Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie

Some people saw from the first what Hitler was like. Neville Chamberlain was not, unfortunately, among them. As Duff Cooper, who in October 1938 resigned from the Cabinet over Munich, put it in a sketch of the Prime Minister written in early 1939:

“Chamberlain had never met anybody in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler. He had always found that the people he had met, whether in business or local government, were not very dissimilar to himself – they were reasonable and honest and it had always proved possible, with a certain amount of give and take, to make a deal with them that should prove satisfactory to both sides.”

Hitler was unreasonable and dishonest. Even if you made a deal with him, he would break it as soon as it suited him. He was a murderous opportunist and propagandist who in Mein Kampf, published in the mid-1920s, avowed his vicious hatred of the Jews and his conviction that the German race, and especially the German army, must be taught to believe in its own invincibility, and must fight its way to world mastery.

I confess that I have never read Mein Kampf. But the British Ambassador in Berlin from 1928-33, Sir Horace Rumbold, did read it, and in 1933 warned his masters in London of the sort of foreign policy Hitler, who had just taken power, could be expected to pursue.

Rumbold’s successor, Sir Eric Phipps, informed London at the end of 1934 that the Germans were “feverishly re-arming on land and in the air”, and went on:

“The impression left by the summer and autumn is one of incessant marching and drilling… We have to face the fact that, while other countries enjoy playing football or sipping coffee at little tables under trees, German youth is happiest playing at soldiers, and German manhood is happiest on the barrack square.”

How from 1933 did the British Government deal, or fail to deal, with the problem posed by a resurgent Germany being led towards catastrophe by a band of thugs, racists and careerists?

Tim Bouverie tells the story in 25 chapters, amounting to just over 400 pages. His account is lucid, fair-minded and authoritative, and should be read by anyone who thinks Brexit is difficult.

He favours unpublished over published sources, and is particularly good on the “amateur diplomats”, British society figures who deluded themselves into thinking that as long as they made friends with the Nazis, who possessed a sort of gangsterish attraction and were very keen on throwing parties, the cause of peace would be secured.

The more familiar parts of the story cannot be omitted: Chamberlain’s claim, for example, to be treading in the footsteps of Disraeli, bringing back from Germany “peace with honour” and “peace for our time”.

But the subject does not lose its fascination. However often one reads about it, one cannot stop wondering how it could all have been made to turn out differently.

Many accounts of Munich – one thinks of David Faber’s admirable volume – focus on the events of 1938. One of the strengths of Bouverie’s account is that it begins in 1933.

He brings out the constraints on British Government policy. Public opinion was imbued with the desire for peace. The First World War had been so horrific that ‘never again’ was the message.

There was almost no willingness to act on the ancient Roman maxim that if you wish for peace, you should prepare for war. Britain’s armed forces had been run down to a pitifully weak state.

And they had much more than Europe to think about. After the Japanese invaded Manchuria in November 1931, the British Chiefs of Staff noted, as Bouverie points out, that “our vast territorial and trade interests in the Far East, and our communications with the Dominions and India”, were horribly exposed.

In Europe, the French had the strongest army, and were the obvious ally with whom to confront a resurgent Germany. But as Bouverie says, the French had eight prime ministers between 1933 and 1939, lurching from one crisis to another, and had yielded, with the building of the Maginot Line, to a purely defensive mentality.

The French were wedded to the Versailles Treaty, which large parts of the British Establishment regarded as deeply unfair to Germany, and therefore in need of revision.

In March 1936, German troops reoccupied the Rhineland. In London, Anthony Eden, recently appointed Foreign Secretary, asked his taxi driver what he thought about this, and got the reply: “I suppose Jerry can do what he likes in his own back garden.”

The French nevertheless wanted joint action, under the auspices of the League of Nations, to uphold the Versailles and Locarno Treaties. Harold Nicolson, recently elected as a National Labour MP and no friend of appeasement, expressed in a letter to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, the dilemma facing the British:

“The French are not letting us off one jot or tittle of the bond… We are thus faced either with repudiation of our pledged word or the risk of war. The worst of it is that in a way the French are right. We know that Hitler gambled on this coup. We know that Schacht told him it would lead to financial disaster, that Neurath told him it would create a dangerous diplomatic situation, and that the General Staff told him that if France and Great Britain acted together there would be no chance of resistance. Thus if we send an ultimatum to Germany, she ought in all reason to climb down. But then she will not climb down and we shall have war. Naturally we shall win and enter Berlin. But what is the good of that? It would only mean communism in Germany and France, and that is why the Russians are so keen on it. Moreover, the people of this country absolutely refuse to have a war. We should be faced by a general strike if we even suggested such a thing. We shall therefore have to climb down ignominiously and Hitler will have scored… But it does mean the final end of the League and that I do mind dreadfully. Quite dreadfully.”

Winston Churchill and a few others saw that force, or the threat of force, was the only way to deal with the Nazis, and that rearmament must proceed with all possible urgency.

Most people would not see this, and Chamberlain, instead of trying to lead public opinion, in his autocratic way made himself the expression of the popular will, and convinced himself that at Munich he had prevailed on Hitler to see reason, and had obtained a lasting peace.

He was not alone in making this mistake. After Munich, he received a vast number of presents from a grateful public, including fishing rods and salmon flies, while a French newspaper opened a subscription to buy him a house in the French countryside near to a trout stream.

Chamberlain’s defenders say he had bought time in which Britain could build Spitfires and radar. Bouverie points out that the Germans used the time better, and that the ground had been cut from under the German opposition to Hitler.

Whether the German generals would have managed to get rid of their leader may be doubted. But presenting him with cost-free gains such as Czechoslovakia – or what seemed to be cost-free gains, for Hitler was actually leading the Germans as well as everyone else towards disaster – was imprudent as well as immoral.

Churchill gave his great warnings, but not many other Conservatives spoke up. Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, because he could not stand being overridden by Chamberlain on the question of how to detach Mussolini from Hitler. But Eden did not then become, as some urged him, the leader of the anti-appeasers, for as Bouverie writes:

“Eden looked too good to be true and was. Although photogenic, conscientious and hard-working, he was also indecisive, timid and vain.”

By trying and failing so sincerely to buy Hitler off at the expense of the Czechs, Chamberlain did at least ensure that public opinion recognised the need for war when it came, but that was an accidental achievement, very far from the peace with honour which had been promised.