The Land of Might-Have-Been: Britain, 1936-37. Chapter One, part one: The Road to the Berlin Olympiad.   3 comments

THE LAND OF MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN: BRITAIN 1936-37

 

Somewhere there’s another land,

Different from this world we know;

Far more mercifully planned,

Than the cruel place we know:

Innocence and Peace are there,

All is good that is desired;

Faces there are always fair,

Love grows never old nor tired.

 

We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been;

I can  never be your king, nor you can be my Queen;

Days may pass, and years may pass,

And seas may lie between;

We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been.

 

Sometimes on the rarest nights,

Comes the vision calm and clear,

Gleaming with unearthly lights,

On our path of doubt and fear:

Winds from that far land are blown,

Whispering with secret breath,

Hope that plays her tune alone,

Love that conquers pain and death.

 

Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?

Will I ever be your king, or you at last my Queen?

Days may pass, and years may pass,

And seas may lie between;

Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?

 Ivor Novello, 1924

These lyrics represent Novello’s Ruritarian dream, a dream long-since discarded, like its romantic Welsh author, in modern, rational, liberal Britain, but one which was shared by many in his glamorous inter-war world and, of course, one which was twice turned into a nightmare by autocratic emperors and leaders in Europe. When Novello’s most successful west-end musical, Glamorous Nights, hit the stage in 1936, it seemed to many that the dream, not the nightmare, was about to be turned into reality. Britain was no longer a land of Might-have-been, but a land of what might be. The problem was that, while it was a dream they may have been prepared to share, this was not yet a land, like Roosevelt’s USA, which was more mercifully planned. While Novello’s social set, wonderfully depicted in Robert Altman’s recent film Gosford Park, with Jeremy Northam playing the singer-song-writer so brilliantly by performing his songs live to camera, these were the years, 1936-37, in which the dream and the nightmare were at their most polarised in the experience of the British people. That is what makes them so fascinating to study, containing as they do a series of dramatic scenes, events which, as a recent book has shown, changed all our lives for ever. In a very real sense, these events marked the beginning of the modern Elizabethan era which we are now celebrating, 75 years on. They also represent for most in Britain, a brief respite and recovery from the Depression of 1929-33 before the descent into despair of 1938-40.As the jack-boots were goose-stepping into the Rhineland, the British were determined to have their fun and to live their dream. They ended the decade by sleep-walking into disaster on the continental stage.

 

CHAPTER ONE: THE ROAD TO THE BERLIN OLYMPIAD; JANUARY – AUGUST, 1936

 

Chronology: January – June 1936

 January:

 18 Rudyard Kipling died

20 King George V died; succeeded by Edward VIII

22  Accession proclaimed

28  Funeral of George V

February:

 16  Victory for the Popular Front in the Spanish Elections

March:

 7     Germany reoccupied the Rhineland

May:

 1     Haile Selassie left Abyssinia

Narrative, January-June:

By the turn of the year, the worst of the Depression was over, and for those in work, life ahead seemed full of promise. As depicted in Noel Coward’s classic film about inter-war London working-class life between the wars This Happy Breed, families were able to move out of the slums of the East End to modern houses in new suburbs like Bexleyheath. Men found work as semi-skilled engineers in the new electronics and communications industries. Four years of growth under the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, had fuelled a housing boom, which in turn had led to an explosion of sales of the latest domestic equipment and consumer gadgets. Two-thirds of Britain’s homes were now powered by electricity. Credit, in the form of hire purchase, helped ordinary people to acquire fridges, cookers, vacuum cleaners and radios, while car ownership was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, but also available to the richer business and professional classes.

For those in the upper classes that Ivor Novello and Noel Coward epitomised in their art and music, life was indeed easy. Everyone had servants, though harder to find, and women did not need to go out to work after marrying, which gave them time for entertaining and charity work. However, this made the contrast with the poverty of the distressed areas, soon to be re-named special areas even starker. Then there was the gathering gloom of the threat of future mass conflict, harnessing the new technologies, so that New Year revellers of all classes felt that they should enjoy themselves now, since they might be dead in another couple of years. They were not far wrong, and it was not only Churchill who was aware of the threat.

At Sandringham that Christmas and New Year, the King’s family celebrated the festivities as best they could under a gloomy mood presaged by the monarch’s declining health. His eldest son and heir, Edward Prince of Wales, known to the family as David, noticed how ‘thin and bent’ his father had become. However, David was preoccupied with his adoration for Wallis Simpson, a slender, dark-haired 39-year-old American who was married to a London businessman. She had been married before, in 1916, to an American Naval Officer Lieut. Earl W Spencer, but had divorced him eleven years later and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. Soon after the Simpsons had moved to London, taking a flat in Bryanston Square.

George V had rescued the monarchy from its darkest days of unpopularity due to its German descent and name at the beginning of the Great War, to celebrating his silver jubilee in 1935 as the Emperor of nearly half a billion subjects. He was clearly loved by his peoples, but not by his sons, and he barely spoke with the Prince. He had prophesied to Baldwin, his Prime Minister, that ‘Edward would pull the whole throne and the Empire down about his ears before the year was out’ following his death. The Prince, for his part, wrote to Wallis that it was ‘terrible here…so much the worst Xmas I’ve ever had to spend with the family’.  He left Sandringham as soon as he could to spend New Year’s Eve with Wallis, whose husband was, conveniently, away on business in Canada.

The Prince of Wales detested the moral codes of the Victorian/Edwardian generation, and the hypocrisy with which the upper classes sought to uphold them, while still having their fun. Everyone knew that the ‘High Society’ sisters, Diana and Unity Mitford, were having theirs with Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, and Adolf Hitler, but to speak openly in public about these dangerous liaisons would have been considered a serious breach of etiquette at that time.

At a supper party at the Savoy Grill on 13th January, Harold Nicholson, the career diplomat who had first met the Prince in 1921, found HRH talkative and charming as before, but commented that he was not his ‘sort of pal’ since he was ‘in a mess’. Harold was so alarmed by his ‘really very right-wing’ views that he preferred to avoid all ‘social intimacy’ with him, an option he would find difficult to achieve over the coming months, due to his standing in London society and his presence at the most fashionable dinner-tables.

Neither did the King speak openly of his son’s passion for Wallis Simpson, though his anxiety about this, obsessed as he was by attention to public duty, was undoubtedly contributing to his depression and deteriorating physical condition, diagnosed as a narrowing of the arteries. His friend and exact contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, the bard of Empire, was also known to be close to death. Since the Great War, when Kipling had lost his son, for which he blamed himself, Kipling had become a reclusive reactionary at Bateman’s, his home in Sussex. His wife Carrie decided that he needed they needed to escape the English winter for the south of France. En route, in London, his stomach ulcer decided otherwise. It burst, and a week later he died in the Middlesex Hospital on the same day that the King’s illness was announced. ‘Chips’ Channon, the rich American-born socialite and Conservative MP wrote in his diary for that day: ‘The Year has, indeed, begun in gloom. The King ill – and Kipling dead.’ The passing of these two great establishment figures within two days of each other seemed to herald a new era.

On the 20th January, at 9.25 p.m., the following message was broadcast to the Empire: ‘The King’s life is drawing peacefully to its close’, and exactly two and a half hours later, just before midnight, the bulletin was posted at Sandringham announcing his death. Even this moment was carefully chosen to manipulate public reaction to the maximum effect, reflecting the birth of the modern mass media monarchy.

Stanley Baldwin, on the Sunday before the King’s death, had told ‘Tom’ Jones, his Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary, that he was ‘distinctively nervous’ about the Prince of Wales becoming King, not least because he had seen at first hand his drinking and womanizing on a tour of Canada nine years earlier. When the Prince had arrived that afternoon to brief the PM on his father’s condition, having first called at his lover’s flat, Baldwin was wearing a black armband out of respect for Kipling, who was his cousin. The Prince made no remark on this, so Baldwin had felt obliged to ask if he knew ‘that another great Englishman, a contemporary of your father’s, died yesterday.’ Excusing the Prince’s obvious ignorance of current affairs, and informing him of the Nobel Prize winner’s death, Baldwin remarked,  ‘But, of course, sir, you have a great deal on your mind. I should not have expected you to know.’ After their meeting, Baldwin had told Tom Jones that he had never thought, as a boy in Worcestershire reading history books, that he would have to put the knowledge gained to practice in interfering ‘between a King and his mistress.’

Nevertheless, Baldwin felt hat his previous friendship with Edward gave him a unique role in resolving the impending crisis that everyone in the court and cabinet, not yet the country, was fearing. However, Baldwin was tiring of, and in, office, and was not up to the twin challenges of a constitutional crisis and a resurgent, aggressive Germany. As the year progressed, the Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, probably the hardest-working minister of the last century, took on much of the PM’s paper-work. Any historian who has gone through the boxes from the Ministry of Health and Local Government from the earlier Baldwin Government of 1924-8 will be aware of Chamberlain’s ability to see the devil in the detail of policy-making. Through his detailed knowledge of the country he managed both to keep it out of war until 1939, and to get it prepared for the global conflict to come. This is a fact often overlooked in the continuing arguments about his management of the international crises which followed his succession of Baldwin. The differences in policy between the two PM’s reflected their management styles. Baldwin was passive in his management of affairs and ministers, Chamberlain was far more pro-active.

The Accession: Long live the King!

Following his father’s death, Edward immediately broke with royal tradition, by having the clocks at Sandringham reset. His father and grandfather had always kept them half an hour slow, in order to allow more daylight time for shooting. King Edward seemed determined to break with these traditions from the very beginning of his reign, a determination which set him against many in the British establishment, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the morning after his father’s death, Edward flew to Hendon in his own aeroplane to attend his Accession Council and make preparations for the lying-in-state and funeral. He arrived hatless at the aerodrome, yet another departure from his father’s ‘standards’.  Popular poet John Betjeman saw this moment as marking ‘the final putting to sleep of the Victorian age’, evoking the mood of the people:

 Old men who have never cheated, never doubted,

Communicated monthly, sit and stare

At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way

Where a young man lands hatless from the air.

 

Whereas King George had represented a sense of continuity with Victorian and Edwardian Britain, King Edward seemed intent to represent change and modernity. To traditionalists like ‘Chips’ Channon, he seemed ‘casual and a little common’. However, while the upper classes in London and the Home Counties were fully aware of the King’s great affair, very few outside these social and political circles knew anything of it. To the general public, Edward was very popular, perhaps even the first global celebrity, admired both for his looks and style and his concern for the unemployed and ex-servicemen. At the Accession Council, more than a hundred privy councillors were assembled to swear an oath of allegiance to the new King. He made a brief speech in which he said:

 When my father stood here twenty-six years ago he declared that one of the objects of his life would be to uphold constitutional government. In this I am determined to follow in my father’s footsteps.

He also promised ‘to work, as he did, …for the happiness and welfare of all classes of my subjects’. Both Neville and Austen Chamberlain, half-brothers and ministers, powerful members of a powerful political dynasty, watched the 41-year-old monarch carefully. Neville remarked,

His speech was not remarkable in any way, and I thought he looked as uncomfortable as ever, though Austen says he did not fidget as much as usual. I do hope he ‘pulls up his socks’ and behaves himself now he has such heavy responsibilities for unless he does he will soon pull down the throne.

The heralds proclaimed the accession to the throne of King Edward VIII. The Norroy King of Arms, Major A. H. Howard, read the Proclamation at the Temple Bar on 22nd January.  The new king was caught on newsreel camera, sat with a shadowy Mrs Simpson and her friends, in a room overlooking the courtyard below. The monarch was not usually present at this ceremony, and this latest breach of tradition was viewed by some as a bad omen for his reign. What was worse was that the group could be seen laughing while the solemn event was taking place. However, the footage was censured and never shown in the cinemas. Writing to her friends about the event, Wallis Simpson made fun of it, enjoying the situation like ‘a huge game’. However, she was soon to realise just how serious Edward was about making her his wife.

Two funerals

Back in Sandringham the same day, Tuesday 22nd, thousands filed past the coffin of the old King, which was guarded by four foresters in Sandringham Church. The following day, Wednesday 23rd,  it was taken on a gun-carriage to the station at Wolverton, where it was lifted onto the royal train for transit to King’s Cross. Behind the cortége walked Bertie, the Duke of York, who was to become George VI later that year, Edward, the Duke of Kent, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Harewood. In London, another gun-carriage was used to take the coffin to the Abbey. The Royal Standard was draped over it and the Imperial Crown, brought from the Tower, was perched on top. During the slow but jolting march the Maltese cross, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires, fell from the top of the crown, rolling towards the gutter, where it was rescued and pocketed in one movement by a Grenadier Guard Major. Edward was heard to mutter, ‘Christ, what will happen next?!’ One MP remarked that ‘it was a fitting motto for the coming reign!’ As news of the disastrous incident spread, Harold Nicholson wrote in his diary that it was indeed seen as ‘a most terrible omen’.

Between 800,000 and one million people passed the bier during the following four days of lying-in-state at Westminster Hall, the queue sometimes stretching for more than three miles, six abreast, down the Embankment and over Vauxhall Bridge. Three-quarters of those paying their respects were working-class. So profound was the nation’s grief that the Bishop of Durham feared the growth of a ‘George-culture’ rather like the ‘Lenin-culture’ which had followed the Russian revolutionary icon’s death twelve years earlier, or, in our own lifetime, the ‘Diana-culture’ which followed the death of the Princess of Wales more than sixty years later. There were dangers, he felt, in an over-popular monarchy, at odds with unpopular politicians. Like Diana, Edward had charisma, sex-appeal, an outward charm enhanced by a sense of inner melancholy, and he looked far younger than he was.

On the Thursday, the funeral of Rudyard Kipling took place at Westminster Abbey. Kipling’s body had also had a lying-in-state, but the preferred private ceremony and cremation which Queen Mary had also wanted for George V, was of course what the poet was given. His ashes were then carried into the Abbey by eight pall-bearers, including Stanley Baldwin. The obituaries reflected a feeling that Kipling represented a world, if not yet an empire, which was lost. His reputation as a unifying national bard had suffered from his increasingly isolated conservatism in later life. Some, however, saw in him the enduring qualities and values which still make him the most popular British poet, and ‘If’ the nation’s most popular poem. Somewhat appropriately, if somewhat controversially at the time, he was placed between the graves of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Months after the funeral, Baldwin’s son alleged that Kipling had suffered from an ‘inferiority complex’, so that he forced his son to enlist, and that Jack’s death at the Battle of Loos in 1915 had robbed the author of ‘The Jungle Book’ of his love for people in general and children in particular.  Oliver Baldwin’s view of Kipling may have been affected by the way the author had once regarded him as a ‘surrogate son’ after Jack’s death, only to reject him completely when he discovered about his homosexuality, which he referred to as ’beastliness’.

Four days later, on January 28th the unprecedented crowds, a million-strong, which had begun to gather before midnight the previous night, watched in silence as the Royal Funeral cortége made its way from Westminster to Paddington. At Marble Arch the crowds were so deeply massed that the police found it difficult to keep the route clear. At Windsor, the procession to the final resting place in St George’s Chapel included five remaining kings of Europe, all descended from Queen Victoria, the President of the French Republic and representatives from every other country in the world. It was a truly global event, marking the passing of one age and the advent of another, with a global celebrity as a thoroughly modern monarch.

Gathering Gloom

By the Spring of 1936 the future of the demilitarised Rhineland was under discussion at the Foreign Office, the suggestion being that it could be used as a means of ‘appeasing’ Hitler in the year of the Berlin Olympics. Harold Nicholson,  now National Labour MP for Leicester East, who had been part of Lloyd George’s diplomatic delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, was vehemently opposed to this strategy, addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on Anglo-German relations. He predicted that ‘trouble would come’ by 1939 or ’40. To deter Germany, it would be necessary to rearm, ‘so as to speak with authority’. Then, Germany would either have to accept ‘encirclement’ or the League of Nation’s Covenant.  ‘Chips’ Channon was moved by Nicholson’s ‘brilliant address’ to the extent that he ‘almost heard the tramp-tramp of the troops.’

However, Britain was far from being ready to challenge Germany ‘with authority’ and Hitler was, in any case, was ready to take back what he believed was about to be offered by diplomacy, by force. He moved into the Rhineland on 7th March, in a flagrant breach of both the Versailles and Locarno treaties. Two days later Harold reported the general mood in the Commons as being one of fear, ‘anything to keep out of war…on all sides one hears sympathy for Germany.’ He continued to warn against such sympathy, arguing that ‘in the German temperament of today there is a strong strain of insanity’ and that the Nazi regime was ‘a blot and scourge to humanity.’ He viewed Hitler as ‘a factor of appalling instability and of the very greatest danger’ and concluded that ‘Germany is Hitler at this moment, and Hitler is Germany’. Nevertheless, the prevailing view, voiced by Lord Arnold among others, was that Germany had only asserted ‘German sovereignty over German territory’. Nicholson could only counter that ‘Germany was right in principle, wrong in practice.’ He also admitted that public opinion in Britain would not support being ‘drawn into a conflict over Poland or Czechoslovakia, or the Eastern States’. However, he thought Germany should be subjected to diplomatic sanctions through the withdrawal of ambassadors from Berlin, and that the Olympics, due to be held there in August, should be boycotted. He also argued that Britain should make its position crystal clear to Germany, and to any other aggressor:

 We must act in such a way that the countries of Europe – Germany above all – must say, ‘This time they really mean it.’ We must say, if the frontiers of Holland, Belgium or France are crossed by any country, especially by Germany, we will within such and such a time bring so many forces, ships and aeroplanes in their defence. We must also say to France, ‘This is an absolute assurance backed by the whole public opinion of this country’.

In The Gathering Storm, his first volume of his Nobel-prize winning history of the Second World War, written twelve years later, Winston Churchill pointed to Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland as the decisive moment on the road to war. Germany, he argued, should have been stopped by Great Britain and France acting together. He blamed Baldwin and Chamberlain for their failure to stand up to the dictator and their development of the policy of appeasement. His view was widely shared in the aftermath of the war, but, in reality, Hitler could not have been stopped, and intervention was never on anyone’s agenda, including Nicholson’s. In Britain, all strands of public opinion opposed an armed reaction. Only three days before the action, Labour’s Clement Attlee had opposed the government’s plans for Rearmament as ‘too bellicose’. In response to the events, Hugh Dalton, Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, said that there could be no question of any resistance to Germany’s move into what right-wing MP’s viewed as his own ‘back garden’.

On the day of the occupation, Bishop Hensley Henson wrote in his diary that ‘the clouds are gathering over Europe in gathering gloom’. Churchill, for his part, was silent, and when he did break his silence in the Commons defence debate, Neville Chamberlain described his contribution as ‘constructive and helpful’. However, both Chamberlain and Baldwin continued to keep Churchill in the ‘wilderness’, denying him a return to government at the new ministry of defence. They did not trust him to keep his anti-German rhetoric in check at a time of sensitive diplomatic negotiations based on their appeasement policy. Churchill, for his part, continued to praise Chamberlain in public, especially in a speech in the latter’s stronghold of Birmingham, clearly hoping for a return to government when the Chancellor would succeed Baldwin as PM. Meanwhile, the government continued to follow a two-pronged policy of diplomacy and deterrence. In March 1936 it announced its plans to double spending on the RAF and to massively increase the overall military budget, despite Chamberlain’s hopes of diverting funds to the pressing needs of the ‘Special Areas’ and social reform. Even in the days just before the Rhineland incident, this spending was bearing fruit, as the very first Spitfires took to the skies above Southampton.

The Constitutional Time Bomb

Towards the end of March, Edward bought his beloved Wallis a ruby and diamond bracelet from Paris for sixteen thousand pounds, worth six hundred thousand pounds at today’s prices, engraved ‘Hold tight, 27. iii. 36’.  He showered her with jewellery an also gave her cash, spending millions in today’s money. At the same time, he cut back on spending on the royal household, which his father had allowed to run out of control. This was, he said, out of step with the austerity that many of his subjects were still facing in the depressed areas of the country following the slump of the early thirties. However, it was his household staff who had to face reduced salaries, discontinued allowances and penny-pinching economies. Under these conditions, his staff became alienated and disaffected with his opulent treatment of his mistress.

In his eyes, Wallis could do no wrong. Those who urged caution were banished from court, those who flattered her were advanced.It was obvious to many that the King’s great love was purely, or impurely, sexual. There was gossip about the sexual practices she had learned while living in a brothel in Shanghai, which had made the King her slave, and that he was willing to become so because his childhood deprived of affection had made him crave female domination. She had a masculine look that made her attractive to lesbians, and her power over Edward was sometimes acted out in public displays of humiliation.

Harold Nicholson’s invitations to various social gatherings later in the Spring, gave him the opportunity to observe the unfolding drama of the King and Mrs Simpson at close quarters. It was already an open secret in these circles that the new king held the strongest hopes of marrying his beloved Wallis and making her his Queen. Her estranged second husband, Ernest Simpson, had filed for divorce, the hearing for which was to be held in Ipswich in October. This set a timetable like a ticking bomb for the late autumn. Harold was invited to meet the King at Mrs Simpson’s apartment at Bryanston Court and, over port, the bisexual diplomat again found Edward charming. However, he was also saddened by the King’s infatuation. Although ‘a perfectly harmless type of American’, he found ‘the whole setting…slightly second-rate.’  Ramsay MacDonald, although from very ‘humble’ beginnings, also enjoyed the attention of society hostesses, and told Harold that ‘the people do not mind fornication, but they loathe adultery.’ Harold became exasperated by the conduct of the King, becoming convinced that ‘this silly little man’ would ‘destroy a great monarchy by giggling into a flirtation with a third-rate American.’

It was already apparent to many in court circles that not only was this liaison dangerous for the monarchy, but that the new King had little patience for more tedious duties, was shallow in his thinking, erratic in his judgement and casual in his attitude to state papers. Traditionalists, including Nicholson, found this conduct, or lack of it, scandalous. Conversely, he developed considerable sympathy for the now ‘miserable’ Wallis, believing her when she told Lady Sibyl Colefax that neither she nor the King had ever suggested marriage to each other. Years later, she admitted lying about this.

The Peace Pledge

Canon Hugh Richard Laurie Sheppard, aka Dick, was a well-known dynamic peace campaigner in 1936, who had made a call two years earlier for young men to pledge themselves for peace: ‘We renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another’. Over a hundred thousand took the pledge and, in May 1936, his ‘Peace Pledge Union’ was formally founded, representing the voice of absolute pacifism in the midst of the gathering gloom on the continent and in East Africa. In concert with this voice, there were also millions who placed their faith in the League of Nations to stop individual nations becoming aggressors. Anti-war sentiment crossed all class, gender and party lines. In the previous year, a ‘peace ballot’ organised by the League of Nations Union, attracted the participation of twelve million voters, nearly a quarter of the adult population, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed their support for the League. Of these, just over five million favoured an absolute pacifist stance. In the General Election of that year, Baldwin was forced to promise that there would be no great rearmament.

On 3rd April, The Times reported that the Red Cross had confirmed that it had treated numerous victims of gas attacks in Abyssinia. The newspaper quoted from the Emperor, Haile Selassie, who said that ‘he could not sleep at night for misery at the screaming and groaning of his fighting men and country people who have been burned inside and out by gas.’ They were victims of the indiscriminate bombing of the Italian airforce, attacking hospitals and Red Cross centres. The three types of gas used had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, of which Italy was a signatory. Water-holes and villages were also targeted, so that many peasants died in agony from their burns.

At the end of seven months’ fighting, with nearly half a million soldiers in Abyssinia, Italy annexed the country after troops had marched into Addis Ababa on May 5th. Abyssinians had rioted and looted the town before the Italians could march in. On 9th May Mussolini announced the fall of Addis Ababa to cheering crowds in Rome. Haile Selassie arrived in Britain, via Palestine, as a refugee less than a month later and was reluctantly granted asylum. “I do not intend to settle in England,” he said, “I still dream and hope of returning to Abyssinia. At present I have not the means.” It had cost Mussolini more than thirty-three million pounds to prepare for the war, and another 126 million to fight it. However, it was worth it, he said, since “Italy has at last her Empire – a Fascist Empire.”

The King, for his part, refused to meet ‘The Negus’ (who claimed his descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) personally, sending the Duke of Gloucester instead. When Edward was advised that meeting with the deposed Emperor would be a popular move, he countered, ‘popular with whom? Certainly not the Italians.’ Nothing should be done, he suggested, to drive Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. By contrast, Dick Sheppard appealed on the radio for aid to the Abyssinian refugees, criticising his fellow Christians for lacking a sense of mission, and questioning whether they really believed in their religion. The BBC insisted that he should not preach pacifism on the airwaves.

‘Two Britains’

In the New Year of 1936 the government’s policy towards the ‘Special Areas’ had again came under fire when the Report of the Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal, Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve Merthyr’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions, neither of which was being pursued with any vigour by the government:

It is manifestly impossible for a town in Merthyr’s plight to attract new industries on any useful scale without substantial state aid. There may be a case for declining such aid and for arranging the systematic evacuation, wholly or in part, of such a derelict area as Merthyr. There may, on the other hand, be a case for a larger scale effort to maintain the existing population and put it once more on a permanent self-supporting basis by a programme of re-equipment and of bringing in new industries, if necessary by special inducement. Or there may be a case for combining a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those who remain. There is, however, one course of which action for which no case can be made out. That is the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole…It is this last course of action which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

The Journal of this ‘Middle Opinion Group’, as they called themselves, Political and Economic Planning, published statistics showing that immigration to the South East was now in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole. Later in the year, they came to the conclusion that ‘one of the salient facts of the social and economic landscape at present, which we may regret but cannot ignore, is that there are two Britains – a prosperous Britain and a depressed Britain’.  The Ministry of Labour’s ‘Index of Relative Unemployment’ also revealed this, showing that the ‘red’ areas which were at least 50% below the national average in unemployment levels in 1931-36 were almost all in the Midlands and South of England, whereas the ‘black’ areas where unemployment was at least 50% above that average were located exclusively in the North of England, Scotland and Wales. Most, though not all, of these areas were mainly industrial areas with previously high population densities. The diversion between these two Britains had grown considerably wider since the earlier period of depression in the older industries, 1927-31.

As the economy had recovered from the general recession, the structural depression in the older industrial areas became starkly apparent. Looked at on a regional basis, the South East (including London) had entered the trade depression of 1929-33 with levels of under 6% unemployment, increasing to nearly 14% at the trough, and recovering to 6% by 1937. By contrast, Wales began the recession with levels of  more than 19% in 1929, rising to nearly twice that by 1932, and remaining above 30% throughout the first half of the decade. Even these figures mask the impact of long-term structural unemployment on particular coalfield communities like Merthyr Tydfil, where the overall unemployment level had been at, or close to an annual average of 60% for the previous four years, and still remained close to 55% throughout 1936. The overwhelming majority of these were coal-miners who had been unemployed for more than a year, whereas in Britain as a whole only one in five of the unemployed fell into this category.

By the middle of 1936, there were signs that the agitation for new industries to be brought to the Special Areas was beginning to have an effect on P. M. Stewart, their Commissioner, who had been in post for a year. In his first report, he had offered a stern rebuff to the growing feeling of regional and national patriotism in Wales and the North-East of England by suggesting in his first report that ‘love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.’ He had made it clear that he would do all that he would do all that he could to increase the number of transferees among young people in the depressed areas and that relief work in those areas would be limited to social service work for the older unemployed. He had openly declared that he would not sponsor enterprises which were ‘undertaken solely with the object of giving employment.’ In his second report, published in February 1936, he accepted that efforts in this respect needed to be intensified. At the same time, however, he continued to argue that ‘no opportunity should be lost of enabling the younger person in the Areas to take advantage of the increasing prosperity of the country as a whole by accepting suitable employment in areas where the demand for labour is steadily improving.’ He continued to attack the opponents of the transference scheme whom he characterised as being ‘carried away by excess of sentiment’ having ‘shut their eyes to the hard facts of the situation’.

However, the opponents of the transference policy and supporters of alternative measures were growing in number and influence. In March 1936 the Lord Mayor of Cardiff called a Conference which comprised representatives of local authorities, churches, employers and trade unions, as well as members of the newly formed Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire. The Lord Mayor told the Conference that it seemed to him ‘a misguided principle to move men to other areas for work’. The Conference decided to petition the government ‘to take immediate steps to alleviate the lot of the unemployed in the area’ by amending the Special Areas Act of 1934 to provide the Commissioner with sufficient powers to encourage industrial development.

Two months later, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. The Council had played a major role in the administration of the transference scheme to this point, as well as directing government-sponsored voluntary work in the valleys. Most of the prominent members of the social service movement in South Wales attended, and on the second day, clear divisions emerged over the continuance of the scheme, with some Church leaders going so far as to suggest that Gandhi-an resistance methods should be used to counter its operation. His argument was that the ‘national conscience was being roused’ against the break-up of coalfield communities which ‘represented the history and traditions of Wales’. Unless the social service movement in Wales came out clearly against the scheme, its albeit ameliorating involvement could be seen as collaboration. Aneurin Bevan, then a young coalfield Labour MP, also called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacency of those who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

 …if this problem was still viewed as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken as there was no economic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

The reason for this complacency was given away by the speaker who replied to Bevan’s remarks by suggesting that his constituency in East Monmouth had ‘no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had absorbed into local life’. However, the general feeling at the conference was that transference was expatriation, not repatriation. At another social service conference in August at Llandrindod Wells, Elfan Rees, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, took up Bevan’s theme in opposition to the comments of Cardiff’s Professor Marquand, author of South Wales Needs a Plan, that ‘a people largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil’ and that ‘a people without roots may be ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in’. Whilst Rees agreed that much of the population of the coalfield had come ‘from countries and counties that could well spare them,’ he felt that it was not these who were leaving:

It is not only the young – it is not only the best – it is also the Welsh who are going…if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going – the unwillingness to remain idle at home – the essential qualification of the transferee again, are the qualities which mark our own indigenous population. And, if this process of social despoliation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they don’t have the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.’

 The Liberal ‘Cambrian Establishment’ in the official and quasi-official corridors of the Principality had finally woken up to the reality that they had lost their hegemony over the Welsh people and by the middle of 1936 they were clearly embarrassed by the large number of people of Welsh and Welsh-speaking origin who were leaving, at least in proportion to their presence in the population of the valleys. Whilst Rees and others began to exaggerate this for propaganda purposes, it is clear that their growing awareness of both the indiscriminating nature and the extent of  migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in favour of a nationalistic opposition to the transference scheme. Professor Marquand was critical of these ‘nationalistic passions of those who held safe jobs themselves’.  He himself put forward seven practical policies in his book, of which Planning said that, had it been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously. Now, it suggested wryly, Marquand was still young enough to see most of these ‘forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.’

The Budget Speech of the Spring of 1936 had already announced a significant change of policy in this direction – the attraction of new industries to the Special Areas was to be given priority through the setting up of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), providing financial assistance for small businesses. Whilst the Government was partly influenced in making this decision by the divisions which were emerging in the social service movement over transference, it was also undoubtedly under more unified pressure for South Wales, aided by the personal interest of Edward VIII. He had visited the Welsh Valleys at the beginning of the Coalfield Depression in 1929. At that time, when James Evans, General Inspector to the Welsh Board of Health, had heard of the Prince of Wales’ proposed visit at the end of the previous year, he had urged caution to an already nervous H.W.S. Francis, the Assistant Secretary to Neville Chamberlain at the Ministry of Health. Sir Arthur Lowry had been despatched to South Wales to report, but a slight recovery in the Coal industry meant that conditions had been improving at the time of the Prince’s visit. Not so in the summer of 1936.

Chronology: July – August 1936:

July:

16  The McMahon Incident

17-18    Army rebellion led by Franco began the Spanish Civil War

August:

1    The Berlin Olympics opened by Adolf  Hitler

10  The Nahlin Cruise began

 24     Germany introduced conscription

Narrative, July-August:

The Blast that Never Came

The official six months of court mourning was coming to an end in July, and the King and Mrs Simpson began to be seen together at society parties. On 16th July, she attended the Presentation of the Colours to three regiments of the Brigade of Guards. Two viewing stands had been erected, one for the Royal family and another for the King’s friends. One of those whom Edward invited was Chips Channon, one of his most loyal supporters. On arrival, he sat with what he called ‘the new Court’, typified by Emerald Cunard, the pro-Nazi American hostess, who was sitting beside Wallis Simpson. In the next stand he could see the Royal party, including Elizabeth, Duchess of York, sitting with formidable poise, the epitome of Royal decorum. The Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were, as usual, dresses identically in hats, short coats and skirts, with sensible shoes. The Yorks were the ideal, modern, nuclear family, as Marguerite Patten remembered: ‘They were a picture book family, with the two enchanting little girls, they were the lovely sort of family that everyone would like’.  The two girls were taking a keen interest in events, under the watchful eye of their nanny, Marion Crawford, unaware of the tension among the adults around them. The Duchess had recently written a pointed letter to the court doctor, Lord Dawson, thanking him and bemoaning the change in atmosphere at court: ‘Though outwardly one’s life goes on the same, yet everything is different – especially spiritually, and mentally. I don’t know if it’s the result of being ill but I mind things that I don’t like more than before.’

As the battalions of Guards marched into the park, Channon’s eyes turned to the ceremonial, a more unifying spectacle for all. ‘It was London at its very best, London well-dressed, London in high summer, the grey sky, the green of the trees, and then the sun coming out at the right royal moment, the bayonets glistening, and the horses…the Waterloo-ness of it all.’ The royal brothers, the King and the Duke of York took the salute on horseback before dismounting to present the new Colours and make short speeches. The Duke’s speech was, as usual, an agony for all concerned. Silently, everyone prayed that he would get through it without too much stammering. Edward’s speech, written by Winston Churchill, acknowledged the horror of war. ‘Humanity cries out for peace’, he declared.

As King Edward was returning along Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace on July 16, at the head of six battalions  of the Guards to whom he had presented new colours in Hyde Park, George McMahon, a deranged Irish journalist, broke through the police cordon and pointed a loaded revolver at the King, throwing it on the road as a special constable grabbed his arm. It fell under the King’s horse as he passed.  Edward remained outwardly calm and rode straight on with only a glance at the scene, though he later admitted to feeling a slit-second of terror when he had seen the pointed pistol; ‘for one moment I braced myself for the blast that never came’. He turned to the General on his right and said, ‘I don’t know what that thing was; but if it had gone off, it would have made a nasty mess of us’.  McMahon was set upon by the crowd and had to be rescued by police, who seized him and manhandled him above their shoulders to the park railings on the other side of the road, where he continued to struggle with them.  A police officer dismounted and picked up the revolver. The incident only served to further enhance the King’s popularity, as even his sternest critics at court had to admit that he had shown strength of character, such that they could no longer suggest that he might be a coward.

McMahon appeared in court before Justice Greaves-Lord at the Old Bailey in September and the jury, after retiring for ten minutes, returned a verdict that McMahon was guilty of a charge of  producing a revolver with intent to alarm the King. He was sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour.

Whatever good the incident had done for Edward’s standing at court was, however, undone five days later, when six hundred débutantes were due to be presented to him at two garden receptions at the Palace. The large number involved was due to the backlog created by the period of mourning for King George. This was, again, a departure from the splendid evening court balls during which these presentations normally took place. As the endless line of young women went through the seemingly endless ritual of carefully practised curtseys in front of the royal dias, Edward appeared increasingly fidgety with boredom. Half-way through the proceedings it began to rain and Edward called a halt to the ceremony, returning hastily to the shelter of the palace, leaving his guests to run for cover under the trees. The contingency plan of continuing the ceremony in the State Ball Room was also abandoned. Though it was a court tradition which Edward could clearly do without, the way in which it was cancelled, as with so many of his changes, made him more enemies just at a time when he needed as many friends as he could muster among the Established classes. Channon wrote in his diary towards the end of July:

The Simpson scandal is growing and she, poor Wallis, looks unhappy. The world is closing in around her, the flatterers, the sycophants, and the malicious. It is a curious social juxtaposition that casts me in the role of Defender of the King. But I do, and very strongly in society.

With the Berlin Olympics approaching in early August, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s diplomatic envoy, had come to London with  invitations to the Games, which he distributed among the aristocrats, newspaper magnates and that he considered would be helpful to the Nazi cause. Channon took him to a night-club and at the end of the evening, Channon was given the Führer’s personal invitation, which he accepted ‘gleefully’. Not all among the upper-class circles in which Channon moved took up these invitations, however, Harold Nicholson and Lady Colefax making their disapproval of his acceptance very clear.   

Civil War in Spain

On 17th July, a revolt by a group of army officers against the Popular Front government, which had come to power in elections six months earlier, was the starting point for a brutal Civil War that was to last three years and cost thousands of lives. Middle-class intellectuals had formed the Republican government of Spain after the flight of King Alfonso in 1931. They had believed they could change things in Spain without a revolution, but had faced serious opposition from the Church, army and landowners. Forty thousand priests and other clergy dominated Spanish life, all paid for by the state. They controlled education, though 45% of people remained illiterate. Church interests were bound up with those of the big landowners, the 1% of the population who owned 51% of the land. Church property was valued at the equivalent of a hundred million ponds. A quarter of the national budget was spent on the army, controlled by an officer class of over seven hundred generals and 21,000 lesser officers, making one officer to every six men. To curb these powers, the new government had passed many laws but did little to enforce them, and when it had been forced out of office in 1933, a coalition of right-wing parties had come to power. A wave of strikes, riots and workers’ revolts broke out and the severity with which these were suppressed is revealed in the figure of thirty thousand republican prisoners by the end of 1935.

The Republican parties had joined together to fight the General Election in February 1936, beating the Nationalist parties by a clear margin, but six months later the rightists provoked the army revolt in Madrid, and when garrisons all over the country followed the following day, as planned, the Republican president announced the mobilisation of all men under thirty. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga and Bilbao, the revolts were crushed, so that the planned coup d’etat  expected to be over in a day, looked to have failed. However, the Governor of the Canary Islands, General Franco, flew overnight to take the leadership of rebel Spanish Moroccan troops, rapidly moving the mainly Muslim brigades, with Italian help, across the Straits of Gibraltar to fight for the Nationalist cause in southern Spain.

The British Royal Naval officers were sympathetic to the Spanish Naval officers, many of whom were aristocratic and reactionary by background, just as in the army. So Franco’s invasion from  Morocco by the rebel troops with German air force support went unimpeded by the British Mediterranean fleet. In Britain itself, public opinion was divided, as news of atrocities on both sides were reported in the press. The Nationalists, clearly following the example and advice of the Italian Fascists, bombed civilians and murdered hostages. Madrid was first bombed on August 6th, and within a few weeks planes were regularly dropping bombs on a daily basis to wreck buildings. The loyalists, for their part, burnt down churches and shot priests. For most British people, it was seen as a war between communism and fascism, between Franco in the ‘Right’ corner, and President Azana in the Left. Left to it, the extremists on both sides might just wipe each other out. The more politically committed were divided between the right-wing Tories who supported Franco, while the broad spectrum of liberal and left-wing opinion backed the loyalists. For many young writers, artists and idealists, especially those who had joined the Communist Party, the Civil War was the titanic struggle of ideologies. Idealists of the Right and Left in Britain both hailed it as a the great Crusade of their time.

In reality it was a war about the future fate of Spain, fought out by Spaniards to a very bitter end. In spite of the clear legitimacy of the Spanish Government, the British Government fell into the pious posturing of ‘non-intervention’ as it had done earlier in the year over Abyssinia and the Rhineland. Most of the British popular press was on the Republican side, but the ‘ultra-conservative’ organs labelled them as ‘Reds’ or ‘Communists’, though they ranged from anarchists to social democrats.

At first, the failure of the army revolts in most of the mainland garrisons meant that the troops on both sides were evenly matched.  However, Hitler’s intervention in ordering the airlift of the Moorish troops of Franco’s African columns, enabled the rebels to advance north towards the capital by mid-August. The Republican Government began to call for outside help itself, and this call was met immediately by young British intellectuals and artists spurred on partly by their own Government’s strict neutrality.

The Nahlin Cruise

Climbing into his private air plane, piloted by Flight Lieut. ‘Mouse’ Fielden, not long appointed  Captain of the King’s Flight, Edward VIII left Heathrow aerodrome, Middlesex, at the beginning of August, to begin a four-week holiday. In fifty minutes the plane was across the Channel and the King then boarded a train bound for the Dalmatian coast where millionaire Lady Yule’s luxury yacht the Nahlin was waiting, with its crew of forty-eight who had boarded it in Portsmouth. King Edward had chartered the yacht to take him and fifteen guests, including Wallis Simpson, on an Adriatic cruise.

The yacht was specially fitted out for the King, with the library converted into a state-room, so that he and Wallis would have a place in which to  attend to official business and relax in private. A dance floor had been laid in the lounge, where a powerful wireless doubled as a communications hub for the King’s daily despatches and, in the evening, a means of tuning into the BBC’s dance orchestra broadcasts. On the 10th, Edward boarded the Nahlin at the small Yugoslav village of Sibenek. The yacht was escorted by two Royal Navy destroyers from the Mediterranean fleet.

Apart from the obvious security matters, the ships were responsible for collecting and delivering the red dispatch boxes containing the business to which he was meant to attend in his private state-room. They needn’t have bothered, since the King had little interest in interrupting his merry-making with friends to spend time on the affairs of state. He had more contact with the ships during his exercise hours, which he spent in rowing skiffs around them, joking with the sailors that he was ‘reviewing the fleet!’

The presence of the two ships meant that there was little prospect of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ remaining anonymous. Whenever the royal party disembarked, crowds gathered. At Dubrovnik the mayor issued a proclamation forbidding the townsfolk to stare. It only encouraged them more, but Edward was used to crowds. However, among them were numerous American journalists and photographers, providing lurid stories of his relationship with Wallis for the US press, while the British press was keeping to its self-denying agreement, or just about. Cavalcade, in its August editions, carried numerous photographs of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ with his friend, ‘Mrs Ernest Simpson’. On the cover of the magazine she could be seen placing a steadying hand on the King’s forearm, as he climbed out of a motor-boat. The caption read, ‘The motor-boat arrived at Paradise Island’. As the yacht moored in Corfu, the British Ambassador to Greece wondered, in his dispatch to London, ‘whether this union, however queer and generally unsuitable to he state, may not in the long run turn out to be more in harmony with the spirit of the new age than anything that wisdom could have contrived’.

The luxurious Nahlin, which would be worth eleven million pounds in today’s money, docked in Istanbul at the end of the cruise. The King and Mrs Simpson travelled back overland together, staying at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna, which had a large steam-room. Here, the King stripped down and walked around naked, with his fully clothed chauffeur and six detectives in attendance. In doing so, he was only following local customs, but even this action was the subject of further criticism back at court.

The royal love story, amazingly, had so far remained largely unnoticed by the general British public. Though, as during the next few months, pictures of the cruise were published in the American press, causing public comment, they were not published in the popular press in Britain.  However, on his return from holiday, Edward saw to it that Wallis Simpson’s name was twice printed on the Court Circular, once at a dinner party attended by the Baldwins, and the other on the her arrival with other guests at Balmoral, during the royal family’s annual retreat.

The Berlin Olympics

On Saturday 1st August, at exactly four o’ clock in the afternoon, Adolf Hitler entered the Berlin Olympic Stadium through the Marathon Gate. The crowd of 125,000 rose as one, gave the fascist salute and drowned out the Olympic fanfare with their cries of ‘Heil Hitler’. The Olympic orchestra, conducted by Richard Strauss, was accompanied by a ten thousand-strong chorus, in the performance of Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, followed by the Nazi party anthem.  The crowd then fell silent for the rendition of the Olympic hymn and the great bell, dominating the tower at the main entrance, started to toll. The flags of fifty-one competing nations were raised and the giant airship, the Hindenburg, the largest Zeppelin ever built, hovered round in circles above the stadium.

Joachim von Ribbentrop’s British guests, including three Lords – Monsell, Rothermere, Beaverbrook – were among the Nazi leadership’s  ‘personal friends’ nearly all of whom had accepted their invitations. Ribbentrop had by now become Germany’s Ambassador to Britain, a sign of the importance Hitler placed on securing an alliance with the Government in London which would enable him to expand eastwards in Europe.

The opening ceremony continued with the parade of athletes. Each team was ordered to salute the German Chancellor according to the custom in its own country. The French followed the Greeks in giving the Olympic salute, raising the right arm to its full length at ninety degrees. The crowd, and Hitler, responded to this with the Nazi salute. The British, however, chose to make a modest ‘eyes-right’ when they passed the platform, and were greeted by only lukewarm applause. This was not an auspicious start for Ribbentrop’s prospective Anglo-German alliance. However, official relations were still cool following the Rhineland episode of the spring, and Hitler had chosen to ignore the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden’s list of questions designed to elicit a series of assurances about future intentions.

Ribbentrop had hoped to use the Games as a means of organising a summit between Baldwin and Hitler, and Baldwin’s close Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary became the conduit for these overtures. Jones had met the Führer at his Munich flat im May, but Baldwin, by this time very tired and depressed, was not convinced that a summit would serve any useful purpose and, though there were vague suggestions that the two leaders might meet during the summer in the Alps, it would be another two years, and another Prime Minister later, before the summit in the Eagle’s nest. Besides, Anthony Eden was becoming increasingly resentful of unofficial diplomacy and the development of the Appeasement policy had recently cost Baldwin one foreign secretary; he did not want to lose a second one within six months. In any case, Baldwin’s annual holiday in the French Alps was cancelled due to the Civil War in Spain.  On the day the Olympic Games began, Baldwin was ordered to take complete rest for three months by his doctors, and did not re-emerge onto the political stage until October.

Although Hitler had, disingenuously, compared himself to Baldwin as a reluctant leader of his country, he was not shy about his role in opening the Games as their self-professed ‘Patron’. Somewhat incongruously, three thousand doves were released and flew off after completing a circuit of the stadium. The Olympic torch had been carried the 3,075 kilometres from Olympia by the same number of bearers, where it had been lit by the rays of the sun in a specially designed helio-furnace. The torch-bearing and the lighting of the flame were new features of the ceremonial in 1936, another masterpiece of presentation by the Nazi propagandists who were determined to weld the ideas of ancient Greece to their own vision of a master-race, symbolised by the lone figure of the blonde athlete in white shorts and singlet who stood on high, ready to light the cauldron at the opposite end of the stadium, by descending to the track and then bounding up the steps to the brazier. A German weightlifter had been chosen to swear the athlete’s oath, for which he was meant to hold the Olympic flag, but he grasped the swastika instead, as all the athletes raised their right arms in affirmation.

The Games were a triumph for Nazi Germany from beginning to end. Like the recent London Olympics, it was an unrivalled spectacle, and the home nation dominated in almost every sport, except in track and field, where the USA kept its long-standing supremacy. The legend of James Cleveland, or ‘Jesse’ Owens is, of course, well-known. That he won four gold medals and broke two world records is indisputable, but Hitler did not refuse to present his medals. He was never expected to do so, because he was specifically asked by the International Olympic Committee not to greet individual winners in order to avoid causing offence when he was absent from the Games. Certainly, this request enabled him to diplomatically avoid shaking the hands of Negro and Jewish athletes in front of the cameras. Also, there is little basis for the claim that the Führer rolled on the floor in fury at the Negro runner’s success over his Nordic competitors. Certainly, there was frustration, which Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary for 5th August, the day that Owens won his second medal in the two hundred metres sprint:

We Germans win a gold medal, the Americans get three, two of which are won by niggers. This is a scandal. White humanity should be ashamed of itself.

However, the ordinary white Germans in the stadium cheered Owens’ victories in much the same way as the victories of Usain Bolt were cheered in London recently. They chanted ‘O-vens, O-vens’ just as if they were cheering German athletes. If the latter had failed to win any medals, it might have been a different story, but sporting spectators were far more interested in the Olympic ideal of the elite individual athlete in competition rather than their country’s position in the medal table. To those with any sporting knowledge, the victories of Owens and other American athletes can hardly have come as a shock. Whatever they wrote or however they behaved in private, the Nazi leadership was careful not to show its distaste for any athletic achievement in public. The Spectator’s correspondent reported that the host nation had ‘fallen completely under the spell of the American Negro, who is already the hero of these Games’.  It was his fellow athletes, not the Nazi leaders, who were made to look ‘ridiculous, not only by the speed but by the sheer beauty of his running.’ Nevertheless, the USA’s continued dominance on the athletics track was the only factor that detracted from Germany’s total possession of the 1936 Olympics. The final German gold-medal tally was forty-six, which made them top of the medal table.

The threat of boycotts by the British and American teams following the Rhineland reoccupation had forced the Nazis to tone down their racist propaganda during the Games. Jewish competitors were included in the German team, one of whom, a fencer, gave the Hitler salute in receiving her silver medal on the podium. Official prohibition signs were taken down and anti-Jewish propaganda was removed from view.  Acts of discrimination and brutality still continued, out of sight of the guests, but the Nazis cleaned up their public face so much that the year has become known as ‘the Olympic pause’ in the history of the Third Reich. As a result, distinguished British visitors like Chips Channon were gulled into admiration for the way the Germans organised both the Games and their society with such efficient attention to detail. However, not all were ‘taken in’. Lord Vansittart, a more prominent figure in British policy-making circles, remained as sceptical at the end of the two weeks as he was at the beginning.

Channon found the Games themselves dull. Athletics in Britain had not moved on since the Paris Olympics in 1924, the subject of Hugh Hudson’s 1981 Film, Chariots of Fire. It was still dominated by the strict amateur code of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and was starved of funds. It failed to attract broad public support, resulting in poor performances in Berlin. The focus for many of the British visitors was not sports but socializing and diplomacy. For his part, Ribbentrop’s lavish hospitality was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the British Establishment and its control over foreign policy in 1936. Quite simply, the Nazi leadership exaggerated the power of the King and the Lords over the Cabinet and the Commons. Although he was a member of Edward VIII’s inner social circle, Channon was not even a junior minister in the Government. However, he was only one of a number of fascist-sympathisers from Britain, including the Anglo-German Fellowship, a group of aristocrats, businessmen, , politicians and ex-servicemen who had come together to try to change British policy. Hitler himself entertained them in the Chancellery and had also invited the Mitford sisters, Diana and Unity, torch-bearers of British Fascism. Diana, mistress of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was on a secret mission to Germany to raise funds from the Nazis. The sisters were staying with Goebbels in his large villa overlooking the Wannsee lake.  They were not simply aristocratic women infatuated with powerful men in uniforms. They genuinely believed that National Socialism, if applied to Britain, could bring an end to mass unemployment and poverty. Diana later claimed that Hitler’s ideas, ‘if they had prevailed at the time, would have saved a great deal of suffering.’ Nevertheless, she was unsuccessful in acquiring further funds from Hitler for the BUF (she had already been given ten thousand pounds by him), but he did agree to help her with her planned marriage in Berlin to Mosley on 6th  October.

Elsewhere and everywhere in the packed city of Berlin, houses and streets were bedecked with double banners, the Olympic flag and the red Nazi flag with the black swastika on a white circle. For the British athletes, many of whom were enjoying their first trip to the continent, it was an exciting time, but the Games were not the focus of attention at home that they have been in more recent decades. Dorothy Tyler found that ‘people were more interested in the fact that we were visiting Germany and seeing Hitler than they were in our taking part in the Games’. She was one of the few British success stories, winning silver in the high-jump. The most famous British victory came in the 4×400 metre relay, in which the British men beat the American and German teams to claim gold. Harold Abrahams, the hundred metre champion from Paris, described Godfrey Rampling’s leg, in which he received the baton with  the US ahead and finished five yards ahead, as ‘the most glorious heaven-sent quarter-mile I have ever seen’. However, unlike the Jewish Olympian, most of the British visitors to Berlin showed only a fleeting interest in their team’s success. They showed more interest in the power, glamour and modernity of the capital city of the new German Reich, seduced by von Ribbentrop, like Lord Londonderry had been earlier in the year (see photo above).

The Olympic propaganda was made even more effective by the  documentary film-maker Lani Riefenstahl, who had already made Triumph of the Will, acclaimed internationally as a work of genius. Her two-part epic, Olympia, was a massive hit in Germany, and, though it was not shown in Britain until after the war, those who did see it realised that Germany was well in the lead in making propaganda films, as in so much else. At the end of the Games, Germany finished with eighty-nine medals, thirty-three of them gold. Britain was tenth with fourteen medals, only four of them gold. There was a debate about the reasons for failure even before the Games had finished. Some argued that Britain’s weak performance reflected a national decline in fitness, something which had been troubling the authorities since the Boer War.

However, the main reason was the lack of funding and resources. The XIth Olympiad came to an end on 16th August, with the closing ceremonies. There was no march past of the athletes, only a parade of representative flag-bearers. They marched the length of the arena, halting beneath the Olympic flame. The President of the IOC stepped forward to call on the youth of the world to assemble in four year’s time in Tokyo. The flag was lowered and the Olympic flame was slowly extinguished and Hitler rose for yet another chorus of Deutschland, Deutschland.. The great Games, as Channon wrote, ‘the great German display of power, and bid for recognition, were over.’ Whilst David Lloyd George called Hitler ‘the greatest German of the age’, very few in Britain admired Fascism at home or abroad. Lord Decius, on his return from the Games, wrote to the Times, full of foreboding:

 I left Berlin with the impression that a new race of energetic, virile young people had sprung up in Germany. They appeared to be ready to go anywhere under the orders of the Führer – a nation fully armed, equipped with the best of war material, and an air force second to none.

Sierra de Los Angeles

Towards the end of August, an amateur ‘International Brigades’ were being formed in Spain, comprising the assortment of radical intellectuals and international communists who had made their way to the conflict to support the Republican cause. It is estimated that 2,762 British volunteers fought in Spain, of whom 543 died there. Most of these soldiers were workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales and elsewhere, and their convictions had been built over generations of deprivation and resistance. Some were young graduates, like David Marshall, They were becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of action, passing their days in Barcelona, feeling ashamed to be idle. At the end of August, they were sent to Albacete, 150 miles south-east of Madrid, where they were given some rudimentary training as part of the newly forming International Brigades, before taking part in the defence of Madrid. David’s first taste of battle was also his last, and it was ‘a bit of a shambles’. Although he had never used a rifle before, he was ordered to advance on a Fascist-held building at the top of a hill, the Sierra de Los Angeles, with a strategic view over to Madrid in the distance. Firing at the windows, his group felt exposed, so they sheltered in a narrow furrow as the enemy returned fire. He was hit in the leg: ‘My foot leapt up and hit me in the backside.’

Without any proper training, his short experience of actual combat was a disaster, and it demoralised him. What had started as a glorious adventure had ended in violence and shock. After his wound had healed, he asked for permission to return home, which was granted. He was fortunate. Although a casualty , he survived, whereas most of those fighting with him went on to die in the bloody battles of the autumn and winter. He went back to Middlesbrough as a young man who had learnt some hard lessons about ‘the actualities of war’ in a very short time.

Franco had had a promise of support from Mussolini before the war began and ideological allies had supplied him with arms from the beginning, in spite of the League’s Non-Intervention Committee. But when Italian troops were moved in on Franco’s side, the Left redoubled its efforts to rally support for the Republicans. Writers and painters all over Europe set to work as propagandists. Michael Foot wrote that ‘Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.’ The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt ‘it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ reverberated throughout the Left as the very real prospect of a fascist Europe loomed large. Most on the liberal-conservative Right continued to favour Non-Intervention, hating Communism at least as much as they hated Fascism, if not more so. Then there were those, increasing in number, who had considerable sympathy and admiration for Hitler’s modern Germany, even if not so keen on Franco’s reactionary Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.

 

 

Sources:

Denys Blakeway, The Last Dance: 1936, The Year Our Lives Changed.  London: John Murray, 2010

Norman Rose, Harold Nicholson. London: Pimlico, 2005

René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1976

Andrew  J Chandler, The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, 1920-40. Cardiff: unpublished thesis in University of Wales College Library.

These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. London: publisher unknown, 1939 (?).

John Gorman, To Build Jerusalem: A photographic remembrance of British working class life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications, 1980.

 

3 responses to “The Land of Might-Have-Been: Britain, 1936-37. Chapter One, part one: The Road to the Berlin Olympiad.

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  1. Interesting details of events and personalities. This article could do with some rigorous editing. Grammatical and spelling mistakes abound in an otherwise excellent account.

    • Thanks, Julia, for your feedback. I have now, I hope to your satisfaction, corrected the mistakes, some of which were typos (made by rushing). I’m glad you liked it. I’ll re-check the other two chapters soon, before commencing another chapter on 1938.

  2. We’re a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with valuable info to work on. You’ve performed an impressive task and our whole neighborhood will probably be grateful to you.

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