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1939: Countdown to War

In August 1914, Britain went to war with Germany amid patriotic fervour. A cabinet minister's private secretary recalled thousands "milling around" in Downing Street, "shouting and singing and bursting with cheers". In September 1939, the mood was different. Britain entered war with resignation, relieved that at last there would be no more doubts or agonies of conscience - Beatrice Webb felt "detached and calm" - but without enthusiasm.

For 20 years, all political effort had been dedicated to avoidance of war. The horrors of the Somme were far closer than the travails of the 1970s, still powerful symbols in our political discourse, are to us. The 1914-18 war had been the first for more than two centuries to impinge significantly on the British civilian masses and they knew only that the next one would be worse. Bombers were regarded with scarcely less apprehension than later generations would regard nuclear weapons.

Richard Overy's brief account of the week that led to war 70 years ago concentrates mainly on the political and diplomatic manoeuvrings. He
is not a flashy writer, but this is a tight, fluent narrative enhanced by quirky but telling details: for example, when defence regulations were submitted to parliament, the Liberals objected to traitors being shot rather than hanged; and when the American journalist William Shirer visited the British embassy in Berlin just after the ultimatum to Germany expired, he found the staff "talking about dogs and stuff".

The popular historical view is that the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his circle remained appeasers to the end. They had guaranteed Poland's independence - most recently on 25 August - but still looked for a way out even as German troops invaded. They were forced into war by patriotic and honourable MPs, inspired by a Commons speech from the acting Labour leader Arthur Greenwood (Clement Attlee was recovering from an operation). It was heralded by the cry "Speak for England, Arthur!" from Leo Amery on the Conservative back benches.

Overy rejects the popular view. Chamberlain, he argues, never intended to abandon his commitment to Poland. He still wanted peace but had given up on appeasement in March, when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in what Chamberlain saw as a personal betrayal. He now hoped deterrence would work instead. As always, the intelligence material was dissected to find what politicians wanted to find. Hitler intended war to begin on 26 August, just after the Nazi-Soviet Pact ensured no opposition from the east. But he hesitated, partly because the Anglo-Polish treaty the previous day came as a shock; perhaps he would hesitate again. The German economy, some reports suggested, was in difficulties. Hitler faced political threats and even food riots. In the fantasy world of British intelligence, Hermann Goering emerged as the unlikely leader of a prospective coup, bringing a pro-peace faction to power.

The optimism wasn't entirely misplaced. Hitler wanted a small war, not a big one. He had, as Overy says, no "plan or blueprint for world conquest". He invaded Poland in the belief that the western powers wouldn't act, a view for which he, too, had some justification, given a British and French abhorrence of war and unofficial peace feelers from the Swedish businessman Birger Dahlerus, acting as a freelance diplomat.

Overy argues the case convincingly, deploying ample evidence. There is, however, a degree of hair-splitting and speculation about it. We cannot know there would not have been another Munich if Hitler had invited Chamberlain to another summit. But Hitler, too, was less inclined to make deals than he was a year earlier; Munich, a source of shame to the British, was also a loss of face for Hitler. He wanted the Germans to see him as a warlord, and the heavily armed Poles at least offered the prospect of serious resistance. Chamberlain reacted to changed circumstances. Lingering Tory support for appeasement melted after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which dashed hopes that Hitler could be unleashed against the Bolshevik menace.

What we do know, and Overy does not dispute, is that Chamberlain had no intention of helping the Poles repel the German military. The British and French did not move troops to attack from the west. Nor did they bomb German cities or even airfields; when Amery suggested dropping incendiary bombs on the Black Forest, the air secretary, Kingsley Wood, protested that it was private property. The RAF dropped a few thousand leaflets instead. Hitler thought that, at worst, the British and French would fight a Kartoffelkrieg or "potato war" - an economic blockade. He was right and, as Germany now had access to raw materials through the Soviet Union, the blockade was largely ineffective.

The real war did not start until the following year, too late for Poland. As Overy puts it, "Poland was betrayed by war just as Czechoslovakia was betrayed by peace." Indeed, the betrayal was in some respects greater, because Polish cities suffered far greater damage and the people more cruelty and loss.

1939: Countdown to War
Richard Overy
Allen Lane, 160pp, £12.99

Peter Wilby's biography of Anthony Eden is published by Haus (£9.99)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis