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Giving In to Hitler

A meeting in Berchtesgaden to discuss Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Germany, September 1938
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German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, German chancellor ­Adolf Hitler, Paul Schmidt, an interpreter, and Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador to Berlin, at a meeting in Berchtesgaden to discuss Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Germany, September 1938

When the Czech government, faced with an imminent German attack and total abandonment by its Western democratic allies in September 1938, accepted without military resistance the annexation by Germany of one fifth of the country as decreed by the Munich Agreement between Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, the angry, embittered, and physically exhausted Czech president Edvard Beneš declared, “History will judge.” And indeed, “history” has generally acquitted Beneš of the terrible “choiceless choice” he made but has long held up the Munich Agreement as an object lesson in both dishonor and the blinkered mutilation of national self-interest on the part of Great Britain and France.

What then can two new historical studies of appeasement and the Munich Agreement add? The answer is not a radical revision of what we already know but rather broadened perspectives. Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement is grounded in the political and social history of Great Britain during the period, making use of more than forty collections of personal papers and extensive examination of the press as well as the usual government documents to illustrate a changing spectrum of British attitudes and perceptions. Bouverie also provides an exceptionally fine portrait of his main character, Neville Chamberlain. P.E. Caquet’s The Bell of Treason focuses on the relatively neglected victim nation, Czechoslovakia, and how it experienced the fateful months from March through September 1938.

To understand Great Britain’s response to Hitler, it is essential to understand how the British viewed their world by 1933. A number of critical works, such as John Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), had produced a broad consensus that the deficiencies and injustices of the Versailles Treaty required revision, not enforcement. A wave of World War I memoirs and literature in the late 1920s had spread the notion that the war had been tragic and futile, and that repetition of such a war had to be avoided at all costs. Historical studies had identified the European arms race and a system of binding alliances as major factors that prevented statesmen from arresting the hapless slide into that senseless war.

Hitler’s rise to power was seen by many in Britain as a logical consequence of legitimate German grievances, and both morality and political necessity now demanded timely redress. Nazi brutality (as manifested in the purge of Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders and in the assassination of the anti-Nazi Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in the summer of 1934) and extremist racial anti-Semitism (as opposed to the social snobbery commonly accepted in British society) were regrettable, but this only intensified Britain’s sense of guilt for not addressing German grievances earlier. Moreover, for many upper-class British in particular, Nazism was not only a useful bulwark against communism and the lesser of the two evils, it even possessed, Bouverie writes, a kind of “noxious glamour.”

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Labour Party conference in October 1933 endorsed total disarmament and a general strike to bring down the government in the event of war, and a Labour candidate—campaigning on disarmament and pacifism—flipped the hitherto safe Tory seat of East Fulham in a by-election that frightened the Conservative Party leader Stanley Baldwin far more than the rise of Hitler. With an “unrivaled intuition for public opinion” and a fatalistic conviction that the “bomber would always get through,” Baldwin rejected anything beyond a token increase in military spending, despite the warnings from Winston Churchill and others about the alarming pace of German rearmament. In November 1935 the Conservatives won a two-hundred-seat majority in Parliament that would provide Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain, political immunity from both the small cluster of anti-appeasers within his own party as well as from the Labour opposition when it belatedly began to embrace an antifascist position in 1936. This is the starting point from which Bouverie begins his analysis of British appeasement policy.

Baldwin’s determination to follow rather than mold British public opinion had fateful consequences in both 1935 and 1936. The British public overwhelmingly supported the idealistic notion of “collective security” in principle, if not in practice; hence Baldwin’s government supported all sanctions short of war in response to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. As these sanctions did not include any measures that promised to be effective, such as a ban on Italian oil imports or the closing of the Suez Canal, Ethiopia was not saved, the League of Nations as an instrument of collective security was totally discredited, and an alienated Mussolini—who in 1934 had blocked a Nazi takeover in Austria—allied himself with Hitler. In 1936, when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland with a handful of troops in violation of both the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact, Britain and France did not call his colossal bluff. Baldwin was not mistaken that there was virtually no public support for opposing the Germans’ “justified and inevitable” march into their own backyard.

Chamberlain became prime minister when Baldwin retired in May 1937. As chancellor of the exchequer, he had accepted a policy of limited rearmament but only at a pace that would not strain the budget and damage the economy. As prime minister, he now resolved to replace Baldwin’s foreign policy of reactive acquiescence with proactive appeasement by approaching the dictators for “a practical and business-like discussion of their wishes.” A meeting between Viscount Halifax and Hitler at Berchtesgaden in November 1937 was pivotal: Halifax assured his host that Great Britain did not oppose changes in the status quo in Eastern Europe—including specifically Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig—provided that such changes were “not based on force.”

Just two weeks earlier, at the infamous Hossbach conference, Hitler had informed his high-ranking generals and foreign minister that Germany had to wage its war for Lebensraum by 1943, and that Austria and Czechoslovakia had to be absorbed into the Third Reich perhaps as early as 1938. He was not pleased with their lack of enthusiasm, and in early 1938 he replaced his two top generals and foreign minister. Simultaneously, Chamberlain ousted the anti-appeaser Robert Vansittart as permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Office and then replaced his tepid foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, with Halifax. The hour of what Bouverie calls the “evangelical appeasers”—determined to carry out their policy with “fervor” and “conviction”—had struck, exactly when Hitler made clear not only his intention but also his timetable for war, word of which reached London through multiple sources.

The “evangelical appeasers” faced no serious obstacle from the parliamentary opposition. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Labour began to switch from its feckless advocacy of universal disarmament to antifascist solidarity, but Labour’s 154 seats were dwarfed by the Conservatives’ 386. The real debate over appeasement, therefore, was internal to the Conservative Party, but again the anti-appeasers were both small in number and lacked an effective leader. Winston Churchill had a checkered political past and was deemed by many Conservatives as volatile and—in Baldwin’s words—lacking “wisdom and judgment.” After his resignation as foreign secretary, Eden was the hoped-for champion, but he turned out to be conflicted, reluctant, and indecisive. At least as prominent as the anti-appeasers were admirers of Hitler, who expressed their sympathy and support for the Nazi regime through eager tourism to “Hitler’s Wonderland.” Most conspicuous were the Prince of Wales (briefly before his abdication Edward VIII), Lord Londonderry, and the Mitford sisters, but Bouverie provides a long list of others, particularly from the aristocracy.

German annexation of Austria in March 1938—accompanied by both enthusiastic crowds welcoming Hitler and unseemly scenes of violence against Jews in Vienna—was accepted in London with a sense of relief. The inevitable had occurred, and one major grievance on Hitler’s list had been removed. Now the clear challenge was to obtain satisfaction for Hitler in Czechoslovakia without war. The conundrum was that Czechoslovakia contained a German-speaking minority of 3.25 million living mostly in the horseshoe ring of mountains on the northern, western, and southern Czech border territories known as the Sudetenland, but also had an alliance with France (and a conditional alliance with the Soviet Union, dependent on France fulfilling its alliance obligations first).

For Chamberlain the answer was to exercise (in conjunction with the French) whatever pressure was needed to extract sufficient Czech concessions over the treatment of the Sudeten Germans to pacify Hitler and avoid war. To pressure the French and Czechs while holding Germany at bay, he pursued a policy, Bouverie writes, of keeping both sides “guessing.” He warned the French and Czechs that Britain would not support them if they were inflexible and warned the Germans that if war broke out, Britain could not guarantee that it would stand aside. With France this approach was entirely successful. The French repeatedly urged the British to announce a policy of solidarity and support for the French-Czech alliance but consistently failed to obtain such a pledge, and they then agreed to follow the British lead. This policy was doomed to failure vis-à-vis Germany, however, because Hitler instructed the Sudetenland leader, Konrad Henlein, to always demand more than the Czechs could concede and scheduled a German attack, preferably a local war against an isolated Czechoslovakia, to destroy the country entirely by October 1, 1938.

As war loomed in September, Chamberlain traveled to Germany and agreed to force upon the Czechs Hitler’s demand for self-determination for the Sudeten Germans (and thus the acceptance in principle of ceding the Sudetenland to Germany). With this unsavory task accomplished, Chamberlain made a second trip to Germany, only to have a furious Hitler reject the acceptance of his own previous demands and now insist upon the immediate German occupation of all disputed territories without a plebiscite. When Chamberlain faced a revolt within his own cabinet, it appeared that finally Britain and France (and hence also the Soviet Union) would not abandon the Czechs if Germany attacked. After Hitler learned that Italy would not join him, he blinked and accepted the cession of the Sudetenland in a third meeting with Chamberlain (as well as Mussolini and French prime minister Édouard Daladier) at Munich—once again claiming it was his last territorial demand. Britain and France then forced the Czechs to comply.

Hitler soon regretted his last-minute decision not to gamble on a local war. Chamberlain was initially greeted by highly relieved and grateful crowds, but soon a growing sense of shame over Munich—coupled with the spectacle of Kristallnacht in November 1938—began to transform British public opinion. In late October and early November, two anti-appeasers won by-elections. In March 1939 Chamberlain was forced to give a guarantee to Poland following Hitler’s seizure of the rest of the Czech state, which definitively proved the hollowness of his repeated claim to be intervening only to save persecuted German minorities abroad who had been denied self-determination by the Versailles Treaty.

Chamberlain was then compelled to go through the motions of pursuing what was for him an undesired alliance with the Soviet Union in order to make the Polish guarantee a credible deterrent. In his halfhearted negotiations with the Soviets, however, he could not compete with the extensive territorial concessions (the Baltic States, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia) that Hitler offered to Stalin, since Hitler intended to seize these territories later in any case. Once the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed in late August 1939, Hitler was determined this time not to be denied his war, regardless of whether Britain and France honored their guarantee to Poland. Two days after the German invasion of Poland, Chamberlain, faced again with parliamentary revolt, issued the British ultimatum demanding an end to hostilities and then declared war on Germany.

As Bouverie notes, many countries have waged undeclared wars, but the months following the conquest of Poland represented a rare case in which a declared war was not waged. Far more British were killed trying to drive in the blackout imposed throughout the country than died in combat in the first four months, and there was far more eagerness to aid beleaguered Finland when it was attacked by the Soviet Union in December than there had been to aid either Czechoslovakia or Poland in 1938 and 1939, respectively. A bungled campaign in Norway finally led to the fateful parliamentary debate of May 7–9, 1940, after which Chamberlain experienced the “crushing moral defeat” of seeing his more than two-hundred-seat majority shrink to a mere eighty-one in a vote of no confidence.

When Labour refused to join a national government under Chamberlain, and Halifax showed no appetite to take on the responsibility of being his successor (though he was the preferred candidate of the Conservatives and King George VI), Churchill was the only viable alternative and assumed the premiership on May 10, the day Germany launched its decisive offensive on the western front. Faced with the catastrophic collapse of France, Halifax proposed seeking terms from Hitler, which in Bouverie’s estimation was the “closest that Hitler came to winning the war.” In a final act of redemption, Chamberlain backed Churchill in his resolve to fight on alone. “The age of appeasement was over,” Bouverie writes. “The age of war had begun again.”

Bouverie concludes that the “failure to perceive the true character of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler stands as the single greatest failure of British policy makers during this period, since it was from this that all subsequent failures…stemmed.” Why, despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, did Chamberlain (as well as his ambassador in Berlin, Nevile Henderson) continually reiterate their belief in Hitler’s limited goals and peaceful intentions? Chamberlain and the “evangelical appeasers” shared the view of many other British that World War I had been such a catastrophe that it was inconceivable that anyone would actively seek another war. And as Duff Cooper noted of Chamberlain, the former businessman, mayor, and chancellor of the exchequer “had never met anybody in Birmingham who in the least resembled Adolf Hitler.” Hitler as intentional prevaricator and warmonger was someone beyond his capacity to imagine.

But there was another decisive quality in Chamberlain’s personality: he stubbornly subordinated the assessment of evidence to the preservation of his own prior convictions. When confronted with an analysis of Hitler’s own writings and statements that made his goal of war perfectly clear, Chamberlain retreated into complete denial: “If I accepted the author’s conclusions I should despair, but I don’t and won’t.” Three days before Hitler’s occupation of Prague in March 1939, Chamberlain wrote, “I know that I can save this country and I do not believe that anyone else can.” The historical conjuncture of Hitler and Chamberlain was a match made in hell. Political leaders who dispense with evidence in decision-making because they are supremely confident in their own infallibility and indispensability have not been rare; fortunately, Hitler has been a singular historical figure.

Caquet shifts focus from the Great Powers to Czechoslovakia. It was a multiethnic state containing not only Czechs and Slovaks but also minorities of Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, and Jews as well as Germans. Though the Sudeten Germans were initially divided among four political parties, by 1935 the Sudeten Nazi Party had gained a majority among German-speaking voters and by 1938 had absorbed all of its rivals except the Social Democrats. As had been done in Germany, the Sudeten Nazis had also gained near-total control over social and cultural organizations. Their leader, Konrad Henlein, thus plausibly claimed to represent the Sudeten Germans in the negotiations with the Czech government over the concessions on which Chamberlain insisted following the Anschluss.

As Caquet perceptively notes, the British accepted the same concepts and vocabulary to analyze the issue as the Germans did, namely that Czechs and Germans as distinct races had been locked in a primordial struggle for centuries. In reality, Caquet argues, while the territorial boundaries of Bohemia had been stable over centuries, the ethnic boundaries between and identities of its inhabitants were in constant flux. He estimates that if the Nazi racial definition of Jews enshrined in the Nuremberg Laws (in which “full Jews” were defined as having three or four Jewish grandparents) had been similarly applied in Czechoslovakia to define those who were racially German, then only about one million out of the 3.25 million Sudeten Germans would have qualified. In short, the Germanness of most Sudeten Germans was a recent construct, just as the long list of their alleged intolerable grievances and suffering was a product of incessant Nazi agitation and propaganda.

Unfortunately, the British had pro-German, anti-Czech ambassadors in both Berlin (Nevile Henderson) and Prague (Basil Newton), as well as a mediator, Lord Runciman, who relentlessly confirmed the German perspective, namely that Sudeten grievances were legitimate and that Henlein was moderate and reasonable while Beneš was obstinate and devious. In fact, Henlein consistently lied about his subservience to and funding from Nazi Germany, but given the British attitude, it was impossible to convince them of his bad faith. The Czechs, with what Caquet calls their naive “faith in truth,” were no match for German mendacity and British self-deception and gullibility.

German troops entering the grounds of Hradčany Castle, Prague, March 1939
Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy
German troops entering the grounds of Hradčany Castle, Prague, March 1939

Caquet makes two important claims about the internal situation in Czechoslovakia. First, as a partial mobilization in May and full mobilization in September 1938 demonstrated, the Czech army was extremely efficient and ready to fight. All the major political parties as well as large crowds of demonstrators made clear the country’s readiness and ability to offer determined and unified resistance to an invader. Czechoslovakia could have resisted valiantly, but its ultimate defeat was inevitable, especially since Poland and Hungary would likely have joined the German attack if it had fought alone. It was, as one Czech put it, “the choice between murder and amputation with a chance of further survival.”

Harder to judge is Caquet’s claim that in September, after Henlein and the extremists in the Sudeten Nazi Party had fled to Germany, the solidarity of the Sudeten Germans was crumbling and many did not want annexation to the Third Reich. Equally unprovable is his suggestion that in a truly free plebiscite a combination of Czechs, Jews, German Social Democrats, and anti-annexationist Sudeten Germans might well have prevailed. Resolution of the internal ethnic conflict, Caquet argues, was in sight if only Chamberlain had not flown to Germany, accepted Hitler’s demand for the immediate concession of the Sudetenland, and imposed this solution on the abandoned Czechs. Caquet cites Czech witnesses to the effect that Chamberlain showed no shame in his ultimatum to the Czechs; on the contrary, he was intoxicated at having prevented war and acted as if dealing with the Czechs was an unpleasant formality.

Ultimately the allegedly eternal conflict between Sudeten Germans and Czechs was resolved in a different way. Caquet notes that the long-term consequences of the Munich Agreement were six years of Nazi occupation followed by over forty years of Communist rule. Strangely, he does not mention at all the postwar fate of the Sudeten Germans, who, between 1945 and 1948, were expelled en masse from the restored boundaries of Czechoslovakia.

Both Bouverie and Caquet deny the claim of the Chamberlain apologists that the Munich Agreement bought crucial time for British rearmament and ultimate survival. Caquet goes much further in presenting a detailed analysis of the relative military-strategic situations in 1938 and 1939–1940 and argues emphatically that Britain was gravely disadvantaged by fighting later rather than sooner. In 1938 the Czech army had thirty-eight well-equipped divisions and sophisticated border fortifications to defend against a German attack by forty-four divisions. In the west, Germany had a thin screening force of five active and four reserve divisions, with construction of the Siegfried Line border defenses barely underway, to hold off the forty French divisions poised to invade the Rhineland.

Moreover, the Czechs had their conditional alliance with the Soviet Union, and Caquet argues that Soviet readiness to help the Czechs was “plain enough.” Romania, he claims, had given informal permission for rail and air transit across its territory, which would have permitted moving one to two Soviet divisions per week into Czechoslovakia. In 1938 the French and Czechs had a combined tank force of 3,200 compared with Germany’s 2,200. The German tanks were still the lightweight Mark I and II models, which were seriously outgunned and outarmored by the French and Czech heavy tanks and completely vulnerable to antitank guns as well. The combined British-French-Czech-Soviet air forces had two and a half times more modern fighters than the Luftwaffe and more than double the number of bombers. Germany had a six-week supply of ammunition, a three-month supply of oil, and an iron ore supply line from Sweden that the Soviet Union could have cut in the Baltic. And British naval domination ensured a tightening blockade over the long term. In short, Germany had neither the margin of superiority needed to win a quick victory nor anything close to the capacity to wage a long war in 1938.

In 1939–1940 Germany, in alliance with rather than in opposition to the Soviet Union, faced an isolated Poland and then France. The captured Czech munitions industry produced a third of the new Mark III and IV model tanks vital for victory first in Poland and then in France. Germany’s severe supply shortages and vulnerability to naval blockade were solved by its agreement with the Soviet Union, which not only did not block Swedish iron ore shipments but supplied vast amounts of raw materials to Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941. It is true, as Chamberlain apologists note, that the Hurricanes, Spitfires, and radar system necessary to British survival in the Battle of Britain in August–September 1940 were not available in 1938. But in 1938 Germany did not have the Channel airfields or the new Me-109s and bombers that enabled it to wage the Battle of Britain in the first place. In 1939 and 1940 Germany proved it could win spectacular, quick victories even if it did not win the long war; in 1938 it could have done neither.

Bouverie and Caquet both refer to the claim made by the German army’s wartime chief of staff Franz Halder in his testimony before the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal after the war, which was subsequently invoked by Winston Churchill in his World War II memoirs. According to Halder, a group of anti-Hitler plotters stood ready to carry out a coup and remove the dictator if he went to war over Czechoslovakia, but Chamberlain’s abject surrender at Munich pulled the rug out from under them and gave Hitler the bloodless victory that solidified his position. In short, without Chamberlain’s surrender, there would have been no Hitler, no World War II, no Holocaust. Both authors are “doubtful” that such a coup attempt would have been made, much less succeeded, but they do not examine Halder’s claim further.

The annexation of Austria and Hitler’s determination to move next against Czechoslovakia caused the German army’s then chief of staff, Ludwig Beck, to become increasingly worried about the outbreak of a major European war that in his opinion Germany was unprepared to wage and ultimately could not win. He wrote a series of memoranda, first laying out the military necessity of avoiding such a war and, more daringly, urging his fellow generals to undertake collective protest against Hitler’s preparations for war and then, if that were unsuccessful, to resign. While many officers shared his analysis of the situation, none supported his solution. On August 18, 1938, the isolated Beck submitted his resignation.

Halder, Beck’s successor, then became involved in a conspiracy for a coup d’état, but only in the event that the order for an invasion of Czechoslovakia was issued. The number of people involved was necessarily small, the preparations improvisational, and the chances of success probably minimal, especially given the refusal of the officer corps to rally around the highly esteemed Beck just a month earlier. In any case, the imminent coup was called off on September 28 when Hitler agreed to the Munich Conference. Generally hesitant throughout September, Halder became even more irresolute thereafter. The historian Harold Deutsch concluded, “He resembled a horse that dashes up to the hurdle with every air of confidence and purpose only to falter and haul up short at the jump.”

As Bouverie and Caquet have shown, the judgment of history has not been kind to the appeasers. But blame for thwarting an alleged coup that would have fundamentally changed the course of history is not an additional burden they should bear.