Cooke on Peace for our time

Cooke on Peace for our time

Alistair Cooke, the nonagenarian Englishman so well known in America for hosting the PBS series “Masterpiece Theatre,” is still a commentator for the BBC. One of his recent radio addresses caught my ear (or more precisely, my eye) because with his expert and firsthand view of history he finds parallels between the situation with Iraq and the case of the Nazis. Now many people have said that the analogy isn’t good, and even Coooke agrees. But as Tolkien, who hated literary analogies, said while analogies may be anathema, there is such a thing as applicability. In other words, while there may not be a one-to-one transference, the lessons and models still apply. Here is the relevant portion of Cooke’s commentary. Click the “More…” link for the rest.

    Through the ceaseless tide I heard a voice, a very English voice of an old man—Prime Minister Chamberlain saying: “I believe it is peace for our time”—a sentence that prompted a huge cheer, first from a listening street crowd and then from the House of Commons and next day from every newspaper in the land.

    There was a move to urge that Mr Chamberlain should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

    In Parliament there was one unfamiliar old grumbler to growl out: “I believe we have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat.”

    He was, in view of the general sentiment, very properly booed down.

    This scene concluded in the autumn of 1938 the British prime minister’s effectual signing away of most of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

    The rest of it, within months, Hitler walked in and conquered.

    “Oh dear,” said Mr Chamberlain, thunderstruck. “He has betrayed my trust.”

    During the last fortnight a simple but startling thought occurred to me - every single official, diplomat, president, prime minister involved in the Iraq debate was in 1938 a toddler, most of them unborn. So the dreadful scene I’ve just drawn will not have been remembered by most listeners.

    Hitler had started betraying our trust not 12 years but only two years before, when he broke the First World War peace treaty by occupying the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland.

    Only half his troops carried one reload of ammunition because Hitler knew that French morale was too low to confront any war just then and 10 million of 11 million British voters had signed a so-called peace ballot.

    It stated no conditions, elaborated no terms, it simply counted the numbers of Britons who were “for peace”.

    The slogan of this movement was “Against war and fascism”—chanted at the time by every Labour man and Liberal and many moderate Conservatives - a slogan that now sounds as imbecilic as “against hospitals and disease”.

    In blunter words a majority of Britons would do anything, absolutely anything, to get rid of Hitler except fight him.

    At that time the word pre-emptive had not been invented, though today it’s a catchword.

    After all the Rhineland was what it said it was—part of Germany. So to march in and throw Hitler out would have been pre-emptive—wouldn’t it?

    Nobody did anything and Hitler looked forward with confidence to gobbling up the rest of Western Europe country by country—“course by course”, as growler Churchill put it.

    I bring up Munich and the mid-30s because I was fully grown, on the verge of 30, and knew we were indeed living in the age of anxiety.