3 Key Books Shaped Vision of Appeasement
The recent publication of Tim Bouverie’s, Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War, has fueled renewed interest in the reasons for the blunders of British diplomacy in the 1930s. The book has received deservedly high praise for the clarity of its analysis of appeasement’s consequences. Bouverie places the major responsibility for appeasement’s failure on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who consistently underestimated and misread Hitler’s intentions. He also stresses the role played by many of the leading members of the British aristocracy, who saw Nazism as a bulwark against the threat of Communism.
A third theme, and one often downplayed by some historians, is the emergence of pacifist sentiment on the left in the 1920s after the terrible losses of the First World War. He notes that Britain lost 750,000 killed during that conflict, almost double British losses, civilian and military, in World War II. Bouverie believes that the left’s response to the threat from Nazism was paralyzed by pacifism. As late as the eve of World War II, the British Labor Party voted against all rearmament measures.
Bouverie’s study mirrors the arguments of the three key works that shaped our view of appeasement: Cato’s Guilty Men, Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, and John Wheeler-Bennett’s Munich: Prologue to Tragedy. In an interesting commentary on how ideas move in modern society, all three books shaped the thesis that largely prevails today regarding appeasement.
Guilty Men appeared in July 1940 as Britain faced the greatest threat to its existence since the Norman Conquest. The Germans had overrun Holland and Belgium and defeated France in a campaign that lasted six weeks. Britain stood alone, confused about what had happened and baffled on what course to follow: fight on or enter negotiations with Hitler. Three journalists, Michael Foot, a Socialist, Frank Owen, a Liberal, and Peter Howard, a Conservative threw Guilty Men together in a matter of days. They singled out 15 men responsible for the crisis England faced. Foreign Secretaries Sir Samuel Hoare and Lord Halifax were blamed for the feebleness of British diplomacy in the 1930s. Military unpreparedness was laid at the foot of various Conservative ministers, including Sir Thomas Inskip, whose appointment they labeled the worst since Caligula named his horse a Senator. The real villain of their indictment, however, was Neville Chamberlain, whom they castigated for his betrayal of the Czechs at Munich. He was portrayed not just blind to the threat from Nazism but actually a Nazi sympathizer.
What is most memorable about Guilty Men is the portrait they painted of the British aristocracy as craven supporters of Nazism, reflecting the myth of ‘the Cliveden Set’: Nazi sympathetic British aristocrats meeting together to formulate support for appeasement at Lord Astor’s estate, Cliveden. Although there is no evidence for any significant Cliveden Set influence, the concept established the myth of aristocrats undermining British democracy. It shows up in novels like Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and even in the popular television series, "Downton Abbey."
Guilty Men’s thesis was overblown and blind to the complexities of the situation that Britain faced in confronting Hitler. In particular, they downplay the pacifism of the British left, which consistently opposed all rearmament measures.
The portrait of Chamberlain was unfair. He wasn’t blind to the German threat. He believed some diplomatic understanding with Hitler (whom he described a common little dog) was preferable to war but at the same time he supported rearmament including the crucial expansion of the fighter force that won the Battle of Britain.
None of this mattered. Guilty Men captured the imagination of the British public, indelibly indicted the villains for the failures of British diplomacy—the book sold 200,000 copies in a matter of weeks, a stunning figure for those days.
In 1948, two books appeared that raised Guilty Men’s indictment of appeasement to more sophisticated levels. Volume one of Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War, The Gathering Storm, was the single most influential examination of the failures of British diplomacy in the 1930s, one whose broad interpretation still prevails because he was the only World War II leader to write his memoirs. While Guilty Men indicted an entire class, Churchill’s theme was “lost opportunities,” the failure to rearm and to cultivate allies in the struggle against Nazism. He called World War II the “Unnecessary War,” one that could have been avoided but the “malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.” Churchill wrote that he saw war coming in the 1930s “and cried aloud to my own fellow countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention.” They would pay attention now.
Sympathetic government officials supplied Churchill with facts and figures about the growing danger from German militarization throughout the 1930s. (He was largely indifferent to the threats from Italy and Japan and passed over the Spanish Civil War in just a few pages). His concentration was on German rearmament, a threat he had noted in 1932 even before Hitler came to power. He called for massive rearmament programs, strengthening the alliance with France and, despite his well-known hatred of Communism, reaching out to the Soviet Union for action against Germany.
Churchill’s portrait of the 1930s—“the years the locust ate”—is harsh on his two predecessors as Prime Minister -- Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. Baldwin was a masterful politician but indolent and not interested in foreign affairs. Chamberlain, Churchill writes, was anything but indolent. He suffered from an almost hubristic belief that only he could make peace with Hitler, a belief that led ultimately to the disastrous events of 1938, culminating in the sellout of Czechoslovakia at Munich.
The Munich settlement was popular. When Churchill attacked it in Parliament as a “total and unmitigated defeat,” he was greeted with groans and jeers. The subsequent events of the next six months—Kristallnacht with its savage attack on the Jews, the German absorption of the rump of Czechoslovakia and German threats directed at Poland—vindicated Churchill.
The publication of the official government documents for the appeasement era in the 1970s, and subsequent scholarly studies, broadly support Churchill’s interpretation of why appeasement was a doomed policy. Churchill had argued that there was a chance to stop Hitler during the Rhineland crisis of March 1936 or in the summer of 1938 as he was preparing up for war against Czechoslovakia. The official records seem to indicate that he was right.
The Gathering Storm was a huge publication success. It was made into a major television film, serialized in 80 magazines and published in 50 countries in 20 languages. It also made Churchill a rich man.
Churchill’s interpretation of events was confirmed by another book that appeared in 1948. John Wheeler-Bennett’s Munich: Prologue to Tragedy was the first scholarly study of appeasement. Wheeler-Bennett was a diplomat and talented historian of German history who among other works wrote a highly regarded study of the German Army’s role in politics: nemesis of power.
After World War II, he was appointed as the British editor of the Documents on German foreign policy. It was from this material that he wrote the first, and for a long time, the definite study of British appeasement, focusing on the Munich crisis of 1938.
Wheeler-Bennett’s portrait of British diplomatic blunders follows Churchill’s theme of lost opportunities but using captured German documents he stresses the consistency of Hitler’s policies. He argues that nothing the British could have done would have diverted Hitler from his plans to occupy the Rhineland, annex Austria or the eventual showdown with Czechoslovakia.
Wheeler-Bennett is fair to Chamberlain, stressing his sincere abhorrence of war while at the same time noting how his vanity led him to believe that he alone could strike a bargain with Hitler. He seriously misjudged Hitler who regarded Chamberlain and the other appeasers as nothing but “little worms.”
Wheeler-Bennett believes that British foreign policy was undermined in the 1930s by the general air of pacifism that affected both parties but particularly Labor which rejected all efforts at rearmament in the face of the Nazi menace.
Like Churchill, Wheeler-Bennett believes that Chamberlain made a mistake in rejecting offers of help from the Soviet Union during the Czech crisis and in the months that followed. This rejection enabled Hitler to negotiate the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 which guaranteed war.
Guilty Men, The Gathering Storm and Munich: Prologue to Tragedy described British foreign policy as a grievous failure and a main contributor to war in 1939. The broad thesis of the three books—the pro-Nazi sympathizers of the British ruling class, Chamberlain’s naiveté in dealing with Hitler and the lost opportunities to confront Hitler in the 1930s remain the standard interpretation of events today. Subsequent scholarship including Bouverie’s brilliant tour de force hasn’t changed the overall portrait significantly.