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Most people thought they were going to die…

September 3, 2014


Today in 1939, Neville Chamberlain came on the radio.  Although this phenomenon was not normally a ratings winner, most everyone seems to have tuned into this broadcast.  It’s a slow, plaintive sort of performance, with a slightly whiny edge to it.  A lot of it is devoted to pleading “imagine how I feel”?

I asked my Dad, who was old enough to remember the broadcast well, how most people reacted to this news.  He said, quite bluntly, “most people thought they were going to die”.  None of the cheering and flag-waving that had broken out in August 1914 was in evidence.  There was in the meantime, tremendous fear of bombing.  It was axiomatic that “the bomber will always get through”.  The Luftwaffe was assumed to enjoy complete domination of the skies and the fate of Guernica was thought representative.  Just extrapolate those casualties across the populations of London, Birmingham and (in my Dad’s case) Liverpool, and you have millions dead.  Of course, at the later stages of the war when the allies did enjoy complete domination of the air, the death tolls of Dresden and Toyko validated the despairing voices of September 1939.  According to my Dad, most every adult on the streets that day looked ashen faced, steeling themselves to embrace their own mortality.  I got the impression from my Dad that one of the main sources of fear that day was fear itself.  Fear of fear – the fear that you won’t be able to hold it together – that you will explode in a mess of wet and embarrassing terror in front of your peers.  Whereas this fear of fear was blocked with bravado in 1914, fear of fear in 1939 was more often checked with fatalism.

Apparently the weather was lovely that day.  Sunday morning.  Eerily blue skies met the tired old voice complaining about the end of the world as we know it and how it really wasn’t his fault.  Growing up, we used to hear this speech broadcast over and over again.  I think I could do an impression of it.

It goes like this…

“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a
final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were
prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would
exist between us.

I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that
consequently this country is at war with Germany.

You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win
peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything
different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.

Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful
and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it.
He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened, and
although He now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by
the Poles, that is not a true statement. The proposals were never shown to the
Poles, nor to us, and, although they were announced in a German broadcast on
Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them, but ordered his
troops to cross the Polish frontier. His action shows convincingly that there is
no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force
to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.

We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations, going to the aid of
Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her
people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to
establish peace. The situation in which no word given by Germany’s ruler could be
trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable.
And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your part
with calmness and courage.

At such a moment as this the assurances of support that we have received from the
Empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.

The Government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the
work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead. But these
plans need your help. You may be taking your part in the fighting services or as
a volunteer in one of the branches of Civil Defence. If so you will report for
duty in accordance with the instructions you have received. You may be engaged in
work essential to the prosecution of war for the maintenance of the life of the
people – in factories, in transport, in public utility concerns, or in the supply
of other necessaries of life. If so, it is of vital importance that you should
carry on with your jobs.

Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we
shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and
persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”


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