Appeasement and World War II
by David Faber
Simon & Schuster, 528 pp., $30
Seven decades after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, it is a good moment to look back on Europe’s inexorable slide towards war in the last two years of peace. The word “Munich” will forever be encumbered by its association with the concept of appeasement, that foolish and ultimately fatal policy by the British government under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of placating Adolf Hitler by conceding to him more and more of his territorial ambitions in Europe.
It has, however, been a few decades since the last burst of books dealing in a major way with the Munich crisis, and new material has become available since then. John Faber draws not only on the many memoirs and diaries of the era published by the participants, but on notes taken by the German-English interpreter of the Hitler-Chamberlain conversations, Paul Schmidt. What makes Faber’s account particularly engrossing is his stereoscopic view of the events leading up to and surrounding Munich. We see the German generals aghast at Hitler’s determination to unleash military force against Austria first and then Czechoslovakia when (in their view) the Wehrmacht was ill-prepared to plan and carry out either operation. We see Chamberlain’s sister-in-law in Rome allowing herself to be flattered and manipulated by Mussolini and his foreign minister (who was also his son-in-law), Count Galeazzo Ciano. We even catch tantalizing glimpses of German political figures opposed to Hitler pleading clandestinely—and vainly—for the British government to stand up to Hitler over Czechoslovakia and thus possibly give anti-Nazi opinion in Germany a chance to crystalize.
“Munich,” of course, has become a convenient abuse-word, like “fascist,” to hurl at political leaders whose policies are deemed by their critics to be wholly subservient to the ambitions of foreign adversaries. Yet the entire episode of British appeasement of Hitler is a moral lesson for all later generations of free peoples; a lesson that sincerity in the desire for peace doesn’t outweigh the need for an accurate assessment of the character, and hence the likely future behavior, of a potential adversary. One of Faber’s most illuminating habits in this excellent account is to juxtapose at the beginning of many chapters pithy quotations from leading protagonists in the unfolding drama. The quotations often sum up clashing worldviews. Thus, at the beginning of Chapter Three, we read the mutually contradictory comments on each other of Chamberlain and his foreign secretary (until his resignation in February 1938), Anthony Eden. Chamberlain wrote in October of that year: “I fear that the difference between Anthony and me is more fundamental than he realizes. At bottom he is really against making terms with the dictators.” But Eden’s perception of Chamberlain was a mirror-image of that: “I fear that fundamentally the difficulty is that Neville believes he is a man with a mission to come to terms with the dictators.”
Neville Chamberlain’s pervasive shortcoming in judgment was twofold. He was susceptible to flattery by the Führer to the extent of believing that if Hitler told him one thing, he would not then do something else. He seemed also incapable of envisaging a foreign leader having murderous ambitions that he himself did not have. Above all, Chamberlain was largely indifferent to Nazi domestic behavior. Within weeks of the Anschluss—Germany’s annexation of Austria—the SS was forcing Viennese Jews to clean latrines with their bare hands or with tefillin stolen from nearby synagogues. This could not have been unknown to Chamberlain.
One of his less attractive attributes, however, was manipulating London’s press corps. He favored journalists who wrote sympathetically and marginalized those who were critical of his policies, insisting on four hours’ advance notice before accepting the questions of certain journalists. He liked to ask journalists who dared to pose critical questions which publication they represented, implying that their employers would be displeased at the “lack of patriotism” inherent in the question. He often froze into silence journalists he disliked, or—even worse—responded to legitimate journalistic concerns about the persecution of Jews, Hitler’s broken promises, or Mussolini’s ambitions with an expression of surprise “that such an experienced journalist was susceptible to Jewish-Communist propaganda.”
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.