Monday, 26 January 2009

Ending the Phoney War

In 1939-40, Neville Chamberlain, hailed here as "The Pilgrim of Peace", represented a profoundly compromised British ruling class. Even after the war with Germany had begun, there were many aristocratic Englishmen who favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler. In the face of the present economic crisis, ruling classes around the world are similarly divided on how best to defend their interests.

I’M glad the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues are keeping the intensifying economic crisis uppermost in their minds.

Ever since the global economic situation became critical in October of last year, I have been unable to shake the impression that New Zealand has been living through a "Phoney War" period in relation to the turmoil beyond its shores.

The metaphor is apt in many ways.

The Phoney War was the name given to the seven month period between the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and the invasion of France in May 1940. It earned this title because, in spite of the fact that all the major Western European powers were at war, nothing much seemed to be happening.

Although we still don’t like to talk about it, there was a very good reason for this singular lack of serious bellicosity. It was because, at the highest levels of the British, French and German governments there was a deep reluctance to take the final step into full-scale war.

Hitler didn’t believe that his British and French opponents’ hearts were in the conflict, and with the rapid defeat and occupation of Poland, he simply couldn’t understand why they repeatedly refused his offer to make peace.

Because there were many in the upper echelons of British and French society who were eager to accept Hitler’s offer. At the very highest levels of the British aristocracy, in particular, there was a deeply ingrained view that the Western nations must stand together against the threat posed to their way of life by Soviet communism.

Others (including George, Duke of Kent) were fearful that the prosecution of "total war" against Germany would fatally weaken the British Empire and usher in a period of American hegemony.
Interestingly, Hitler agreed with them.

And certainly there were many in the upper classes of France who feared their own, home-grown socialists and communists much more than they feared Hitler’s Nazis.

The Phoney War may, therefore, be understood as a period of intense political struggle within the ruling classes of France and Britain: a struggle between those who favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler’s Germany, and those who recognised in the Nazi regime a qualitatively different form of authoritarian government – one which posed an existential threat to the whole of Western civilisation.

Only with the final victory of this latter faction, led by the redoubtable Winston Churchill, on 10 May 1940, did Hitler feel constrained to unleash "Plan Yellow" (Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and France) – thereby bringing the Phoney War to an end.

A similar internal struggle is currently being played out with the ruling classes of the capitalist countries in relation to the global economic crisis.

On the one hand we have those who characterise the current difficulties as a simple (if brutal) market correction. Let it play itself out, they advise, and the system will swiftly regain its equilibrium.

On the other side of the argument stand those who see in the unfolding crisis an existential threat to the global economic order as deadly as that posed by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

These two factions are well represented within the National-led Government and the civil service. Which is why I’d love to have been a fly on the wall of the Prime Minister’s office on 15 January as he and his senior ministers examined the various options for dealing with the crisis.

We must hope that in this fight the Prime Minister takes historical inspiration from Winston Churchill and not Neville Chamberlain.

Because with every passing week it becomes clearer that, if the people of the world are to come through this economic crisis without enduring enormous hardship and suffering, then political leadership of truly Churchillian courage and determination will be required.

What the Prime Minister must not do is seek to appease the greed of those who financially backed his party’s election victory. Any attempt to shift the whole burden of New Zealand’s economic recovery on to the backs of its long-suffering citizens will merely guarantee that John Key leads his one-term National-ACT-Maori Party Government to electoral oblivion.

But, if the Prime Minister ends this Phoney War against the recession by requiring genuine equality of sacrifice from all New Zealanders, then they will readily dedicate their "blood, toil, tears and sweat" to its defeat.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on 16 January 2009.

5 comments:

Brewerstroupe said...

We must hope that in this fight the Prime Minister takes historical inspiration from Winston Churchill

Are you sure?

These guys seem to be more prophetic:

Others (including George, Duke of Kent) were fearful that the prosecution of "total war" against Germany would fatally weaken the British Empire and usher in a period of American hegemony.

Linuxluver said...

John Key would have to be a very special leader to make THIS version of the National Party violate the Golden Rule (He with the gold, rules). Maybe he is.

A the same time, I've heard others who yearn for the law of the jungle (unless it costs THEM money) speak darkly of replacing Key if he won't deliver the policies they want.

I'm sure their faith in the policies that delivered this mess upon all of us remains unshaken by a reality they are most unlikely to accept in much the same way they reject the evidence of climate change or 30 years ago - that cigarettes cause cancer. Fully 23% of our population still haven't their heads around that.....despite all the evidence, misery and death. Ignoring the policy implications of the crash should be easy by comparison.

Anonymous said...

And yet anti-smokers have no problem increasing stress-related hypertension by persecuting smokers.

Of course a trace-element percentage of people haven't figured out that microsoft and macs are just plain better systems than open-source :)

Sanctuary said...

"...Only with the final victory of this latter faction, led by the redoubtable Winston Churchill, on 10 May 1940, did Hitler feel constrained to unleash "Plan Yellow" (Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and France) – thereby bringing the Phoney War to an end..."

I am afraid that again you are playing fast and lose with history to prove a dubious point. Hitler didn't just wake up and decide to invade France one day in 1940, and miraculously all was in place. After the defeat of Poland he made an overture for peace in early October 1939 - around the 6th October I think. Before he even had a reply from the Allies he called for an invasion plan for France on the 9th October, with Fuehrer-Directive Number 6. Hitler initially wished to begin this operation by November 1939, but such was the poor state of the German army he was forced to delay the offensive until the spring of 1940. Hitler never seriously entertained a fair peace with the Allies in 1939 or 1940.

This is not the first time you've used dubious history to support your point Mr. Trotter. Earlier you wrote a thread about what appears to be some sort of Yellow Peril, and the need for New Zealand to be fully armed to face the threat. Yo mentioned that the worldview of Sir Joseph Ward in 1929 had utterly transformed by 1939. I am not sure why you chose 1929 as your departure point, except that maybe you wished for a nice decade from the great crash. The reality is the British Empire did not have a decade to prepare for Hitler. From the German repudiation of the Versailles Treaty to the invasion of Poland was only fifty months. It was only after this date the British began to re-arm. From Munich in 1938, after which the British began a crash re-armament as they realised they must inevitably fight the Nazis, to the attack on Poland was only about eleven months.

It is important to understand the chronology of the lead up to WWII because it points to the fundamental flaw in your re-armament argument. The Nazi's were a UNIQUELY virulent ideology. No one could have foreseen in 1935, let alone 1929, the true malevolence of Hitler. It was a singular historical event that has been used to justify a permanently bloated military since 1945. If wishes to look back into history to a time that more closely parallels ours I would suggest the free trade era of late-Victorian and Edwardian Europe, and in particular the timeline of the Anglo-German Naval race which began with the first German Naval Act in 1898 and ended in 1914. The British Empire had a clear 16 years to prepare for a war with Germany, and accordingly re-equipped it's Navy with ships of the most advanced type. Wars between rational nation states don't develop over fifty months. You get decades to re-arm to face the threat.

Al-girta said...

“From Munich in 1938, after which the British began a crash re-armament as they realised they must inevitably fight the Nazis”

British defence spending increased overall from 1938 but spending on the army deceased in favour of building a strategic air force which could bomb Germany. The British thought through developing a powerful air force it could deter the Nazis.

War was not considered inevitable by the British, that thinking followed onto the phoney war period as described by Mr. Trotter.