History

Alfred Duff Cooper: Man who held his head high

Published: 11. 4. 2022
Author: Silvia Mária Petrovitsová
Photo: Photo Wikimedia, Superstock
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During the presidential award ceremony, President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, bestowed an award upon pre-WWII British Minister, Alfred Duff Cooper, in memoriam. This man, unjustly forgotten by the public, was the only member of the British Government to hand in his resignation as a protest against the willingness of Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to submit to German pressure.

He was unequivocal in his resignation speech, “I am giving up a great deal. My beloved office, a fulfilling job, colleagues and friends that I have come to be proud of. I may have destroyed my political career. But all of that is inconsequential, for I have retained something that to me, personally, has immense value – I can walk with my head held high.” These were the words that First Lord of the Admiralty, Alfred Duff Cooper, closed with on October 3, 1938, in the House of Commons regarding his resignation as a protest against the signing of the Munich Agreement. The news of his resignation filled all of London's evening paper headlines. German propaganda painted him as one of the most dangerous warmongers. Cooper was among the most vocal critics of Prime Minister Chamberlain and his pacifist policies.

Alone in opposition

In 1919, when the winning parties of WWI set the terms for peace, the Germans, as the instigators of the war, paid a high price. As revenge for this defeat, 19 years later, Hitler demanded the right of self-determination for the Sudeten Germans in an attempt to discredit Czechoslovakia and paint it as a Bolshevik-backed danger to the entirety of Europe. After the annexation of Austria, it became evident that Czechoslovakia would be the next target of German expansion. All the British ministers, led by Prime Minister Chamberlain, refused to come to Czechoslovakia's aid and were adamant that Great Britain would stay out of this military conflict. All except for Cooper. The Godesberg Memorandum, with its list of demands that the Nazis made of Czechoslovakia, was the ultimate outcome of strenuous negotiations between Hitler and Chamberlain in September 1938. At Hitler's behest, the British Prime Minister presented this document to the Czechoslovak Government through its London Ambassador, Jan Masaryk. The Government refused to acknowledge the Memorandum, only for Hitler to follow up with the so-called Munich Betrayal.

Writer and diplomat

Cooper later played an important role in the Norway Debate regarding Britain's failed 1940 intervention in Norway that ultimately led to Chamberlain's demise. He made his return to high politics as minister of information in Churchill's government. After serving in this position for some months, Cooper was sent to Singapore as Minister Resident to represent the government's interests. In 1943, he was appointed British Representative on the Free French Committee of National Liberation. He stayed in an ambassadorial capacity in France until 1947. Cooper was also keen on creative work. He wrote six books, including the novel, Operation Heartbreak (1950), and his autobiography, Old Men Forget (1953).

Order of the White Lion

In October 2021, on the traditional date of Czechoslovak Independence Day, President Miloš Zeman presented awards to important personalities. The five who were awarded the First Order of the White Lion included Alfred Duff Cooper, in memoriam. Since 1992, this highest form of state recognition has been awarded to people who have done great deeds in the interest of Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic.

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