July 22


September 1st 1939 is the official date of the start of World War Two, when Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France finally abandoned appeasement. Not yet a world war, of course
; that only began when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, on December 7th, 1941...

There are historians who do not regard it as a second "World War" at all, but merely as a resumption of the first "World War". Others point to 1931, when Japan seized Manchuria from China, and then the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident" on July 7th 1937, which led to war between Japan and China. Or Italy's invasion and defeat of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935...

So the official date really only speaks of the European war, the engagement of every nation on the continent (save only Switzerland, Ireland, and the Vatican - everyone else who tried to stay out got invaded anyway, some by one side, some by the other, and even those three were never exactly "neutral") as everyone tried to redraw its map in their own favour. Then, if we are speaking of a European war, did it not actually begin three years earlier than the official date, and not with Hitler's re-militarization of the Rhineland in November 1936, and certainly not as late as Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938? Perhaps we should consider July 22nd 1936.

This is the argument presented by the American singer-songwriter Jerry Silverman in what is not a history book at all, nor even a historical polemic, but a wonderful collection of folk-songs in a dozen and more European languages, under the title "The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust". Each song comes with a brief historical narrative, to contextualise it; the whole comes with an extended preface, and it is there that Silverman postulates revising the official date.

"On July 22, 1936," he recounts, "Hitler received a request for military aid to support the fascist rebellion in Spain. He had just attended a performance of Die Walküre at the annual Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, when he was handed a letter from Franco, outlining the insurgents' needs, particularly air support. As it turned out, fellow music lovers Hermann Goering and General Werner von Blomberg (commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht) were also in Bayreuth and were summoned to an urgent meeting with Hitler. That very night, with the opera's "Magic Fire Music" still ringing in his ears and visions of Valhalla dancing in his brain, der Führer launched Unternehmen Zauberfeuer, Operation Magic Fire, in support of Franco's rebels. Although the world did not realize it at the time, World War II had begun."

How do you justify such a claim? Quite easily, as it transpires.

"The involvement of Germany a mere four days after the outbreak of the conflict in Spain," Silverman continues, "inspired a counter-reaction among progressive forces throughout Europe and America. There were those who recognized the nature of the fascist and Nazi threat in Spain... and beyond. International Brigades were recruited and organised by the Comintern, though not all those who joined in the struggle were Communists."

Silverman quotes Albert Prago, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: "estimates of the total number of volunteers vary from 40,000 to 50,000 men and women from 53 countries", which can definitely be construed as a truly international conflict.

Silverman resumes his account at the end of November 1936, when

"the first International Brigade had taken up position in the defense of Madrid. The following February the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade arrived in Spain. They were immediately thrown into action in the battle of the Jarama Valley south of Madrid, where the fighting was so intense it was referred to as 'the Marne of Madrid'"...

- the Battle of the Marne, between July 15th and August 2nd 1918, was the last major assault by the Germans in World War I...

"According to war correspondent Ernest Hemingway, these hastily trained, poorly equipped young men 'fought as well as American fighting men have fought anywhere'."

Almost 3,000 American volunteers in total joined the war against Franco, of whom one-third died in the fighting. 

Silverman is an American writing for American readers, and a Jew writing for Jewish readers, so we can understand that he presents the data that he does, focused on the American, including precise numbers of the high percentage of Jews who made up the International Brigade: Poland 2,250; France 1,043; Britain and Ireland 214; Palestine 267; and more than 2,000 from a combination of Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Canada, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany itself; plus a further 53 from the Soviet Union. A tiny number, compared with the 4,000 who went from Britain, and that is just the recently revised MI5 number of those believed to have gone.

By the time 1936 turned into 1937, most countries in Europe were involved in some aspect of European war, and the fight against Fascism was the reason for involvement in every instance, with the re-drawing of the map of Europe, and beyond, already in place. Does the start of a war then only become official when governments declare them? Hitler's triumphal entry into Prague took place on March 15th 1939; two weeks later General Franco declared himself dictator of Spain. Fascism ruled in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Italy, Portugal...

When the defeated Republicans fled over the Pyrenees into France, which had fallen to the Germans on May 10th 1940, the Vichy government interned them, mostly at Gurs in the south-western Basses Pyrenées, and then transported them, via the staging-camp of Drancy outside Paris, to concentration camps and gas chambers in Poland, the entire Spanish Civil War contingent "cleansed" by the end of 1940, Jews and non-Jews alike. Like the Moorsoldaten, the Peat-Bog soldiers, these were political not religious martyrs.

Hitler and Franco, Berlin, 1936
All this makes a nonsense of Robert Harris' defense of Chamberlain, that: "he saved us from disaster by appeasing for a year, buying time to build an army and air force when we didn't have one". 

What do you mean we didn't have one? 

With Hitler building one, entirely visibly, since 1936, when his troops entered the Rhineland, and Mussolini already in Africa? 

With both of their clearly stated declarations of intent, and then this open support for Fascism in Spain? Why Goering even stated, when he testifyied in Nuremburg that: "The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience."

And with Russia arming on the grand scale. 

The real crime of Chamberlain wasn’t appeasement, but unreadiness. How, starting that day in July 1936, how could Whitehall not be issuing budgets and orders to get a bloody move on?

Amber pages

Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who discovered the first laws of heredity, born today in 1822 - I wonder if it might be interesting to draw up a list of all the monks in history who did rather more than just silence, prayer and fasting; Bede and Fra Bacon and Thomas Aquinas obviously; who else? And might a novel about a fictional monk be of any interest to the world?

The Rev. William Archibald Spooner was also born today, in 1844; though that should probably be recorded as The Weverend Rilliam Sparchibald Ooner: "one swell foop" is his: what others? I seem to recall Ponty Mython skooing a dit about him, or was it Tawlty Fowers? No, on reflection it must have been something with Ronnie Barker - just his sort of pantomime. Stabsolutely up his reet.

Emma Lazarus, poetess of "The New Colossus", the theoretical idealism on the base of the Statue of Liberty, born today in 1849; see my piece about her, and it, in Private Collection, by clicking here

Edward Hopper, painter, born today in 1882 - an artist who interested me, but only vaguely, until I saw the exhibition of Bob Dylan's paintings, at London's Halcyon Gallery, in 2016 - shall I move this amber page out of the traffic with an essay comparing those two?

The anniversary of the historical events behind Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin", in what should properly be called Hameln, in West Germany, today in 1376, or possibly 1384, or maybe it was June 26th, the year 1284... various sources to follow this, including here, and here. And then, did Browning get his version from the Grimm brothers, who published a version in 1812, for which click here... and lots more really good illustrations... 

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