Overy, Richard, 1939, Countdown to War. Allen Lane, Penguin, 2009, pp 119- 121
“Nevertheless, the wider framework for explaining war in 1939 implies an inevitability that makes the last days of drama less significant than they actually were. The final crisis was not entirely scripted in advance. As in 1914 the protagonists argued, manoeuvred, postured and calculated; as in 1914 they did so with partial information, ambiguous intelligence and blind conviction. It is not impossible that different decisions might have been taken at moments in the crisis because of factors generated by the heightened tension itself, as evidenced by Hitler’s decision to cancel invasion on 25 August, or the Polish willingness to negociate, or the complex hostility between Bonnet and Daladier. All aggravated international crises, from the Crimean War to the invasion of Uraq, have generated short-term periods of unstable political interaction and unpredictable circumstance before the onset of hostilities. The last ten days before the putbreak of war were a characteristic example of high-risk confrontation.”
The first element each protagonist had to face was a growing mental and physical exhaustion in the face of events that moved so swiftly that they threatened to overwhelm those who confronted them. Hitler was, according to Speer, ‘in an unwonted state of nerves’ in the last days of August, giving the impression that he was ‘exhausted from overwork’. Goebbels complained: ‘Late to bed, out early’. On 23 August; two days later, ‘Late and dead tired, a few hours sleep’; three o’clock at night still in the office….a few hours sleep’, on 26 August; and so on. In London, Cadogan penned very similar entries after returning home in the early hours of every morning: ‘mad with fatigue’, on 30 August; ‘can’t give full or connected account, too tired’, on the following night. Neville Chamberlain gave an account of his state of mind in a letter written to his sister Hilda on 27 August that conveys the sense of perpetual tension under which all the major players operated:
Phew! What a week. One or two more like this one would take years off my life. Whether this be a war of nerves only or just the preliminary stages of a real war it takes very strong nerves to stand it and retain one’s sanity and courage. I feel like a man driving a clumsy coach over a narrow crooked road along the face of a precipice. You hardly dare to look down lest you should turn giddy…
Many eye-witnesses in the last days before war attest to the strain apparent on Chamberlain’s face. Chamberlain was anxious to be involved in everything he could; which left him with a punishing schedule for a man of seventy. When the chiefs of staff asked him on 30 August to arrange a meeting to discuss plans for the opening of hostilities, Chamberlain scribbled on the note, ‘It is difficult to fix appointments ahead just now.’ The capacity to control events in such a situation became increasingly attenuated. The sense of “events taking over’, as those involved grew more steadily subject to the mental pressures and physical debilitation of long periods of intense labour with little sleep, made it increasingly difficult to think in any terms outside the immediate crisis of the moment or to consider the larger consequences.
The narrowing of vision generated by the conditions of crisis provoked a growing irrationality in which the wider pîcture or the longer causes of the confrontation were abandoned in favour of a restricted ‘mental’ box in which decisions had now to be made. In Germany the framework for the crisis was Hitler’s determination to punish the Poles for their alleged transgressions and the conviction that the West would back down. Every shred of intelligence information, including the numerous intercepts by the German intelligence service of telephone and cipher messages back to London and Paris, was examined from this point of view, not to confound the conviction but to make it firmer. In London and Paris the obsession with the deterrent effect of firmness again brought every piece of intelligence information from Germany under the spotlight, with the hope of detecting in the phrases used or words chosen some hint that Hitler might back down. The irrational nature of that expectation was seldom confronted in the final days.” P 121
“The narrow ‘mental box’ on each side contained its own moral universe.” P. 122
“The search for a convincing and temporary moral claim during the crisis did not make war completely inevitable, but made it hard to avoid.” P 123
Poor people, ‘mad with fatigue’ they still think they can make decisions or that we want them to make decisions. Then, when a course is taken, any course – it feels like such a relief that they finally can go to sleep, war or peace. And off we go to die or get maimed or butchered. Or worse we are made to butcher others, and live with that.
No more I think.
Tell them Ted!:
“Then everybody wept,
Or sat, too exhausted to weep,
Or lay, too hurt to weap.
And when the smoke cleared it became clear
This had happened too often before
And was going to happen too often in the future
And happened too easily
Bones were too like lath and twigs
Blood was too much like water
Cries were too like silence
The most terrible grimaces too like footprints in mud
And shooting somebody through the midriff
Was too like striking a match
Too like potting a snooker ball
Too like tearing up a bill
Blasting the whole world to bits
Was too like slamming a door
Too like dropping in a chair
Exhausted with rage
Too like being blown to bits yourself
Which happened too easily
With too like no consequences.”
Surely we can do better decision making than that.
Time to bring in the poets indeed.
Bring em all in, says Mike Scott
and next Saturday we go to listen to the healer at the crossroads, Leonard Cohen coming to Ghent!
It is not dark yet, but it is getting there (Dylan)