By early September 1938, reminders of 1914 were everywhere. Poland and Hungary, eager to participate in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, were massing troops along the Czech border; in Prague the Czech government proclaimed martial law; in Nuremberg, Hitler pledged unshakable support for those “tortured creatures,” the Sudeten Germans; and in Britain the Royal Navy was put on partial alert. Passing the Cenotaph in Whitehall that Munich summer, Alec Douglas-Home, a Chamberlain aide and future prime minister, noticed that several fresh bouquets had been placed at its base.
“Well, it has been a pretty awful week,” Chamberlain wrote his sister Ida on September 11. Four days later, the prime minister was flying down the Thames on his way to visit Hitler. Approaching Bavaria, the British Airways’ Lockheed Electra swooped under a heavy storm and set down smoothly at the Munich airport. The cabin door was flung open and, to the tattoo of drums and the snap of swastika flags flapping in a sharp wind, Neville Chamberlain stepped into Hitlerland.
A few hours later, the prime minister was standing in Hitler’s enormous Berchtesgaden office, admiring the Wagnerian view; across the valley, a range of high mountains was half shrouded in a late-afternoon mist. He turned and examined the office. There was a huge globe next to the desk and an oak conference table at the far end of the office. “I have often heard of this room, but it is much larger than I expected,” Chamberlain said, hoping to ease the tension with a little small talk.
“It is you who have big rooms in England,” Hitler replied. Then, having exhausted his store of small talk, he demanded the return of the Sudetenland.
“I’d rather be beat than dishonored,” Alexander Cadogan, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said upon hearing that Chamberlain had acquiesced to Hitler’s demand. In the days following the prime minister’s return to London, there was much talk of national honor in certain quarters of Whitehall, Westminster, and the press. But what was national honor to “he that died on Wednesday”? To Chamberlain, such talk only led to more Sommes and Passchendaeles. The Sudeten crisis had to be viewed through the lens of national interest. Was it worth going to war for a small country on the other side of Europe? The prime minister did not believe it was, and it quickly became apparent that most of the British public agreed with him, as did the dominions: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and especially Canada. “I approve wholeheartedly of the course [Chamberlain] has adopted,” said Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister. After several weeks of intense pressure from the British and the French, who also favored a peaceful resolution of the crisis, the Czechs agreed to cede to Germany the regions of the country that were more than 50 percent ethnically German. On September 22, Chamberlain returned to Germany, expecting to sign an agreement. Instead, Hitler handed him a new set of demands: incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Reich and the annexation of several strategic regions beyond the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.
“Hitler has given Chamberlain the double cross . . . [And] it looks like war,” William Shirer, the CBS correspondent in Berlin, wrote on the twenty-third. By the end of the week, Shirer’s premonition seemed about to come true. The British fleet and the RAF were on full alert, searchlights scanned the London sky, every significant building in the imperial capital was cordoned off with sandbags, territorials (reservists) were digging trenches in Hyde Park and St. James Park, and the government was requisitioning cellars and basements as air raid shelters. Shocked Londoners felt as if they had stepped through the looking glass into Things to Come. This “is like a nightmare in a film,” Rob Bernays, a junior government minister, wrote. “We are like people waiting for Judgment.” At a dinner party, Bernays made a joke to lighten the somber mood and was immediately cut off by another guest, who snapped, “Damn you! [Don’t] you realize we may be dead next week?”
Meanwhile, in Downing Street, Chamberlain was facing a cabinet revolt. After explaining at some length his indignant reaction to Hitler’s new terms, he recommended that the terms be accepted. This was too much, even for Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary and Chamberlain’s closest ally in the cabinet. “Personally, I believe Hitler has cast a spell over Neville,” he told a colleague. Other cabinet members felt that Chamberlain had been undone by his vanity. And, unquestionably, Chamberlain’s desire to be hailed as a peacemaker did cloud his judgment, though other factors also went into his thinking. On September 20, two days before Chamberlain returned to Germany, a memo by General Hastings Ismay of the Imperial General Staff had counseled prudence: If “war with Germany has to come,” Ismay wrote, “it would be better to fight her in, say, 6 to 12 months than to accept the present challenge.”
In late September, the Czech crisis resolved itself at the Munich Conference, which was convened at Mussolini’s suggestion and was the source of some of the most evocative images of the prewar years: There is a famous photo of Chamberlain, looking more the coroner than the undertaker as he poses reluctantly for photographers in front of the two-engine Lockheed Electra that will fly him to Germany. There is one of Édouard Daladier, the French premier, at the Munich airport, looking physically massive but with vacant eyes that suggest that the premier’s nickname, the Bull of Vaucluse, may overstate the case; and there is one of Hitler standing at the conference table, his expression a compound of all his favorite words: “unshakable,” “invincible,” “triumphant,” “decisive”; and there is one of Mussolini, arms crossed, head tilted at an odd angle to hide the mole on his bald skull. And the most famous photo of all: Chamberlain, on his return from Munich, standing in front of a bank of microphones, promising “peace in our time” under a gray autumn sky. Lost among the lesser footnotes of the Munich Conference are two appeals from President Roosevelt, one urging Hitler to attend the conference, the other an appeal for a peaceful resolution of the Sudeten crisis.
Such was the residual strength of Never Again, not just in Britain but globally, that the morning after promising “peace in our time,” Chamberlain awoke to find himself a world hero. In Munich, Germans, some with tears in their eyes, flocked to the hotel where the prime minister had stayed, like pilgrims to a shrine. In France a subscription was raised to build the prime minister a country house and a trout stream. In Britain streets were named after Chamberlain. Dinners were held in his honor; crowds followed him to Buckingham Palace, where he appeared on the balcony with the king, and on fishing holidays in the Highlands crowds followed him through Scottish railway stations. Babies were named after him, there were Chamberlain dolls, and Chamberlain bouquets with the inscription “We Are Proud of You.” In Brussels a medal was struck in his honor; from Holland came tulips by the thousands; and from the people of New York and the people of South Africa, grateful thanks for the prime minister’s work on behalf of peace.
“All this will be over in early October,” Chamberlain told Halifax not long after his return from Munich. He was right about the fleeting nature of fame, wrong about how quickly it could flee.
A new Gallup poll taken less than a month after Munich indicated that public support for an antiappeasement government had risen sharply. Another new poll found that 71 percent of the respondents favored keeping the German colonies awarded to Britain at Versailles, even at the risk of war. The sudden stiffening of public resolve owed less to an upsurge in patriotism than to post-Munich disillusionment. Chamberlain had gotten a piece of paper at Munich, and Hitler had gotten the Sudetenland. Emotionally exhausted by two and a half years of lurching from crisis to crisis, people began to rethink their position on war. The pacifism of the interwar years had been driven by the conviction that European civilization had come very close to self-immolation on the battlefields of the Great War. All the peace ballots, debates, and pacifist marches of the thirties were energized by the belief that such a thing must never be allowed to happen again. Munich became the midwife to a new perception among the French and British elites: Terrible as war was, it might be the only way to prevent Hitler and his regime from plunging Europe into a “new dark age.” Munich also gave birth to a new perception among ordinary people, but it was more prosaic. “Living with Hitler,” said one man, “was like living in a neighborhood with a wild animal on the loose.”
In March 1939, when Germany occupied the non-German parts of Czechoslovakia, public opinion hardened further. Lingering guilt about the Treaty of Versailles had restrained Britain’s reaction to Hitler’s earlier occupations. Austria, the Rhineland, and the Sudetenland were historic German lands. In Hitler’s place, Bismarck—or almost any German statesman—would have made it his goal to reconstitute the historic Germany dismembered at Versailles. There was no explanation for the occupation of the ethnic Czech rump except pure, naked aggression. In late March, when the Chamberlain government extended a guarantee to Poland, there was broad public support for the decision.
In late August, after Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression pact, and a German attack on Poland became all but certain, the News Chronicle, one of the big London dailies, decided to test the strength of Never Again. The poll the paper commissioned found that only 11 percent of the British public still remained resolutely pacifist—that is, willing to embrace peace even on German terms. Yet anyone with a feel for public opinion knew the requiems for Never Again were premature. There remained a significant, if hard to quantify, substratum of antiwar feeling in Britain. “It was a vague body almost nebulous . . . and fortunately [had] no leader,” recalled Alfred Duff Cooper, who was on the opposite side of the war debate, having resigned from the Chamberlain cabinet to protest the prime minister’s appeasement. The substratum, said Duff Cooper, “was composed of disparate entities. The left wing of the Labour Party . . . whose detestation of war was so intense that they doubted anything was worth fighting for, . . . the right wing of Conservatism, . . . [whose members] believed that Communism was the greater danger and felt that Hitler had rendered his country a service by suppressing the Communists and might render Europe one by protecting it from the red peril.
“There existed also an attitude even less definite and harder to define, originating probably in the fact that the public mind was ill prepared for war. People had been told recently by ministers, and some sections of the press never ceased to tell them, that there was no longer any danger of war, so that when it [became imminent] they could hardly believe it . . . and clung obstinately to the hope that the whole thing could somehow be patched up.”
Duff Cooper’s list omits one other important center of antiwar feeling: the small but influential section of the British establishment who had grave reservations about risking the British economy and empire in a second conflict with Germany. Members of the group included former prime minister David Lloyd George and Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England, and several peers of the realm, among them Lord Londonderry and the Duke of Westminster. Though not members of the group, two powerful press barons, Lord Rothermere, publisher of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, and Lord Beaverbrook, publisher of the Daily Express and the London Evening Standard, also feared that the British Empire would not survive another total war.
Should war come, the government would have to take these various strains of opinion into account in making decisions about war aims, defense spending, rationing, and a host of other related issues. And should the war go badly for Britain, the government would have to be prepared for the eventuality that all or some of these strands of opinion would coalesce and demand a negotiated peace settlement to save the country from another four years of “death and death and death.”
At 5:00 p.m. the French ultimatum went into effect.
“Thus we tumbled into Armageddon without heart, without songs, without an ally except France (and she lukewarm), without aircraft, without tanks, without guns, without rifles, without even a reserve of raw commodities and feeding stuffs,” wrote Bob Boothby. A week later, when Italy and Japan announced their neutrality, the gravest threat to British security, a world war, receded. For now only Germany would have to be confronted, and, while it would be poked and prodded, it would not be poked and prodded hard enough to incite the holocaust of total war for a second time. Under Chamberlain, Britain would fight a limited war for limited ends and with limited means.
While the pace of rearmament would be quickened, for the time being the prime minister planned to emphasize two other components of his war plan. The first was propaganda. During the autumn of 1939, thousands of copies of dozens of different propaganda pamphlets were dropped on Germany, including Hitler and the Working Man, the best, though not the only, example of why the academics and literary figures the Ministry of Information employed to write propaganda were too genteel for the job. Hitler and the Working Man began by describing national socialism as “an honorable experiment” and noted that its early leaders had had many “fine ideals.” The second component of the Chamberlain war plan was economic blockade. Chamberlain believed—and it was a belief shared by the British intelligence services and many senior civil servants—that the huge cost of rearmament had overstretched the German economy, leaving Hitler incapable of fighting anything but the kind of short, sharp war he was fighting in Poland. Historians would later dismiss the belief in German economic weakness as a myth, but new research has shown that Chamberlain was at least half right. Until the summer of 1940, when the wealth of Western Europe fell under Hitler’s control, the German war machine was under intense economic pressure. In 1939, Britain was spending only 12 percent of its national income on defense, while Germany was already spending 23 percent and its economy was operating at 125 percent of capacity, while the British economy had yet to fully mobilize.
Chamberlain’s miscalculation was in thinking that Germany’s financial weakness would make it even more vulnerable to a British blockade than it had been in the Great War. Blockades, which are intended to deny the enemy resources, only work if they are airtight. And, as Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister in the Great War, lost no opportunity to point out, this time, unlike last time, the British blockade had a gaping hole. The German-Soviet pact had given Hitler access to Russian oil, to copper—to enough raw materials to sustain a ten-year war. Indeed, when it came to his successor’s faults as a war leader, Lloyd George did not know where to begin or end. The previous March, Chamberlain had blithely handed Poland a security guarantee unenforceable without Russian help; then, when an opportunity arose to strike an alliance with Stalin, he had let it slip away. And because Chamberlain refused to put British industry on a full wartime footing, Britain would not have ten divisions in France until the spring of 1940, and had only 1,270 first-line aircraft and a few hundred tanks, many outdated models. Against this force, Germany could field up to 157 divisions—10 of them armored—nearly 4,000 modern warplanes, and 3,000 modern tanks. It was true that 90 to 94 of France’s 117 divisions also faced Germany, but the French army’s 3,254 tanks and 1,562 aircraft were in the hands of soldiers and airmen preparing a 1939 army with 1918 training and strategies.