Cru­cial month on the road to World War II

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

The causes of World War II are still de­bated, but was there a sem­i­nal mo­ment?

As Aus­tralian au­thor Ni­cholas Whit­lam makes clear, there is al­most uni­ver­sal con­sen­sus the con­flict had its ori­gins in the du­bi­ous set­tle­ment ar­range­ments of World War I.

The break­down of the es­tab­lished or­der in Europe, hy­per­in­fla­tion, the De­pres­sion and per­ceived po­lit­i­cal ap­pease­ment all laid the ground­work.

While there has been much spec­u­la­tion about how the war could have been avoided, Whit­lam’s Four Weeks One Sum­mer cen­tres on this ques­tion: when did it ac­tu­ally all go pear­shaped?

He con­vinc­ingly ar­gues that the year 1936 is crit­i­cal. But as he delves deeper he finds that what mat­ters most is just four weeks of that piv­otal year.

This pe­riod, he writes, oc­curred from Satur­day, July 18, when el­e­ments of the Span­ish Army started the up­ris­ing that be­came the Span­ish Civil War, to Sun­day, Au­gust 16, when the no­to­ri­ous Berlin Olympics came to a close.

Whit­lam doc­u­ments how the am­bi­tious, du­plic­i­tous Gen­eral Fran­cisco Franco emerged as the leader of those mem­bers of the armed forces who sought to over­throw Spain’s elected gov­ern­ment and how Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Ger­many and Ben­ito Mus­solini’s fas­cist Italy — and to a lesser ex­tent Por­tu­gal, ruled by the dic­ta­to­rial An­to­nio de Oliveira Salazar — soon sup­ported Franco with men and ma­teriel.

In turn, Rus­sia and the so-called In­ter­na­tional Bri­gades sup­ported the Repub­li­can an­tiFranco cause.

This fine work of schol­ar­ship ex­plains how pusil­lan­i­mous politi­cians, es­pe­cially in Bri­tain and the US, and even some in France, turned a blind eye to what was clearly hap­pen­ing in fas­cist Spain.

It also re­veals how, in Au­gust 1936, King Ed­ward VIII took a scan­dalous hol­i­day with his lover, Amer­i­can so­cialite and di­vorcee Wal­lis Simp­son. It was this hol­i­day, a highly pub­li­cised Adri­atic cruise, that trig­gered the ab­di­ca­tion cri­sis that led to Ed­ward’s brother Al­bert, who took the name of Ge­orge VI, as­cend­ing the throne.

As Berlin was about to stage the Olympics, an al­ter­na­tive, anti-Nazi, pro-free­dom Peo­ple’s Olympiad was due to be held in Barcelona (a city de­scribed at the time by Ge­orge Or­well as “a worker’s par­adise”) but it never even­tu­ated. This was be­cause much of Spain was under mar­tial law and con­trolled by Franco. The Berlin Games went ahead al­though, much to the cha­grin of Hitler, the pro­pa­ganda party was spoiled by African-Amer­i­can ath­lete James Cleve­land (“Jesse”) Owens, who won four gold medals. This did not sit right with Nazi racial prin­ci­ples at all.

Whit­lam, a non­fic­tion writer and nov­el­ist, is per­haps best known for Nest of Traitors, his coau­thored anal­y­sis of the mid-1950s Petrov spy drama. This new book is the re­sult of his long in­ter­est in the Span­ish Civil War, the Olympic move­ment and the pol­i­tics of the 30s.

To tell this fas­ci­nat­ing story about what hap­pened in Europe and else­where dur­ing the four crit­i­cal weeks of the sum­mer of 1936, he has adopted a diary tech­nique, in the main ex­tremely suc­cess­fully.

This in­volves log­ging what took place on each and ev­ery one of these 30 days, some­times doc­u­ment­ing what oc­curred hour by hour.

This de­tailed diary tech­nique has en­abled Whit­lam, as he puts it, “to record con­tem­po­rary events episod­i­cally, mov­ing from scene to scene, from one plot to a sub-plot, from one coun­try to an­other”.

The re­sult is a clev­erly con­structed, well-re­searched, highly en­ter­tain­ing and ed­i­fy­ing book. Whit­lam’s acute anal­y­sis makes it clear that, from time to time, sev­eral im­por­tant events were oc­cur­ring else­where on the planet that were highly rel­e­vant to what even­tu­ated dur­ing these four crit­i­cal weeks that shaped, if not the en­tire world, then cer­tainly the Europe of mod­ern times.

This com­pelling mil­i­tary, po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural and sport­ing his­tory il­lu­mi­nates how, in the sum­mer of 1936, much of the me­dia as well as al­most all lead­ing Euro­pean politi­cians (es­pe­cially those of a con­ser­va­tive bent) failed to take heed of events in Spain. This in turn em­bold­ened Franco. Then Hitler (and later Mus­solini) planned and ex­e­cuted an ex­pan­sive war that, with the en­try of Ja­pan and the US, came to en­com­pass much of the rest of the world.

One of the high­lights of this book is the way in which Whit­lam coun­ter­points crit­i­cal events in Spain, Ger­many and Italy with what was oc­cur­ring else­where, even Aus­tralia, where the au­thor’s fa­mous fa­ther, Gough Whit­lam, be­came La­bor prime min­is­ter in 1972.

Four Weeks One Sum­mer also con­tains sev­eral ex­tremely use­ful maps, coloured and black-and-white pho­to­graphs and other help­ful illustrations, which blend in nicely with Whit­lam’s no-non­sense nar­ra­tive style.

All in all, for ed­u­ca­tors and his­tory buffs in par­tic­u­lar, this book is some­thing to savour. is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and pol­i­tics at Grif­fith Uni­ver­sity.

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