Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England by Lynne Olson




(Highly Recommended)




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Lynne Olson’s new book, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, provides readers with a well-told story of the courage of about thirty members of Parliament who took the risk to dissent from the leadership of their party, Neville Chamberlain, and oppose the policy of appeasement with Germany. Olson describes the political, social and personal price that those dissidents paid for their actions. Their conflict with Chamberlain was generational, as well as ideological. The price of loyalty is a theme of this book, and Olson mines it well. Churchill is a central figure, of course, in this story, and his loyalty to Chamberlain contrasts well with the courage of the dissidents who brought Churchill to power. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 11, “Here Is the Testing,” pp. 192-195:


With his guarantee of Poland and the introduction of conscription, Neville Chamberlain took much of the steam out of his critics’ campaign. He had not broadened his government, as they had demanded, but he had finally taken a stand against appeasement, ordering his government to prepare—if not full throttle, then at least half throttle—for war. Even Winston Churchill said he now supported the prime minister’s policy.

But Chamberlain’s dramatic about-face was not what it seemed. He had no plans to live up to his pledge of going to war if Poland was at­tacked. Indeed, he had not given up on his hopes of keeping the peace by reaching an agreement with Germany. A disheartened Leslie Hore­-Belisha told an acquaintance that the prime minister “seemed to think that an occasional bold speech was enough in itself” and that “he had no real intention of doing anything.” According to the war secretary “Neville still believes he can control Hitler and Mussolini and that they heed him.”

Chamberlain’s promise was made to assuage angry public opinion and to warn Hitler of the consequences that would result from a fail­ure to negotiate. Yet the German leader never paid attention to the warn­ing. Why should he? Almost immediately after the British guarantee of Poland, there were unmistakable signs that Chamberlain’s show of firm­ness was just that, a show. On April 4, less than a week after Chamber­lain’s speech about Poland, The Times published a leader (an editorial), declaring that the prime minister’s guarantee did not “bind Great Britain to defend every inch of the present frontiers of Poland.” The leader, like the one on the Sudetenland the previous year, caused a storm of con­troversy. The government’s critics saw it as an indication that Cham­berlain was backing away from his commitment to Poland. The Foreign Office denied that the government had prompted the newspaper, but Chamberlain privately acknowledged that it reflected his point of view. “It is we who will judge whether [Poland’s] independence is threatened or not,” he wrote to his sister.

The government meanwhile continued to press the newspapers and the BBC to go easy on Hitler and Germany. “The public are not being informed of the extent or the imminence of our immediate danger,” Harold Nicolson wrote in The Spectator in May “I believe that at this moment the country ought to be alarmed, and ought to be disquieted.” That same month Horace Wilson, who had been promoted to head the British Civil Service earlier in the year but who still was acting as the prime minister’s right-hand man, urged top BBC executives not to broad­cast reports on Hitler’s speeches, declaring that such stories create “a war mentality.” Another Chamberlain staffer informed the BBC that “it is definitely undesirable that, at times like the present, issues of foreign policy should be discussed in a controversial spirit on the air.”

German officials carefully noted such attempts to avoid riling Hitler. In early summer, Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador in Lon­don, cabled Berlin that while “hostility toward Germany is growing [and] the readiness to fight has become more pronounced” among the British people, the prime minister and his cabinet favored “a constructive policy vis-à-vis Germany” Dirksen assured his superiors that “Chamber­lain’s personality is a certain guarantee that British policy will not be placed in the hands of unscrupulous adventurers.”

When Hitler escalated his demands over Poland, the British govern­ment advised Polish officials to negotiate. Hitler insisted that the Baltic port of Danzig, which the Versailles Treaty had declared a free city be returned to Germany. He also demanded that Germany be allowed to build a highway and railway across the Polish Corridor, a narrow strip of formerly German territory that had been awarded to Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Bolstered by promises of help from Britain and France, the Polish government refused all of Hitler’s claims. “We in Poland do not recognize the concept of peace at any price,” de­clared Polish foreign minister Jozef Beck. Unlike Czechoslovakia, Beck said Poland “will fight.”

Although British officials privately warned the Poles that they must be more accommodating, they never said that Britain had no intention of coming to Poland’s rescue in the event of a German invasion. As a result, the Poles continued to trust in the promises of their allies, even as negotiations with Britain over loans and credits to buy arms and am­munition dragged on through the summer without resolution. “Surely the whole purpose of these negotiations is to arm Poland, and to arm her quickly,” Hugh Dalton declared in a House of Commons debate in late July. “Is it, perhaps, feared that if the Poles get too many arms too quickly, they will get above themselves? . . . [Is there] some sinister and unrevealed purpose to try to keep Poland weak and irresolute?” In his diary, Dalton wrote of his concern that the government was getting ready to “sell the Poles down the river, as they sold the Czechs last year.”

As it happened, other negotiations were going on in London that summer that, if successful, would indeed “enable Britain,” in the words of Horace Wilson, “to rid herself of her commitments vis-à-vis Poland.” These talks, unlike the ones with Polish military officials, were top secret. “If anything about them were to leak out,” Ambassador Dirksen cautioned the German Foreign Ministry, “there would be a grand scan­dal, and Chamberlain would probably be forced to resign.” The subject under discussion was undeniably explosive: behind the backs of the British people and Parliament, Wilson had been delegated to sound out Germany on the possibility of concluding an Anglo-German pact that would involve, among other things, wide-ranging economic cooperation between the two countries, including massive loans for German indus­tries. In effect, it was a bribe to Hitler, to try to persuade him to behave himself and not to precipitate a war with Poland.

The German official involved in these negotiations was Dr. Helmut Wohlthat, a high-ranking government expert on foreign trade. Wilson presented Wohlthat with a cornucopia of offers: a nonaggression treaty, under which both Britain and Germany would renounce unilateral ag­gressive action; a disarmament agreement; settlement of Germany’s de­mands for the return of its former colonies in Africa, taken away by the Versailles Treaty; and acknowledgment of Germany’s economic sphere of interest in Central and Eastern Europe. In a conversation with Dirksen, Wilson made clear that the conclusion of such an Anglo-German en­tente would, in the view of the British government, invalidate Britain’s guarantee of Poland. The proposed agreement, however, failed to get very far. Word of the talks did in fact leak to the British press, and in the furor that followed, Chamberlain’s government quietly ended them while denying that any such negotiations were under way. Yet the aborted discussions did have one major result: they hardened Hitler’s belief that Chamberlain had no intention of going to war over Poland.


As an added bonus, in addition to telling the story about the actions of the dissidents and their role in Churchill’s rise to power, Olson also describes for readers what happened to many of those young men in later years. Troublesome Young Men is a finely written history about an important recent period in history, and about a few individuals whose personal courage made a significant difference in world events.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2007 issue of Executive Times


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