The story is so well known, maybe too often retold and often overly projected onto contemporary events. But its lessons are timeless and, properly understood, mustn’t be forgotten or minimized.
British journalist Tim Bouverie’s history of British pre-WWII appeasement, Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War (2019), compellingly recounts how the democracies, chiefly Britain, deferred confrontation with Hitler for much of a decade, only barely recovering in time to avert complete calamity.
Neville Chamberlain is this story’s chief tragic figure, single-mindedly driving appeasement as his own personal messianic mission. He confidently told his sister, echoing William Pitt the Elder, that he knew he was the only man who could save Britain, even as Hitler disdained their Munich accord by preparing to conquer the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Finding redemptive qualities in Chamberlain in this book is hard. He was myopic, egotistical, somewhat absurd in his self-confidence, and smugly provincial as the former mayor of Birmingham. As a municipal politician, he had forged difficult compromises with opponents. Why not with Hitler? Although the world’s most important statesman, Chamberlain was curiously indifferent to his nation’s strategic responsibilities, which he seemed to deem as more nuisance than glory. “I have only to raise a finger and the whole face of Europe is changed!” he boasted to another sister, more impressed with his powers than in awe of his special duties.
Does Chamberlain bear special responsibility for appeasement, or did he simply reflect the national mood? He presided over a supermajority in Parliament. The Labour Party posed no significant threat, and it was anyway opposed to rearmament. The vast majority of Tory parliamentarians could envision no alternative to Chamberlain, and only 30 of them dissented from Munich. The likeliest alternative, Anthony Eden, who did resign in protest as foreign secretary, often himself equivocated. Churchill remained implausible as a successor. And his own campaign of resistance to appeasement, though magnificent, failed to persuade the country, and could only await tragic vindication by unfolding sinister events.
British newspapers largely praised appeasement, and the nation’s elites, including the aristocracy, purred their own approval. Some fringes were actively sympathetic to the Third Reich as a dynamic alternative to Bolshevism that potentially could align with British interests. France was even more exhausted than Britain and, unlike Britain, suffered a carousel of collapsing governments. America offered only tentative possibilities of collaboration, which Chamberlain, who disdained the republic, was loath to accept. He was even more disdainful, understandably, of Stalin’s Russia. But he was confusedly reluctant to admit that any containment of Hitler demanded cooperation with the Soviets. Only when it was too late did he seek a Soviet alliance, by which time Stalin was brokering his own better deal with Hitler.
Even toward the end, as his appeasement policies were collapsing, Chamberlain still hoped for mediation by Mussolini, and even privately sympathized with accommodating Italian territorial ambitions toward French territory. There was almost no end to his patience with the Axis powers. He in no way sympathized with Nazism but was unable to appreciate its unique strategic threat. And even when the invasion of Poland compelled war, Chamberlain’s response was languid and funereal. He seemed unable to admit his own role in facilitating Hitler’s rise and Britain’s isolation.
Only as France was about to fall was Chamberlain’s rule finally challenged, culminating with Leo Amory’s famous challenge, quoting Oliver Cromwell to the Long Parliament: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
Some Chamberlain apologists have suggested that he bought Britain time as it developed radar and expanded its air force. But Bouverie concludes with others that delaying war served Germany more than Britain, as the Third Reich expanded territorially and industrially. What Chamberlain’s appeasement policy only gained for Britain was, in the face of annihilation, complete certainty that Britain must, alone, fight for its survival with all its resources and resolution.
Bouverie shares some polls indicating that at various points in the appeasement chronology pluralities and sometimes even majorities indicated a willingness to fight before further appeasing Hitler. But such imagined majorities, even if they existed, were seemingly too soft to be meaningfully felt by most parliamentarians.
Chamberlain may have been the devoted architect of appeasement, but he does not bear exclusive responsibility. He seems mostly to have expressed the genuine national will. Perhaps for this reason, along with Chamberlain’s support against Halifax in resisting last-minute peace entreaties from Mussolini, Churchill generally avoided harsh recriminations against his predecessor. He knew it was the nation itself and not its prime minister that preferred and chose appeasement of Hitler over war.
The lesson of appeasement is then not a warning as much against failed leadership as it is against national fear and confusion. No leader can take a nation where it does not want to go. Providentially, Britain, when pressed to terrifying extremes, recovered its national will to survive and prevailed as expressed through Chamberlain’s successor.
Although pressed nearly to calamity, Britain’s final debates over appeasement and Chamberlain revealed its inner strength and greatness. Even in such peril, its robust democratic conversation continued unabated, while Hitler plunged his nation into war without counsel, guaranteeing his own ultimate destruction and nearly his nation’s. Few realized it at the time, but democracies, even at their weakest and most vacillating, retain through their inner debates a national strength and endurance that dictatorships, despite their bravado, cannot match.
That Britain and democracy prevailed despite appeasement because free societies better mobilize for survival than do dictatorships is perhaps the most enduring lesson.