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The National government: 1931-1936

When MacDonald and Baldwin (and John Simon for the Liberals) present themselves to the electorate as a national coalition in October 1931, they receive an overwhelming response and win a majority of more than 500 seats - but the result is in effect a Conservative government with a Labour prime minister.

The opposition is a tiny band of 52 MPs representing the Labour party. The national coalition has 473 Conservatives led by Baldwin, 68 Liberals and just 13 ex-Labour MPS, loyal to MacDonald and calling themselves National Labour. Baldwin is therefore the most powerful figure at Westminster, but he works amicably as second string to MacDonald in the continuing national crisis.

In September 1932 unemployment reaches nearly three million, or more than 25% of the workforce. Moreover these troubles are taking place in a Europe increasingly characterized by extremist politics in Italy and Germany.

In October 1932 Oswald Mosley holds his first rally in Trafalgar Square, to drum up support for his newly formed British Union of Fascists. His black-shirted thugs (in imitation of Mussolini's henchmen) become an ugly but relatively minor aspect of Britain in the 1930s, marching through deprived areas, always eager to pick a fight with Communists or Jews.

On the wider international stage, in the second half of the decade, the great issue in Europe is also connected with fascism - in particular the question of how to respond to the expansionist policies of Adolf Hitler.

On this matter the National government eventually becomes associated with the policy of appeasement. But meanwhile there has been, in 1936, a dramatic internal crisis. Again, as in the general strike of 1926, it is Baldwin who has to deal with it. In 1935 MacDonald cedes to him the role of prime minister. Baldwin wins a general election on the same National government basis, though now his support is almost exclusively Conservative. Then, out of the blue in 1936, he is confronted with the very local problem of a royal love affair.

The abdication crisis: 1936

The king, George V, dies in January 1936 to be suceeded by his eldest son, as Edward VIII. Handsome and charming, with a playboy image, Edward is popular with the public - though for those in the know there have been signs of impending trouble in his passionate involvement with Wallis Simpson, an American woman already in her second marriage.

Gossip spreads when the king and Mrs Simpson go for a cruise together in the Adriatic in the summer of 1936. In October Wallis is divorced from her husband and the king tells the prime minister, Baldwin, that he intends to marry her. He accepts that it must be a morganatic marriage (one in which the offspring have no rights of succession).

The issue breaks in the newspapers early in December, after the bishop of Bradford has declared in a sermon that the king should be more aware of his Christian duty. Baldwin, almost certainly in tune with the majority of public opinion, feels that a marriage of any kind between the king and a divorced woman is out of the question. Yet Edward insists that he must marry.

Abdication is the only solution. On December 10 Edward becomes the only British monarch voluntarily to give up the throne, declaring the next day in a historic radio broadcast that he cannot carry his heavy burden of responsibility 'without the help and support of the woman I love'. That same night he embarks at Portsmouth for France.

Edward is succeeded by his brother, as George VI. He and Wallis Simpson marry in France in June 1937. The couple henceforth live a marginal and somewhat embittered existence, in France and the West Indies, as the duke and duchess of Windsor.

By the summer of 1937 Britain has a new prime minister as well as a new king. Neville Chamberlain, previously chancellor of the exchequer, succeeds Baldwin in May as leader of the National government. His troubled three years in office are dominated by one overriding issue - the aggressive aims of the German chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

Expansion and appeasement: 1935-1939

The policy which becomes known as appeasement (the belief that compromise with Europe's fascist dictators will provide the best chance for peace) is associated particularly with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. But it already characterizes the foreign policy up to 1937 of his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin. And it is, to a lesser extent, the policy also of the government in France.

As the two major European powers in the League of Nations, Britain and France inevitably have to play the leading role in trying to keep Hitler and Mussolini in check.

A conciliatory attitude, partly made necessary by the lack of readiness in each nation for another war, is evident as early as 1935. In this year Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, foreign ministers of the two countries, concoct a peace plan which would allow Italy to annexe large slices of Ethiopia (an independent state, recently invaded by Italian armies).

The plan is rejected, but its very existence encourages Mussolini to complete his conquest of Ethiopia. And this de facto state of affairs is soon accepted by an increasingly enfeebled League of Nations.

Earlier in the same year there has been another affront to the League's authority. In March 1935 Hitler informs Britain and France that he is creating an air force, is launching a major programme of military and naval rearmament, and is introducing conscription.

These plans directly contravene the terms of the treaty of Versailles. But in June, to the outrage this time of France, Hoare establishes an Anglo-German Naval Agreement, tacitly accepting the naval aspect of Hitler's plans in return for a pact that German strength at sea will not exceed 35% of the combined fleets of Britain and the Commonwealth.

In March 1936 Hitler makes his first military move in defiance of existing treaties. He marches his troops into the Rhineland, a region permanently demilitarized under the terms agreed at Versailles. At the same time he declares (in what is to become a recurring pattern) that this is his last territorial claim.

The Spanish Civil War, beginning in July 1936, absorbs much of Europe's attention over the next two years (and provides Hitler's new forces with their first unofficial outing). But from 1938 the German dictator's provocative moves come at an ever increasing pace, each of them taking to the brink the good faith of the appeasers.

On March 12 he marches into Austria to reunite the ancient German Reich, an event known as the Anschluss (literally 'joining on'). On the previous day he assures the world that he has no designs on Czechoslovakia.

The very next month, in April, he develops a secret plan to annexe the western part of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. He is considerably helped in this ambition by the principles of Versailles, for the region has a predominantly German population. Many of these Germans are already Nazi sympathisers. It is easy to argue, against Czech interests, that the principle of self-determination gives these people the right to merge with Germany. During the summer of 1938 Hitler threatens the Czech government at the diplomatic level, while massing troops on the border.

Chamberlain flies from London to confer with Hitler, on September 15 and 22, but by September 27 it seems certain that Hitler's forces will cross the Czech border. France has a defensive treaty with Czechoslavakia. Britain would have to support France. The result would be war.

On September 27 Chamberlain broadcasts to the British people, expressing his appalled dismay at being dragged into the affairs of such a 'Faraway country'. The next day he sends a telegram to Hitler, offering to fly again to Germany to discuss the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland. Hitler postpones the invasion, planned for September 28, and invites Chamberlain, Daladier (the French premier since April) and Mussolini to an immediate meeting in Munich.

Munich and after: 1938-1939

The discussion in Munich between Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini lasts a little over twelve hours, beginning in the middle of the day on September 29 and ending with the signing of an agreed document at 1.30 a.m. on September 30. Though the dismantling of their country is under discussion, Hitler refuses to allow any Czech representative to take part. Two Czech diplomats sit in a nearby hotel, effectively waiting to be told what has been decided.

The conclusion is all that Hitler would wish. The Sudeten areas are to be ceded to Germany during the next ten days. Thereafter plebiscites, organized by the four Munich powers and Czechoslovakia, will reveal exactly where the new border should run.

Before boarding his plane, later on September 30, Chamberlain has another meeting with Hitler in which he asks him to sign a joint declaration. This is the document which Chamberlain waves in the air for the cameras on his return to Britain, stating that he has brought back from Germany 'peace for our time... peace with honour'.

The text above Hitler's signature, on which Chamberlain bases his optimism, declares a determination to remove possible sources of difference between countries 'and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe'. Chamberlain's hope is that the sacrifice of the Sudetenland has preserved not only peace but the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The occupation of Sudetenland brings some 3.5 million people within Nazi Germany, 75% of them German and 25% Czech. But in the event these Czechs are no more unfortunate than their compatriots elsewhere. Three weeks after signing Chamberlain's document, Hitler orders the German army to prepare for a move into the rest of Czechoslovakia. The invasion comes in March 1939. Hitler, in Prague, declares that Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia are now under the protection of the German Reich.

But such a brutal betrayal of the Munich agreement transforms the appeasers. When it becomes evident that Poland is the next likely victim, Britain and France are suddenly resolute.

Danzig and the Polish corridor: 1938-1939

It is evident from the first weeks after the Munich agreement that Hitler will make unacceptable territorial demands of Poland. The main theme of British and French foreign policy now becomes the forging of diplomatic and military alliances to prepare for any resulting conflict. The four anticipated allies, in resisting German aggression, are Britain, France, the USSR and Poland.

Hitler's demands upon Poland are two. He wants the transfer to his Reich of the free port of Danzig (admittedly an almost entirely German city, and now with a Nazi council). And he wants a German corridor through Poland to the isolated German province of East Prussia.

Both claims are pressed by Hitler with new vigour in October 1938, within days of his winning the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Polish government firmly rejects the German demands. Unlike unfortunate Czechoslovakia, this stance wins a positive response from the western powers.

In March 1939 Neville Chamberlain, speaking with the approval of both France and the USSR, gaurantees help to Poland if her independence is threatened. In April Hitler abrogates his own ten-year nonaggression treaty with Poland, signed in 1934, and secretly orders his army to prepare for a Polish invasion. In May France commits herself to military action against Germany if a conflict begins. But then, in August, Hitler produces a diplomatic bombshell.

Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact: 1939

In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defence of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent.

The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler's oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.

Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option - inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory.

It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.

The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany's approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia.

With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step - launched, for propaganda purposes, with a grisly little charade.

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