Friday, February 8, 2013

A Review of Lynne Olson's "Troublesome Young Men"

Winston Churchill hoped his predecessor as Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain would be remembered as a man of peace. Didn’t work out. Chamberlain, if he is remembered at all, is remembered as a fool. He is the man who waved a little slip of paper from Adolf Hitler proclaiming “peace in our time” when in fact, bombs would soon be dropping in the heart of London. But during the 1930’s, he was the most powerful man in England. If he had stayed in power as PM, there is little doubt that Hitler would have taken England and completed his work of killing all of the Jews of Europe.

But Chamberlain didn’t remain in power because a small group of men (mostly) within the PM’s own party risked their political fortunes to oust him from power. It was tempting to write a “diverse group of men”, because they did have quite a variety of personalities. But on the other hand, they were mostly white men who came from the same privileged background and went to the same public schools (which would, of course, be called private schools in the U.S.), went to the same colleges and parties and were members of the same parties. A more homogeneous “old (and young) boys network” then we’ve ever had in the United States.

Which made the rebellion of men like Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby, Leo Amery, Robert Cranborne and Ronald Cartland all the more amazing because they had to go against the core values they had been raised with, “not shaking the boat” and “good form” and “party discipline”.

The book takes what might sound like dry procedure, the parliamentary machinations of overturning an administration and brings out the humor, intrigue and bravery of the men’s actions (rather like what Spielberg did recently telling the story of the 13th Amendment in “Lincoln”.)

The rebels observed two things that Chamberlain seemed unable to grasp. One, that Hitler was an evil man that clearly expressed his desire to dominate Europe and kill Jews, not only in closed meetings but in rather detailed book he published and sold widely in his country. (English publishers bowed to Nazi pressure and left out the most incriminating sections out of the English language version.) Two, that England’s deteriorating military capacity needed serious upgrades in arms, training and recruiting. (Chamberlain didn’t want to spend the money. Because of the economy in the world wide depression and all. But he didn’t really seem too concerned about the poor in England either.)

Chamberlain believed he didn’t need the armed forces and that he overcome Hitler with his winning personality and amazing diplomatic skills. The Tory rebels acknowledged what Fascism was and what England needed. And they knew Winston Churchill was the man who knew these things as well and could bring these truths to the British people. So they fought to bring him to power, putting country before their own careers.

Sadly, many things in the book reminded me of current politics, such as:

1) Arrogant, narcissistic political leaders. Chamberlain at one time said to his cabinet, “You’re all wrong, wrong, wrong, I tell you! I’m the most relaxed and understanding of people! None of you, I insist, must ever say I’m dictatorial again!” It’s not hard to imagine these words coming from the lips of certain people in political power today.

2) Leaders who seem more antagonistic toward political rivals in their own country rather enemies in other countries that, you know, want to kill us all. Chamberlain’s Whip, David Margesson, had an extensive spy network of the Tories that he believed was plotting against the PM. But they didn’t have much of a spy network working at all in Germany.

3) A sycophantic press was afraid to say anything bad about the Nazis, because it might make them mad. The BBC also wouldn’t dare say anything bad about Chamberlain because it might endanger their paychecks. At least they had more tangible reasons for their servile behavior then today’s press has. But it’s often just as sad.

4) The old boys’ network lives on. But it’s just not boys, and they aren’t all white. But they still go to the same schools and the same parties and seem more concerned about being a part of the right crowd than doing what’s right.

So a good story is well told by Olson. And there are lessons to be learned. And as a bonus, we learn that the brightest and best of the rebels, Ronald Cartland was novelist Barbara Cartland’s brother and Churchill’s good friend, Violet Bonham Carter was Helena Bonham Carter’s grandmother. So there’s that.

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