International law


So let's have a look at the responses to Chamberlain's response to Noel-Baker's parliamentary motion of 21 June 1938.

First up was Sir Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal party. He was mainly concerned with foreign policy more generally, asking whether the recent Anglo-Italian agreement was not intended as part of an effort by Mussolini and Hitler to isolate France:

Aerodromes are being constructed near the frontiers of France, and within easy striking distance of the munition industries of the south-west of France. On the borders of Spain, on the German frontier, the Italian frontier, the Balearic Islands, on the flank of the French communications with North Africa, France is being encircled.

He dismissed Chamberlain's excuse that the government is seeking to come up with practical proposals to limit aerial warfare, since the outlines of the problem has been known for years and yet nothing has been done about it. Furthermore, Sinclair attacked the National Government's scrupulous interpretation of neutrality in the Spanish case:

Neutrality between the parties in a civil war, yes; but neutrality between the bomber and his innocent victims, when the bombers are all on one side and the innocent victims all on the other side, is neutrality between right and wrong.

Doing something -- defending British ships, punishing Franco -- just isn't as hard as Chamberlain makes out.
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After Philip Noel-Baker's opening speech on 21 June 1938, the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, replied for the government. He began by touching briefly on the Japanese invasion of China, in a way which interestingly foreshadowed something he said just over three months later:

if it were not that China is so far away and the scenes which are taking place there are so remote from our everyday consciousness, I think the sentiments of pity, [horror] and indignation which would be aroused by a full appreciation of those events might drive this people to courses which perhaps they have never yet contemplated.

In response to Noel-Baker's comments about the status of aerial warfare in international law, Chamberlain agreed that 'new weapons [don't] make new laws', but added that new weapons create new circumstances which the old laws may not cover. That is, the laws of war 'do not entirely meet the case which we have to meet to-day'. Having said that, he believes there are 'three principles of international law which are as applicable to warfare from the air as they are to war at sea or on land':

In the first place, it is against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks upon civilian populations. That is undoubtedly a violation of international law. In the second place, targets which are aimed at from the air must be legitimate military objectives and must be capable of identification. In the third place, reasonable care must be taken in attacking those military objectives so that by carelessness a civilian population in the neighbourhood is not bombed.

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Der Spiegel has a lengthy article based upon a new book by historians Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer called Soldaten (no English version yet, unfortunately). It's based on the transcripts of secret recordings made of the conversations of German POWs captured by British and American forces in the Second World War. They would have talked about many things, but the article focuses on the war crimes which the soldiers, sailors and airmen discuss quite candidly among themselves, as perhaps they never did again in their lives. It's quite horrifying reading. But as far as the German army is concerned, the details of the war crimes committed in the East and elsewhere, while shocking, aren't all that new. It's more unusual to see evidence of the war crimes carried out by the men of the Luftwaffe. I've extracted those particular transcripts from the article.
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On 21 June 1938, Philip Noel-Baker MP moved a reduction of £100 in an amount being voted for Foreign Office salaries. This is a time-honoured way of starting an argument in the House of Commons (well, technically they are called debates): it allows the mover to get into the agenda an issue they consider to be of importance, to make their case for it, and for other speakers (including those representing the government) to give supporting or opposing points of view. The motion nearly always fails, but then that's not the point.
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As indicated when he returned from Munich last week, Chamberlain is to fly back to Germany to meet with Hitler a second time. (Above headlines are from The Times, p. 10.) This time, they are meeting at Godesberg, a spa town in the Rhineland. Chamberlain will take the Anglo-French plan to Hitler, which may be a problem, because the Czech attitude to it is now characterised as 'Neither acceptance nor rejection'. It seems that the Manchester Guardian's scoop of yesterday was somewhat premature, for a later message from the Czech government was much more equivocal, asking for revisions to be made to the plan. France and Britain are pressuring Czechoslovakia to prove 'a more definite reply to the Anglo-French proposals', so that the Prime Minister and the Führer will have something to talk about.
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It's the 75th anniversary of Stanley Baldwin's famous 'the bomber will always get through' speech. It's an important text which is widely quoted, both in my primary and my secondary sources, as a testament to the fear of bombing in the 1930s. But I've never actually read it very closely, and I think I'm in good company because it's usually the same couple of lines which are quoted, and the rest of it is ignored. And as it doesn't seem to be online anywhere I thought it would be a useful exercise to transcribe it and put it up on the web.

Baldwin was not Prime Minister when he gave the speech, as is sometimes said. He had been PM twice before, in 1923-4 and 1925-9 (and would be again in 1935-7), but at this time he was Lord President of the Council, a Cabinet-level post with no major duties attached to it. Baldwin's real importance was as leader of the Conservative Party, which had by far the most seats in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. He had power without responsibility, one is tempted to say.

The occasion for the speech was a debate in the House of Commons about disarmament, held on 10 November 1932 -- the eve of Armistice Day. The original motion was proposed by Clement Attlee, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and read:

That, in the opinion of this House, it is an essential preliminary to the success of the forthcoming World Economic Conference that the British Government should give clear and unequivocal support to an immediate, universal, and substantial reduction of armaments on the basis of equality of status for all nations, and should maintain the principles of the Covenant of the League of Nations by supporting the findings of the Lytton Commission on the Sino-Japanese dispute.1

This was obviously an attempt to embarrass the Prime Minister, a well-known pacifist -- and a hated former leader of the Labour Party. But MacDonald didn't speak in the following debate; instead, his Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, defended the Government's record and went into some hopeful diplomatic initiatives in some detail. George Lansbury, Labour's leader, lashed out and accused all nations of failing to fulfill any of the international peace pacts signed since the war. Baldwin spoke last of all. According to the Times's parliamentary correspondent, when he finished 'There was a deep and almost emotional round of applause' from the House.2 Of course, he was the party leader for most of the MPs, but it does seem that he had touched a chord. Baldwin had a longstanding record of concern about the air threat and his sincerity would have been evident. And -- not that there was ever any doubt given the huge majority enjoyed by the National Government -- Attlee's motion was defeated by 402 votes to 44.

The following transcript of his speech is taken not from Hansard but from The Times.3 I've edited it lightly, mainly to move the murmurs of approval from the listening MPs into footnotes. The phrases in bold are those which are most commonly quoted.
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  1. The Times, 11 November 1932, p. 7. 

  2. Ibid., p. 14. 

  3. Ibid., p. 8.