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Authors: Richard Holmes

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Ossetian lecturer in Aeronautical Engineering at the Zhukovsky Academy of the Soviet Air Force

From about 1929 to 1933 the Soviet Union carried out two tragic campaigns. One was the liquidation of, the collapse of, our small-holder peasants; parallel to this and on the basis of this liquidation a forced collectivisation was carried out. I was a witness and a contemporary of both campaigns and I say that they created a tragic situation, famine, and the economy paralysed. And as the armed forces were fed from agriculture, and soldiers used to come from mainly peasantry, the moral and psychological effect of these tragedies demoralised in a degree the armed forces. Secondly in 1933–1934 there were Party purges aimed at one thing, to eliminate those who had some kind of critical, independent mind, who questioned the wisdom of the collectivisation and liquidation of the peasants. In 1939 the country was weakened; the economy grew but the growth was despite, not because of, the tragedies. It is also exceptionally important to remember that all the places freed by those purged were taken up by second- and third-raters, by yes-men, by inexperienced men.


American economist

You know, when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 he said there's nothing to fear except fear itself and his brave words did help a lot. But you can't just lift an economy out of a depression by its bootstraps just by singing slogans. You've got to spend money, and it wasn't until 1938, five years after the bottom of the
Great Depression, that we really had the determination and the knowledge to have large deficit spending.


British Foreign Secretary 1935–38

I think that fundamentally the differences between Chamberlain and myself lay in our respective assessments of the amount of confidence we could place in the men we were dealing with. Chamberlain put that very well himself at one of our meetings when he said that I hadn't the same confidence as he had in Mussolini's entering the conversation with a serious intention of carrying out any agreement. Chamberlain himself was more and more sure that his view was correct. I couldn't share that confidence because I had had some negotiations with Mussolini already: I made an agreement with him after the Abyssinian War was over, about the Mediterranean; that was in 1936. We agreed to respect each other's rights, to take no steps which might injure each other's interests or spoil our relations. Mussolini called it a 'gentleman's agreement'. A few weeks later he broke it: he interfered with the Spanish Civil War, which he knew perfectly well must affect our relations, and the agreement didn't count.


Assistant Private Secretary to the Prime Minister 1939–41

Neville Chamberlain was deeply devoted to the idea of peace, to him war was the ultimate horror, he'd seen his contemporaries the in Flanders in 1914–1918 and he felt that his life's work was to prevent a repetition of the appalling massacres of the First World War. He gave everything he had to that end, perhaps more than was justified in the circumstances.


The one success we were able to register between the two wars was at
Nyon, a conference [held in] September 1937 in a small town in Switzerland, which the French and we mounted because merchant ships of all countries were being torpedoed in the Mediterranean by submarines of unknown nationality. We knew they weren't Spanish submarines because we knew how many they had, and there was only one possible source: they were Italians, Mussolini's submarines. We decided this must be stopped so we called a conference, which we invited him to join, and we decided to patrol the Mediterranean with our joint destroyers, we and the French had produced over sixty destroyers to do it. We were going to give him a bit of sea. Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey all played their part in the Adriatic and Russia also from the Black Sea area, so it was complete. We offered Mussolini a share, which didn't matter very much but was very large on the map, and invited him in. He wouldn't come to the conference. From that moment we patrolled the Mediterranean and the submarine sinkings stopped.


In 1937, in June, Marshal
Mikhail Tukhachevsky's plot was uncovered. He was really the true backbone of the Soviet Armed Forces's reorganisation and reconstruction and he was shot as a German spy.
Every single assistant subordinate of Tukhachevsky was eliminated. Every single commander of a military district, every commander of an army division, every commander of a regiment, with some exceptions here, was eliminated. The Army was beheaded. The Army not yet equipped properly, the reorganisation was incomplete, the reconstruction technology was incomplete. We found ourselves in a state of complete weakness, a very dangerous weakness although the propaganda drums continued beating that we are united, we are good Russians, et cetera.


British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1938–40

There was no doubt that our defences were not as strong as they became a year later but, if I think, if you want to get the record straight the real reason for not standing up in 1938 was the absolute saturation of the country in
peace propaganda. There'd been all this League of Nations business and Baldwin had never stood up as he should have done or rearmed in time. Baldwin told me Hitler would never do anything until 1942 and the defence hadn't been re-started and the public was pacifist-minded and the Commonwealth was divided, which it wasn't in 1939, and American opinion was not with us at the time of Munich.


RAF Coastal Command

The real fault was that the nation as a whole had not faced up to the inevitability of war and prepared for it.


US diplomat and President Roosevelt's Special Envoy to Europe

After World War One there was a lot of
isolationism, a feeling we had no reason to become involved in world war and had made a mistake. There were lots of debts owed by European countries and we had an embargo against the sale of arms abroad called the Neutrality Act. Some people claimed we got involved in the war because we'd been selling arms and there was also the talk of the businessmen, the munitions manufacturers, who brought us into war. In addition to which there was no attack on the United States, remember, and much of that period, the Phoney War, didn't become a crisis until the attack in the Low Countries in the spring of 1940.


US diplomat in Moscow

I think that the history of isolationism is very simple. When the colonies were first united into the United States of America they were very weak militarily, economically and politically throughout the country. It was a time when the Napoleonic wars were going on and George Washington in his farewell address admonished the people of this country not to get drawn into quarrels that were not their own, not to form political alliances with countries in Europe but to try and deal with trade and matters of that land equally with other countries. I think that, in the circumstances, made a good deal of sense. In addition, the United States government started with a strip of colonies along the east coast and then they found they had an entire continent to play with and they saw no particular reason for getting involved in quarrels in which they didn't feel their interests were directly involved. The United States was extremely fortunately located geographically with two wide oceans protecting either side and I think this just became a habit, an instinctive habit, on the part of American public opinion. When World War One came and we finally got into it in 1917, we fought that like a boxing match. We went into the ring, we helped to defeat the enemy, came back, hung up our gloves and went back to what we thought was the main task of developing this continent.


In January 1938 President Roosevelt sent Chamberlain as Prime Minister a private message saying how disturbed he was with the state of the world and increasing disrespect for engagements and treaties, piling up of armament and so on. He wanted to make a great effort to try and stop this and he suggested that he should call together the diplomatic corps in Washington one day and they would try to produce a few suggestions for our various differences and difficulties and these were then to be discussed if they were thought reasonable by the larger, more important powers. Our ambassador in Washington was Lindsay, a very experienced diplomatist who'd been head of the Foreign Office and also our ambassador in Berlin before he went to Washington. He sent this message across endorsing it strongly and urging a quick and cordial response. Without consulting me or any of the Cabinet, Chamberlain returned a reply of cold water. The Foreign Office was much disturbed at this development and cabled me in the south of France to return. I was deeply disturbed because Lindsay, in one of his telegrams, had warned us that if we argue against this too much we might undo all the good work we'd done in the last two years, and to me the Anglo-American relations were capital. Just the one chance, I thought, that we can get closer together stage by stage, that we might avert the war. I telephoned to Lindsay and told him I was going to see the Prime Minister at Chequers, which I did the next day and then we had our first serious difference. He was more optimistic than I could be of the outcome of the present discussions with Hitler and Mussolini, and he felt the American proposals were woolly and that they would get in the way of his negotiations. I felt on the contrary that Roosevelt was trying to get into the business to try to help in the only way he could – with his strong isolationist lobby he couldn't do it any other way. I thought any American presence in Europe would be quite invaluable in that very difficult time so I couldn't agree. There's no doubt that Cadogan and I would have resigned had we been able to do so on that issue in January 1938, but we couldn't, obviously, without putting Roosevelt in the most embarrassing position, as it would have made public what he was trying to do. So after that it really was a question of waiting for the next issue because we knew it couldn't last.


Our Chiefs of Staff, particularly General
Ironside, expressed themselves in no uncertain terms about the paucity of our own armaments. There were not enough anti-aircraft guns and the radar, which a year later covered the whole country from Scotland to the south, was not really in existence.


British Conservative MP

I think the final verdict lies with Churchill: he said there could have been no air Battle of Britain in 1938. We might have suffered some grievous casualties from being bombed for which we were lamentably unprepared, but those Germans would have had to fly from German bases with air-fighter protection which was quite inadequate and couldn't cover them all the way to these shores, and nothing like the Battle of Britain could have taken place until they'd occupied the coasts of Holland, Belgium and France.
Munich was one of the greatest disasters in British and French history. We could have called his bluff and we could almost certainly have got rid of him and in my firm conviction if Beneš had stood firm and said, 'I'm going to fight, and you're going to support me,' we could either have beaten them in a matter of weeks or else there would have been no war and the German generals' plot would have been carried into execution.

The 'Peace in Our Time' document signed by Hitler and, Chamberlain on 30 September 1938

We, the German Führer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognising that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe.

We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.

We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.


To put it bluntly, how much better it would have been if the Czech crisis had arisen a year later, at the time when [the] Polish crisis arose and we had to go to war. A much better military position from every other point of view. Therefore, whatever case can be made technically on the delay ground, what seems to me to be utterly wrong was the failure to gather the nation together for a supreme effort of rearmament after Munich to create a national government. Because the truth was, until we got Labour into the government, you cannot really do a full-out rearmament programme.


There's absolutely no doubt that
Germany gained enormously from the year's delay in the outbreak of war as a result of Munich and we have it on irrefutable authority from all the German generals and from various historical sources. The Czechs had the strongest fortified line in Europe on their northern frontier and they had thirty well-trained, well-armed divisions. Against which Germany could only put thirty-three or thirty-four. Two of the senior German generals said that the line was almost impregnable. On the west they had eight reserve divisions and five regular divisions against ninety French divisions, and a 'West Wall', which another German general described as purely a construction site. All the German generals were convinced that if war broke out over Czechoslovakia in September 1938 they would have been defeated in about three weeks and I think that has been borne out. They had intended to arrest Hitler and proclaim a military government and they were prevented from doing so by the sudden announcement of Neville Chamberlain's flight to see Hitler – and that's what stopped them, to wait and see what happened. And then events flowed and Munich was in fact the biggest bluff ever known in history. The German General Staff stood abashed because they knew they must be defeated if we'd gone to war then.

BOOK: The World at War
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