It was revealed this week that just three months before Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany, in September 1939, the Bank of England sold, on behalf of the Third Reich’s central bank, gold looted from the Czechs after the Nazis occupied Prague and the Czech state in March 1939.
The report on this was written in 1950 in an official history of the Bank of England, but was only made public this month as a heap of documents were made available digitally.
When Hitler occupied Prague he was breaking a promise made to Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. In September 1938 he had travelled to Munich, together with the French prime minister, for a conference with Hitler and the Italian fascist dictator, Mussolini. Hitler was demanding swathes of Czechoslovakia and threatening invasion. Without reference to the Czech government Britain and France signed away all the territory Hitler demanded.
In March of 1939 Hitler marched in and took the rest. The British government did nothing, just as it had done nothing over Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland and Austria, and over Italy and Germany’s flagrant military support for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, despite them having agreed not to intervene in the conflict.
The British government was, however, duty bound under international law, to protect Czech economic interests and assets after Hitler’s seizure of the Czech lands. The Bank of England simply ignored that when the Germans asked them to flog off the looted gold. This was at a time when the Third Reich was desperate for hard currency to buy badly needed raw materials for its war machine.
This week the blame for this shameful act has been placed on the shoulders of the Bank of England’s then governor, Montagu Norman. He supported appeasing the Third Reich by giving territory in Central and Eastern Europe. He was a close friend of Dr Hjalmar Schacht, who was a key architect of Hitler’s accession to power, and had served as president of the German central bank.
But the way it has been presented is that Simon was a maverick in this policy of appeasement.That’s how the British ruling class has to present its history.
Firstly, the Second World War was “our” finest moment when Britain stood up to the greatest barbarism in world history, alone, in the summer of 1940. Winston Churchill was “our” leader and “we” all united behind him.
Secondly, when it’s come to war from the Falklands under Thatcher to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 opponents have been labelled as appeasers alongside the likes of Simon, Chamberlain and the French leaders, who signed their country over to Hitler in June 1940.
But the reality was that prior to 3 September 1939 and Britain’s declaration of war, appeasement was not the policy of a few mavericks but of the majority of the ruling class from the King and Queen (the future Queen Mother), down to the majority of Conservative MPs.
The Tory PM, Chamberlain, was welcomed onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to be cheered after he returned from Munich. In September 1939 he had, literally, to be forced to declare war after Hitler invaded Poland, a country he had vowed to defend.
Like virtually every Tory and every member of the British ruling class, Chamberlain was viciously anti-communist and wanted Hitler to attack Russia. By feeding him territory in Eastern Europe they hoped to draw Hitler into war with the USSR. All of this is swept under the carpet. In May 1940 Chamberlain had to step down because he clearly had no heart for the war. The Tories and the King and Queen wanted the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, another appeaser, to take over. He admitted he didn’t have the guts for it, and the job went to the maverick Tory, Winston Churchill. To form a government he had to enter coalition with Labour, because the majority of Tory MPs were for Chamberlain and would not cheer the new man in parliament, even as he made those famous speeches promising resistance to the Nazis even if they invaded.
And even though Hitler’s tanks were sitting on the French coast just 22 miles away, with invasion a real possibility, Halifax and other Tories were carrying on secret peace talks. Churchill had to fight by every means to overcome their demands Britain should come to terms with Hitler.
So the news that the Bank of England was flogging off gold stolen by Hitler should not come as a surprise. What we should say whenever the next war looms and we’re attacked as “appeasers” was that the people who appeased Hitler were the Tories and the right.
Ordinary working people had volunteered to fight in Spain, had driven Oswald Mosley’s fascists off the streets of the East End and if invasion had come they would have been the backbone of resistance, as was the case throughout occupied Europe.
If Hitler had reached London there would have been a queue of Tories waiting to beg for a post in the occupation regime, and offering their help in rounding up the Jews and the left. Far-fetched? Well that’s what happened in France and elsewhere.