great deal. The Times was the voice of the establishment. (Explain - note in particular that the Nazis were not enamoured of the Times – recall e.g. the Semite anagram – but its impact at home was much more significant than any harm it might conceivably have done a regime that had the power to suppress dissent. For several years it promoted and supported ignorance about the true threat posed by Nazism)
As we’ve seen, during the General Strike of 1926 there was tension between the BBC and Government. It was resolved without direct censorship because the BBC took great care to avoid offending the government. In the early 1930s the BBC took some tentative steps towards genuinely independent reporting of foreign affairs. The government did not like it. Neville Chamberlain has been called the “first prime minister to employ news management on a grand scale.” It was particularly effective in managing the BBC.
A first crisis came in 1935-1936 (Adamthwaite, p. 282) when the Cabinet and foreign Office obliged the BBC to cancel a talks series entitled “The Citizen and his Government” in which it planned to involve speakers including Sir Oswald Mosley (Fascist) and Harry Pollitt (Communist). To make matters worse, the BBC was not allowed to reveal that its programmes had been vetoed by government.
After that the BBC was firmly under the thumb of government. In March 1936 a Cabinet Committee asked the BBC to refrain from including independent expressions of opinion about European affairs in a series of broadcasts about the politics of the continent. An American observer complained that British radio coverage amounted to “a constant flow of reports from the government departments tantamount to gentle propaganda in favour of things as they are.”
Anthony Adamthwaite writes that: “Whitehall argued that since the BBC was perceived abroad as an official mouthpiece, strict controls were necessary in order to avoid potentially dangerous misunderstandings arising from talks and news bulletins.” This was a very British form of censorship – persuasion and pressure brought to bear behind the scenes to encourage the BBC to broadcast nothing that seriously challenged the Government’s pursuit of appeasement. Churchill and other opponents of government policy found access to the airwaves denied to them.
Similar pressure was applied to newspaper proprietors – particularly after Goebbels complained to the foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in November 1937 about attacks upon Hitler in British newspapers and hostile reporting by British correspondents in Berlin. The PM’s press adviser even went to speak to the proprietors of the Labour supporting Daily Herald and the Liberal News Chronicle. They appear to have reassured him that they understood his concerns.
Clear evidence of this informal system of censorship and control – and it was entirely based on pressure and cajoling - came in February 1938 when Anthony Eden resigned as foreign secretary. Eden had concerns about appeasement. The BBC was told to say nothing about Germany or Italy in its coverage of the resignation. When the newsreel company Paramount allowed Labour’s Clement Attlee to speak about issue it was ordered to remove the item from its film. It complied.
In 1938 the government made requests to the BBC and to newspapers to “avoid provocation against Germany and Italy.” Ministers insisted they were urgently seeking an agreement that could secure peace and asked editors to ‘bear in mind the extreme sensitiveness of Hitler and Mussolini’ to news and opinion that appeared hostile to their interests.
Overt criticism of Hitler by Labour MPs were deleted from broadcasts.
Bibliography Anthony Adamthwaite, The British Government and the Media, 1937-1938, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18 no. 2 (April 1983)
Frank McDonough, Norman Ebbut and the Nazis 1927-37, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 27, No.3 (July 1992)