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review 2019-08-13 23:55
Don't blame the Treasury!
British Rearmament and the Treasury, 1932-1939 - G. C. Peden

In the eight decades since the start of the Second World War, there has been an unending search of scapegoats to hold responsible for failing to prevent the greatest war in human history. For the British, one of the most persistent of these was the Treasury, whose "dead hand" has long been cited as a key factor holding back Britain's ability to adequately prepare for the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Were it not for the penny-pinching Treasury mandarins, the argument goes, His Majesty's army, navy, and air forces would have been in a better position to stop Germany, possibly even deterring the outbreak of war in Europe in the first place.


George Peden takes issue with this argument. In this dense but well-argued book, he makes the case that, contrary to the legend, the Treasury played a positive role in the rearmament of Britain in the 1930s. Drawing upon a range of documents from the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, and the service ministries (many of which had only been recently declassified at the time he wrote the book) he detailed the process of rearmament form the perspective of the Treasury, setting it in the context of contemporary perspectives and concerns. As he notes, throughout the 1930s the British were still grappling with the problems of the Great Depression, and while the economy was recovering steadily throughout the period it was of paramount importance to both politicians and civil servants to do nothing to jeopardize this. A major consideration in this respect was the argument of finance as the "fourth arm" of the British military effort, and the ongoing need to recover not just from the Depression but from the depletions of British finance caused by the First World War. Given these concerns, any rearmament efforts had to be measured ones.


Within those constraints, however, Peden sees the Treasury as playing a vital role in shaping rearmament efforts. Much of his book is about the role the Treasury played in this process, both in terms of policy formulation and in its implementation. Not only did the Treasury exert considerable influence in determining the amount of money budgeted for the military, they also played a role in determining on what that money would be spent. As Peden shows, much of this was done consultatively, taking into consideration the views of the respective service departments and the military professionals who headed the three branches. This forced the officials involved to determine their priorities in light of means, which, Peden concludes, "ensured that essential elements in Britain's defences were completed first", leaving the country better prepared for the long war that came about than it otherwise would have been.


By shedding light on the sometimes opaque process of fiscal policy formulation and implementation, Peden provides readers with a valuable study of how Britain readied for war in the 1930s. In the process, he makes a convincing case for a more nuanced judgment of the Treasury’s role, one that gives it due credit for its efforts to prepare the armed services and the national finances for the conflict that followed. Though some of his related judgments can be harsh (his treatment of Stanley Baldwin is a little cold-blooded), his book is necessary reading for anyone interested in learning about a vital aspect of British rearmament in the years before the Second World War, one that is no less important for how little attention it receives.

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review 2018-07-21 18:13
A chummy history of how Churchill became Prime Minister
Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister - Nicholas Shakespeare

The selection of Winston Churchill as Neville Chamberlain's successor in May 1940 is regarded today as one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. With his elevation to the premiership Britain was committed to a course of action in the Second World War that ended with victory over Nazi Germany. Given his role in the Allied triumph and subsequent anointing as the greatest Briton ever, such a choice can be perceived as inevitable. Yet was it?

One of the great merits of Nicholas Shakespeare's account of the events surrounding the decision is in his detailing the views of the key actors in the spring of 1940 and the choices available to them. In the process, not only does he demonstrate that Churchill's selection was far from ordained, but he also shows that it was more than a simple choice between Churchill and Lord Halifax traditionally described in most accounts of the event. As Shakespeare explains, ministers and Members of Parliament had several alternatives available to them. For many of them, Churchill was an unacceptable choice for the top post given his recklessness and adventurism, while others seemed much more appealing candidates. Even the very notion that Chamberlain needed to be replaced because of the military debacle in Norway the month before was not generally accepted, and only emerged over the course of the "Norway debate" and the subsequent division that exposed the weakness of Chamberlain's support.

To detail the events of May 1940 and uncover the thinking of the various people involved Shakespeare went beyond the traditional accounts in memoirs and biographies and undertook additional archival research and interviews. This he knits together in a narrative to which he brings all his skills as a novelist, making for an account that is highly engaging. By comparing the at times conflicting accounts and retrospective explanations, he has produced a very detailed description of how it came down in the end to Churchill. Yet it is also an incredibly chummy account, focusing almost exclusively upon the actions and decisions of a select group of elite men (and even a couple of women). While this is understandable given the small circle of people in politics and media at the time, the weaknesses in this approach are more evident in the account of the Norway disaster that precedes it. Given its importance to the events that followed Shakespeare spends a third of the book describing its failings, yet his account of events rarely strays beyond the experiences of key officers and government officials, creating the impression that it was merely their personal experiences which drove their objections to Chamberlain rather than the broader defeat that informed their criticisms of his handling of the war.


By narrowing his focus to a group of elite figures (one that includes his own uncle), Shakespeare trivializes the motivations of many of the men involved in the decision to turn out Chamberlain. It's a glaring flaw in what is in many respects an excellent book, one that details the chain of events that would define the course of world history. It is especially unfortunate, given that Shakespeare's extensive research and ability as a writer have produced what is the best account yet of how Churchill became prime minister in those fateful weeks in the spring of 1940. Its weaknesses, however, cause it to fall short of the definitive account it could have been with just a broadening of its scope.

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review 2016-11-03 05:56
A sympathetic reassessment of a failed policy
Hitler and Appeasement - Peter Neville

"Appeasement" is a word loaded with historical baggage -- specifically, its association with the failed efforts by the British and the French in the 1930s to avert war in Europe by accommodating Adolf Hitler's territorial demands. The effort, of course, was in vain, and when war came in 1939 Germany began it in a stronger position than they had been just a few years before, thanks in no small measure to the earlier concessions of his foes.


This failure to avert the war has been viewed ever since as the ultimate discrediting of appeasement as a policy, with its advocates viewed as fools or worse. Peter Neville takes exception to this view, however. Surveying the evolution of appeasement in the interwar period, he offers a sympathetic assessment of the situation policymakers faced and the decisions they made. He highlights the difficult choices facing British policymakers, with a multitude of vulnerabilities worldwide and few partners other than France (which itself was riven with problems) to help shoulder the load. Given the initial focus on bordering territory with ethnically German populations, appeasement was the best available option while the British rearmed their forces.


Neville is not uncritical of the decisions British politicians made, and he is particularly astute as to the personality clashes which often determined who exerted influence. He also incorporates appeasement's opponents into his analysis, showing how such esteemed figures as Winston Churchill were not always as hostile to the policy as they later sought to portray themselves as being. Overall it makes for a provocative reassessment of what remains an extraordinarily controversial period in history, one that helps us to better understand the choices people made and why it was that they failed in their goals.

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review 2016-01-03 05:32
A damming portrait of a vain leader
Neville Chamberlain (Routledge Historical Biographies) - Nick Smart

In assessing blame for the failure to confront Adolf Hitler in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939, the umbrella-bearing figure of Neville Chamberlain has always been one of the main targets. Virtually from the moment of his resignation and succession by Winston Churchill Chamberlain became the target of much criticism for his efforts to appease Nazi Germany instead of challenging them. Yet over time a number of biographers and historians have sought to qualify such damming judgments, emphasizing Chamberlain's lack of better options and his efforts to promote rearmament, with appeasement offering a way to buy time rather than provide a permanent solution.


Nick Smart is having none of this. His biography of Chamberlain is a scathing assessment of an unpleasant man. In it he describes the course of Chamberlain's life, from his childhood to his failed sisal plantation in the Bahamas, then back to Birmingham for greater success in business and politics. The Chamberlain that he details is vain and self-pitying, with an unjustifiably high opinion of his own abilities. Much of his eventual success is due to his family name, though Smart gives him due credit for his organizational and party-building skills. Yet Chamberlain's gifts did not extend to character judgment, and Smart makes a convincing argument that his practice of personal diplomacy, as far-sighted as wit was, was based on a self-regard that deprived him of the support of the Foreign Office and the politicians who led it.


Much of what makes Smart's argument so persuasive is its consistency, as his description of Chamberlain's flawed character in the early chapters bears fruit when discussing his failings in the political arena. Occasionally the repetitiveness of Smart's negative description can be grating, but overall this is a lively and engaging study of one of the most controversial British prime ministers of the twentieth, one who deserves at least our understanding if not our sympathy.

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review 2015-07-14 16:10
A first-rate study of an oft-misunderstood figure
Neville Chamberlain, Volume 1: 1869-1929 - David Dilks

Neville Chamberlain is one of the most recognizable figures of twentieth-century international politics. Much of his reputation, though, rests on the foreign policy he pursued as prime minister of Great Britain in the late 1930s, primarily his advocacy of appeasement - a policy predicated on the notion that armed conflict can be avoided by placating the demands of the aggressors through compromise. Thanks to Chamberlain's exhaustive pursuit of peace during his premiership, he has come down to us more as caricature than character - the man in the swallow-tail coat and bowler hat who waved the infamous peace of paper in front of the newsreel cameras and declared that he had obtained "peace in our time."


To the extent that this image of Chamberlain has dominated our perception of the man, it obscures a far more extensive career - one which saw him rise to the pinnacle of power in a comparatively short period of time. This is the subject of the first volume of Dilks' biography, an exhaustive account of Chamberlain's life and career. The younger son of the great nineteenth-century politician Joseph Chamberlain, Neville was steered by his father towards a career in business. After a failed attempt to establish a sisal-growing operation in the Bahamas, Chamberlain returned to his home town of Birmingham, where he found greater success in more traditional enterprises.


Though Neville's elder half-brother Austen was the one Joseph groomed to be his political successor, the younger Chamberlain soon found his way to elected office as well, first in municipal government, then at the advanced age of 49 to Parliament. A late-starter and a member of a party packed with political talent, Chamberlain benefited from the collapse of the Lloyd George coalition government in 1922, accepting office and a seat in the Cabinet. Chamberlain's star quickly rose, primarily due to his time as Minister of Health in Stanley Baldwin's second government, where he proved himself to be a minister of ability and competence. By the end of the period covered in Dilks' book, Chamberlain is on the verge of becoming the dominant political personality of the 1930s, the key figure in successive governments before finally succeeding to the premiership himself in 1937.


Dilks recounts this all in considerable detail, showing how Chamberlain's background and early years shaped both the man and the politician. Though some of this detail is excessive, there are many rich insights within these pages, leaving the reader to finish the book with a new respect for Chamberlain and his accomplishments. This book will continue to stand for decades to come as the definitive account of Chamberlain's formative years, leaving open to question only when the long-awaited (and crucial) concluding volume might be published to finish the tale.

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