The Rape of Nanking – a summary

13 December 1937 saw the start of one of the most horrific acts of brutality of the Second World War, the Nanking Massacre, often referred to as the ‘Rape of Nanking’.

In Britain or the US we may consider the war to have started in 1939 or 1941, but many modern historians consider this to be too Eurocentric and that the war had really started in 1937 with the outbreak of hostilities between China and Japan. (Pictured is the Eternal flame at the Nanjing massacre memorial).

Manchuria

Six years earlier, in 1931, Japan had invaded Manchuria, brushing aside Chinese resistance, and setting it up as an independent state, naming it Manchukuo. Only Germany and Italy formally recognized this enclave of Japan on Chinese soil, and despite the incursion war was averted. China appealed to the League of Nations who duly condemned the Japanese aggression but did nothing.

China at the time was embroiled in a protracted civil war between Mao Zedong’s communists and the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. Then, in July 1937, a skirmish between the Chinese and Japanese near Beijing soon escalated into full-scale war. Mao and Chiang Kai-shek agreed on a ceasefire and the formation of a ‘United Front’, the Kuomintang-Communist front, in order to defeat the Japanese.

Kill all captives

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The March On Rome – a summary

The March on Rome was the grand name given to the events that led to Mussolini’s seizure of power on 28 October 1922.

The Italian King

The threat of civil war in Italy loomed large and Mussolini and his fascist party decided to stage a coup despite knowing they were no match for the Italian army. Indeed, Luigi Facta, the Italian Prime Minister, asked the king, Victor Emanuel III, to declare a state of martial law and to allow the use of the army to squash Mussolini and his followers. The king initially agreed and then, fearing that such an action would spark a civil war, changed his mind. Appalled, Facta resigned.

20,000 fascists began the March On Rome but stopped 30 kilometres north of the capital where half of them promptly returned home. Mussolini himself joined the march at various stages to have his photograph taken and be seen as marching shoulder-to-shoulder with his men. The photos show Mussolini with his jaw jutting, his chest inflated and his steely eyes fixed on his destiny. But there was only so much marching Mussolini wanted to do and he arrived in the capital by express train.

The King and His New Prime Minister

The king believed it was better to have Mussolini within his government than causing unrest from the outside so he offered the fascist leader a role in his government. But Mussolini refused everything but the top job. The bluff worked, and on 28 October 1922, the king duly appointed Mussolini Prime Minister.

The following day the march did take place but the victory had already been won, so this was more of a celebratory stroll than a revolutionary march.

The Murder of a Socialist

Eighteen months later, Mussolini’s government won convincingly at the polls. When the socialist politician, Giacomo Matteotti, spoke out against the election, claiming that fraud and intimidation had won it for the fascists, he paid for his outspokenness with his life. Matteotti’s murder caused a national outcry but there was no proof of Mussolini’s involvement and the king stood by him. In disgust, politicians of all persuasions withdrew from parliament, which allowed Mussolini opportunity to consolidate his power and form his dictatorship.

Mussolini Rupert Colley

Mussolini: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats and downloadable audio.

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The Munich Agreement: Peace For Our Time

The nation of Czechoslovakia, created in 1919, had amongst its diverse ethnic groups 3.5 million Germans living on the Czech-German border, the Sudetenland. When the Czechoslovakian president, Eduard Benes, visited Hitler in Germany he was subjected to one of Hitler’s harangues about oppression and the Sudeten German’s right to self-determination. Hitler wanted to use the Sudetenland as a pretext to invade Czechoslovakia despite his generals cautioning him against the idea.

Czechoslovakia: the “last major problem”

On September 15, 1938, Neville Chamberlain (pictured), Britain’s Prime Minister since May 1937, visited Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden and listened as Hitler proclaimed that Czechoslovakia was the “last major problem to be solved”. Despite his generals’ advice and nervousness, Hitler threatened war unless the Czech and British governments accepted his demands that the Sudetenland be peacefully incorporated into the Reich.

Chamberlain was not unsympathetic. Like many British politicians before him, he felt that the post-WWI treaty signed at Versailles had been unnecessarily unjust against Germany and the French’s determination to impose the Treaty to the letter overly harsh. Furthermore, a strong Germany, the British felt, would act as a useful buffer against the Soviet Union. Therefore, Chamberlain listened to Hitler and purposefully pursued a policy of appeasement.

When Chamberlain relayed Hitler’s demands to Benes, the Czechoslovakian president knew he had no choice. Neither Britain nor France would come to his rescue, despite their alliances, and his country could not face going to war single-handedly against the might of Germany. Reluctantly, Benes agreed to Hitler’s demands.

Chamberlain returned to Hitler, satisfied that, through his diplomacy, he had averted a war. But Hitler was now demanding more, namely the right to the immediate occupation of the Sudetenland.

Chamberlain was again prepared to accept these new demands but his government was not. A stalemate had been reached. Europe seemed on the brink of war until the unlikely figure of Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, stepped in as mediator and suggested a meeting between himself, Hitler, Chamberlain and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Daladier. The Czechoslovakian government was not invited.

The Munich Agreement

The four powers met for the one day in Munich on September 29, 1938. Germany, it was agreed, could have the Sudetenland in return for a guarantee that Hitler would make no further territorial demands – which would secure the rest of Czechoslovakia. Hitler agreed. Hitler and Chamberlain also signed a declaration of Anglo-German friendship, as “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.”

“Peace For Our Time”

Benes protested but was firmly reminded that no one would go to war over Czechoslovakia. The triumphant Chamberlain, meanwhile, returned to Britain, waving the infamous piece of paper in his hand, declaring that the Munich Agreement had guaranteed “peace for our time” (not “peace in our time” as is often misquoted). Two days after the conference, the German army marched into the Sudetenland.

Hitler however was far from satisfied with the outcome of Munich: “That senile old rascal Chamberlain,” he complained, “has ruined my entry into Prague.” But six months later Prague would be his and the calamitous conflagration of the Second World War drew a significant step nearer.

Rupert Colley

Read more about Nazi Germany in Nazi Germany: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.

The League of Nations – a summary

Following the end of the First World War, US president, Woodrow Wilson, proposed a programme of Fourteen Points to be presented at the Paris Peace Conference. The fourteenth point suggested the formation of an international body to help maintain future peace and arbitrate over disputes. The exact wording was as follows:

‘A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.’

Endorsed by the peace conference, the League of Nations was founded on 28 June 1919, the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed, with 44 founding members, and held its first meeting in Paris on 16 January 1920. Its HQ, however, was in Geneva and a British diplomat, Sir Eric Drummond, its first (of three) Secretary-General.

Member states came and went but 63 nations belonged to the League at one time or another, the most notable exception being the US. In 1919, an increasingly isolationist US refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and never joined the League of Nations as a member despite the efforts of Woodrow Wilson. For a brief five months period (September 1934 to February 1935) there was a record 58 members.

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