Battle of Adwa: through African eyes

Abyssinia and the myth of appeasement

Eighty years ago, fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia. Mike Belbin argues that this event is the key to understanding the international politics of the 1930s and after

“Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors: French and British imperialism” - CLR James

“As a private citizen, I think all this striving after greatness and domination is idiotic; and I would like my country not to take part in it. As a historian, I recognise powers will be powers” - AJP Taylor

In October 1935, the Italian troops of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government crossed the border into Ethiopia - then known as Abyssinia, the last but one independent country in the African continent. The invasion was the first instance of ‘fascist aggression’ from a European country, though not, of course, the first European incursion into Africa.

In the chronicle of the 1930s, the case of Abyssinia does not have the prominence of the Spanish Civil War or the Munich agreement. Compared to the bombing of Guernica or the determination and cunning of Adolf Hitler, Mussolini seems rather a clown, though his African war was no joke. It is my contention that Ethiopia, aka Abyssinia, is a good place to start to discuss what lesson we can learn from the 1930s.

Is it the familiar one referred to as ‘appeasement’ - the one that so overshadows foreign policy decisions in the west today, the one alluded to only recently by prime minister David Cameron and Labour MP Hilary Benn in the debate on whether to extend the air war into Syria, the lesson about ‘standing up’ to fascism? Or is it time to say that this tale of the 30s is a myth, false in detail, which may indeed be concealing other lessons?

In terms of international politics, the 1930s are known for two things - the first being the great depression that swept through the world like a dust storm, taking livelihoods and lives. Voters were thrown into the arms of those ‘saviours’, whether Roosevelt or Hitler, who promised that the state could alleviate what private capital had wrecked. The other legend of the 30s is, of course, the one about appeasement. This being the story of how the bourgeois democratic nations - principally Britain and France - refused to risk another world war and conceded to the demands of the dictators. These foolish pursuers of a dishonourable peace were British politicians, like PM Neville Chamberlain, who invented a new policy out of their weakness by trying to settle with the bullies, famously in Chamberlain’s declaration of “peace for [not in] our time”, while the warnings of those like Winston Churchill, “in the wilderness”, were ignored.

Luckily, as the story relates, the arrival of World War II found the British recovered from their weakness of spirit. Then, under the leadership of Churchill and with the help of the Allied nations, they went on to defeat the fascist enemy. Ever since this infamous period, ‘appeasement’ has become a cautionary tale for government about the preparedness to fight and having a large enough supply of arms to counter any foe. So it was before the Syria debate. Cameron challenged MPs with the choice: Chamberlain or Churchill; the shame of giving in or the pride of ‘doing something’ - that is, going to war.

In recent decades this logic of ‘no appeasement’, the justification for the use of military might, has itself been widely challenged, as in the protest at the debacles of the US war in Vietnam and the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq. However, the lesson of ‘appeasement’ continues to be proclaimed in order to justify western interventions, always against threats said to amount to some form of fascism. A re-examination then is long overdue of the 1930s story, to determine what did happen and why, and whether this narrative that so many take for granted might, on the contrary, be concealing something else we need to know.

League of Nations

It seems that when Mussolini - the inventor, strictly speaking, of fascism and ruler of Italy since 1922 - decided to invade Ethiopia, his motive was to look impressive, to signal that he was now playing in the big league of imperial powers. In doing this he knew that he was more than likely to be condemned by a new organisation in the world, the League of Nations.

Following World War I, the European League of Nations was set up in 1920 to prevent such a conflict ever happening again. A result of the Paris peace conference and the armistice signed at the Palace of Versailles, the League’s primary goal, as stated in its covenant,was to maintain world peace by preventing war between its members. To achieve this, 58 countries had signed up, including Britain and France, to provide “collective security”: that is, to act as a group against any one nation pursuing aggression. In its HQ located in Geneva, the League, while of course lacking its own army, had to rely on member-states, especially the big powers, to guarantee its prohibitive resolutions and economic sanctions.

Long before anyone put on a fascist black shirt, Italy’s rulers had their eyes on Ethiopia. During the reign of Menelik II (1890-1913), Italy had concluded a treaty with Ethiopia, whereby, in return for western armaments and recognition of the emperor, Italy was granted control of the north, a part of Eritrea, half of which was already an Italian colony. In 1896 conflict erupted between Ethiopia and Italy. In March, after a short war, the Italians lost when defeated at the Battle of Adwa.

In 1922 Mussolini was brought to power by Italy’s state, including King Emmanuel III, due to the ruling class’s fear of post-war revolution. Mussolini’s declared aims were to ‘unite’ capital and labour under the command of a directive fascist state and to return Italy to something like its glorious Roman past. To achieve this he needed to secure a larger empire: the occupation of Ethiopia would therefore show Britain and France that Italy was a rejuvenated military force.

From December 1934, Italian troops started to harass the Ethiopians on the border from a fort at the Welwel oasis. In 1935, after a further border incident, Italian forces began to assemble for a projected invasion. The League of Nations could not ignore this repeated aggression, seeing as Ethiopia itself had been a member of the League since 1923. However, instead of taking any action against Italy directly, the League set up a committee on September 4 to simply report on the threat of war. This committee delivered on September 18 a proposal to both avoid war and to sustain, it was argued, something of Ethiopia’s “independence”. The League would make the country “an economic protectorate” of all the European powers, with Italy also participating. “Specialists and advisors” would be responsible for “policing areas in which Europeans reside; disarming the local population, collecting taxes and setting up courts” involving administration by a “principal advisor” who would have “the necessary support of the Ethiopian government”.

At the time the Afro-Caribbean Marxist, CLR James, commented that in fact “each of the four sections [of administration] will have at its head a ‘principal advisor’ sent by the League.” (October 4 1935). Control by Ethiopians would in fact be minimal. James called for sanctions against Italy, but ones organised by the workers of the world, advising them to take their own independent action and “keep far from the imperialists, and their Leagues and covenants and sanctions”.

Second Italo-Ethiopian war

Mussolini, however, ignored the League’s proposal and sent his army across the border from Eritrea on October 3. It was a three-pronged attack, involving land troops, 5,099 tanks and the Italian Royal Air Force. The Italian forces consisted of 685,000 new troops which had joined the nearly 690,000 soldiers already in Eritrea and Italy’s other colony in Somaliland. Added to these would be irregular Somali and Arab recruits. In response, the Ethiopians numbered around 700,000 fighters, but had no tanks and only three outmoded biplanes. The Ethiopians were indeed ready to resist, but were no longer even feudal warriors - they were mainly farmers, civilian administrators and small business people. The Italians, on the other hand, had learnt from the previous war of 1896 to go in with overwhelming force. The air offensive alone claimed thousands of Ethiopian lives - the use of an advantage which would be duplicated when German bombers assisted Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

On November 8 the Italians took the town of Mekele in the north. Mussolini, however, considered the army’s progress too slow and replaced the general in charge. In the meantime Ethiopia’s then emperor, Haile Selassie, had already prepared a counterattack, called the ‘Christmas Offensive’, intended to encircle and split the Italian forces. The action took place at Amba Aradam mountain on the way to the capital, Addis Ababa, where the Ethiopians were led by the Prince Regent Imru Selassie. The Italians found themselves encircled and tried to break out, whereupon the Ethiopians managed to immobilise their tanks. Eventually half the Italians did escape.

It was then that the League of Nations finally condemned Italy’s aggression and imposed sanctions. Italy then resorted to the use of chemical weapons. Its air force dropped gas canisters, described as the “terrible rain that burned and killed”. All in all, 100,000 Ethiopians were left dead by gas poisoning alone. Italy also brought in more troops, as well as heavy artillery. In early 1936 Italian forces began a new offensive, but the consequent battle of Tembien ended in no definite win for either side. Nevertheless, the Italians suffered 10 casualties, the Ethiopians 8,000.

In early March 1936, Ras (Prince) Imru engaged battle again, but the Italian air force bombed his troops into defeat. At the battle of Maychew on March 31 the emperor himself made a last effort with non-stop attacks on Italian lines, but the Ethiopians finally had to withdraw exhausted. The air force finished off the routed army with mustard gas. Haile Selassie is said to have looked with despair on the corpses of his army, strewn around the poisoned lake of Ashenge.

In May 1936 Italian troops marched on Addis Ababa and the war officially ended, though Ras Imru only surrendered in December at Gojeb River. In Rome Mussolini stood on a balcony and declared that “peace has been restored”.

With the setting up of an Italian administration in Addis Ababa, the struggle in the country - renamed Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) - passed into a second phase: guerrilla warfare. On February 19 1937, the Italian viceroy, marshal Rodolfo Graziani, was assassinated by two young Ethiopians, Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom. In reprisal, over the following weeks, the Italian authorities executed 30,000 people. However, the men and women of the resistance were not discouraged. Italian convoys were ambushed and in the capital railway workers provided the leadership against the occupation. Children acted as scouts to tell fighters about the approach of enemy troops and an underground network forged papers and identity cards to enable safe passage. Unfortunately there was little coordination overall, as the guerrilla forces were split between monarchists and republicans. The Italians responded heavily with chemical warfare again, as well as summary execution of prisoners. Between 1936 and 1941 the Ethiopians killed by Italian forces, including the paramilitary Blackshirts, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, amounting to 7% of the total population - casualties of occupation, as well as the war.

On the other hand, the damage to Mussolini proved to be the cost of the war. The original estimate had been set at 4-6 billion lira. The bill ended up at 33.5 billion. Furthermore, the cost of the occupation between 1936 and 1940 came to 21 billion lira. This seriously impeded the continued modernisation of the Italian military. So much so that during World War II, Mussolini had to rely on his Axis partner, Hitler, to do most of the fighting, even on the Italian mainland. This may have contributed to that lack of morale among Italian troops which so benefited the Allies.

At the time of the invasion, the League of Nations had moved to enact sanctions against Italy. These would last until July 1936. But they did not include prohibitions on the sale of oil or the use of the Suez Canal to transport it. The sanctions were supported in Britain, as was the League, by a ‘National’ government of mainly Tories and Liberals, which had been in power since 1931. Another general election occurred in October 1935 and PM Stanley Baldwin found it useful to pursue re-election against Labour with the slogan, “All sanctions short of war”. Baldwin presented the government position as supporting the League against aggression such as Italy’s, but without risking war.

In fact this was good old British hypocrisy at work. Only a month after the election British and French diplomats had come up with their own solution to the ‘Abyssinia’ problem. This Hoare-Laval Pact proposed that old standby: partition. Mussolini was in fact open to such a suggestion: as detailed above, the Ethiopians were proving a greater obstacle than he had expected. However, news of this “compromise” of Ethiopia’s sovereignty was leaked to the press and there was public outrage. Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and both Labour and Tory politicians, condemned it. For once, political lip service had failed and the plan was abandoned. One of its sponsors, foreign secretary Samuel Hoare, had to resign.

By March 1936 a Times editorial was declaring: “Whenever the League fails to check one dictator in his disregard of treaty obligations, there is - and always has been - a direct encouragement to others to follow his example.” Some people had been onto the fight against fascism a little earlier. As early as June 1935, African-American boxer Joe Louis had knocked out Italy’s heavyweight, Primo Carnera, in New York and crowds ran through Harlem shouting, “Let’s get Mussolini next!”

On June 30 1936 Emperor Haile Selassie was allowed to escape. He promptly diverted to Geneva and addressed the League of Nations, denouncing Italy for the invasion and criticising the world community for effectively just standing by. He warned the national delegates: “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.” Eventually it was World War II that brought an end to Mussolini’s rule in Ethiopia.

So far this account suits the general idea of the appeasement legend. Here is the received image of an aggressive fascism rolling over the democracies, with appeasers like the League of Nations failing to resist. This can be read either as a reluctance to bring on a greater war or perhaps a treacherous sympathy for fascism. Such a policy of concession, the moral of the story goes, must never be allowed to happen again, whether in the face of Stalinism after 1945 or during the US crusade for ‘freedom’ in the Muslim world, against movements like the Taliban or individual dictators like Saddam Hussein.

But was the League simply ineffectual through fear or treachery? Were they pro-fascist? Why did Britain fail to stand up to a fascist power invading Ethiopia?

Britain and fascist Italy

Throughout the 19th century, Britain had promoted the policy of free trade that had swept the world and gained the UK half a globe in colonies. But it also made other nations able to profit, from agriculture or industry, and become possible military rivals. The concept of avoiding such rivalry, either by negotiation (as with the USA) or confrontation (Russia, Germany) had been a policy aim since the mid-19th century. Thus the British empire saw off many challenges before 1918, but after World War I its economic and military burdens - and the need to have a popularly approved military - required avoiding another European war. As a foreign office memo of 1926 put it,

We have got all that we want - perhaps more. Our sole object is to keep what we want and live in peace … The fact is that war and rumours of war, quarrels and friction, in any corner of the world spell loss and harm to British commercial and financial interests ... so manifold and ubiquitous are British trade and British finance, that, whatever else may be the outcome of a disturbance of the peace, we shall be the losers.

World War I, with its collision of empires, had proved just how disruptive an alliance of continental powers could be.

Therefore the policy of the British government towards Mussolini’s Italy had always been non-antagonistic. As early as 1925 the British government agreed a treaty with the Italian state to recognise Ethiopia as an exclusive zone of Italian influence. In return Mussolini pledged support for the British effort to secure a concession to build a dam at Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia. Then with the coming to power of the Nazi Party in advanced industrial Germany, there was a greater imperative to prevent any alliance of rising powers. At this time Japan’s militarist state was also viewed as a possible member of such an alliance and would mean the empire fighting on two fronts, in Europe and the Far East.

After he succeeded Baldwin to become PM in 1937, the foreign policy of Neville Chamberlain, supposed epitome of appeasement, simply continued the strategy of avoiding disturbance to British power. His one innovation was to try and delay the war he could see coming through direct public negotiation with Hitler. Chamberlain had the foresight to predict that if war came it would most probably result in dominance by one of Britain’s rivals: namely, the USA. “Heaven knows,” he told his sister, “I don’t want the Americans to fight for us - we should have to pay too dearly for that if they had a right to be in on the peace process.”

But what of Winston S Churchill, that fabled opponent of making peace with fascists? He too was on the lookout for rivals to empire power. Only, like many others in the early 20th century, he judged Germany to be the premier threat, even if the Germans were ‘latecomers’ as an industrial power and had hardly participated at all in the colonial ‘scramble for Africa’ from 1881. Nevertheless, Churchill agreed with those who saw any hint of German expansionism as signifying the main enemy to the ‘balance of power’ in Europe. What scared the imaginations of many English of the period was that the Germans had been organised enough to have ‘caught up’ in technology.

By the early 1930s, however, Churchill’s main concern was not Germany, Nazi or otherwise, but the British possession of colonial India. Parliament had been considering some measure of home rule (local government) for the Raj, the sort already granted to the white Commonwealth of Australia and Canada. Churchill declared “India must be governed on old principles” and labelled his opponent, Gandhi, a “malevolent fanatic”. In the face of a challenging world, Churchill was a member of the same consensus that the empire needed allies in Europe and he too considered fascist Italy a good candidate, saluting it as “a powerful and friendly factor in Europe”. He had always admired Mussolini for the dictator’s anti-communism and grip on Italian society. In 1927 during an Italian visit, Churchill wrote: “The country gives the impression of discipline, order, goodwill, smiling faces. A happy, strict school …” In 1935, three months before the invasion of Ethiopia, he wrote in the Sunday Chronicle, that Mussolini was “a really great man”, and three weeks after the invasion he told the House of Commons that “no-one can keep up the pretence that Abyssinia is a fit, worthy and equal member of a league of civilised nations” (October 24 1935). Churchill endorsed “collective security” all right, as an alliance to contain the eternal expansionism of Germany, with British closeness to Italy as a counterweight. In 1937, Churchill wrote in the News of the World: “It would be dangerous folly for the British people to underrate the enduring position in world history which Mussolini will hold, for the amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance which he exemplifies.”

As for the Nazis, Churchill did praise Hitler for his domestic policy, resurrecting Germany from under the depression and the reparations imposed by the victorious French. However, Churchill remained wary of what he saw as just another expansionist German who was challenging the empire by dominating Europe. Nevertheless he did not oppose Chamberlain’s strategy of negotiations with Hitler until the Führer had made a move on Austria in the Anschluss, or annexation: that is, till February 1938. He even wished the prime minister “god speed” when on September 28 1938 Chamberlain announced a last conference with Hitler at Munich. Churchill’s differences with the government were over armaments and then only on details: what kind of weaponry and whether they should be defensive or offensive. His own careerism, however, led him to make the most of his demands in parliament for greater rearmament.

In November 1938 Chamberlain’s cabinet had approved the air ministry’s proposals for fighter aircraft. These were less expensive than bombers - the cost of a bomber being equal to four fighters. Chamberlain was convinced this would make an effective use of Britain’s overstretched and depression-hit resources. Chamberlain’s emphasis was on defence, while the bellicose Churchill’s was on attack. At this time Churchill was not even impressed with the Spitfire fighter or, for that matter, radar - a localised warning system, after all.

Behind the invasion of Ethiopia

In April 1935, before the war in Ethiopia, and seeking allies, the British had signed a new agreement with Italy and France in the town of Stresa on the banks of Lake Maggiore. The aim of this was to affirm an earlier peace treaty (the Locarno of 1925) and prevent any attempt by the Germans to alter the Treaty of Versailles by rearming.

However the ‘Stresa front’ began to break down when in June Britain agreed another treaty, this time with the ‘threat’, Germany. The Anglo-German Naval Agreement gave Hitler permission to actually increase the size of the German navy, though only to a certain degree. Germany could build a tonnage of ships in a ratio of 35:100 with regards to the shipping of the Royal Navy. At the time this proposal was expected to produce a “balanced fleet” on Germany’s part, which the Royal Navy could handle. However, it broke with the conditions of Versailles. Hitler himself regarded the agreement as marking the beginning of an Anglo-German closeness, which would allow him a free hand in central and eastern Europe. The British diplomat, Robert Craigie, even informed his German opposite number that the agreement “was designed to facilitate further agreements within a wider framework”.

The actual British attitude to German ambitions was revealed some years later in a joint admiralty-foreign office letter to the British ambassador in Berlin. It said that Hitler “overlooked, as all German politicians have overlooked for many years, that this country is bound to react, not only against danger from any purely naval rival, but also against dominance of Europe by any aggressive military power, particularly if in a position to threaten the Low Countries and the Channel ports.”

In 1935 the effect of the naval agreement on the other partners in the Stresa front was immediate. France accused Britain of ‘treachery’ by absolving Germany from the Versailles treaty and without telling Paris. It riled Mussolini too. It was precisely because Mussolini had regarded Britain as his new ally in the Stresa front that he had held back on any more incursions into Ethiopia. He did not want to annoy his new allies, because Ethiopia bordered British Somaliland too. But he regarded the naval agreement as marking the end of the alliance and so went ahead with the invasion. The British made no objection - this was a piece of Africa where they had no interests (except the Tana dam, of course). Subsequently, there was only one other superpower that Italy could ally with. On January 6 1936 Mussolini told the German ambassador that he would not object to Germany absorbing Austria as a satellite state: the Anschluss.

Whether the British move to the naval treaty with Germany was due to arrogance or desperation, it was no ‘appeasement’. The point, as with Italy, was to make allies where possible and prevent a combination of newly ambitious powers. In the end the treaty proved a miscalculation. These moves to secure separate arrangements with Italy and Germany led in time to the formation of the alliance they were supposed to prevent.

Lessons of independence

As for the Labour Party, it did not so much promote the pursuit of an imperialist ‘peace’, which meant war for Ethiopia, as fail to oppose it vigorously and independently.

In 1934 the Labour Party executive had declared itself committed to “all-round disarmament” as well as resistance to aggression through the League of Nations. Labour members were suspicious of rearmament, especially by the ‘National’ government. A ‘ballot’ for peace was also conducted in June 1935, which showed overwhelming support for taking economic and non-military measures against an aggressor. Furthermore, in September 1935, the TUC published a resolution pledging “firm support of any action consistent with the principle and statutes of the League to restrain the Italian government and to uphold the authority of the League in enforcing peace.” That same month the foreign secretary, Samuel Hoare, assured everyone in a speech to the League that his government intended “steady and collective resistance to all acts of unprovoked aggression”.

So it was that the government and Labour opposition were agreed - resistance, yes, but by the League. Resistance of a sort was also on the minds of the Labour left. Sir Stafford Cripps of the Socialist League explained, however, that seeing as there was no socialist government yet in Britain, it was “unfortunate, tragic, but inescapably true, that the British workers cannot at this moment be effective in the international political field.” If, however, the labour movement felt “a desperate urge to do something at all costs in the present situation”, it must fall back “on the attempt to use working class sanctions”. Neither the Labour executive nor Labour left saw any urgency in doing more than oppose rearmament and echo the government’s support for the League. So it was that up to the outbreak of the war in 1939, party members would continue to write indignant articles and hold meetings while rejecting any alliance with the extra-parliamentary and anti-fascist Popular Front.

In the event it was CLR James who proposed an independent movement to counter all big-power imperatives, whether at Geneva or Rome, in order to defend the peoples from imperial domination and fascist invasion.

As the 30s passed and Chamberlain finally declared war on Germany for invading Poland, the will to get behind the national effort and Churchill as leader, meant the actual strategy of the outgoing period was forgotten. It was time for scapegoats. A few ‘guilty men’ had done something unthinkable and given into Britain’s enemies for the sake of a foolish peace. To promote this line, the actual traditional diplomatic strategy - that is, allying with a regime that then becomes an enemy and vice versa - had to be painted as a cowardly aberration (and maybe a personal fault of Chamberlain’s). If there was anything to be said for a tactic of making peace with rising new powers, the public were not to be reminded of it. So it was that the word ‘appeasement’ entered the post-war period as a sin to be condemned and a simple nostrum proclaimed: evil must be met with might.

An examination of the motives and context surrounding the 1935-36 occupation of Ethiopia shows that British rulers were not interested in peace in Europe because of an antipathy to war as such. After all, they did not object to a war in Ethiopia. Later in the 30s it would be Czechoslovakia which had no strategic interest for Britain and would be taken by Hitler. But Abyssinia was the first to suffer takeover. Protest was muted, sanctions ineffectual and whether the latest colonisers were fascist was immaterial. Lip service might be paid to condemning aggression, but diplomacy was the decider, the avoidance of war with countries that need not be enemies. These were not concessions to bullies, but negotiations with fellow powers, involving acquiescence in arrangements to which the British state had no objection. Chamberlain and Churchill did not disagree on the aim, but on the tactics, with the League of Nations therefore providing an idealistic ‘front’ to impress those seeking something beyond the usual diplomacy of power politics.

Ever since, an allusion to ‘appeasement’ has been used to promote the notion that the diplomacy of the 30s was something unique and shameful rather than part of a policy of the usual divide and rule. The new sorts of leader, especially Hitler, may not have been fully comprehended, and in these circumstances the application of the policy led to mistakes, which in the end only encouraged war. But this does not make it the shameful innovation of a few statesmen rather than the conventional hypocrisy of power-politics diplomacy.

Today the lesson of greater military force as a deterrent is largely irrelevant, when armed conflict has ceased to exist between states, and become a struggle both internal to countries and transnational. The wars in the Middle East, for example, are civil wars of various kinds, including the Saudi bid for Sunni leadership, with outside support for combatants on all sides. The heady days of war as fighting and bombing till you occupy a nation’s capital city, as with Hitler’s Berlin, are gone.

Since at least Vietnam, war is fought with ideas, propaganda and the wavering support of populations, local and international. Islamic State is not just a ‘homeland’ territory to be ‘degraded’, but an idea - the idea that Muslims (sectarian Sunni) would be better off in a caliphate; an idea that cannot be bombed out of existence, but must be proved wrong.

Lately, appeasement has even reappeared - ‘rebooted’ under a different name: the ‘peace process’, as in South Africa and Northern Ireland; that is, coming to an accommodation with those aspiring to government. If you can’t beat them, join them to you. Of course, the lesson of the Vietnam war is that it may take some time, money and blood to reach such a peace. War has not yet been abolished. Even a believer in the historical decline of violence like Ian Morris perceives that there remain sources of explosion. He observes that the gap between the west and the rest “may cause more, not less, conflict, as it dislocates economies and adds to the sense of injustice that already inspires Islamist violence. More terrorism, Boer Wars and state failures may be looming.”

In 1938, if perhaps ‘collective security’ had been a reality, maybe the final precipice would have been avoided. Perhaps in some transcendence of suspicion, some broad anti-fascism, might have led to a firm alliance of the UK, France and the Soviet Union, which would have called Hitler’s bluff. There is evidence that in the face of such a commitment the German military might have deposed Hitler. But the British government was suspicious of Russia not only for ideological reasons, but because Stalin had purged his own military top brass in 1937 and such a leader was seen as unreliable. The British state did indeed ‘compromise’ with fascism, but this was not a sheepish surrender. Chamberlain, for example, was trying to delay Hitler’s inevitable imperial advance, while Britain rearmed. Some propose that, when the war did come, Churchill’s ‘going too early’ was what produced the retreat that ended in Dunkirk.

In the 30s, if Labour had joined with the Popular Front and others in a serious independent anti-fascism, this might have been the best possible lever to exert some pressure. In our own times, there have indeed been independent protest movements, such as over Vietnam and Iraq, which have refused collusion with power politics. In the 1930s it was the lack of an effective and independent opposition that failed to resist the international onslaught of European fascism, which began in 1935-36 with an invasion of Africa.

Thanks to Paul Flewers and Dawna King for discussion and comments.


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