September 17, 1939

Posted by Helen Saturday, September 17, 2016 , , ,

One could argue that this has little to do with conservative history except that the government of this country in 1939 was Conservative under a Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who had to lead the country into war, something that he had tried to avoid. By summer 1939 he knew that was a lost cause but he still tried to win some time and, who knew, perhaps ....

Everyone knows about September 1, 1939 when the German army crossed into Poland, September 3, when Britain declared war followed by a reluctant France as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. But how many people know about the next step in Poland: the country's invasion from the east by the Soviet army on September 17 just as Stalin and Hitler had agreed. Here is the photograph that sums it all up: a German and a Soviet officer shaking hands. One can see the about to be dismembered body of Poland between them:


And who could forget Low's famous cartoon:

Before I turn to our favourite diarist of the period and one who was undoubtedly a Conservative, let us look at what Harold Nicolson, who was many things but never a Conservative, said on September 17. Let us recall that he had become a great friend of Ambassador Maisky's and was greatly under his influence.
Write my Spectator article. At 11 am (a bad hour) Vita comes to tell me that Russia has invaded Poland and is striking towards Vilna We are so dumbfounded by this news that there is a wave of despair over Sissinghurst. I do not think the Russians will go beyond her old frontier [sic] or wish to declare war on us. But of course it is a terrific blow and makes our victory even more uncertain.
He then makes a series of analytical points and predictions most of which are wrong though some not. I love those diaries dearly and Nicolson's other writings but the man was often an ass. Did he not gather from Maisky what the agreement between Hitler and Stalin might have been about?

Chips Channon was not surprised. He had never liked the Bolsheviks, considering them, if anything worse than the Nazis. He was also PPS to Rab Butler at the Foreign Office at the time and may have had more accurate information about events than Nicolson. On the whole Chips managed to get fairly accurate information in or out of his lowly office. His published entry for September 17 reads:
A glorious September day in Kelvedon where I bathed in the pool, and then in a bath towel rang up the FO to be told the grim news that the Russians had definitely invaded Poland. Now the Nazis and the Bolsheviks have combined to destroy civilization and the outlook for the world looks ghastly.
The detail about him being in his bath towel when he hears the fateful news is priceless but the phrase "had definitely invaded" would indicate that something of the kind was expected.

On October 10 Chips wrote:
Russia helps herself to a new country every day and no-one minds. It is only German crimes that raise indignation in the minds of the English. 
Well, why not? German crimes should raise indignation but it might have been useful if Russian (or, to be precise, Soviet) crimes had also been noted then and later. I am now reading David Satter's book about the bloody end of the Yeltsin era and the even more bloody rise of Putin to absolute power with a couple of invasions on the way, not to mention two horrendous wars in Chechnya, and the same cry can be uttered: no-one minds. Or, at least, very few people then or now.

1 Responses to September 17, 1939

  1. While the Nazis and the Soviets were cooperating they existed in a space of fascist equivalency that has marked the Left ever since - see particularly the political canonisation of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher, who has influenced the left through his influence on Sartre and Derrida in what I can only call a philosophical Nazi diaspora.

     
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