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March 04, 2010

Appeasement, Croatia and the Left: Brendan Simms remembers an encounter with Michael Foot

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - argues that Michael Foot, whilst he was often spectacularly wrong in his foreign policy stance, was very right on a number of occasions: most importantly in his assessment of Hitler but also in his support for the Falklands War and his defence of Croatia.

Late one day, I staggered into the dining room of the Palace Hotel, an imposing Habsburg-style edifice in the Croatian capital Zagreb. It was November 1994, at the height of the war in neighbouring Bosnia, a struggle in which Croatia was heavily and controversially involved. The streets were full of soldiers and policemen. It was dark, and I was tired after a long journey. The elderly man and his wife finishing their meals rang a vague bell, but I had no idea who they were when we fell into conversation while I waited for my food. I told them that I was thinking of writing a critique of British appeasement of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. What, the old man asked, was I planning to call the book. "Guilty Men", I answered. I thought that my interlocutor started slightly, and his wife's jaw began to drop. So did the penny. "I didn't catch your name", I continued. "Michael Foot" came back the reply - I was in the presence not only of the late former Labour leader, but also of the man who, together with Frank Owen of the Standard and Peter Howard of the Daily Express, had penned the original Guilty Men under the nom de plume of Cato in 1940.

This Left Book Club best-seller became the best known critique of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany and has spawned many imitations. My own was eventually published in 2001 under the title of Unfinest Hour; Foot attended the London launch at the University of Westminster.

We were both attending a meeting of the Croatian Pen Club, designed primarily to generate support for a country which was still very much in the sights of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and his paramilitary proxies. The event was held in a very large hall, filled to capacity with local intellectuals, politicians, military men and members of the public.

Foot's own lecture was a tour de force, more of a patriotic harangue in which he urged Croats to free their homeland, but at the same time not to betray the Bosnians on whom the Croatian President Tudjman had turned the year before. "You will win", he told a rapt audience, his frail frame shaking with fervour yet choosing every word carefully. At the time, this seemed a vain hope: one-third of the country was under direct military occupation by Serb militias; two-thirds of Bosnia had been taken by the forces of Ratko Mladic; and the prospect of western military intervention still seemed remote.

Yet within nine months, Foot had been proved right. By their own efforts, with some US logistical support, the Croatians re-unified their country and made a decisive contribution to ending the Bosnian war as well.

What was so remarkable about Foot's position was the fact that Croatia was then more usually the butt of left-wing contempt in Britain. Admittedly not helped by the belligerent nationalism of President Franjo Tudjman, the prevailing view of Foot's associates was that as the former genocidal ally of Nazi Germany in World War II, Croatia had fascism written into its DNA. So the former Labour leader was very much in a minority when he insisted from the start - rightly - that the war which broke out in the summer of 1991 was no desperate act of self-defence, but a carefully planned project of ethnic displacement sponsored by Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. Foot's activism here was matched by his late wife, Jill Craigie whose searing documentary about the Bosnian war Two Hours from London was first screened in Zagreb in November 1994.

I always thought of that weekend when I later came across Foot's political career. His stance on the former Yugoslavia, of course, was of a piece with his opposition to appeasement. It also fitted with his principled support for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to use military force to recapture the Falklands from the occupying forces of the Argentine military dictatorship. This cannot have been easy for Foot, because he was diametrically opposed to the Prime Minister on almost every other issue, and he also had a particularly rebarbative left wing of the party to deal with. But whatever else he was, Foot was not a pacifist and he held his ground. He remained a staunch enemy of tyranny of any sort, whether of the right (as in Latin America) or of the left in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe; after some hesitation, he even came around to NATO.

All this made his other foreign policy stances somewhat inexplicable, however. It is not surprising that he should have attacked rearmament in the 1935 election, and even supported unilateral disarmament for a while in the 1930s. That was very much in the air at the time, and Foot famously repented of it in 1940. It is much more surprising to find him opposing West German re-armament before 1955, and his support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; both policies would if implemented have severely weakened the defence of democracy in Britain.

Foot also lost the Labour whip for a while because he opposed additional spending on the RAF in March 1961. And in 1983, by now leader of the Labour party, Foot presided over an election manifesto based on unilateral disarmament and other policies so unrealistic that the document was famously described as the "longest suicide note in history".

These positions cannot be reconciled, and so we must see them in the round. Michael Foot was undoubtedly a failure as leader of the opposition, but he brought to British politics an integrity which even his worst enemies recognised. He was not entirely consistent, but he was always sincere. Many of his policies were wrong, but he was right on most of the most important things. The French communist leader Georges Marchais once said that communism had been globalement positif in historical terms. It is a judgment which posterity is much more likely to make on Foot. He will be deeply missed.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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