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…

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