Jan 28th 2024

UK press warns of Nato war with Russia – newspapers are clearly keen to avoid mistakes of WWII

by Tim Luckhurs


Tim Luckhurst is Principal of South College at the Durham University



Front page of Daily Main from October 1938 reacting to Neville Chamberlain's Mu8nich agreement with Nazi Germany.

“Britain must prepare for war. America won’t save us this time,” declared the headline on a column in the Daily Telegraph on January 19. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, asserted on January 18 that Nato is “braced for all-out war with Russia in the next 20 years”. It cited a Nato official’s advice that civilians should “prepare for cataclysmic conflicts and the chilling prospect of being conscripted”.

The Sun has alerted its readers to the prospect of “wars in Russia, China, Iran and North Korea in five years”. In the Spectator, a recent column noted the defence secretary Grant Shapps’ assertion that the UK is “moving from a post-war to pre-war world” and suggested that “the west must stop playing Mr Nice Guy”.

Another column in the New Statesman similarly warned that a “worldwide, bipolar military conflict” will be “the organising principle of geopolitics for years to come”. It quoted Shapps as saying: “Old enemies are reanimated. New foes are taking shape. Battle lines are being redrawn.”

As fears of a new war emerge, I have delved into the newspaper print archives to explore how journalists reported the risk of conflict during the years before the world wars of the 20th century.

Press coverage in the years preceding the second world war served a generation of readers haunted by the appalling death toll of mechanised trench warfare between 1914 and 1918. Public concern was reinforced by fear of bombing, which newspapers and cinema newsreels depicted in searing images from the civil war in Spain between 1936 and 1939 and the Japanese bombing of China in 1931.

Despite the nature of Hitler’s regime in Germany, the Conservative prime minister of the time, Neville Chamberlain, was determined that British newspapers must promote appeasement. Press management became a political priority for Chamberlain.

He was helped to achieve it by two key lieutenants. Downing Street press secretary George Steward and Sir Joseph Ball, the chairman of the Conservative Research Department, worked closely with the prime minister to persuade British newspapers that appeasement was in the national interest. Chamberlain insisted that hostility to his approach would weaken Britain’s influence abroad.

Munich agreement

When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.”

It predicted that Chamberlain’s diplomacy would end in “an era when the race for armaments will be seen for the madness that it is and will be abandoned because it has ceased even to be profitable”.

The mass market Conservative Daily Mail chastised Labour’s Clement Attlee for complaining about the “shameless betrayal” of the Czechs and accused Attlee of issuing “frothy diatribes”. It promoted Conservative optimism that the agreement would guarantee peace.

Tear-out of Guardian coverage of Munich agreement
The Guardian was unimpressed by the Munich Agreement. Manchester Guardian, 1 October 1938.

The liberal Manchester Guardian loathed Hitler and harboured grave doubts about appeasement, but it could see no practical alternative. In a leader column on October 3 1938, it cautioned:

Now that the first flush of emotion is over it is the duty of all of us to see where the ‘peace with honour’ has brought us. The Prime Minister claims that it has brought us ‘peace for our time’. It is an inspiring claim, and if it proves to be a just one, he will have earned a place in history.

The following day’s edition of the popular left wing Daily Mirror was similarly unconvinced. It feared the “further strengthening until it becomes invincible of the Nazi domination of Europe”. The Mirror believed peace could only be secured by military strength brought about by rapid rearmament, but it could identify no alternative to compromise and deterrence. It feared a “world so armed and so explosive that it will blow itself to bits”.

In a subsequent leader on October 7, 1938, The Guardian hoped new weapons and additional recruitment to the armed forces might reinforce British diplomatic influence. However, it warned that if British foreign policy did not change substantially, “ordinary men and women” would not be persuaded that “the diplomacy our armaments are to serve” would work.

Doomed to repeat mistakes?

Journalism’s failures between 1936 and 1939 were less appalling than the jingoistic press campaigns that preceded the first world war and continued throughout it.

Between 1914 and 1918, newspapers downplayed misery and extolled victory. Soldiers found their behaviour hard to forgive. Such reporting promoted the belief that newspapers could not be trusted to tell the truth. It won newspapers a reputation as the main backer, and perhaps even an instigator, of conflict.

Later, their failures during the era of appeasement meant that British newspapers were not entirely trusted by their readers when the second world war was declared in September 1939. They were widely read but little loved.

In highlighting the risks facing the world as Ukraine resists Russian aggression and fighting rages in Gaza, newspapers suggest that they have learned from conflicts of the past. They are neither encouraging war nor disguising the possibility that Nato may be called upon to defend borders and democracy.

Britain has better newspapers than it had in 1914 or 1939. Would their editorial strengths survive the outbreak of war? I fear that now – as it was in the past – truth may still be the first casualty.

Tim Luckhurst, Principal of South College, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "Shocks are here to stay, and our task is not to predict the next one – although someone always does – but to sharpen our focus on resilience. Staying the course of politically mandated policies while minimizing the inevitable dislocations is easier said than done. But that is no excuse to fall for the myth of being victimized by the unprecedented."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACTS: "A new world is indeed emerging. It will be characterized not only by more interdependencies, but also by more insecurity, danger, and war. Stability in international relations will become a foreign concept from a bygone age – one that we did not fully appreciate until it was gone."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion."
Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."
Nov 2nd 2023
EXTRACT: "Of course, Putin owes his authoritarian mandate to Russians themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians – reeling from rapid, profound economic changes and the new culture of consumerist individualism – grew nostalgic for the 'strong' state. Their superpower status, historic breakthroughs in space, and grand victories on the battlefield were all long gone. Trading their new freedoms for the promise of renewed imperial glory seemed like a good deal." ----- "After Stalin, the only time the state engaged so openly in such violent repression was under Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB in the 1970s before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 (he died in 1984). -- Putin, who regards Andropov as a personal hero, has reinstated the Andropov-era 'disciplinary check-ups' of cultural institutions." ------ "We are dealing with people who want 'full revenge for the fall of the Soviet empire.' The empire they want to build will include Andropov-style control over every aspect of Russian life, as well as a grander claim of being anointed by God. Like the Orwellian equation “2+2=5,” it is a story that you would have to be insane – or brutally compelled – to believe."