Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

In spite of what the Italians may claim, there is little doubt that Britain with the support of her large Empire would in the long run have defeated Italy. But, on the other hand, it is quite certain, that the Italian air force-one of the most efficient in the world and, by common consent, superior to that of Great Britain today- would have done irreparable damage to the British Navy. Britain would, in consequence, have emerged out of a victorious war, far weaker than she is today. And with a crippled navy she would have to face the gigantic re-armament of Nazi Germany.

A small group of Imperialist-strategists began to urge that the distant rumblings now heard in Memel constituted a greater menace to great Britain than Italian exploits in Abyssinia. This warning was confirmed and reiterated by French politicians of all shades of opinion for whom the only concern now is how to prepare for the future German menace. Ultimately the British Cabinet realized that for them, discretion was the better part of valour. The reason is that though Hider has been following a sincerely pro-British policy and has no intention of assuming the aggressive role on Germany's Western Front, and though all his objectives are on the Eastern and Southern Front, e.g., in Memel, Austria, Czechoslovakia, etc., most British politicians are suspicious of re-armed Germany. They feel that even if Germany has today no intentions of fighting England or even France, as soon as Germany attempts to expand to the East and to the South, a situation may arise when both France and England may be drawn into a war with her, if they are to prevent German hegemony in Europe. In such a contingency, with a crippled navy, Great Britain will be at a serious disadvantage as compared with Germany. Already the German air force is superior to that of the entire British Empire and with conscription in force, the German land-forces will soon become superior to those of the British Empire. The only hope of maintaining a balance of fighting power in favor of Britain for a future emergency lies in preserving and enlarging the present naval strength of Great Britain.

While these calculations and considerations were being carefully deliberated upon in Great Britain, Italy announced tha: if she was thwarted by France and Britain in her Abyssinian policy she would completely withdraw from the politics of Central Europe, and give Hitler a free hand. The effect was remarkable and sabre-rattling ceased. Thus Hitler by his re-armament policy frightened France and Britain into maintaining the peace in Europe in 1935.

As a confirmation of this statement, one may refer to the recent speech of the British Premier Mr Baldwin at the recent Conservative Party Conference at Bournemouth. Mr Baldwin said:
'But I want to say to you that recent events have confirmed in my own mind doubts and anxieties which have been presented to me and my colleagues for some time past. We have, as you know, since the War done more in the way of practical disarmament. . . than any other country . . . We cannot pursue that path longer. The whole perspective on the continent has been altered in the past year or two by the rearming of Germany. I have no reason to believe in hostile intentions ... But I cannot be blind to the fact that the presence of another great nation armed alters the perspective of Europe in the fulfilment of obligations under the League of Nations. I cannot conceal from myself that some day the fulfilment of those obligations may mean that the nations who are fulfilling them may have to maintain by force of arms the Covenant of the League.'
It is probable that another factor also served to cool official enthusiasm for a fight with Italy-namely, public opinion within the British Empire. On this point, the Daily Mail (Paris Edition) wrote, on the 26th September, in its leading article:
Some of our bloodthirsty Pacifist Journals have now started printing articles which suggest that the Dominions would willingly support sanctions even though war followed. The attitude of the peoples of the Dominions to the League of Nations in the present dispute is a matter of the first importance; and it is vital for the people of Great Britain to know whether the application of sanctions to Italy-were such a dangerous step possible-would split the Empire and gravely accentuate differences within it. on an examination of the evidence, the answer seems to be in the affirm-ative-that war following the application of the sanctions would divide Empire opinion seriously and produce such discontent among large sections of the population in the Dominions as to aggravate all the difficulties overseas.
The oldest of the great Dominions, Canada, has always been uneasy as to the obligations of the Covenant. In 1924, she opposed any extension of her liabilities under the League on the ground that she was remote from Europe.

That attitude her people have generally upheld. In his broadcast of September 6, Mr Bennett, the Canadian Prime Minister, declared that it was the duty of the Government. 'By all just and honorable means to see that Canada is kept our of trouble. . . . We will not be embroiled in any foreign quarrel. . . . '
As for Australia, Mr Lyons, her Prime Minister, has promised 'close co-operation' with the British Government. A very different line has been taken by Mr Forde, the leader of the Federal Labour Party, who has proclaimed the policy of that formidable organisation to be A firm refusal to participate in any external war.' In New South Wales, the Party has passed a resolution demanding that Australia should declare her neutrality at Geneva and recall her representative there, if the League's action brings war ... In South Africa, General Smuts has stated that the Union 'stands to the Covenant in letter and in spirit. . . . '
The South African Defense Minister, Mr Pirow, views conditions quite differently from General Smuts. On September 15, he told a public meeting: 'I am certain in any case that South Africans no intention of firing a shot . . . Whatever happens we will not shoot.' There is practical confirmation of this feeling in the fact that South African farmers are anxious to get orders for the supply of meat to the Italian armies in East Africa and Abyssinia.

In view of these declarations, there is a distinct likelihood that certain of the Dominions might hold aloof and sever their connection with the League were the impossible realized by some wild freak of chance, and all the States composing the League induced to vote for sanctions. Surely our League enthusiasts must realize that it is not fair, in such conditions to create differences and sow disunion within the Empire.
The latest news from Australia goes to show that opinion there is sharply divided on the question of sanctions against Italy, which may lead to war. The Times (London) of the 12th October said that 'by 27 votes to 21 the House of Representatives today rejected the attempt by Mr Beasley, the Lang Labor leader, to induce Parliament to declare Australian neutrality and refusal to endorse sanctions against Italy.' With regard to the situation in Palestine which is under British mandate, the Time of the 12th October wrote as follows:
'It is alleged that pro-Italian political sympathies are chiefly held by the partisans of Haj Amin Effendi el Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, and since the outbreak of the Ethiopian dispute the Mufti's newspaper Jamia El Arabiya has published pro Italian ar-ticles, while its rival which supports the Nashashibi Party, has revealed the existence of a letter purporting to have come from the Emir Shekib Arslan to the Mufti, commending his Eminence's pro-Italian activities. During the last few weeks there have been frequent comments in the Arab Press in general on the wisdom of exploiting the present international confusion in unity with other Arab people for the purpose of throwing off the exiled Syrian nationalists leader who lives in Geneva.)
Among the Jews, the Revisionists Party, or new Zionists, are on the side of Italy. Their newspaper Hayarden is alone among Jewish newspapers in Palestine in reporting the vents of the Italo-Ethiopian dispute in pro-Italian colours.'

So far as Egypt is concerned, it is quite clear that the leaders while not openly opposing British policy towards Italy, are pressing for a recognition of the full independence of Egypt, if Egyptian sympathy and support are to be secured for Great Britain. How far they will be able to drive the bargain home, depends on the inter- national situation, if the international situation gradually quiets down, then it is doubtful if the Egyptian leaders will obtain any substantial success. But in any case it seems likely that they will have some success. Already the continental papers have announced that with British support, capitulations will be abolished in Egypt. That means that Egyptian Courts will have full power to try foreigners and this will constitute a step towards Egypt's independence in the domain of public law.
In Great Britain, public opinion as a whole is behind the Government in its policy of sanctions against Italy. Nevertheless, the embers of the Cabinet are closely watching the situation. It is not true to say the present Cabinet have decided for an early election only because they think that the present occasion is favorable from the electioneering point of view. They also want to feel the pulse of the Nation and see how far they can go in the direction of enforcing 'sanctions' against Italy. Meanwhile, the Independent Labor Party, which has throughout followed a bold and consistent policy on the present issue has summoned a national conference of all working-class organisations opposed to sanctions and war and has issued the following manifesto:
'The Labor Party, The Trades Union Congress and the Communist Party in supporting the imposition of sanctions by the National Government and the League of Nations, are in fact lining up workers behind the policy which would be used for British Imperialism. The independent Labor Party warns workers that economic and financial sanctions are likely to develop into war. Full preparations have been made for a naval blockade of Italy. The war policy of the Government should be resisted now.' (The Times 10th October, 1935).
The Times of the same date gives the news that a private meeting of about 50 Conservative M.P.'s led by Mr L.S. Amery will be held to consider the present international situation and the danger of Great Britain becoming involved in the war between Italy and Abyssinia, because in their opinion the effective application of sanctions will lead to war. We have now to watch and see what effect is produced on the British Cabinet by this joint pressure from the Right and the Left.