Books of 1939 (3): This Nettle Danger, by Sir Philip Gibbs

(See also previous blogs 1-2 in this category (Fiction of 1939).

The title of Gibb’s book, This Nettle Danger, is taken from Neville Chamberlain’s quote from Hotspur’s speech in Henry IV: “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety,” which the Prime Minister famously uttered at Heston aerodrome before his flight to Munich for talks with Hitler in September 1938.  Gibb’s book, which provides a narrative of events from the Abdication Crisis of 1936 to the Munich Agreement of September 1938, was the first book to be published on these matters in 1939. It was an immediate success. It was included in The Bookseller’s list of best sellers from February until May of 1939, selling over 21,000 copies in the month to February 2nd alone. Whilst George A. Birmingham’s story represent’s the events of 1938 as comic fantasy, Gibbs’s novel is full-blown narrative realism, in fact barely fiction at all in the purest sense of the term.

Gibbs was a popular and widely read author, a respected authority on the contemporary political/diplomatic scene in Europe during the 1930s. He made his name as a journalist and writer before and during the First World War and was knighted for his services in 1920. In politics he was a  Liberal and a League of Nations supporter. Having been an official war correspondent on the Western Front he was aware of the harsh realities of war but was not a pacifist. This Nettle Danger is a vindication of Chamberlain’s diplomacy in 1938 but this emerges gradually towards the end of the book, which provides a balanced and nuanced description of the contradictory viewpoints held during the emerging European crisis of the mid to late 1930s. For that reason alone it is essential reading for anyone interested in the arguments expressed at the time both for and against the policy of Appeasement.

Gibb’s style is  semi-fictional, drawing on his journalistic strengths of insightful, witty and observant reportage. In order to provide a  vehicle for the expression of the various contemporary viewpoints in This Nettle Danger he creates a fictional New York reporter, John Barton, sent by his editor to Britain to report on the crisis both in London and the capitals of Europe.


Barton’s initial position is that of the idealist who sees the situation in terms of a straight fight between democracy and dictatorship, taking a critical view as he sees it of Britain’s ‘failure’ to support the League of Nations, the principle of collective security and make a stand against the forced treaty revisions of Hitler and Mussolini’s aggression in Africa. However as events unfold he is persuaded by argument and experience of the case for diplomacy and negotiation with the Dictators in the cause of peace. This leads him to endorse both Chamberlain’s motives and his effort to strike a concessionary deal with Hitler over Czecholovakia. However the book ends with a vivid account of the appalling events across Germany, six weeks after the Munich Agreement, when Jewish synagogues, shops and premises were destroyed and Jews subject to systematic violence and intimidation: the infamous ‘Kristallnacht’. This leads Barton to conclude that Appeasement at Munich has only resulted in an armed truce. No permanent deal could be done with ‘barbarism’. War had merely been postponed. The author however refuses to accept that peace may not be maintained even at this late hour, citing the lack of hostility and indeed the widespread evidence of friendship of the German people towards Britain and its people – a recurring theme throughout the book.

Detailed synopsis

In 1936, when rumours of The King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson were just emerging Barton, accompanied by his sister, journeys to England on the passenger liner, the Queen Mary. During the voyage they meet a group of well-connected English people with whom they form lasting friendships, allowing the opportunity for introductions to English society and the development of  romantic sub-plots.  Barton’s friendship with Anne Ede, daughter of a fictional Liberal peer, Lord Stansfield, leads to his invitation for a weekend at their country seat.

During discussion at dinner Barton confronts them directly about the diplomatic situation. There response is to set down the classic pro-appeasement position: England’s unpreparedness for war; the futility and waste of the First World War; rejection of the post-war treaties; the reasonableness of German demands and the need for re-negotiation; recognition that Hitler had done much good in uniting Germany.

‘My conviction is,’ said Lord Stansfield, ‘that we ought to get on friendly terms with the Germans. They all seem to like us…I was in Bavaria last Summer and every one was very decent. Hitler has offered fair terms of peace more than once. I think we’ve made a mistake in ignoring them. We ought to rewrite the Treaty of Versailles and try to get Germany back into the League. I said so the other day in the Lords.’ (p.147)

However on visits to Paris, Rome and Berlin Barton is confronted with a bleaker view of international developments. In Paris Barton meets a young diplomat, Paul de Brissac, a relative of his sister’s French husband. Brissac explains the general fear of another war – the great suffering of the French people between 1914-18. However it is not seen as a simple struggle beween Democracy and Dictatorship.

‘Germany is putting back the clock… she is putting it back to the Dark Ages when her tribes were the outer barbarians whom Caesar fought. They were touched for a time by the Latin spirit. They were Chrsitianized and therefore civilized, but it is a veneer which did not go deep. There is in the German soul still the ancient paganism of their dark forests. Unknown to themselves Wotan is their God. This man Hitler is the personification of the old pagan belief. His Nazis are the braves of the German tribes…with the hammer of Thor they will smash Latin and Christian civilization’. (p.163)

In Italy Barton hears something similar: ‘The soul of the world has turned away from beauty and the lovely things of the mind. We are no doubt drifting back to barbarism, or perhaps developing the robot type of civilization in which men are mere machines’, (p.214).

However these views are always countered by the those of English diplomats or journalists whom he meets on his trips. Thus in Italy Barton is told by a member of the Embassy:

‘In Europe we have learnt, or ought to have learnt, not to think in terms of absolute right and wrong…we have to deal with these men as we find them… Mussolini has good aswell as bad in him. My own belief is that he has a genuine desire to avoid another European War. I give Hitler credit for certain sincerities. I loathe this division of the world into Fascism and Democracy… In any case we have to work with the Dictatorships in such a way that we don’t fling the whole world into ruin and destroy civilization because of rival ideologies. Don’t you agree?’ (p.220-221)

But again, whilst visiting Berlin he is told by a fellow American reporter that  ‘Hitler is putting behind his creed all the power of disciplined armies, all the fanaticism of highly trained youth, and all the force of modern science directed to the instruments of slaughter….I’m telling you the Cross is challenged by the Swatika… Hitler is a throw back to Wotan. He is out to destroy human intelligence, human tolerance, pity, mercy, charity, chivalry and all the Christian virtues…’ (pp.288-9). Clearly in the author’s mind there is a tension between some of what he has seen  in Germany and what he hopes for. Time and time again, it is the fear of what will happen to European civilization in a new conflict that motivates Gibb’s support for an accomodation with the Dictators.

Barton’s overall impression of Germany under Nazism is that there is undoubted energy, unity and popular enthusiasm for the new system; … ‘and yet as an American, obstinate in intellectual allegiance to Democratic ways, he could not go further than that, and was convinced that behind this outward show of material allegiance and national discipline there were mysterious powers and purposes. What were Hitler’s ultimate aims – the blueprints of a nobler civilization or the strategic plans of another Armageddon?’ (p.303)

Gibbs is particularly good at capturing the pace and drama of events from the Anschlus with Austria through to the Sudeten crisis. Barton witnesses the crazy delerium of the crowds in Vienna when German troops occupy the country, counter balanced by the depiction of the Vienese jews who now faced growing persecution. Attention in England turns to Czecholovakia and the now pressing question of the German minority in the Sudetanland.

Again the isolationist standpoint is well expressed by one of Barton’s English friends.

‘Why should we be dragged into the flames because of Czechoslovakia is one of those riddles which are beyond my intelligence. If the Sudetens… are fed up with Czech rule and want to shout “Heil Hitler”…why the hell should’nt they? Why should we march into the furnace of another war because France has pledged herself to prevent any alteration of the Czech frontier? Silly I call it. It was all the fault of the old dotards who helped to make the peace treaties and made ’em wrong. Czechoslovakia – that hodge-podge of hostile races – is the most amusing example of their handiwork.’ (pp.366-7)

Gibbs provides a gripping and detailed account of diplomacy during the course of 1938 from Hitler’s Nuremberg speech through to Chamberlain’s three visits to Germany in September. With the threat of war now a clear and present danger Barton sees the effects it will have on London and the people he has come to know and like. His views become tempered by the fear of mass-bombing of civilians.

‘Honour? A fine word. A noble word. But where would honour stand when civilzation was a mass of smoking ruins with its population hiding in cellars … The point and principle of honour … would be long forgotten in blood and hatred and cruelty and sacrifice before it was finished…There would only be a victory for the devils of hell over all spiritual ideas and moral values’. (p.400-01)

His colleague in the London office of his newspaper reflects this. ‘England and France may be forced to fight but I’m hoping that something may happen to prevent it… I’m saying my prayers again on behalf of Mr Chamberlain. If this war happens it would’nt help much if any. The Czechs will be wiped out in blood… Neither France nor England can get anywhere near them in time for rescue. Then the war will go on until European civilization has gone like other civilizations before it.’ (p.419)

Gibbs continues: ‘John Barton could find no answer. He felt a sense of self-torture. All his democratic instincts were in revolt against any  kind of surrender to Dictatorship. His vision of what war would mean in horror and massacre forced him to agree with this old newspaper man who spoke like a prophet’. (p.419)

The stage is set for the dramatic moment in the House of Commons on September 28 1938, when the Prime Minister reports on the apparent failure of his diplomacy in the face of Hitler’s latest ultimatum. As he speaks a note is passed to him. He reads then announces to the Commons Hitler’s offer of further negotiations. The whole House cheers.

‘For weeks this elderly man had been fighting for peace, day by day, and almost night by night without any sleep and with terrible responsibilities upon his mind and heart… Now for the moment he was overcome by this new hope at the eleventh hour’. (p.451)

Gibbs describes the great popular relief when Chamberlain returns from Munich with an Agreement covering the succession of the Sudenten lands to Germany.  He also describes how the cry of surrender and betrayal was soon raised by ‘voices on the Left’ and the growing denunciation of the peace as dishonourable. Both in this book and subsequent publications Gibbs emerges as one of the chief apologists for the Chamberlainite policy of Appeasement.

Here he states what the critics have forgotten: ‘the folly of the peace treaties which had put so many minorities under Czech rule against their will…They forgot that Neville Chamberlain has broken the threat of the mailed fist by the substitute of reason. They forgot that the Sudenten Germans has a right of self-determination, anyhow, and had chosen to join the Reich’. (pp.459-460).

However even for Gibbs doubts begin to set in. At the end of the book he notes that Hitler has not  followed up on the agreement with Chamberlain to settle all other issues by negotiation and that six weeks after Munich the terrible events of Kristallnacht occur; recognising that those in England who had worked for peace and reconciliation with Germany were now ‘abashed…for how could there be friendly understanding with a country subject to ideas which, if one understands them, are more terrible and sinister than if one does not understand them?’ (p.462).

Postscript – subsequent publications

Following the publication of This Nettle Danger a series a books hostile to the Munich Agreement were published. Chief among these were R. W. Seton-Watson’s Munich and the Dictators, G. E. R. Eyde’s Fallen Bastions and G. J. George’s They Betrayed Czechoslovakia. In response to this barrage of criticism, in May 1939 Gibbs brought out a revised and updated edition of his 1938 book, Across the Frontiers, which is a well written and insightful  account of European political, economic and diplomatic failures of the past twenty years.

Towards the end of the book Gibbs deals with the crisis of September 1938 and subsequent events. He rejects the claim of the anti-Appeasers that the September crisis was a game of bluff, with no reality since neither side had any intention of going to war. Meeting the critics head on he poses a series of questions to be answered. If Britain and France had fought and won that war would they have left the Sudeten Germans under Czech rule? The answer was no. ‘Where then would have been the moral justification for the war?’ (p.285). If Britain and France had fought the war would they have been able to save Czechoslovakia from defeat? Again the answer was no. Then he turns to the more difficult question. Would Hitler have renounced war if he knew that Britain and France were not bluffing?

‘Was he bluffing to the last minute and the last hour. There the answer is not certain… But he told Chamberlain that he was prepared to risk a World War, and his troop movements and preparations seem to prove that he had that intention… In any case how could we who had upheld the right of self-determination fight a war to prevent a minority from claiming that right? And how could our Left extemists reconcile there love of Liberty and their hatred of Dictatorship with their desire to use the Russians as their great ally? These questions seem to me very pertinent to the argument and not to be ignored by those who accuse Neville Chamberlain of surrender and betrayal’. (p.285-6)

Since September Gibbs notes again that Hitler had not followed up on his promise made to Chamberlain at Munich to negotiate peacefully on all outstanding issues. Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag of January 30, 1939 had offered no new threats  and had been interpreted as a reassuring speech. ‘But within a few weeks he had broken all pledges, violated his pact with Chamberlain at Munich, and seized Czechoslovakia by  armed force’, (p.292).

Though a supporter of Appeasement Gibbs fully recognised that the situation had changed dramatically. He took the view that before the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 Hitler had restricted himself to undoing the Treaty of Versailles. Even the union with Austria had been done with popular support and the Sudeten Germans should never been put as a minority under Czech rule.

‘The quarrel with Hitler at that time was not so much with his aims as with his manner and methods – the threat of force behind those arguments. Now, however, he had gone beyond the limit of any excuse which could be put on his behalf’. (p.349)

The annexation of Czechoslovakia raised new alarms. ‘If Hitler no longer regards himself limited by the framework of the German folk and is now defending a policy of conquest by the need for Lebensraum – lifespace – for his Empire, what nation in Europe is safe from his clutch?’ (p.350)

Chamberlain’s response, delivered in a speech at Birmingham on his 70th birthday is described by Gibbs as one of great spirit. Hitler’s ‘broken pledges’ (The title of a further book published by Gibbs in defence of the Prime Minister in November 1939) are to be met by a firm stance of resistance to the threat of force. Britain and France issue a joint pledge of support to Poland.

Even now Gibbs looks for a final attempt at a peaceful solution.

‘While defending our liberties and those of other nations by all the strength and spirit we have, let us also work passionately for any chance of peace, because, as all of us know in our hearts, the next war, if it happens, will be a flaming hell in which all beauty of life will be destroyed, and ‘victory’ whoever wins, will be a hideous thing’. (p.357).

‘Broken Pledges,’ a work of fiction published by Gibbs in November 1939, continues on from ‘This Nettle Danger’, taking the story through to September 1939, by which time the German-Soviet Pact and partition of Poland following invasion has left no room for consideration of an alternantive diplomatic solution to the crisis over Danzig and the Polish Corridor. All doubts about the inevitability of war with Nazi Germany have now disappeared. A grim neccesity pervades the closing chapters of the book.


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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