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Uncomfortable season's greetings: Happy Christmas 1938 !

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

1938? Are you sure about the date? Yes, today I want to share an anecdote about Christmas 1938, a mere eighty years ago today - quite a nicely round number to start a conversation. The Bodleian Libraries hold in their collections a very peculiar document from December 1938: a topical, albeit unsavoury, Christmas greetings card from the Conservative party, which also commemorates an event that what was considered to have preserved peace in Europe: the Munich accords of 29-30 September,1938. The card features Prime Minister Arthur Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with the then Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, and is kept today in the British Conservative Party archives of the Weston library. [Percy Cohen, Personal Papers and Manuscripts, ref. CRD/D/3/1/3].

Do the Munich accords ring a bell? It was an international conference held between France, Great-Britain, Germany and Italy in late September 1938. In addition to Hitler and Chamberlain were also present the Italian leader Benito Mussolini and radical French statesman Édouard Daladier. In 1938, Germany's territorial claims had been increasingly growing: after the Anschluss of March 10th of that year, which resulted in the annexation of Austria, Germany was laying claims on the Sudetes mountains region of the recently created Czechoslovakia. The outcome of the conference was the cession of these territories to Germany, for the avowed aim to preserve peace in Europe, at all cost. If Daladier was highly critical of the accords (which he described as an 'ambush'), and was appalled with the celebrations that welcomed him upon his return to France, the British Conservative Party, of which Chamberlain was a member, celebrated the signature as an immense victory. The Conservatives might even have deemed the event momentous enough for it to be commemorated on the Party's Christmas card, to be sent to all the Party members across the country.*

This specific card is part of the personal papers archives of Percy Cohen. The front page shows a picture of Hitler and Chamberlain, hands together, and within it are printed, on one side, the traditional "with the compliments of the season", signed by RJ Rosie, mirrored on the other side by a facsimile of an additional agreement made between Chamberlain and Hitler following the signature of the accords, of which the most savoury bit is:

"(...) We are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe."

Interesting to think that the aforementioned 'possible sources of difference' had been in this case the Sudetes region, which had just been transferred, in violation with existing international laws existing, to Germany, for the simple reason that the latter was acting as a rogue country, threatening peace in Europe. An arbitrary transfer of territory would, it was thought, prevent war in Czechoslovakia. In 2018, exactly eighty years later, other such examples of aggression and complacency come to mind. At the top of the list we can find the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the ongoing conflict in Syria, the expulsion and extradition of families at the USA-Mexican borders, but that list keeps getting longer. This Christmas card also reminds us how political parties often attempt to gain popular support by capitalising on an existing political, military or humanitarian crisis - here again, contemporary examples are overflowing.

While this blog post is not necessarily about Oxford itself, it is inspired by the rich archives held by the University libraries. We came across these documents while doing a public engagement activity organised by the Weston Library.** Many more gems and timely reminders are held in its midst, available for you to read and discuss. Our wishes for the end of the year, it to not hesitate to explore, ask questions and be curious.

To paraphrase the our original document:

With the compliments of the season,

Winter Holidays 2018.

* It is not known if the card was an official one or personally commissioned, but is characterised by the Bodleian as the 'Conservative Party's Official Christmas Card.'

** We took pictures during the activity, and we have since reached out to the CP archives and the Weston for an authorisation to publish them here with this blog post, but have failed to hear back from them. For copyright reasons, we will not publish the original pictures until we have received this authorisation (hence these artistic endeavours), however you may find them here (3rd item of the article).

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