Few debates on the Second World War are as well known today as that which revolves around the question of appeasement. In this blog post we give you readers a brief overview of both sides of the debate, but the main aim of this post is to give you guys enough facts to be able to think and judge for yourself that key question – was appeasement right? If you’re ready then, let’s do this.
It is easy to criticise Neville Chamberlain. The British Prime Minister at a very difficult time, Chamberlain’s refusal to confront Adolf Hitler and his apparent comfort at watching the independence of Czechoslovakia slip beneath the waves are both sticks which can be easily used to beat the memory of that defeated statesman. In many ways, he provided us with a human face for British foreign policy and power at the time; Chamberlain was greying, from an older generation and makes use of promises and rhetoric laced with naivety and lies. In comparison to Adolf Hitler, the (apparently) youthful, energetic and enthused Fuhrer of Germany, Chamberlain appears like a pathetic effort – a weak challenge – to the increased confidence and aura of power which surrounded its popular leader.
What was worse, Chamberlain himself, much like several of his peers, seemed to have been taken in by Hitler’s performance. He plainly admired the German leader, and trusted him to follow through on his commitment to take no more territory. Not only did Hitler outmatch Chamberlain on every important scale then, he also tricked the Prime Minister into returning home and declaring ‘peace for our time.’ What an utterly embarrassing thing to have happened – the duping of one of the great power’s leaders, and on such a public forum for it to be forever captured in the audio archives of posterity. Is the case for condemnation so simple though? Let's investigate, by first examining the debate against Chamberlain's actions.
The Debate: Against.
Thanks to Chamberlain’s naivety and refusal to accept the inevitable, first Czechoslovakia and then Poland would fall, before Hitler turned his attention to the West. Yet, the Czechs were far from the first free gift that Chamberlain had helped grant the Nazis. The Anschluss in March of 1938, preceded by the re-occupation of the Rhineland and the reunification of German industry with the Nazi regime in the mid-1930s also added to the picture. By the time his last act of appeasement had been completed in autumn 1938, Chamberlain had already made something of a career out of giving Hitler what he wanted for the sake of the peace.
Chamberlain’s evidently joyous return and the jubilation signalled by the crowds as he presented that piece of paper present a damning portrait of British pre-war miscalculations. Not only was the Prime Minister fooled, so too were the British people as well. The idea that Chamberlain could even believe Hitler’s promise to seize no more territory, and that somehow Anglo-German consultation could form the basis of British diplomacy going forward, seems like a promise from another world. Indeed, Chamberlain’s distinct voice, coupled with his confidence, give the picture of a man who had just solved one of the most pressing questions of the day. In actual fact, Chamberlain’s visit to Hitler at Munich, wherein the Czechs were compelled by the British to give Hitler their best defences in the name of a wider European peace, represented to the Fuhrer the clearest sign yet that, no matter what he did, neither the British nor the French would mobilise to stop him, since neither London nor Paris wanted war.
It is thus easy to connect appeasement at Munich and beforehand with Hitler’s later behaviour. Convinced up to the last moment that the allies would never declare war, Hitler moved against Poland a year after the Munich agreement with the expectation that British indifference would again be the result. Had Chamberlain reproached Hitler for his actions sooner, it is supposed, then Hitler would never have pushed so hard. In such a manner do critics lay blame at the feet of Chamberlain. He should have known better, he should have done more, he should have read Mein Kampf, which laid out in explicit terms exactly what Hitler’s plans for the world were – and they certainly didn’t involve peace.
Chamberlain’s appeasement represented the worst of both worlds, because not only did he believe in Hitler’s lies, but he presented himself as Hitler’s fool right at the time when Britain needed to maintain a strong line against the Germans. With Chamberlain’s failure to contain Hitler came the certainty the following year that nothing could or would stop him, and he could do as he pleased. But is the debate so simple?
The Debate: For
When we say we argue in favour of appeasement, what I mean is that I am trying to help us all wrap our heads around it by appreciating the context in which Chamberlain negotiated and spoke with his German peer. Such considerations must be introduced by presenting some hard facts. First, Nazi Germany was viewed favourably up to the point that Hitler completed his invasion of Czechoslovakia in spring 1939. Before that point, it was communism that was seen as the greatest threat to Britain and its Empire, and Adolf Hitler was viewed not merely as the necessary foil to Josef Stalin, but as a miracle worker who had brought Germans from the depth of despair to the point that they could believe in themselves and their country again.
The economic miracle which followed the Nazi assumption of power in 1933 was accelerated and facilitated by the massive rearmament programme, but to unknowing eyes Hitler seemed like a Chancellor of a new breed, who did what he said and who rightly acquired the adulation of the masses for it. For sure, tensions had been raised in the earlier part of the 1938 and throughout the summer thanks to the issue of the Sudeten Germans, but Chamberlain's ability to maintain calm even as the situation appeared gloomy outside prevented any direct blame for the event from falling on Hitler. In any event, once Hitler agreed to welcome the Prime Minister to Munich, suspicions that Nazi Germany was plotting for war were significantly eased.
Second, we must be aware of the dangers of viewing history backwards. Nobody could have imagined that a second Great War more terrible and horrendous than that of 1914-18 would be the result of this appeasement. Furthermore, the notions of Blitzkrieg, of the Holocaust and of so many other qualities which characterised the Second World War were all unknown in 1938. It was above the imagination even of Winston Churchill, who famously issued repeated warnings about the dangers of a rearming Germany throughout the 1930s, that a war more egregious and costly than the previous war would come so soon. Hitler, much like Chamberlain, had lived through the first war, and under no circumstances did Chamberlain imagine that Hitler’s views on another baptism of fire were diametrically opposed to his.
If Chamberlain had realised this, then he would never have returned home with such a confidence in Hitler’s promises to make peace. Chamberlain thus fell not merely for Hitler’s false promises on maintaining peace, but for Hitler’s entire presentation of himself and the Nazi regime. Moreover, Chamberlain may well have tapped into the fact that the German people did not want a war, and he likely convinced himself because of this that Hitler would never manage to persuade his people of the need to fight one. Indeed, at the news of the outbreak of war in September 1939, many Germans greeted its outbreak with a stunned silence, which both unnerved and angered Hitler. Yet Hitler, again, had not expected the British and French to fulfil the terms of their alliance with Poland, expecting instead another Czechoslovakia.
Third, in line with the idea that war was not desired in either country, a forgotten feature of Munich and Chamberlain’s naïve return home was just how much that naivety was returned by the crowds Chamberlain spoke to. The Prime Minister had never been so popular, because he was putting at ease the fears of a generation of citizens in Britain who remained scarred from their experience of the Great War. Britain’s mission from 1919 was to ensure that such a conflict never occur again, and we cannot understate enough the extent to which the war experience scarred not merely the British people, but also the British administration. Fear of another terrible war and the impact it would have on the British system persuaded many in government that it was better to give Hitler what he wanted than it was to risk another war. Indeed, since Hitler was merely asking for a return to the pre-war status quo, and since he was only giving his German citizens what had once been theirs, it almost seemed unreasonable to resist.
Certainly, we could argue that Hitler’s framing of the Sudetenland question, and his insistence that Germans living there suffered terrible prosecution, all pointed to a man who would have been comfortable with stretching the truth. However, against this idea we must point out that Hitler had yet to present himself as the enemy of the West. He had yet to pick a fight with the French or the British, and he had yet to significantly spook those in government in either state. Saying that of course, precautions had been underway in France as the Maginot Line was constructed, but such acts were all too easy to dismiss as the historic paranoia of the French coming home to roost yet again, rather than the signal that all was not right. It was so much easier and, it must be argued, more rational, for British statesmen like Chamberlain to believe that Hitler would never have been crazy enough to launch another murder machine.
One only needs to look at the response to Chamberlain’s reassuring message to appreciate the extent to which the British people hoped he was right. There was no question of arguing the point with the Prime Minister, of insisting that somehow the Nazis were only using the British hesitation to fight to get what they wanted. Civilised states didn’t do such things. Not even the Kaiser’s Germany had gone to such lengths to dupe the allies, and there was no reason to suppose that Hitler’s regime would be any different. A quick survey of the German population would have found not merely fear at the idea of another war, but denial that their Fuhrer, who had their best interests at heart, was even planning one. Only the top generals and civil servants in Nazi Germany were aware of the truth, plugged in as they were to their Fuhrer’s unrelenting insistence on the use of conflict to cleanse the sins of Germany’s bitter past.
The cheers which greeted Chamberlain must be placed in the context not of a timid, fearful British public unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of political and ideological freedoms. Instead the joyous shouts from the crowd, just like Chamberlain’s beaming smile, represent the affirmation to secure peace and prevent another slaughter on the same scale as that seen in Flanders. Furthermore, having seen to slow and ineffective pace of warfare during that conflict, the idea that any politician in the world would make use of such a static conflict to settle anything appeared impossible. It was, once again, above the imagination of the British, French and indeed most Germans, to suppose that the next war wouldn’t be characterised by stationary slugging matches, but by sudden strikes, and that it wouldn’t contain an uninspiring defeat, but a sudden, terrifying advance which destroyed the pre-war, post-war and inter-war era brought by so many centuries of history.
Technology, it was believed, prevented the kind of takeovers of the continent such as that seen during the Napoleonic Wars, and the French army was after all the largest and most professional in the world, so such a takeover seemed all the more impossible. Chamberlain then, didn’t believe he was saving his people and the wider world from the outcome of the Second World War, or from the establishment of Nazism across the continent – instead, Chamberlain went to bed that night likely still with a smile on his face, content that he had saved his people and the men, the boys, the brothers, uncles and fathers, from another massacre on the Western Front, and from another Great War.
But what do you think? In this blog post we haven’t quoted from any of the numerous texts on the issue and we haven’t spent nearly as long as could have looking into the different debates proposed by both sides, so don’t take this as the definitive last word on the debate. However, as a refresher course, I feel it is sufficient for us to take a position and debate what we feel was the right or wrong outcome, so where do you stand? Comment below or visit the relevant Facebook groups to take part in the discussion. But until then history friends, my name is Zack, thanks for reading and I’ll be seeing you all soon!