NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN DID THE WRONG THING

That was the final outcome of a fascinating debate held at the Royal Geographical Society in London and organised by Intelligence Squared at the beginning of last month. The motion “Neville Chamberlain did the right thing” was proposed by Professor John Charmley and seconded by Professor Glynn Stone. Speaking against the motion were Sir Richard Evans, author of the best book of the many that I’ve read about the Third Reich, and Piers Brendon, former keeper of the Churchill Archive Centre. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum was in the chair. You can watch the debate on YouTube.

The proceedings were of special interest to me in that appeasement in the 1930s is the background to my political thriller The Blue Pencil which was published by Sacristy Press in November 2012. Although all four speakers in the debate acknowledged that appeasement continued during the early stages of the war, the main period of focus, both in the debate and in my novel, stretched from the re-militarization of the Rhineland in March 1936 to the signing of the Munich Treaty in September 1938. Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister when the Germans marched into the Rhineland, but it was as much, if not more, the supine response of the French that encouraged Hitler to seize Austria two years later.

John Charmley, proposing, suggested that Chamberlain was pursuing normal British foreign policy which stretched back to the Crimean War in the mid nineteenth century, interrupted only by the First World War. In the half century preceding 1914, Britain’s chief overseas adventures were mostly colonial. In fact, Professor Charmley argued, the horrors of the 1914-1918 conflict re-enforced the need for appeasement and this had strong public support.

In his passionate speech, Professor Charmley also pointed out that, following the economic slump of the early 1930s, we couldn’t afford another war. Nor were we militarily prepared for it. The trauma of the first conflict was still felt throughout the country and the public and a vast majority of the House of Commons were fully behind the government’s efforts to appease the dictators. He did give some credit to Chamberlain for encouraging the development of the RAF but, paradoxically, failed to mention that the Prime Minister’s neglect of the Army contributed to the humiliation Dunkirk. Appeasement, he concluded, was the only policy and Chamberlain had made “an honourable attempt to see if peace was possible.”

Sir Richard Evans, opposing the motion, said that when Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, he was warned by the then British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Eric Phipps, that the Nazis did not behave like normal statesmen. He also had information from the Secret Service that Hitler’s territorial ambitions knew no limit. He could also have added that Winston Churchill (who had his own spy network) had warned Parliament of the Nazi threat as early as 1932, before Hitler came to power. Chamberlain mistook Hitler for a normal European statesman and believed that he could deal with him. He quickly replaced Phipps in Berlin with fellow traveller Sir Neville Henderson.

Britain and France had stood by while Germany marched into the Rhineland, in direct contravention to the Treaty of Versailles, and did nothing when Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich in March 1938, another Versailles provision which Hitler chose to ignore. Hitler’s triumph at Munich, when Britain and France signed away arts of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, encouraged Hitler to accelerate his plans for war, Sir Richard claimed.

In his summary, Sir Richard said that appeasement was a desperate search for peace at any price and that Munich gave Great Britain and France the chance to stop Hitler while it was still possible to do so.  There was opposition to the Fuhrer’s warlike ambitions amongst the German General Staff and, had Hitler been humiliated at Munich, the army may well have deposed him. Hitler, encouraged by Munich, began to prepare for war against what he perceived to be feeble opposition, Great Britain and France. Chamberlain returned from Munich in triumph, leaving Europe to sort out its own problems. His signature, and that of French Premier Daladier, led to the destruction of Czechoslovakia and Poland over the next twelve months.

Professor Stone, speaking for the motion, believed that the alternative to appeasement was war with Great Britain part of a grand alliance, possibly involving the USA and the Soviet Union as well as our traditional ally France. Professor Stone said that he believed that the USA would not join such an alliance, having recently passed their Neutrality Act, the USSR were in suffering from Stalin’s purges which left them militarily weak and France were feeble after years of political instability. This left Chamberlain with only one option; appeasement.

Piers Brendon  completed the presentations, supporting Sir Richard in opposing the motion. He described Chamberlain as smug, vain and fundamentally naïve. His fear of communism led him to snub the Soviet Union and court Mussolini instead. He removed all opposition to him, both in the Civil Service and the Cabinet and appointed ‘yes men’ in their place.

At this stage in the proceedings, Anne Applebaum announced the result of the pre-debate poll which showed that those against the motion were likely to score a comfortable victory, although 34% were ‘don’t knows.’  Questions and comments from the floor now followed and the evening was completed with another poll. The ‘anti appeasers’ were still in the clear but the proposers of the motion had persuaded a substantial number of the ‘don’t knows’ to vote from them, leaving the anti-appeasers ahead by only 8% of the total audience at the close.

In The Blue Pencil, I tried desperately not to take sides in this great debate and also endeavoured to write the novel without hindsight (with just one exception). I painted a picture of Chamberlain as a caring and energetic Health Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer who recognised the need to drastically improve Britain’s heath services, housing and schools and preferred to spend money on that rather than war. Ultimately I came down on the side of the anti-appeasers and believed we should have stood up to Hitler at Munich. Sir Richard told us that the German General Staff felt that the Wehrmacht were unprepared for war and may well have tried to get rid of Hitler had he gone to war over Czechoslovakia. We have evidence of this from sources inside the German Embassy who, as Sir Richard revealed, communicated all kinds of information to Klop Ustinov, former Press Officer at the embassy and father of Sir Peter. Ustinov in turn passed this information to the Foreign Office. It’s inconceivable that Chamberlain was unaware of this.

I also made the case that the military situation in the autumn of 1938 would not necessarily have favoured Hitler. Sir Richard made the same point in his presentation, making special mention of the strength of the Czech army. Add to that the natural defence provided by the mountains on the Czech western border and their fortifications, the strongest in Europe together with one of the world’s biggest armament factories in the Skoda works at Pilsen and its easy to see that Czechoslovakia would not have been an easy nut to crack. Professor Stone’s argument about the difficulties of forming a grand alliance just don’t stack up. The Czechs were already allied to France who in turn was allied to the Soviet Union as well as Great Britain. Had Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1938 and these alliances were activated, Hitler would have faced the formidable Czech forces, probably supported by Soviet air power, on his eastern front and the Anglo-French army in the west. That would probably stopped Hitler, who had no allies, for ever and the Second World War, which cost fifty five million lives would and should have been avoided.

Chamberlain, however, knew better. I remember seeing a piece of 1930s newsreel film in which he was leaning back in his chair and boasting of his success as Chancellor of the Exchequer in ending the slump of the early 30s, cheerfully ignoring the fact that recovery was, at that time, confined to South East England and the West Midlands. The rest of the country was still living in poverty. Chamberlain’s foreign policy was dictated by his hatred of communism, his lack of experience in foreign affairs and his inexorable belief is his own infallibility. He was a vain, naïve and arrogant man who led us into war.

In future posts I shall try to show how Chamberlain tried to control the press and the BBC in his pursuit of appeasement but that’s in the months to come. Meanwhile decide for yourselves. Watch the debate on YouTube or even read The Blue Pencil! 

 

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About David Lowther

Author of The Blue Pencil, Liberating Belsen and Two Families at War (all published by Sacristy Press)
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