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On the evening of October 19 these two societies held a joint meeting.
The speaker, introduced by the history society’s chairman Bernard Shaw, was Mike Fraser. His subject was The Forgotten Appeaser – Viscount Runciman’s Mission to Czechoslovakia.
As well as tracing the course of the mission, he gave one of the most lucid accounts of the events immediately preceding the Second World War that one could hope to hear.
Born in South Shields, Runciman inherited the considerable wealth that his father’s shipping business had generated, and which enabled the purchase of Doxford Hall.
He went into politics with the outlook of a moderate Liberal of the laissez-faire persuasion and held significant offices of state, though was never a very successful minister.
As an individual he was hardly charismatic, having rather the bearing of a backroom person.
A French diplomat found him “cold and impassive”, and rather like someone “fallen from the pages of Dickens”.
At the time of his mission, for which he was not first choice, he was a rather unhealthy 67, rather keener on his hobbies than long-distance diplomacy.
A look at the map of Europe at this time showed the vulnerability of the recently created Czechoslovakia, with its substantial number of Sudeten Germans, Chamberlain believing that the desire for a Greater Germany was the limit of Hitler’s ambition.
Hitler, though, had already decided it would be ‘wiped off the map’.
Mediation involved contact with some unusual characters, such as the Princess Stephanie, Hitler’s ‘spy princess’, and the supposedly independent Henlein, who was, in fact, close to Hitler.
Runciman’s insistence on ample leisure time at weekends led him to spend a good deal of time with the Germans until a death threat drove him to the British Embassy.
Benes, the Czech president, who had little time for the Sudeten Germans, in the end capitulated.
The mission was a PR disaster. In Churchill’s words, the settlement was a “total and unmitigated defeat”.
According to a witness, Runciman on return looked 10 years older and a broken man. He resigned from the Government on the invasion of Poland.
Zoreen, Lady Hill, chairman of the civic society, thanked Mike Fraser for an “excellent and informative talk”.