Appeasement as Pragmatic Policy

Appeasement Policy: Chamberlain’s pragmatism in difficult times or political naivety and even cowardice?

Part 3 of 4 about Appeasement Policy and Neville Chamberlain as British Prime Minister . Here having looked at Chamberlain’s political and personal heritage in Part 1 and in Part 2 at the connection between the Paris Peace Conference and Treaty of Versailles with the buildup and reasons for WW2, we can now reflect on Appeasement. Was it Neville Chamberlain’s statesman-like pragmatism or political naivety at work or worse cowardice?

Appeasement Policy and the need for a balanced perspective

“You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

1938, Winston Churchill after Prime Minister Chamberlain signed The Munich agreement with Hitler

In contrast on 12th November 1940 Churchill made a more moving, considered and less campaigning speech to the House  after the death of Chamberlain, you can read it in full here on the Churchill Centre’s website;

“…The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions…It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man… Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.”

Winston Churchill Nov 1940

We will never know what would have happened if Chamberlain had not pursued Appeasement but the modern myth that it was foolish or morally wrong policy is worth further consideration with the benefit of 75 years or more of hindsight. Neville Chamberlain Prime Minister 1937-1940It is a good example of how a politician’s reputation can ‘turn on a sixpence’ and how critical a moment in time can be, to a generation. But really with Hitler elected and leading Germany pursuing with a considerable ‘ostensibly’ democratic right to govern its expansionist strategy would the outcome and events of WW2 really been different if Appeasement had not been pursued? Churchill was quick to criticise the path to appeasement but in Chamberlain’s shoes, at this point in the buildup to war could he really have pursued himself any other path that would have significantly changed the path to war?

Has British collective memory conveniently obscured the reality of the buildup to war?

The realisation of the complexity of these events and the prewar environment in Britain and Europe is essential to understand and evaluate the rights and wongs of Appeasement. It is as if we, the British, have lost the detail is in our cultural collective memory of what actually transpired and what the real alternatives were, if any were available to the government led by Chamberlain.

It is alarming me how soundbites and actual source material (audio and film) can be misleading if the wider context is not explored and better understood by us all. In the recollection of history of he 20th century there is a danger in its proximity of relying on fogged collective and sometime family based memories. The sobering revelations of even the briefest survey of why ‘Appeasement’ was pursued as policy and the conditions and political climate that led to that possibility, reveal how wrong some of those perceptions were and are still. But what do we all study in our school history? The little knowledge we have is mostly about focused on the action of the wars execution and not what led to it at all other than the physical invasions triggering the declaration of war. It is at best unbalanced, in at least my generations recollections and those of our parents, themselves the younger participants or children of that war.

Churchill’s charisma a distinct contrast to Chamberlain contributes to our collective and selective memory of these events

The charismatic leadership of Churchill post 1940 has perhaps inadvertently contributed to the obscuring of the reasons why Britain was drawn into a second world war. Reasons that were more subtle than just a moral indignation and outrage against Hitler and what Nazi Germany might do under his leadership throughout Europe and the world. Retrospectively with overwhelming evidence of the sheer evil committed by the enemy, it is as if Britain’s history of the war has been all about the action of the war, rather than the uncomfortable facts as to how Britain within 20 years of WW1 gets drawn into another major conflict . It is probably not even a conscious process but it is a least part of the reason why both Chamberlain and Appeasement have generally been perceived so unfavourably as we look back over 75 years. It is as if we have  a collective, ‘selective memory’ of those events. Maybe now we should be at least a little more balanced in or reappraisal of Appeasement, it is not as if we can say it succeeded but perhaps it was a justified necessary political course to have followed, irrespective of its outcome.

Prime Ministers & Cabinet based Government, carry a heavy burden, the personal style and approach of an individual as PM shapes the approach to problem solving. Churchill and Chamberlain were distinct contrasts in their approaches but because one is more charismatic it does not of course mean that approach is right and he other is wrong.

There must be a mountain of knowledge and wisdom to be gleaned from anyone charged with leading a government in any circumstances but particularly when faced with committing a nation to war. With Churchill’s leadership he left a body of work and stimulated intellectual debate for many years to come. In contrast with the untimely death of Chamberlain, he had little time to reflect or share his rationale for the course he determined to take. Fortunately there is some contemporary enlightening family correspondence outside the official papers but he had no chance to defend his own actions with any distance of time.

History seems to have remembered and favoured Churchill as the victorious wartime leader but that is far from a  complete picture. In later years there were many times before and after WW2 when Churchill’s decision and leadership has been seriously challenged and questioned, it was in the outcome of the war itself and his leading of the prosecution of that war that his place in history was secured. But what does become clear is that Chamberlain was far from being a sentimentalist in his approach to government and leadership. He was very focused on what was needed to get the job done and protect the country and its empire. He was looking for pragmatic solutions to the problems the government had to address. Now perhaps that could be said of all Prime Ministers and part of the essential requirement for the job but there was at least a contrast in approach and style of himself and Churchill in their public image. A difference in personality that might be significant in an approach to the buildup to war.

Whilst Churchill’s stance was we cannot negotiate with Terrorists, Chamberlain’s could be characterised as we need to avoid or delay war, any attempts we make to do so with Hitler must appear authentic and we must pursue peace until it proves impossible to achieve, not at any cost but even if it is at the price of wounded dignity and pride of the country, then so be it. The People wanted Peace. 

Neville Chamberlain had little opportunity to reflect in his shortened life post the failure of Appeasement

Neville Chamberlain did not live long once he had retired and Churchill had taken on the Premiership. He was 78 when he became Prime Minister and sadly had cancer that caused his death within a year of his declaration of war against Germany. No doubt the failure to secure peace had caused him great personal and professional distress but he had less than a year to reflect and share his own self-criticism and rationale for his failed policy. The same could not be said for Churchill but he also had the luxury of voicing his opposition to policy, not being the man who need to make the final call and decide what to do with his Cabinet. In the months that followed Chamberlain’s health was worsening and his attention was reportedly focused on how to win the war that had finally come as he continued to be kept briefed by Churchill in his final months. A touching act of kindness shown by Churchill and agreed by the King.

What might have been is an abstraction

“What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened”

Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, by TS Eliot written during WW2, winner of Nobel Prize for Literature.

Chamberlain had no perfect knowledge but neither did Churchill. Historian’s will hate this but consider Tony Blair and Iraq and the debacle that has led to the Chilcot Enquiry over the 2nd Iraq War, which is still being debated to this day and is likely to continue for years to come. Someone has to be brave enough rightly or wrongly, to make the decisions whether its Iraq, Appeasement or the Dardanelles and often despite all the analysis and planning the knowledge is found to have been imperfect and the outcomes are shaped by events that could not or simply were not foreseen. It is more reasonable to consider not who was wrong or right but who was least wrong.

What puts Appeasement even on the agenda of possibilities for the British Government?

These are the leading prevailing conditions under which Appeasement was considered by Chamberlain and his government and opposed by his critics quite vociferously by Churchill and his camp. There maybe more but these seem to be the leading issues that might help explain why Appeasement was considered even a possibility by Chamberlain:

  1. Britain was not ready for war, rightly or wrongly once again our resources were spread too thinly. In terms of economics and military and naval preparation Britain was ill-prepared. Chamberlain was not solely responsible for that state of ill-preparation. He and Churchill had both recognised and  advocated the need for rearmament but the issue was also how to afford it, in a period of great economic and global hardship.
  2. Post WW1 and the 1930s Depression there was no public support for war. WW1 had supposed to have been the war to end all wars, no one was looking to be a war monger with the loss of life and deprivation that it had caused not only in Britain but across the British Empire and its allied and colonial territories. Any government would need to convince the public that such a war was unavoidable and necessary, that battle had not been won at this point. (1937/1938)
  3. Paris Peace Conference and the resulting Treaty of Versailles  (discussed in Part 2) we can see the Allies imposed punitive arguably excessively, conditions on defeated Germany. Contemporary opinions of British politicians, including Churchill and LLoyd George believed so at the time. This was outside the control of the current government but had created the environment in which the policies of Hitler had thrived and prospered in Germany during the ‘interwar years.’
  4. The extreme right wing had been active and growing in Germany since 1919 not just suddenly from the date of the Nazi Party being democratically elected in 1933. This was again outside of Chamberlain’s control he had to deal with the reality of what was coming to pass however unsavoury it might be to him and his government. Hitler and the Nazi Party had been elected as the majority party in the Reichstag they had again (however unsavoury it might be to Britain) electoral legitimacy and in British government eyes some legitimate grievances in how their claims about the unfair terms of Versailles and the rights of their German speaking territories to self-determination. The British had advocated a fairer settlement at the end of WW1, that is documented, Lloyd George and Churchill both publicly advocated the needs for the victorious to not inflict a vengeful outcome on the defeated and educated politicians versed in history and politics would have been aware of and witnessed the consequences.
  5. German persecution by Hitler and the Nazi Party of Civilians: Britain knew that as Hitler seized power and deliberately fuelled hatred of certain civilian groups within Germany and across its borders that this was more than just a localised nationalist party. It had far greater potential for terror and violence than had been seen before and that this was far worse potentially than the Germany, Britain and the allies had faced in WW1. Whilst Britain might not be ready to intervene, its people and its government could not plead ignorance but matters were complicated by a minority of Nationalist and Nazi sympathisers within its own shores as well. But in terms of Appeasement the crimes of the Nazis were known and mounting. There was a growing ovement of outrage against the tyranny within Germany but also a desire not directly confront or antogonise it when Britain was essentially not ready to do so. Here are just some of the events and facts of the outrages being undertaken in the name of Hitler and Nazi Germany that Britain could not reasonably deny knowledge of;
    1. The groups that Hitler was targeting where the successful capitalists, the communists and the Jewish population.
    2. Hitler was elected as German Chancellor in 1933
    3. The Reichstag was mysteriously burned and he had seized dictatorial powers.
    4. By the end of 1933 more than 150k had been made political prisoners and the Nazis were now proceeding to start to round-up the underprivileged underbelly of society. It was just the beginning of purges and pogroms.
    5. Between 1933 and 1941 alone, 71k German Jews fled Germany to Britain. Later in 1940 Britain would intern 30k German and Austrian Jews initially as ‘enemy aliens.
    6. 1934, “The Night of the Long Knives,” Hitler ordered the murder of 200 persons who had helped him to power but were now seen as threats.
    7. 1935  The “Nuremberg Law on Citizenship and Race” brought into law the Nazi ideology of the “Master Race,”
    8. 1935 Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister admitted, “…I was completely wrong. We were completely misled on that subject.” talking about Churchill’s plea to accelerate rearmament of Britain, particularly air power was responded to and immediate action taken to accelerate aircraft production in partiular. But it would all take time, precious time that was enabling Hitler to advance his own preparations as well.
    9. German citizenship was denied to Jews and made it illegal for them to marry “Aryans.” “Kristallnacht,”
    10. 1936-1939 German forces were actively on the side of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, giving a clear indication of the extreme measures and military means Germany was prepared to employ.
    11. 1938, saw over 7,500 Jewish shops destroyed and 400 synagogues burned.
    12. Hitler’s central program involved renouncing and reversing the provisions of the Versailles Treaty and rearming Germany.
  6. The Balfour Declaration the Palestine British Manadate and Partition dating back to 1917 was agreed by the British Government but it was a letter of intent, not an instrument of enactment or a means by which Britain would it would be brought to reality. Palestine and the Middle East problem and the conflict of promises made and broken to both the Jews, Arabs and Britains Allies from WW1 through to the Arab Riots and uprisings in 1936 and beyond continued. This culminated in 1937 with the Peel Commission enquiry into the working of the British Mandate for Palestine that had come out of WW1. Peel made recommendations for Palestine to be partitioned with a corridor policed by Britain. The Jewish population releuctantly accepted it and the Arab representation rejected it. Britain was facing problems on multiple fronts and would be needing to consider what Germn moves would be in collaboration with potential partners as in WW1 with the Turks and others able to be persuaded. Oil and resources for fuel were going to be a key resource that needed to be secured in the event of war.
  7. The Depression (1930s) and a climate of early tentative economic recovery was a pressure on all governments and again was a long term issue not directly within Chamberlain or anyone in governments immediate control.
  8. Chamberlain was nominated by Baldwin (retiring after George VI coronation and post the Abdication crisis of Edward VII) whilst the likely choice was Lord Halifax, Baldwin specifically nominated Chamberlain as the right man for the job. With 3+ years to run on the existing Conservative Mandate, Chamberlain did not need and decided not to go back to the country for personal endorsement.
  9. Britain’s Empire was largely focused outside of Europe. Europe was on our doorstep and if Germany became too rampant there was a latent threat to Britain with the Channel as our last and vital means of defence but the countries in Europe were not and had not been our primary concern. The exceptions being apart France and Belgium based on their geographic proximity and buffer between Germany, the Channel and Britain. The ‘Red of the Empire’ was daubed beyond European boundaries and Britain had been the alrgest Empire in the world for much of the 19th Century. The hangover of this was that of a focus on any British government on protecting Britain and almost equally its overseas colonies as the might by which its economic future might be ensured.
  10. Appeasement was not a policy that was a madcap idea of one man, at the very least if Chamberlain was at fault he was not alone and with two other Prime Ministers of a similar mindset, he was arguably following not leading policy. It was the essence of imperial preference as a hangover from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods of government. The ‘Guilty-Men’ subsequently cited by the left-wing journalists including Michael Foot in the Beaverbrook press included; Neville Chamberlain, Sir John Simon, Sir Samuel Hoare, Ramsey MacDonald, Lord Baldwin, Lord Halifax, Sir Kingsley Wood, Ernest Brown, David Margesson, Sir Horace Wilson, Sir Thomas Inskip, (Edward) Leslie Burgin (1887–1945), James Richard Stanhope, seventh Earl Stanhope (1880–1967), W. S. Morrison, and Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith. This list, open to debate in itself, includes 3 Prime Ministers, not just Chamberlain.

These are all important and significant factors that we need to be aware of when judging the Appeasement policy. This is just the backdrop as to why Britain would even consider Appeasement. It is not to say it was right just that these major factors were at play.

Today it is broadly accepted but still debated there is no negotiation with Terrorists. Hitler and the Nazi Party were off the scale in terms of racial discrimination and hatred, persecution and indiscriminate violence so Churchill and his camp would forcefully argue why should we negotiate with Hitler.

“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Winston Churchill

But Chamberlain’s view was in some ways  more pragmatic and realistic at this particular point in time. Britain simply was not ready even if it was willing to go to war and certainly there was no public or popular support to take such drastic action in the critical period of 1938-1939.

When Chamberlain falls dreadfully short seems to be when he is caught unaware of the likely outcome of Appeasement, once his last gambit for peace had been played. Did he really ever believe Appeasement would actually work or was it just a phase of tactically delaying Hitler and playing for time? Time was critically needed to mobilise and make ready for war. Britain was caught out in that lack of preparation but that was not down to Chamberlain alone.

Churchill in spite of his rhetoric could not have transformed Britain’s readiness for war overnight anymore than Chamberlain could have. Hitler was on the move and Britain as well as Europe was not ready to effectively resist it.

On that basis would we negotiate with Hitler’s ike today and why did Chamberlain decide to do so?

If we accept Britain was not ready or as yet willing to engage in War what else could Chamberlain do but seek best terms and peace? The image of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor meeting Hitler (post abdication) is a stark and disturbing reminder of how unready the mind-set was for war as well as the logistics.

The abdicated King Edward VIII as Duke of Windsor was not the only member of British Society to flirt with the disturbing allure of Hitler and Nazi Germany. But it was ill-advised and did not help his reputation.

The abdicated King Edward VIII as Duke of Windsor was not the only member of British Society to flirt with the disturbing allure of Hitler and Nazi Germany. But it was ill-advised and did not help his reputation.

In parallel there had been a disturbing attraction towards the dark charisma of Hitler and the resurrection of german imperial economic might, even amongst the aristocratic and royal elements of British society, a flirtation with fascism that went far beyond the Moseley contingent.

Is what we call Engagement another term for Appeasement?

It is one thing to engage with an enemy to either negotiate or learn about their modus operandi but to do so with a deliberate view to sacrifice a smaller nation, much like a pawn in a game of Chess can be construed as a Machiavellian act. In essence that was how clinical Appeasement was, it meant sacrificing a lesser nation to literally appease the acquisitive appetite of Hitler’s Germany.

But what was Chamberlain thinking? Where is the traditional British sense of morality and fair-play? It seems he does believe in sacrificing the pawn, if it is not a part of the British Empire but the right of the lesser party to determine their own future seems to have been completely and conveniently ignored. But the reality is the PM is not elected to protect the third party. It may not sit comfortably ethically but in pure political terms it is has some justification. This stark statement is probably true of all those in government charged in protecting British assets and empire as their first responsibility. In Chamberlain’s mind his first priority however is inevitably his own nation and empire. It might read as somewhat callous but it is also focused and relevant to where he believed his first obligations rest. What would Churchill have really done differently at this point. Britain was not actually able o take-on Germany at this particular point however much he might have protested he would want to if he was in charge.

“However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbours, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in a war simply on her account.”

Neville Chamberlain 1938

It was not in the tradition of the British sense of fair play but it might also have been an assumed position to help the public communication and negotiation of his desire to engage with Hitler, in order to win time for Britain and the wider world over the longer term, It at least raises reasonable doubt as to whether these decisions were as ruthless as they might at first seem to be. If you look at the problems of leaders engaging in international affairs and conflicts today, would any of those leaders really handle a similar situation that differently, probably not.

In our recent 21st century history and politics most western powers trade and engage with governments where regimes are far from desirable if you believe in any norms of decency, freedom and democracy. Look no further than China, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Russia and Syria for contemporary examples. Regimes which we know are abusing human rights but that Britain choses at varying levels to engage /appease to varying degrees. These are all difficult and complex decisions whether to engage or not, to protect those incapable of defending themselves be they a state, a minority group or an individual. Chamberlain faced such complexity and difficulty knowing that Britain was not able or ready to take action should it be attacked never mind if itself it should unilaterally decide to declare on war against Germany, or even bi-laterally if France was ready to act, Britain did not believe it could sustain such action for very long. Such was the complexity facing Chamberlain and not his government alone but those before him and most notably in the governments led also by Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald.

International affairs and negotiations with foreign powers are by their very nature complex, the prevailing environment and conditions mean’t that outright war at this point was not a realistic option for Britain. Whatever Churchill was saying to some extent Chamberlain’s arms and Britains were virtually tied behind his own back. Outright war was not yet an option he could reasonably conclude that Britain was ready or able to handle, every week would make a difference but time was what he needed and what Chamberlain decided to play for.

How did Chamberlain actually play his Appeasement Policy and what were the outcomes?

In our 4th and final look at Neville Chamberlain we will focus on how Appeasement actually plays out as a timeline of the momentous events that then lead to war. Review and summarise the pros and cons of Appeasement and the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches adopted by Chamberlain and Churchill. But first we need to look at the detail of how Appeasement deployed transpires and takes place, not just as a British Plan but dealing with the German responses and the outcomes that Britain had to react to but did not control.


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