Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Darkest Hour

England's policy of "appeasement"―letting Hitler grab neighboring lands with impunity―provides the backstory of Darkest Hour, the new biopic about Churchill and Chamberlain.

As we watch the media under attack by right-wing Republicans, Churchill's warnings about the dangers to freedom of the press are as relevant today as they were in his time.

And so are his actions to sidestep thought control.

During the 1930s, Chamberlain favored appeasement, for an extremely practical reason: his party's rule hinged on the votes of working-class Britons, who opposed foreign entanglements and distrusted war profiteers (after all, they'd paid the price for militarism in the previous war against Germany).

In 1938, Chamberlain signed an accord with Hitler labeled the Munich Agreement, which let the Führer annex part of Czechoslovakia if he agreed to stop seizing more territory. Most Britons praised Chamberlain's coup; but of course it didn't stop Hitler, who provoked war with England a year later, when he invaded Poland. The pacifist Chamberlain proved within eight months an inept wartime leader, opening the door for Churchill's appointment by the king as his successor (the first scene of Darkest Hour).

Chamberlain's most fiery critic, Churchill had spent years protesting appeasement, using his favorite soapbox: the newspaper op-ed. When Chamberlain―in keeping with the Munich Agreement―moved to stifle all opposition to Hitler, he ruled out critical speeches in Parliament and threatened the newspapers with shutdown, citing national secrecy laws. Churchill, in response, promised to take his message to the streets.

In a November 1938 speech before the national press club, Churchill wondered aloud whether Chamberlain wouldn't rather live in a totalitarian state. "In those states they conduct foreign policy on the basis that the press say nothing but what it is told, and immediately say what it is told. It might be very convenient, no doubt, if we could suppress public opinion here, and everything was allowed to go on quietly without our knowing what was going on outside."

Churchill suggested England was in fact already experiencing a press blackout. With appeasement's critics in Parliament muzzled and the press censored, Chamberlain enjoyed carte blanch to bamboozle Britons. 

The situation left opponents like Churchill one choice: to resist the government's policy through the "public platform." And resist Churchill did

Between September 1938―when the Munich Agreement was signed―and September 1939―when Germany invaded Poland―Churchill spoke against appeasement relentlessly on the radio. He also repackaged 80 of his op-eds into a book―which became an immediate best-seller―and, with financial help from silent backers, erected billboards calling for his appointment to Chamberlain's cabinet. 

Churchill's cabinet appointment did come, three days after Hitler entered Poland and simultaneously with England's declaration of war with Germany.
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