Thursday, 7 May 2009

A 'Piece of Paper' ....

I had an interesting outing this week, to the Imperial War Museum, to take a look at the original 'piece of paper' waved by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he returned from a meeting with Hitler in the autumn of 1938.

I had been asked to answer a reader's query for the BBC History Magazine about the 'piece of paper', and although I could easily have written the answer from the comfort of my desk, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see a genuine historic artefact, so I arranged to visit the Museum's archive so that I could view the document in person.

It did not disappoint. A single sheet of paper, with a government crest embossed at its head, it contains some 120 words or so, neatly typed in three paragraphs, which outline the importance of Anglo-German relations, the common resolve of both Chamberlain and Hitler that their two nations should "never go to war with one another again", and the intention that all future disagreements were to be settled by negotiation. Beneath the text, were two signatures, both now turning rather brown.

The first is Hitler's, distinctive with its anomalous vertical lines and a surname that seems to tail off to the bottom-right hand corner of the page. Interestingly, the text is still of a good size. It would deteriorate to a tiny scrawl as Hitler's myopia progressed later in the war. The second signature, that of Chamberlain, is altogether more conventional. Beneath the two, to the left side, there is a hand-written date 'September 30, 1938'.

Curiously, the document was sent direct to the Imperial War Museum in January 1940 - thereby avoiding the usual fate of all government documents, which are filed internally and then sent to the National Archive at Kew, only to be made public after 30 years. It seems that this special treatment came about because the significance of the document was immediately apparent. By January 1940, of course, Britain was once again at war with Germany, and Chamberlain's much-vaunted accord with Hitler was very much a dead letter. The note that accompanied the 'piece of paper' to the Museum alluded to this awareness, stating that whilst the document “seemed of the highest significance then … its implications are now ironical.”

The 'piece of paper' was then put on display, and remained on view until the early 1990s, when fears about its apparent deterioration caused it to be replaced by a facsimile copy. The original was then consigned to a temperature-controlled strong room within the Museum's archive.

I can't say there was any particular 'frisson' about holding the item, but it was still very exciting to have a document in my hands that was once the focus of such tremendous hope, and then of so much disappointment and despair. It also made me rather sorry that the age of such momentous papers and letters has now passed, to be replaced by the more erasable and transient medium of the email. It is highly doubtful if our descendants - 70 years from now - will see the original documentation from the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, or of Afghanistan, or indeed of many of the seminal events of our time. And that makes me rather sad - not only because the historical record will be lacking, but also because no-one will have the opportunity to hold those documents, study the signatures and enjoy the moment.

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