Crucial month on the road to World War II
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.