BOOK REVIEW / Deaf ears at the Foreign Office: The unnecessary war - Patricia Meehan Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 18.99

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WHEN HE published The Last Days of Hitler in 1956, Hugh Trevor-Roper dismissed the 'democratic opposition' to the Nazis as 'a creature as fabulous as the centaur and the hippogriff'. The elegant Oxonian sneer echoed the verdict of Lewis Namier and John Wheeler-Bennett. The dominant view among British historians of Germany since the war has been that the domestic opposition to Hitler between 1933-45 did not add up to a row of beans.

This dense and sombre account of those years mounts a powerful challenge to that reading. It also reflects in the most devastating fashion on many of those - civil servants and politicians - who were responsible for the conduct of British foreign policy.

The systematic denigration of the German opposition, and the suppression of departmental minutes in the official record during the post-war Nazi-hunt, were the least of it: 'even perjury was not a stumbling block when there were secrets to be kept'. It is difficult to quarrel with Patricia Meehan's icy judgement that the advent of peace found the Foreign Office 'fighting a rearguard action in a secret war for its own reputation'.

The book owes its title to Winston Churchill: 'President Roosevelt once asked me what this war should be called. My answer was 'the unnecessary war'.' The tantalising question which Meehan circles unremittingly in these pages is not whether the Second World War was necessary, but whether it was avoidable. Her contention is that, from 1937 onwards, members of the secret anti-Nazi opposition frequently took their lives in their hands. Their efforts were directed at persuading the British establishment that if the right international climate were created, Hitler could be overthrown from within. With a handful of exceptions, those they sought out were wilfully deaf to their pleas.

Ms Meehan argues persuasively that from British sources alone - industrialists and academics as well as diplomats - there was a flood of evidence that challenged the received view of Nazi Germany as strong and united; the true picture was one of economic chaos, military weakness and increasing public disaffection.

At the time of the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938, the anti-Nazi opposition stood armed and ready to act. If Britain and France had at that crucial juncture mustered the will to draw a line in the sand, it would have moved to install a new democratic government. Instead, Neville Chamberlain flew to wait upon the Fuhrer at Berchtesgaden. 'In matters of foreign policy,' noted the Head of Northern Department at the Foreign Office, 'we live under a dictatorship, just like Germany or Italy.' The moment of maximum opportunity slipped agonisingly away.

Some of the material which Ms Meehan has dredged up from the Foreign Office archives makes shameful and terrible reading. In 1944, after the 20 July plot against Hitler, the Right Reverend George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, urged the Foreign Secretary to intervene on behalf of some of the conspirators. 'I see no reason whatever,' Eden wrote across his letter, 'to encourage this pestilent priest.'

On the same occasion John Wheeler-Bennett, then on the staff of the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department, greeted the failure of the plot with relief, and registered cold- blooded satisfaction at the purge which followed it: 'The Gestapo and the SS have done us an appreciable service in removing a selection of those who would undoubtedly have posed as 'good' Germans after the war . . . The killing of Germans by Germans will save us from future embarrassments of many kinds.'

Almost half a century later, those embarrassments lie pitilessly bare. Their exposure is all the more effective for the controlled outrage with which Ms Meehan writes.

She directs our attention to the preposterous lyricism to which the British ambassador was moved by the party Day at Nuremberg - the spectacle was 'indescribably beautiful'. We are given an insight into the deliberations of that fine body of men, the Foreign Policy Committee.

They were unanimous, wrote Sir Alexander Cadogan, who had succeeded Vansittart as the Head of the Foreign Office, that Czechoslovakia was 'not worth the bones of a single Grenadier, and they're quite right too'. Towards Germany's colonial ambitions he was indulgent: 'Some of us can find a lot of desert wholly covered with stones that we could throw into the pot.'

Cadogan's cynicism was exceeded only by his indolence. He contrived to spend the whole of August 1938 on holiday at Le Touquet, where he divided his time between the golf course and the casino: 'Evidently a crisis was going on,' he noted in his diary. 'Well, I gave them a chance to recall me.'

It is possible to fault Ms Meehan on only two relatively minor points, one general, the other particular. Some readers may find that her characterisation is sometimes a shade elementary, and that an occasional touch of grey would have heightened the verisimilitude she achieves with her bold blacks and whites. I also paused over her assertion that the German opposition was alone among resistance movements in Europe in looking ahead to the sort of world which would exist after the world - that might raise a few elderly eyebrows in places like Denmark and the Netherlands.

The general thrust of her argument, however, is as compelling as it is painful. She reveals how much warning the Foreign Office had of such events as the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the Sudeten crisis, the Nazi-Soviet pact and the attack on Poland. Through the activities of one particular intelligence source, this country achieved 'a penetration of the inner councils of the Nazi Party beyond the wildest dreams of any secret service agent'.

Perhaps the shoddiest chapter is that which describes the collective amnesia which appeared to afflict numbers of senior British diplomats and politicians after the war. Some of those who had struggled most courageously against Hitler and survived to tell the tale nevertheless found themselves in the dock. The files of the Foreign Office contained much material that was vital to their defence. It was not made available. The testimony of many senior diplomats and some politicians would have been equally important.

Almost the only one to demonstrate that he was a man of honour was the much-maligned Lord Halifax. Most of the others who were approached - they included R A Butler, who had served as Minister of State, Cadogan and Ivone Kirkpatrick - demonstrated only that they would have made competent prefects of Judaea in the reign of Tiberius.