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Modern History

‘I don’t think I’m Wrong about Stalin’: Churchill’s Strategic and Diplomatic Assumptions at Yalta

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On 23 February 1945 Churchill invited all ministers outside the War Cabinet to his room at the House of Commons to hear his account of the Yalta conference and the one at Malta that had preceded it. The Labour minister Hugh Dalton recorded in his diary that “The PM spoke very warmly of Stalin. He was sure […] that as long as Stalin lasted, Anglo-Russian friendship could be maintained.” Churchill added: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust with Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”[1]

Just five days later, however, Churchill’s trusted private secretary John Colville noted the arrival of:

“sinister telegrams from Roumania showing that the Russians are intimidating the King and Government […] with all the techniques familiar to students of the Comintern. […] When the PM came back [from dining at Buckingham Palace] […] he said he feared he could do nothing. Russia had let us go our way in Greece; she would insist on imposing her will in Roumania and Bulgaria. But as regards Poland we would have our say. As we went to bed, after 2.00 a.m. the PM said to me, ‘I have not the slightest intention of being cheated over Poland, not even if we go to the verge of war with Russia.”[2]

At an initial glance, there seems to be a powerful contradiction between these different sets of remarks. In the first, Churchill appears remarkably naïve and foolish, putting his faith in his personal relationship with a man whom he knew to be a mass murderer. In the second he seems strikingly, even recklessly bellicose, contemplating a new war with the Soviets, his present allies, even before the Germans and the Japanese had been defeated.

Surprising though it may seem, the disjuncture is not as large as it appears on the surface. Relations with the USSR and the future of Poland were not the only things that were at stake at Yalta. The Big Three took important decisions regarding the proposed United Nations Organization, and the post-war treatment of Germany, and even Anglo-US relations were not uncomplicated. In this post, however, I want to focus on the Polish issue and the broader question of how Churchill viewed the Soviet Union and its place in international relations more generally. I will outline three key assumptions that governed Churchill’s approach and which explain the apparent discrepancies in his remarks upon his return.

Assumption 1: The key to the Soviet enigma was the Russia national interest.

This assumption is the one that needs explaining at greatest length. In a radio broadcast given in the autumn of 1939, a month after the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill told his audience: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”[3]

What Churchill meant was that the Soviet Union was acting on traditional Great Power lines, in a rational and predictable way. This was a striking, and remarkably sanguine, thing to say just a few months after the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The pact had clearly not disrupted his conclusion, reached earlier in the thirties, that the USSR was a potentially responsible actor with which it was possible for Britain to collaborate.

That conclusion was in marked contrast to Churchill’s attitude in the fifteen years after 1917. To him, in the aftermath of WWI, the Bolsheviks were ‘the avowed enemies of the existing civilization of the world’.[4] He believed that Lenin, Sinn Féin and the Indian and Egyptian nationalist extremists were all part of ‘a world-wide conspiracy’ to overthrow the British Empire.[5] His central objections to Bolshevism, then, were a) that it involved a reversion to barbarism, and b) that its proponents were attempting to spread its seditious principles globally.

As late as 1931 he was portraying the USSR as a “gigantic menace to the peace of Europe”.[6] There followed almost three years in which he failed to offer substantive comment on the Soviet Union, a period during which, however, he appears to have significantly adjusted his views. The rise of Hitler was of course crucial here. In August 1934, the Sunday Express reported that Churchill had had a change of heart on Russia. An article by the journalist Peter Howard was headlined: ‘Mr. Churchill Changes His Mind: The Bogey Men of Moscow are Now Quite Nice.’[7]

Howard’s piece was prompted by a speech by Churchill the previous month. In this he had praised the proposal – which in fact never came off – of a mutual-aid treaty between the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This was an idea, Churchill said, which involved “the reassociation of Soviet Russia with the Western European system.” He cited the speeches of Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litivinov. These, he said, “had seemed to give the impression which I believe is a true one, that Russia is most deeply desirous of maintaining peace at the present time. Certainly, she has a great interest in maintaining peace.”

It was not enough, in Churchill’s view, to talk about the USSR as “peace-loving” because “every Power is peace-loving always.” Rather:  “One wants to see what is the interest of a particular Power and it is certainly the interest of Russia, even on grounds concerning her own internal arrangements to preserve peace.”[8] Thus, by the mid-1930s Churchill had reached the conclusion that the USSR had abandoned world revolution and that, acting once again as a traditional Great Power, it shared Britain’s interest in preserving the peace of Europe. This determined his attitude at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938 and held good through to the time of Yalta.

Assumption 2: Stalin would respect ‘spheres of interest’ and the so-called ‘percentages agreement’.

The Moscow summit of October 1944 was the occasion of the notorious “percentages agreement”, via which Churchill believed he had secured Stalin’s consent for the division of the Balkans into British and Soviet spheres of influence. What, if anything, Stalin had really agreed is open to debate.[9]  It is striking, though, that the Soviet press reported that the two men had reached genuine unanimity over Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Greece, and warmly welcomed the “disappearance of the Balkan powderkeg” from the European scene.[10] Crucially, Poland was not mentioned in the agreement. This explains why Churchill did not feel able to protest about Soviet actions in Rumania and Bulgaria yet spoke of his willingness to go to the brink of war over Poland.

Assumption 3: The Polish government-in-exile would best serve its own cause by not rocking the boat, and that Soviet human rights abuses were best swept under the carpet.

This assumption is best illustrated by a 1943 diary entry by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London. This related to the notorious Katyn forest massacre, perpetrated by Soviet forces in 1940; the Nazis had recently announced the discovery of mass graves on territory now controlled by Germany. Maisky wrote:

“Churchill stressed that of course he does not believe the German lies about the murder of 10,000 Polish officers … But is this so? At one point during our conversation Churchill dropped the following remark: ‘Even if the German statements were to prove true, my attitude towards you would not change. You are a brave people, Stalin is a brave warrior, and at the moment I approach everything primarily as a soldier who is interested in defeating the common enemy as quickly as possible.”[11]

Churchill’s real concern was to prevent the affair damaging Anglo-Soviet relations, which he believed the Polish press in Britain was putting at risk. He fulminated to his Cabinet that “no Government which had accepted our hospitality had any right to publish articles of a character which conflicted with the general policy of the United Nations and which would create difficulties for this Government.”[12] One might say that there was a further assumption here, that history was driven by Great Men, like him and Stalin, and that Great Powers could legitimately settle the fates of nations over the heads of their peoples and governments. Omelettes could not be made without breaking eggs.

Conclusion

When he rose to speak in the Commons on 27 February in order to expound the Yalta agreement Churchill stated his impression “that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond.”[13] Justifying this latter claim in his memoirs, Churchill wrote: “I felt bound to proclaim my confidence in Soviet faith in order to procure it. In this I was encouraged by Stalin’s behaviour about Greece.”[14] As we have already seen, however, he claimed privately to be “Profoundly impressed with the friendly attitude of Stalin and Molotov.”[15] Colville wrote: “He is trying to persuade himself that all is well, but in his heart I think he is worried about Poland and not convinced of the strength of our moral position.”[16]

Churchill cannot be convicted of total naivety. There was a degree, certainly, to which he put too much faith in his own personal capacity to win over and deal with the Soviet leadership. But his comments about Stalin’s trustworthiness were to a great extent an attempt to put on a brave face in front of his ministers and the public. He never did make the mistake of assuming that Stalin was a pushover, but he did believe that he would respond to firm handling. More broadly his approach was determined by the belief that the Soviets were rational actors who could contribute to a constructive global order, even as they acted as rivals to Britain and the USA.

The conflict between the remarks recorded by Dalton and those recorded by Colville is explained by Churchill’s belief (or most profound assumption) in managed international rivalry. It was not that he thought that Yalta had solved or prevented conflict between the Great Powers but he believed that this type of international agreement could keep it within bounds. In respect of his apparent belief that Stalin could be induced to accept a free and democratic Poland, it is easy to see that Churchill was indeed wrong. But in regard to his overarching belief that the Soviet regime acted in line with rational calculations about its own national interests, rather than being primarily motivated by communist ideology, he may have been far less wrong than appears at first sight.

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Winston Churchill: A Life in the News and co-author (with Steven Fielding and Bill Schwarz of The Churchill Myths, both published by Oxford University Press in 2020. He tweets @RichardToye.

Cover Image: Winston Churchill sharing a joke with Joseph Stalin and his interpreter, Pavlov at Livadia Palace during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

[1] Ben Pimlott (ed.), The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 836 (entry for 23 February 1945).

[2] John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (London: Phoenix, 2005), p. 536 (entry for 28 Feb. 1945).

[3] Broadcast of 1 Oct. 1939.

[4] Speech of 3 Jan. 1920.

[5] Speech of 4 Nov. 1920.

[6] ‘Winston Churchill Sees Soviet Russia as Gigantic Menace to the Peace of Europe’, New York American, 23 Aug. 1931.

[7] Sunday Express, 26 Aug. 1934.

[8] Speech of 13 July 1934.

[9] See Albert Resis, ‘The Churchill-Stalin Secret “Percentages” Agreement on the Balkans, Moscow, October 1944’, American Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), pp. 368-387.

[10] W.H. Lawrence, ‘Russians Indicate Unity on Balkans’, New York Times, 22 Oct. 1944.

[11] Gabriel Gorodetsky (ed.), The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s 1932-1943, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2015, p.509 (entry for 23 Apr. 1943).

[12] Cabinet Minutes, 27 Apr. 1943, WM (43) 59th Conclusions, CAB 65/34/13, The National Archives, Kew, London.

[13] Speech of 27 Feb. 1945.

[14] WSC, Triumph and Tragedy, p. 351.

[15] WSC to Clement Attlee and James Stuart, 14 Feb. 1945, Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/206B/207.

[16] Colville, Fringes of Power, p. 565 (entry for 27 Feb. 1945).

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What’s in a Special Relationship?

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The recent decision by US President Donald Trump to remove some American troops from Germany has brought much consternation to the international community. One interesting twist that has found its way into the conversation occurred when Anthony Blinker, policy advisor to presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden commented that the move weakened NATO and harmed Germany, ‘our [America’s] most important ally in Europe.’ Many on both sides of the Atlantic gasped at this comment, but none more so than those in the United Kingdom. The truth of the matter is – and this may come as a shock to some – that the United States has never seen the Anglo-American relationship as special. Yes, there are cultural and linguistic commonalities, but when it comes to foreign policy, the United States’ view on Britain and Europe does not match that of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’.

It would be fair to say that Winston Churchill’s consistent message of a Special Relationship between Great Britain and the United States has ingrained the phrase in the minds of most citizens of both countries. Nevertheless, from a governmental and policy position, it has traditionally been a one-sided relationship. American leaders have rarely used the phrase and even more rarely acted on it to the point that former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is reported to have said the ‘British clam to have a special relationship with the US, but if you mention this in Washington, no one knows what you are talking about.’ This idea was reinforced during the Brexit debates when US President Barack Obama stated that the UK would find itself at the back of the queue in US trade negotiations. The last fifty years provides a clearer understanding of how the US views the ‘Special Relationship.’

It would also be fair to say that since the end of the Second World War, US Foreign Policy has focused on a strong Europe. The ‘Special Relationship,’ as a purely Anglo-American relationship, is very much a British view. This does not mean that the US has not or does not value Britain. What is often forgotten, intentionally or not, is the importance of Europe to US foreign and trade policy since 1945. During the Second World War, the US and Britain, along with the Soviet Union, stood side-by-side to defeat the Axis. Once the war was over, and the Cold War began, the relationship between the US and Britain changed. What began as a strategic and military partnership during the Second World War quickly morphed into a relationship between two unequal partners. Despite Britain’s continually diminishing status, US presidents from Truman to Clinton understood the value of working with the British to meet US foreign policy goals.[1]

Nevertheless, US presidents have also focused on a strong Europe. Successive US presidents supported British involvement in different European projects. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander Europe and later as President was firm in his belief that any plan to defend Europe required a British commitment to the continent. As such, he continually pushed Churchill, and later Eden and Macmillan, to take a more active role in NATO and the European Economic Community, which they eventually did.

The collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 left US leaders believing they did not need multilateral alliances. The US was and is, after all, the lone superpower. Since this time, presidents from both parties have chosen to ‘go it alone.’ In the meantime, Britain failed to stop its slide away from world power status. True, London remains one of the great financial centers in history but as a nation, they no longer have the military power to be more than a limited partner on the world stage. A no more shocking example of how far Britain’s defense capabilities have fallen can be found in the fact that the Royal Navy is now smaller than Pakistan’s navy and only slightly larger than Qatar’s, and the Royal Air Force is about the size of the Brazilian air force.[2]

Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it appeared that the US was moving closer to Germany as its leading partner in European issues. This was not a new position, per se, and it was not a result of Germany’s military prowess (it is also struggling to maintain a large and functioning force) but due to its economic power. The US position since 1945 has been to forge a durable transatlantic link between the US and Europe.[3] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Germany had the fourth-largest economy in the world with a GDP that was more than $1 trillion larger than that of Britain. What is often overlooked in all of the discussion about America pulling closer to Germany and further away from Britain, or about the withdrawal of US troops from Germany is Europe’s importance to the US.

A look at the Bank of England’s Quarterly Bulletin provides an idea of how important Europe is to the US relative to the UK. America’s most trusted trade partners are still the United Kingdom and Europe. As the year 2020 rolls towards the last quarter, Germany is feeling angst about its special relationship with the US. While the US president drives that anxiety, a reversal of roles may be in the offing. With US politics becoming less reliable in recent years, Europe might decide to no longer rely on the US and ‘go it alone,’ just as the US did in the 1990s. However, with reports that Johnson’s government is secretly ‘desperate’ for a Biden victory in hopes of a revived comprehensive trade plan the chances of a Europe without the US seem small.  In light of Brexit, the UK might think about how the US has historically viewed the special relationship. For the US, the relationship that is and has always been special has been with Europe – a Europe that includes Britain.

Justin Quinn Olmstead is currently Associate Professor of History and Director of History Education at the University of Central Oklahoma with a Concurrent Appointment in the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University, Wales as Affiliate Faculty with responsibility for doctoral research supervision. He has edited two books, Reconsidering Peace and Patriotism during the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Britain in the Islamic World: Imperial and Post-Imperial Connections (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Dr. Olmstead has also published, The United States’ Entry into the First World War: The Role of British and German Diplomacy (Boydell & Brewer, 2018). He has contributed a chapter on the impact of military drones on foreign affairs in The Political Economy of Robots, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Currently, he is the Assistant Editor for The Middle Ground Journal, Treasurer and Director of Membership for Britain and the World, and president elect of the Western Conference on British Studies. Just undertook his PhD at the University of Sheffield — you can find him on Twitter @OlmsteadJustin

Cover image: NATO 3-cent 1952 U.S. stamp, issued at the White House on April 4, 1952, honored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NATO_3c_1952_issue_U.S._stamp.jpg [Accessed 11 August 2020].

[1] Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 61.

[2] https://britainandtheworld.org/news/2020/6/4/batw-announces-a-virtual-roundtable

[3] Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), p. 3.

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The Monarchy and the Next Great Depression

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It has been an oft-quoted refrain since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Europe: along with much of the rest of the world, Britain and the continent face a looming recession on a scale that hasn’t been witnessed since the 1930s. The first half of this inauspicious decade saw a collapse in overseas investment and profits, a rapid rise in unemployment, and yawning financial uncertainty for ordinary people.

Across the globe, the Great Depression also threw up challenges to democracies and some didn’t survive. The spectre of far-right nationalism, feeding on the misery of the masses, rose once again to undermine the spirit of international cooperation and optimism that had come to define the 1920s.

Britain’s political system, though, while certainly tested by the economic downturn, remained remarkably resilient to the kinds of forces that swept away Taisho Japan, Weimar Germany, and the Second Spanish Republic. British democracy – if it can be labelled as such – had been longer in the making and its political institutions were more robust than those in the aforementioned countries. But one organization often ignored by historians and political scientists which played a key role in helping to maintain at least the appearance of order and stability in these difficult years was the House of Windsor.

What exactly did the crown do and what might the current monarchy learn from the lessons of the 1930s in adjusting to a period that may one day be referred to as the Second Great Depression?

Beginning in the years immediately before the first world war, King George V and his courtiers carefully enlarged the sphere of royal altruism so that it touched more working-class people’s lives than ever before. This formed part of a conscious effort to promote social cohesion in a period marked by a surge in class conflict.

Royal philanthropy grew in importance on the home and western fronts between 1914 and 1918 and, in the wake of the economic slump that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Windsors increased their efforts to help those subjects who they deemed most in need of attention. For example, the royals set up relief funds for unemployed men and their families who had, often overnight, lost breadwinner wage packets.

Historian Frank Prochaska sees the 1930s as key to the emergence of what he terms a ‘welfare monarchy’. Since 1917, courtiers had worried about the allure of communism among what they perceived as a politically restless and unreliable proletariat. Driven by renewed fears of revolution in the early 1930s, the Windsors used philanthropy to cultivate closer ties with working-class communities in the hope that it would reduce feelings of disaffection and thus help to ensure the maintenance of the status quo.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, it will take a more concerted effort from the UK’s central government to deal with the crisis that lies ahead that will likely leave little room for philanthropic endeavour. It is also imperative that the royals avoid entangling themselves with contentious policies that might otherwise undermine the monarchy’s claims to political impartiality.

One such area no longer deemed to be taboo or politically contentious (which the monarchy has thus leapt on) is Britain’s mental health. The 2008 economic crisis led to a programme of austerity which saw government reduce real-terms spending on mental health services, and into this gap popped Princes William and Harry.[1]

We can be sure that palace courtiers are already searching for similar gaps in the current government’s Covid-19 recovery programme that younger members of the royal family can look to fill through new kinds of public service, thus ensuring their own meaningful survival – as was the case in the 1930s.

It was the Great Depression that also led the king to deliver the first ever Christmas broadcast to his peoples in Britain and across the empire in 1932. Again, the aim was to offer words of reassurance and comfort at a time of great difficulty. And it seems that he largely succeeded: the concern George V communicated for his people in his radio messages strengthened the emotional bonds that connected many of them to him and this, in turn, ensured their loyalty to the throne upon which he sat, and to the royal democracy over which he presided.

Since the coronavirus arrived on these shores, we’ve already had two such messages from Elizabeth II, where she has sought to offer encouragement to her people and bring the British nation – however fleetingly – together as one.

As we move into what seems to be an increasingly uncertain future, we will hear much more from the Windsors as they attempt to invoke a spirit of national unity and togetherness. But at the same time the royals must ensure that such sentiments do not err on the banal through repetition and that messages imploring solidarity do not ignore the inequalities that separate the lives of the privileged from the lives of the ordinary people who will be the ones to suffer most because of joblessness, cuts in public spending, and tax increases.

Finally, the downturn of the 1930s saw George V and his kin take on more direct roles in trying to stabilize Britain’s economic and political systems. Younger royals carved out roles as trade emissaries promoting new economic relationships with South American countries while also acting as advocates for an older system of imperial preference.

There have recently been calls for the return of a royal yacht that could transport the Windsor family across the world so that they can help ‘Global Britain’ forge new trading relationships. Given the cost to the taxpayer, these suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears, but that is not to say that the royals cannot work to try to improve the nation’s economic prospects by greasing the wheels of international diplomacy. We can expect many more visits of foreign dignitaries to Buckingham Palace and trips by a royal contingent led by Prince Charles to regions of the world deemed strategically important to the UK’s trading future.

Perhaps the most significant step taken by George V during the Great Depression was when he controversially oversaw the creation of a National Government in 1931 in order to restore confidence in Britain’s shaky finances. He succeeded, but this event split the Labour Party and destroyed its electoral chances.

It seems unlikely in the twenty-first century that a monarch would risk involving themselves in an episode as politically explosive as this, or whether they would even be able to given the reduction in the royal prerogative powers. But the last couple of years have taught us that we should never say never when it comes to British politics.

The UK’s uncodified constitution enables flexibility when it comes to the precise role played by the crown in affairs of state. If the monarch and their advisors were to arrive at the view that the government in power was no longer representing the interests of the public it was elected to serve, then it is possible to imagine that the palace could apply pressure on the leader of such an administration to step aside so that someone else might do a better job.

For now, we wait apprehensively to see how painful the coming recession will be, along with how many people’s livelihoods are destroyed as businesses close and the inevitable job losses follow. The monarchy has always had to search out new roles in order to justify its position in British society. While the next Great Depression will bring with it many challenges, it will also create opportunities for the House of Windsor to reinvent itself again as we move into a post-pandemic world.

Dr Ed Owens is a historian, royal commentator and public speaker. His recent publication, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53, is the first book in the New Historical Perspectives series, a new publishing initiative for early career researchers in collaboration with the Royal Historical Society, the Institute for Historical Research and the University of London Press. For queries please contact edowens@live.com or tweet to @DrEdOwens.

Cover image: The royal Christmas broadcast became an annual tradition because King George V wanted to reach out to his people in new ways during the difficult years of the Great Depression. The King delivering his Christmas broadcast, 1934. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_V#/media/File:Royal_broadcast,_Christmas_1934_(Our_Generation,_1938).jpg [Accessed 12 June 2020].

[1] Not only did the princes speak more openly about their mental wellbeing, they also set up new initiatives and promoted the work of existing charities to help people in need. The strategy was twofold: keep the monarchy relevant to people’s current concerns; and plug a hole left by government. Britain’s mental health will worsen as the nation finds itself beset by another financial crisis. It remains to be seen whether the current government takes a more urgent interest in this area thus potentially rendering royal patronage obsolete, or whether it continues in the tradition of the post-2010 administrations that left the UK’s mental health crisis to be dealt with by a patchwork of underfunded charities and royal-led organizations.

 

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The State and the Pandemic: Spain and the 1889-1890 Flu

Plaza Mayor Madrid 1890

COVID-19 has brought the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 sharply into the collective consciousness, but it was not the first worldwide pandemic to be faced by the modern state.

In the winter of 1889, a new type of flu came to Europe. Although it had originated in China, they called it ‘Russian Flu’ because, in November, newspapers – including those in Spain – reported that large numbers of people had fallen ill in St. Petersburg. It would take less than a month to reach Madrid.

With greatly improved transport links, unsurprisingly, it was suspected that the number of people travelling was responsible for its rapid spread. However, recent research has emphasised ‘that the important predictor of the speed of the pandemic is not the absolute numbers of passengers travelling between cities but the “connectedness” of the network of cities.[1] In other words, it only took of a small number of people to spread the flu so quickly across an increasingly interconnected continent.

There had been flu outbreaks in 1836/7 and 1848 but these were little remembered and, in 1889, the Spanish authorities were disastrously slow to react. Despite the press tracking its seemingly inevitable arrival, no preparations had been made. In fact, the flu had probably been circulating undetected for weeks before the government acknowledged it on 17 December. The consequences of this inaction are difficult to establish but, in a recent study, Sara García Ferrero suggests that 65% of all 6,180 deaths in Madrid in the nine weeks that followed can be attributed to the flu.[2] In Barcelona, as many as 52,000 caught the disease.[3]

Understanding of virology was in its infancy and early reports focussed on whether it was in fact flu or, perhaps, dengue fever. Even making allowance for this, official messaging was confused and, initially, the threat was played down. The Provincial Health Board of Madrid met the same afternoon as the government’s acknowledgment to discuss their response; it was remarkably sanguine. La Iberia reported that they had confirmed the presence of ‘a disease, with epidemic characteristics, of the flu or a severe cold, in a very benign form.’ This is particularly surprising considering that, for weeks, the newspapers had been carrying reports of the large numbers taken seriously ill elsewhere. Even more worrying, though, was their contradictory assertion that the ‘disease is not spread by contagion.’[4]

This may have been a deliberate attempt by state functionaries to manage the public reaction to the outbreak and there is further evidence of this phenomenon elsewhere. In Reus, for example, the authorities ordered that church bells no longer be rung for the dead to avoid spreading fear among the population.[5] It was, however, a difficult balance to strike. The endorsement of ‘cures’, such as ¡Pum! (Bang!) – a punch of rum and bitter orange – may have done more harm than good.

Some of the more concrete measures taken were also strikingly modern. Primary schools were closed and the Christmas holiday was extended for older students. A 250-bed field hospital was constructed at the present-day School of Engineering, off the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid. What is particularly notable about these actions is that they were the same as those that had been taken elsewhere. Then, as now, there appeared to be an international consensus about the contours of state intervention. Nevertheless, although such intervention may have slowed the spread, it failed to stop it completely.

The authorities did nothing the limit public gatherings, perhaps for fear of economic damage, but it still came at a cost. On 22 December, La Correspondencía de España reported that as many as 600 soldiers of the Madrid garrison had fallen ill. Despite this, there were signs that a type of social distancing was happening intuitively. People decided to avoid public spaces; streets, shops and cafés were largely deserted, and theatres closed (though only because of high levels of sickness among the performers.)[6]

The longer-term, chronic impoverishment of the Spanish state meant that its capacity for a more exhaustive response was limited. Even the field hospital had to rely at least in part on private donations.[7]

The effects of the pandemic itself also significantly disrupted the provision of public services. Predictably, doctors were particularly vulnerable to catching the flu, but there were also high sickness rates among state officials. Paradoxically, though, some of this disruption served to limit the spread of the virus. Sickness rates among transport workers, for example, disrupted tram and railway services, involuntarily restricting the movement of people.

While these restrictions and relative wealth helped shield the middle class, the poor were disproportionally affected. Plainly because of overcrowding and poor sanitation, but also because the state’s penetration was weakest in the most deprived areas. The measures the authorities introduced had little effect on the lives of the residents there. In a quandary with sad parallels today, many had little choice but risk their health and continue to go out to work.

The flu of 1889-90 was nothing like as deadly as COVID-19, but there are remarkable similarities in the Spanish state’s response. Despite advances in understanding, most countries made similar early mistakes during the current pandemic to those Spain made then. In both cases, this can partly be explained by a lack of scientific knowledge about the threat, but most decisions are also political ones, with intended and unintended consequences.

Eventually the measures were lifted. But only late in January and only when the death rate had returned to normal. In 1890 the lessons had been learned; it remains to be seen whether they will be in 2020. And if they will be remembered more enduringly this time.

Dan Royle is an historian of nineteenth-century Spain. His PhD at the University of Sheffield is on 1848.

Cover Image: Plaza Mayor (ca. 1890), Memoria de Madrid

[1] Alain-Jacques Valleron, ‘Transmissibility and geographic spread of the 1889 influenza pandemic’, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S.A. 107/19 (2010) pp.8778–8781.

[2] Sara García Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890 en Madrid’, Ph.D. thesis (Universidad complutense de Madrid, 2017), p.452.

[3] Bogumiła Kempińska-Mirosławska and Agnieszka Woźniak-Kosek, ‘The influenza epidemic of 1889–90 in selected European cities – a picture based on the reports of two Poznań daily newspapers from the second half of the nineteenth century’, in Medical Science Monitor 19 (2013), pp.1131–1141.

[4] ‘Noticias’, in La Iberia (18 December 1889), p.2.

[5] Quoted in Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890’, p.38.

[6] La Correspondencia de España (22 December 1889), p.3; Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890’, p.43.

[7] ‘Boletín sanitario’, in El Día (28 December 1889), p.1.

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COVID-19, ‘Big Government’, and the Prohibition of Alcohol: Crisis as a Transnational Moment for Social Change

Liquor_bottles_array (1)

Throughout history, crises have often led to enormous social and economic reform as policymakers are forced to come up with new ways to meet unexpected demands. As Walter Scheidel argues in his book, The Great Leveller (2017), mass violence has been the primary impetus for the decline of inequality throughout world history, most recently with the Second World War serving as a watershed in relation to increased government spending on social programmes in many of its participating states. Although a crisis of a very different nature, the current coronavirus pandemic has also brought about similar shifts, with governments running huge budget deficits to protect jobs and counteract the threat of a looming recession caused by travel restrictions and lockdowns.

We also witness cases where governments experiment with creative solutions to crises that stretch across borders, as is the case with the current global pandemic. For a variety of reasons, a small handful of countries have resorted to banning the sale of intoxicants. One of the most debated aspects of South Africa’s lockdown has been their prohibition on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, intended to reduce hospital admissions and secure beds for COVID-19 patients. Admissions have dropped by two-thirds due to reductions in alcohol-related violence and accidents, but such draconian measures also meant the rise of black-market trade and the near-collapse of the country’s proud wine industry.

The sale of alcohol was also banned in the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, a constituent country of the Netherlands, and in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, over its role in exacerbating incidents of domestic violence that came with the lockdown. In Thailand, the prohibition on alcohol was put in place to prevent the spread of the virus in social gatherings. In each setting, such policies were deemed drastic but necessary, carefully implemented for their advantages in tackling a variety of health concerns whilst also considering their clear downsides.

Although instituted under entirely different circumstances, the First World War was also a moment when similarly harsh controls were imposed on the sale of alcohol across the world. France and Russia were the first to institute bans on absinthe and vodka, respectively, due to concerns over their impact on wartime efficiency. Countries in which anti-alcohol temperance movements were already influential also implemented tough restrictions of varying degrees. Although the production and sale of alcohol had already been banned in different local jurisdictions in Canada and the United States, a national prohibition came into fruition in both countries due to the war. Alcohol was not banned in Britain, but the country nevertheless instituted far-reaching controls on the distribution of drink under the Central Control Board (CCB), established in 1915 to enforce higher beverage duties and shorter closing hours in pubs.

In almost every instance, it was the context of the war that spurred the move towards instituting these tough restrictions. Temperance activists in North America had been pushing for a national prohibition for decades, but the conditions of the war, such as the rise of anti-German sentiment directed towards German-American breweries such as Anheuser-Busch, brought the federal implementation of prohibition to the forefront of national politics. In Britain, part of the CCB’s responsibility was the nationalisation of pubs and off-licenses situated in parts of the country that were of strategic importance to the war effort.

These contexts directly parallel what we’re seeing in South Africa and Thailand, where extraordinary circumstances necessitated extraordinary countermeasures. However, there is also an important difference that must be stressed: while current lockdown prohibitions are merely temporary, most advocates of prohibitions and controls a century ago believed that such measures were to be permanent, based on their view that there were no advantages to permitting the existence of ‘demon drink’ in society. The ban on the distillation of vodka instituted under Imperial Russia in 1914 was maintained after the October Revolution and was not scrapped until after Lenin, himself an ardent prohibitionist, died in 1924. Yet, within the British context, the First World War effectively reshaped alcohol licensing for several generations, as high beverage duties and shorter opening hours were mostly preserved into the interwar and postwar eras.

These cases highlight the broader implications of social and economic reforms that are being implemented today. Right-wing governments in both Britain and Japan have approved record levels of government spending in the form of economic aid and stimulus. As Bernie Sanders ended his bid for the Democratic nomination in April 2020, politicians of both the left and the right debated the federal implementation of universal healthcare and paid sick leave in light of the public health crisis. Most recently, the Spanish government announced a €3-billion-euro universal basic income scheme to stimulate the pandemic-hit economy through increased consumer spending. A columnist for The Washington Post was clearly onto something when he declared that ‘there are no libertarians in foxholes’.

It is, however, decidedly too early to predict the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and whether these will lead to what many hope to be a reversal of neoliberal reforms that have dominated economics since the 1970s. One cannot forget that the ‘Keynesian Resurgence’ in stimulus spending during the Financial Crisis of 2007-08 was immediately followed by the tragedy of the Eurozone Crisis and the traumas of austerity measures that devastated the public sectors of Greece, Spain, Italy, Britain, and so on. Despite that, the impact of abrupt changes in undermining the status quo cannot be underestimated, as we saw with the global ‘wave’ of alcohol prohibitions a century before. History, therefore, is an apt reminder of how crises are moments when ‘radical’ reforms that were previously only imagined can eventually become reality.

Ryosuke Yokoe is a historian of medicine, science, and public health, presently affiliated with the University of Sheffield as an honorary research fellow. He recently completed a PhD on the medical understandings of alcohol and liver disease in twentieth-century Britain. You can find him on Twitter @RyoYokoe1.

Cover image: Array of liquor bottles, courtesy of Angie Garrett, https://www.flickr.com/photos/smoorenburg/3312808594/ [accessed 28 May 2020].

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Delight, Dismay and Disbelief: Reactions to the Death of Hitler, 75 Years Ago

Hitler_salute_in_front_of_lamppost

It is 75 years since Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. His death continues to generate considerable public interest thanks to both continuing forensic discoveries about his biological remains, and the persistence of outlandish tales of his postwar survival. While no serious historian believes in the latter, it is worth considering how confused reporting of Hitler’s fate in spring 1945 created a climate ripe for the flourishing of such legends.

The first formal declaration of Hitler’s death came late on the evening of 1 May 1945 via a radio broadcast by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Sombre music and drum rolls gave way to the momentous announcement: ‘our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen. In the deepest sorrow and respect, the German people bow’. It was, proclaimed Dönitz, a ‘hero’s death’, Hitler falling in battle while fighting valiantly against the ‘Bolshevik storm’.

‘Hitler Dead’ screamed countless international headlines the next day. The bold, dramatic and matter-of-fact statement left little room for ambiguity. Hitler had met his end, National Socialism was vanquished and the Second World War was effectively over. The Daily Herald printed a caricature of a burning Nazi emblem under the slogan ‘WAStika’. The cover of Time magazine simply struck Hitler’s face out with a large red cross.

The media’s response to Hitler’s passing was predominantly one of intense relief. ‘The whole building cheered’, recalled Karl Lehmann, a member of the BBC Monitoring unit. Numerous editorials depicted it as a moment of universal liberation – ‘a terrible scourge and force of evil has been removed’, declared the Lancashire Daily Post.[1] The sense of catharsis continued into the VE Day celebrations a few days later when the burning of Hitler’s effigy typically formed the high point of the UK’s festivities.

In the midst of this jubilation, however, there was widespread uncertainty about the precise cause of death. Dönitz’s talk of Hitler ‘falling’ in battle filled the first wave of international news reports, but many of the accompanying editorials urged caution about accepting this at face value. There was suspicion that either the Nazis were exaggerating the circumstances of his demise to foster a ‘Hitler legend’, or that they were peddling an entirely false narrative to distract from his retreat from the scene. Questioned on the matter during a White House press conference, President Harry S. Truman insisted that he had it ‘on the best authority possible’ that Hitler was, indeed, dead – but conceded there were no details yet as to how he died.

The press were right to question the death-in-battle scenario invented in the Dönitz broadcast. Stationed in Flensburg, over 270 miles away from the death scene, the Admiral was reliant upon information fed to him by colleagues in Führerbunker, namely Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Head of the Party Chancellery Martin Bormann. The pair had already delayed sending definitive news of Hitler’s passing, prompting Dönitz to misdate the fatal moment to the afternoon of 1 May, rather than the 30 April. They also neglected to supply details of what, exactly, had occurred, leaving Dönitz to fill in the gaps for himself. As it transpired, he was not the only person speculating on Hitler’s fate.

United States made propaganda forgery of Nazi German stamp. Portrait of Hitler made into skull; instead of “German Reich” the stamp reads “Lost Reich”. Produced by Operation Cornflakes, U.S. Office of Strategic Services, circa 1942, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Futsches-Reich-Briefmarke-UK.jpg [accessed 29 April 2020]

The Western Allies, anxious to puncture martyrdom myths before they could take hold, swiftly countered Dönitz’s heroic imagery by reviving rumours of Hitler’s previously failing health. The Soviets, meanwhile, denounced reports of Hitler’s death as a ‘fascist trick’ to conceal his escape from Berlin. Even when reports of a Hitler suicide emerged from 3 May, debate continued as to whether the Nazi leader had shot himself or taken cyanide – poison being perceived by the Soviets as a particularly cowardly (and thus eminently appropriate) way out for Hitler.

What, though, did the general public make of all this? Within hours of the Dönitz broadcast, the New York Times and the social research organisation Mass Observation were gauging reactions across Manhattan and London respectively. At first, the news appeared anticlimactic; people who had longed for this moment felt disoriented, numb or empty now it was finally upon them. As the implications sunk in, Hitler’s death raised optimism that the war might finally be over, but dashed hopes that the public would see him brought to justice. ‘Too bad he’s dead’, mused one young New Yorker, ‘he should have been tortured’.[2]

The overwhelming reaction to news of Hitler’s demise, though, was one of disbelief. Some sceptics perceived the whole affair as a Nazi ruse, with Hitler just waiting to ‘pop out again when we aren’t looking’. Others foreshadowed modern-day accusations of ‘fake news’, directing their cynicism towards the contradictory explanations printed in the Allied press for Hitler’s demise. Mistrust of Nazi propaganda was also, understandably, common with one Londoner reflecting, ‘I don’t believe he died fighting. They just said that to make it seem more – you know – the way he’d have wanted people to think he died… I think personally he’s been out of the way for a long time now.’[3]

Ultimately, the competing versions of Hitler’s death ensured that the timing and cause of his demise became quite fluid within the public imagination. This, together with initial Soviet refusals to disclose the recovery of an identifiable corpse outside the bunker, created a vacuum in which all manner of rumours could take root. By contrast, the death of Benito Mussolini was commonly regarded with satisfaction because the deliberate display of his body rendered it an indisputable fact. It was only in 2000 that images of Hitler’s jaw (alongside a fragment of skull erroneously attributed to him) were publicly exhibited in Moscow, demonstrating how documenting the truth about his fate has proved a protracted process, and explaining why the Nazi leader has managed to remain so ‘alive’ in public discussion for all these years.

Caroline Sharples is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Roehampton.  Her research focuses on memories of National Socialism, representations of the Holocaust and perpetrator commemoration. She is currently writing a cultural history of the death of Adolf Hitler. You can find her on Twitter @carol1ne_louise.

Cover image: Adolf Hitler, prior to 1945.

[1] Lancashire Daily Post, ‘Hitler’s Exit’ (2 May 1945), p.2.

[2] New York Times, ‘City Takes Report of Death in Stride’ (2 May 1945), p.9.

[3] Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Topic Collection 49/1/1: ‘Hitler Indirects’, Hampstead, 2 May 1945.

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