In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was highly criticized by Winston Churchill and others for his “appeasement policy” regarding Nazi Germany’s threatened annexation of the Sudetenland, a border area of northern Czechoslovakia mostly inhabited by ethnic Germans. The truth was that Britain lacked the military might to meaningfully challenge the hostilities then threatening them by Japan (in Asia), Germany (in Europe), and Italy (the Mediterranean and Africa). Their major European allies at the time (France and Poland) were also ill-prepared for a war with Nazi Germany, and the United States was staunchly neutral. It was clear that little military assistance would be forthcoming from Britain’s allies to confront the Nazis. Throwing down the gauntlet to resolve the Sudetenland issue could’ve been seen as morally legitimate, but likely would have led to militarily disaster.
Instead, Chamberlain, along with representatives from France and Italy, signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in September 1938. It permitted Germany a peaceful annexation of the Sudetenland. As Hitler had earlier threatened to return that area to Germany by force, Chamberlain announced to a relieved Britain that the Munich Agreement brought “peace for our time.” The “our time” part lasted for about a year, a period during which Chamberlain’s critics felt vindicated when Hitler’s territorial appetite became clearly evident.
Although the appeasement policy had failed per se, it gave Britain valuable time to build Spitfire and Hurricane fighters as well as acquire airfields, pilots, and ground crews needed to win the Battle of Britain. It also allowed time for Britain to fine-tune their air raid early warning tactics, particularly the Filter Room at Bentley Priory that integrated the information from Chain Home radar stations, Home Guard Spotters, and signal intelligence into a remarkably efficient air defense system.
The Munich Agreement was Chamberlain’s pragmatic alternative to the folly of entering a war when military resources to wage a successful campaign were unavailable. Chamberlain was neither timid nor naive, as his political critics intimated. In fact, he had motivated Britain to begin war preparations a full two years before the Munich Agreement was signed. He also had consummated military alliances (weak as they were) to discourage Nazi expansionism. But without the Munich Agreement, Britain may have faced the Luftwaffe onslaught in 1938 instead of 1940, and Germany would then have more likely gained the air superiority it needed to open the door for a successful invasion of the British Isles.
In “Omens of 1936,” published in the Fortnightly Review in January of that year, historian Denis Brogan predicted that 1936 would be the year that faith in Never Again began to falter. And events would prove Brogan more right than wrong. In addition to the Rhineland coup, 1936 was the year civil war broke out in Spain, Hitler and Mussolini formed the Rome-Berlin Axis, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, and the European press began to report regular sightings of the death ship. Not coincidentally, 1936 was also the year when the diplomatic visit became a staple of the cinema newsreel. Typically, the newsreel would open with a panning shot of dignitaries standing on a railway platform, the politicians in top hats and frocks, the soldiers in gold-braided comic opera uniforms. A whistle is heard, heads turn, and a mighty engine appears, black as the African night, its swept-back nose creating the impression of great speed even as the train crawls into the station at ten miles per hour. Pulling to a halt in front of the platform, the pistons emit a snake-like hiss, and the waiting dignitaries disappear into a vapor of white steam. After the cloud dissipates, a flower girl appears and presents the visiting diplomat with a bouquet; pleasantries are exchanged on the platform; then the diplomat vanishes into the backseat of a big five-liter Horsch limousine with gull wing fenders or into a black Renault sedan with silver chevrons on the grille.
If the newsreel is set in the Balkans, the diplomat is French and he is there to shore up the troubled Little Entente, the alliance France has formed with Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Yugoslavia). If the newsreel is set in Spain, the diplomat could be a German—or an Italian, visiting Generalissimo Francisco Franco, leader of rebel Nationalist forces—or a Russian, visiting members of the Republican government in Madrid. If the newsreel is set in Berlin, the diplomat is Japanese, and he is in the German capital to witness the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact between Japan and Germany. And if the newsreel is set in Rome, the diplomat could be German, or, even more likely, British, in which case he is in Italy to do the bidding of the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain.
The House of Chamberlain, founded by the prime minister’s father, Joe, lord mayor of Birmingham, and long presided over by older half brother Austen, a foreign secretary, had a history of producing able, ambitious, thrusting personalities. And Joe Chamberlain’s youngest son would more than live up to that standard. When his turn to lead the family came, Neville would not only raise the roof, he also would put a new wing on the House of Chamberlain. As minister of health, Chamberlain was dynamic and innovative, and as chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury secretary) he was very nearly great; under his guidance, Britain emerged from the Depression several years earlier than the United States. In every office he occupied, including prime minister, Neville Chamberlain delighted civil servants who admired his competency, his organized, orderly mind, and his ability to firm up the flaccid machinery of government. Among political colleagues, he was less popular. Cross the prime minister, they knew, and he would throw you to his minions in the press for a public savaging. Remarkably, this dynamic figure is completely absent from the newsreels and newspapers of the time, which gave us an image that continues to resonate to this day—Chamberlain as the undertaker on holiday: umbrella in hand, homburg on head, face pale, back slightly bent, eyes anxiously scanning the sky for signs of rain.
A photo of Chamberlain taken shortly after he became prime minister is truer to the real man. Here, the eyes are penetrating and intelligent, the sharp arc of the nose gives the face a hawk-like handsomeness, and the smile is inviting, with a hint of the warmth that always eluded the photographers but delighted intimates. The bold, almost aggressive way the prime minister addresses the camera catches another often overlooked trait. Like the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Neville Chamberlain’s ego was a wonder of the world. In his weekly letters to his spinster sisters, Hilda and Ida, the vanity is so guileless it is almost charming. “This year has seen a record for social invitations,” the prime minister notes in a weekly letter to Ida. “The Queen . . . remarked on the confidence everyone had in me,” he tells Hilda in another letter. In public dealings, however, the vanity became hubris, not in the ancient Greek sense of someone who takes pleasure in shaming and humiliating, but in the sense of the book of Proverbs, “a pride that blinds.” Chamberlain’s view of himself as more than a match for any opponent allowed him to be played time and again by Mussolini, who thought him an old fool “not made of the same stuff as Francis Drake and the other magnificent adventurers who created the Empire,” and by Hitler, who referred to the prime minister as “that silly old man with . . . the umbrella.” Still, any fair assessment of Chamberlain’s relations with the dictators is incomplete unless it also takes into account the decline of British power.
In 1937, when Chamberlain took office, Britain, a small island state, was sinking under the enormous military and economic burdens of a global empire, and the domestic burdens of the Depression and pacifism, and it was increasingly menaced by technological change. The advent of airpower had called into question the strategic advantages hitherto provided by the English Channel and the Royal Navy; and the fragile, spotty economic recovery from the 1929 crash had limited British rearmament. Aircraft production was rising, though not fast enough to build and equip an air force capable of fighting a European enemy; and the plan to create an expeditionary force capable of fighting a war on the Continent had fallen victim to budget cuts (including by Chamberlain) and to Never Again. The British public, said one senior politician, would be “strongly suspicious of any preparations made in peacetime with a view to large-scale military commitments on the Continent.” In addition the dominions, which had contributed so much to the British war effort in 1914–18, were either growing isolationist—Canada and South Africa—or becoming burdens themselves. Australia and New Zealand looked to Britain for protection against Japan. Finally, there was the empire: the work of three centuries, the source of Britain’s global power, and, now with the “hot winds of nationalism” blowing from Cairo and Calcutta, increasingly a deadweight, militarily and economically. By the mid-1930s it had become almost impossible to imagine any eventuality under which Britain could fight a major European war and emerge with the empire still intact.
In December 1937, the Chiefs of Staff addressed the consequences of British weakness in a forceful memorandum: “We cannot foresee the time when our defense forces will be strong enough to safeguard our trade, territory, and vital interests against Germany, Italy, and Japan at the same time. [We cannot] exaggerate [the importance] from the point of view of imperial defense of any political or international action which could be taken to reduce the number of our potential enemies.”
Chamberlain was already thinking along similar lines: “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”—his foreign policy—rested on two pillars: continued rearmament to deter Germany, Italy, and Japan, and appeasement to assuage their grievances. Supporters of the prime minister hailed the policy as a masterstroke. One or two of the potential enemies might be won over by appeasement, and, should the strategy fail, the year or two consumed in negotiating grievances would buy Britain time to build up its defenses, especially its air defenses, which Chamberlain, like Baldwin and Churchill, viewed as the key to victory in a modern war. The policy also had the important advantage of being in tune with public feeling.
What grievances should be appeased? In the case of Japan, no legitimate grievances suggested themselves, but Japan posed a threat to Australia and New Zealand, so Chamberlain swallowed hard and ignored Japanese infringements on British concessions in China. Italy, which was behaving menacingly in Spain and North Africa, felt aggrieved that the Mediterranean was a British, not an Italian, sea. Chamberlain swallowed hard and turned a blind eye to Italian attacks on British ships delivering goods to civil war Spain. However, lingering British guilt about the Treaty of Versailles gave German grievances a special standing in Chamberlain’s eyes. Hitler was a beast, of course—a vicious anti-Semite and mad, to boot. Nonetheless, mad or not, Germany had been roughly handled at Versailles: stripped of its army, its Rhine borders, and several historic German regions. By the late 1930s, some of the injustices had been corrected, though Danzig, a historically German city, was still in Polish hands and the Sudetenland, another historic German region, was still in Czech hands. Austria was not a lost territory, but it was shrunken almost to insignificance by Versailles, and many Germans felt its rightful place was inside a Greater Reich.
In November 1937, Lord Edward Halifax, a member of the Chamberlain cabinet and one of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers, met with Hitler. This was Halifax’s second visit to the “new” Germany. After the first one, he returned to London sounding like a botanist who had discovered a bizarrely florid but probably benign new species of plant life during his travels. Halifax “told me he . . . was much amused by the visit,” a friend said. “He thinks the regime absolutely fantastic, perhaps too fantastic to be taken seriously.” In late 1937 Halifax still thought the Hitler regime fantastic, but he was becoming aware of its dangers, and, like millions of his countrymen, he did not want Britain dragged into a war on the far side of Europe over issues that did not affect its security and that, in British eyes, had a measure of legitimacy. During his second visit, Halifax told Hitler that, provided peaceful means were employed, Britain would be prepared to accept “possible alterations in the European order, which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.”
Hitler assured Halifax that Germany wished to have good relations with all its neighbors. Four months later, the Wehrmacht marched into Vienna and Austria became a part of the Reich. Two months after the Anschluss—May 1938—rumors began to circulate that ten German divisions had been moved to the Reich border opposite the Sudetenland. “Those d——d Germans have spoiled another weekend for me,” Chamberlain complained to his sister Hilda on May 22. Britain issued a mild warning; Germany denied that it had troops on the Sudetenland border; then, in an inspired piece of diplomacy, it was decided to blame the crisis on the Czechs, the only party to the dispute incapable of starting a world war on its own.
June and July of 1938 passed calmly, but it was not the normal calm of summer. In the Rhineland, construction crews worked double and triple shifts under arc lights to complete the West Wall, a new defensive system that the Allied powers called the Siegfried Line. In Paris Georges Bonnet, the French foreign minister, scrutinized the French-Czechoslovakian treaty for loopholes. In Moscow Stalin, who also had a treaty with the Czechs, watched carefully to see who would emerge victorious from the Sudeten confrontation, Germany or Britain and France. In Washington the Roosevelt administration prepared an appeal for moderation. And in London the Chiefs of Staff issued a new warning: In the event of an Anglo-German war over Czechoslovakia, “it is more than probable that both Italy and Japan would seize the opportunity to further their own ends and that in consequence the problem we have to envisage is not that of a limited European war but of world war.” In July, when Chamberlain spoke at Birmingham’s centenary celebration, the Chiefs’ warning was still on his mind. “The government of which I am at present the head intends to hold on its course, which is set for the appeasement of the world.”
The Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy took note of the speech, though to one Tolleshunt resident, Margery Allingham, Czechoslovakia remained a faraway country with an all but unspellable name until the end of July, when Margery and a group of friends gathered in her yard one afternoon to plan the annual village cricket party. It was a lovely Saturday, the air heavy with the smell of freshly cut grass, and overhead, a few fat cumulus clouds drifting idly eastward toward the sea—just the kind of day that always made Margery feel smug about abandoning a glamorous London publishing career for life in an obscure Essex village whose sole distinction was its possession of one of the two surviving Maypoles in England. The state of the village cricket field dominated most of the afternoon’s discussion, but toward evening one guest brought up the Czech crisis, and Margery, who was thirty-four, found herself thinking back to her childhood in the Great War. She remembered a recurring dream she had had then: “a soldier galloping up on a great grey horse to kiss [a] tearful nurse goodbye . . . then death . . . and not ordinary dying either . . . but death final, empty and away somewhere.” She remembered other things about that time: “the women and old people all in black . . . standing about in the village street reading the enormous casualty lists . . . ; [and] the village boy on a bike with not one telegraph spelling tragedy but sometimes two or even three.” Then an astonishing thought occurred to Margery: war, which had savaged the generation before hers, now seemed about to savage the generation after hers. The thought was so staggering, she found it “hardly to be borne.”