Posted Thursday, April 19, 2001

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Sydney, Australia, April 19 2001

Trust Hitler: Menzies the appeaser revealed

By Tony Stephens

Menzies CartoonA SECRET letter written by Prime Minister Robert Menzies eight days after World War II started, with Hitler's armies invading Poland, said that "nobody cares a damn about Poland" and that "it is really quite indefensible for us to be dictating to the German people what sort of government they should have".

The self-styled "gloomy" letter questioned the ability of the Allies to sustain war against the "incredibly strong" German defensive position and said that Germany, Italy and Japan "may very well decide that the time has come to carve up Great and Greater Britain".

Menzies expressed confidence that Hitler "had no desire for a first class war" and would offer peace talks after defeating Poland.

Suggesting that the Allies should be prepared to negotiate, he said: "The point that is really clear in my mind is that some very quick thinking will have to be done when the German offer arrives." He raised the possibility of "a resettlement of the whole map of Europe with joint and several guarantees all round".

The letter from the Prime Minister's office in Canberra is dated September 11, 1939, stamped "Secret" and addressed to Stanley Melbourne Bruce, the former prime minister who had become High Commissioner in Britain.

Dr John Edwards, the economist and biographer who unearthed the letter, says it reveals Menzies as "an advocate of appeasement not only in the years leading to the war, when the appeasers could at least claim to have been hoodwinked by Hitler, but even after the war began".

Dr Edwards, who will deliver the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Lecture in Perth today, says the letter will remind Australians how fortunate they were to have John Curtin replace Menzies as the nation's wartime leader.

Dr Edwards found the letter, and a supporting reply from Bruce, while researching Curtin's history. It does not appear in biographies of Menzies or Bruce, though some of the letter was included in foreign policy documents published in 1976.

Appeasement was not as unfashionable a word before the war as it later became. Many people who remembered the carnage of World War I wanted to avoid a repeat. John Lukacs's new book, Five Days in London, May 1940, reveals how Winston Churchill had to fight members of his War Cabinet who wanted to sue for peace after France fell.

Lukacs says Churchill's Cabinet discussed whether the dominions should be told of this debate. There was a reluctance to tell Australia anything.

Neville Chamberlain reported that Bruce had told him that Britain could not continue the war without France and should learn Germany's terms.

Menzies seems to have accepted Hitler's word that he had only limited military ambitions, to right the wrongs of the Versailles peace conference after World War I.

Dr Edwards says:

"Menzies was right that Hitler did not want a first class war with Britain and France, but he was quite wrong that all he wanted was a revision to Versailles. He wanted living space in the east and he wanted Germany to become the overwhelmingly dominant military power in Europe - which is why a first class war would have to be fought."

Menzies also wrote that "Curtin has privately made it clear to me ... that his own greatest ambition is to remain leader of the Opposition for the duration of the war".

Dr Edwards disputes this. He says Curtin's defiance of Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in insisting that Australian troops be brought home from the Middle East rather than sent to Burma was a defining moment in Curtin's leadership.

But, he argues that Australia's later engagement with the global economy, planned during the war, was as great an achievement.

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