Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
As an ex-Marine, and a former senior politician (albeit one who never held a Cabinet post), there can be few better placed than Ashdown to disentangle the web of intrigue that spanned both the military and the political spheres in Germany prior to, and during, WW2. When I told a friend (a Cold War warrior) I was reading a cracking book on those who resisted Hitler, he said “What– all two of them?”. As Ashdown so ably sets out, those who did a lot more than merely mutter about the inadequacies of National Socialism were much more numerous, than the British pre-conception. Indeed, as the author makes clear in his epilogue, for reasons of brevity, he had to focus on merely the most senior. And what an interesting bunch they were.
In what is an absorbing book overall, what I found particularly fascinating was Ashdown using his experience to analyse Chamberlain’s flawed decision-making from 1937 until his dismissal. “Hitler’s generals understood what the rest of the world should have known: that victories do not satiate a tyrant’s appetite – they sharpen it.” Throughout this build-up to war the Germans had good back channels to the British, but tunnel vision of the Foreign Office, and obduracy compounded by wishful thinking on the part of Chamberlain, meant they were poorly used. With the benefit of hindsight, the reader is left cursing Chamberlain’s words and actions. Indeed, although Ashdown does not set it out in quite such bald terms, he has all but concluded that Chamberlain could have avoided WW2 if he had signalled to the resistance movement that they would have Britain’s support, and that GB would act if Hitler moved on Czechoslavkia or the Sudetenland. Instead Chamberlain was craven and the 1938 putsch floundered.
The extensive preparations of the resisters are meticulously chronicled. The level of drama is intense. Chamberlain’s reputation, such as it is, is savaged: as Goerdeler, one of the putsch architects wrote “By refusing to take a small risk, Chamberlain has made a war inevitable.” Contrary to popular belief, a significant number of German generals did not want to go to war in 1939.
It was a revelation to me that senior German figures, one hesitates to call them Nazis, had communication channels to the Allies so early – by January 1940, Admiral Canaris, by now head of the Abwehr, had conduits to most Allied intelligence agencies. However, in the author’s view, the Venlo incident (when the Nazis captured 2 Allied spies), made Churchill doubtful about colluding with the German resistance ever again. It is also illuminating to see the degree to which Allied victories (or German defeats) were deliberately abetted by anti-Nazi German generals. However the book also sets out the degree to which the French and Dutch governments were very culpable in ignoring messages from the broader resistance movement informing them of Hitler’s plans for invasion in some detail. The Nordic governments were guilty of the same offence.
Throughout the book illuminates our understanding of the war by examining counter-factuals – for example by scrutinising the intelligence aspects of why Hitler chose not to invade Spain (and thereby secure North Africa), and so on. What is impressive about some of the resisters is not just their bravery (which was extreme in some cases), but also their intellectual grasp of what the Nazi’s behaviour would do to Germany’s post-war image, and moreover some of them created a blueprint for an ideal post-war Germany that is uncannily like what we have today.
Along the narrative are little nuggets like the Heydrich assassination being sanctioned in London (despite warnings of widespread Nazi reprisals) in order to protect British agents. The wretched Kim Philby also pops up all too frequently.
Ashdown’s political background no doubt informs his criticism of Roosevelt’s and others’ decisions at Yalta and subsequent conferences where the Allies carved up post-war Europe. The US, with the least direct interest in post-war Europe, turned the most dogmatic.
Operation Valkyrie, the July 1944 assassination attempt, and its depressing aftermath, are described in depressing detail. Ashdown is fortunate indeed to employ again a researcher of huge ability – Sylvie Young. Her work gives the book a depth to a degree to which we can only guess.
Throughout the book there is an impressive clarity of analysis. Nein! is both enjoyable and illuminating.