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Feeding the Beast

Appeasement is an appealing idea with appalling consequences.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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But Chamberlain was not alone in his misreading of the Nazis. He was solidly backed by the Conservative party in the House of Commons—with the striking and heroically courageous exception of Winston Churchill—and by his foreign secretary Lord Halifax, who succeeded Eden, by the British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, and by significant segments of the British press. In Berlin, in the summer of 1937, Henderson made a speech at a dinner given by the Anglo-German Fellowship in which he opined that “in England, for instance, far too many people have an entirely erroneous conception of what the National Socialist regime really stands for. Otherwise they would lay less stress on Nazi dictatorship and much more emphasis on the great social experiment which was being tried out in Germany.” 

Lord Halifax was hardly better than Henderson in interpreting Nazi Germany. Hitler said that he thought Halifax was “a clever politician who fully supported Germany’s aims.” Halifax, too, subscribed to the view of Chamberlain and the appeasers that Hitler could be “tamed by kindness.” After a visit to Berlin, where Hermann Göring subjected him to a blistering complaint about hostile reporting in the British press, Halifax subjected the Evening Standard cartoonist David Low to a browbeating about the way in which the Nazis were offended by Low’s cartoons. 

“Do I understand you to say,” asked Low, “that you would find it easier to promote peace if my cartoons did not irritate the Nazi leaders personally?” Halifax admitted that this was his view. In fact, the proprietors of British newspapers were vulnerable to Foreign Office pressure: Churchill was fired as an Evening Standard columnist after its own, Lord Beaverbrook, was asked by Halifax not to offend the Nazis.

Of course, some commentators openly sympathized with Hitler. The Daily Mail’s George Ward-Price admired the Nazis fulsomely and was Hitler’s favorite British journalist. The Mail’s proprietor, Lord Rothermere had been visiting Germany regularly since the early 1930s and exchanged visits and gifts with Hitler. Ward-Price entered Vienna accompanying the German troops. Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times and Halifax’s fellow Old Etonian, was convinced that world peace depended on Britain’s having good relations with Germany. He suppressed reports from his European reporters who accurately reported Nazi brutality and was the force behind a notorious Times editorial of the day suggesting that it was time for Czechoslovakia to be dismembered by having the Sudetenland, coveted by Hitler, simply join the Reich.

As we know, it was Czechoslovakia that suffered total dismemberment as a result of the appeasement policy at Munich. In March 1939, months after the Sudetenland had been occupied by the Germans, it became the turn of the entire Czech heartland to submit to Nazi jackboots: Hitler had lied to Chamberlain that, after gobbling up the Sudetenland, his appetite for territorial acquisition in Europe would be satisfied. 

In retrospect, of course, Chamberlain was naïve and deceived as much by his own vanity as by Hitler’s mendacity. It is interesting, however, that when Chamberlain died of cancer in November 1940, his successor as prime minister, Winston Churchill, displayed a characteristic generosity of judgment. In a tribute in the House of Commons, Churchill summed up the sincerity, however dreadfully mistaken, of the idea of appeasement:

Whatever else history may 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.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.

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