Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declares ‘peace for our time’.
30 September 1938.
This is the first episode in my series of Fireside Chats about history. These chats will focus on C20th British history, conflict reporting and media history. This chat focuses on the history and legacy of appeasement. A controversial and occasionally misunderstood policy.
This is, of course, only a cursory chat. The history of appeasement is rich and there are lots of excellent historical works that discuss the policy in-depth, as well as provide detailed analyses of the Munich Agreement. I personally recommend the excellent works of:
- The historical roots of appeasement are discussed in great detail by Paul Kennedy in his article: Kennedy, P. (1976). ‘The Tradition of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy 1865-1939’. British Journal of International Studies, 2(3), 195-215.
- R. Gerald Hughes, The Postwar Legacy of Appeasement British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (2014). This is an excellent discussion of the legacy of appeasement and its use in political rhetoric. Its opening chapters present the historiography of the subject in an enviably clear, concise and engaging manner.
- D.C. Watt (1965), ‘Appeasement’, The Political Quarterly, 36: 191-213. (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-923X.1965.tb01099.x). Although this is an older article, Watt provides a very good introduction to the subject’s historiography and to the history of the policy itself.
This is my first attempt at editing and ‘podcasting’, so it is a little rough around the edges, but hopefully, I will improve as I go on.
History Fireside Chats are produced, recorded and researched by Dr Kristopher Lovell. The audio was recorded using the Samson G-Track Pro: https://amzn.to/2YU2cit
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History Fireside Chats with Dr Kristopher Lovell: Episode 1:
Chamberlain and Appeasement
In today’s historical fire side chats, I want to talk about Appeasement – Neville Chamberlain’s infamous policy of placating Adolf Hitler.
Chamberlain once told Margret Asquith that ‘The day may come when my cursed visit to Munich will be understood.’ Clearly, it hasn’t.
Appeasement has become a very dirty word in politics. If you want to win an argument, one of the easiest ways to discredit your opponent is to accuse them of appeasement. The phrase is often used by both sides of a political debate. Most famously when Margret Thatcher wanted to shut down a debate about her policy on Iraq she told the House of Commons:
“I seem to hear the stench of appeasement in the air – a rather nauseating stench of appeasement.”
Gerry Hughes recent book, The Postwar Legacy of Appeasement: British Foreign Policy Since 1945 is an excellent study of that legacy. Despite the modern usage, at the time Appeasement was a respectable policy and one with a history that we will briefly explore today.
This fireside chat is not a comprehensive discussion of the policy, nor a detailed account of the Munich crisis which has been well covered by historians before. Instead I want to perhaps rescue Chamberlain from the dustbin of history or at least paint him in a more sympathetic light by putting it into great context and by showing some of the successes of appeasement.
So what exactly is appeasement: Paul Kennedy defined it as ‘the policy of settling international (or, for that matter, domestic) quarrels by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiations and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict which would be expensive, bloody, and possibly very dangerous.’ The historian D.C. Watt simply defines it as ‘a technique for conflict resolution.
Although it has become associated with Chamberlain and Hitler, Appeasement has historic roots. In fact, it was an essential foreign policy tool for Britain between 1865 – 1939 and it was used frequently when British interests were not at stake.
Gladstone and Disraeli in fact had a fierce debate in 1876 about Disraeli’s appeasement of Turkey. And Britain made numerous concessions to Prussia and Russia between 1863 and 1870 in order to avoid a conflict with them. And even in the lead up to the First World War, figures such as Sir Edward Grey offered the Kaiser territory in an effort to avert a war.
Appeasement could actually work. But in order for appeasement to work, the appeasing state has to be the more powerful state – and the less powerful state needs to accept appeasement. This was not the case with Hitler’s Germany.
It is also worth remembering why Chamberlain wanted to appease Germany. The memory of war was still remarkably strong in Britain. People remembered the toll the First World War had taken on its young men. The deaths from the First World War struck at the heart of British political elites. Asquith and Bonar Law – the leaders of the Liberal and Conservative Parties – both lost their sons during the First World War. There was a genuine fear then in Britain that the next war would be the last war, would be utterly devastating. The public mood was still one of grief, and still there was a strong anti-war sentiment in popular culture from Vera Britten’s Testament of Youth and Robert Grave’s Goodbye to All That.
And there was a recognition that the next war would be a war everyone would suffer from – that there would be no distinction between soldiers and civilians. As Stanley Baldwin said in 1932, ‘I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.’
And that fear of war was not restricted to Britain and nor was Chamberlain was not the only appeaser. In fact, the interwar period is an era of appeasement. Every government in Britain committed appeasement whether it was by agreeing to reduce repayments for Germany, the Ruhr Crisis, the Locarno Agreements or Labour’s ambition to disarm as much as possible. Chamberlain’s policy was nothing new and it seems to have been matched internationally by the failure of collective security and impotence of the League of Nations. British colonies at the time had also made it clear that they would not risk war for a small, far away nation. A sentiment Chamberlain himself epitomised in his speech on 27 September 1938:
How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing
And it proved easy for Chamberlain to betray a country of which he knew nothing and to avoid war with Germany when he agreed to permit the German annexation of the Sudetenland in the Munich Conference of 1938. Hitler had claimed this was his final territorial ambition and Chamberlain returned home triumphant. He had avoided the war everyone was fearing. This infamous conference resulted in one of the most egregious betrayals in international politics and one of the most inauspicious speeches in history:
This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor Herr Hitler and here is the paper that bears his name on it as well as mine.
Of course, not everyone agreed appeasement was a good thing at the time. Churchill famously warned the government “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.’ The newspaper, the Daily Mirror, also published a series of articles throughout the late 1930s criticising the Government. And there were suggestions that the British people were willing to go to war for their beliefs (you can see this very clearly in the international reaction to the Spanish Civil War – which we will be covering in a later chat).
Armed with the condescension of posterity, it is easy to look back and dismiss this as utterly wrong. It is easy as well to focus on the anti-appeasement voices of Churchill or the Daily Mirror – but it is worth nothing these were exceptions to the rule, even if they proved to be remarkably prescient right. That fear of war was pervasive throughout British society.
Although there was historical precedence of appeasement there were however aspects of Chamberlain’s policy that naturally doomed his attempts. Firstly, there is an arrogance to Chamberlain’s conviction that led him to seek appeasement in a myopic fashion. When asked how he could trust Hitler when he had broken so many promises to other people, Chamberlain simply quipped: ‘ah but this time he has promised me.’ He believed somehow he would prevail, he would find a way around Hitler when no one else could. His conviction in his self was outmatched however by Hitler’s who was by his very nature an unappeasable man. Hitler once told Chamberlain that ‘I do not care if there is another world war’. Britain did. It cared deeply. You cannot appease a man who does not care about war.
It is also worth remembering that Chamberlain was not an absolute appeaser as he is often accused. There was a limit to Chamberlain’s own belief. Following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 it was Chamberlain who issued an ultimatum to Germany even if he was a little bit reluctant:
I am speaking to you from the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.
The failure to avoid war was a great personal burden for Chamberlain and you can hear that clearly in his voice. This is a moment of profound disappointment – this is a moment when his conviction has failed clearly. And he made that disappointment abundant clear to the House of Commons in his speech. ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much. I cannot tell what part I may be allowed to play myself; I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.’ As we shall see next time, Chamberlain would play a very limited part in the forthcoming war.
There is a very sad irony in the fact that one of the most famous songs of 1939 was Bing Crosby’s Wishing. No amount of wishing helped Chamberlain avoid his worse fears.
There are lots of aspects to appeasement that this short chat doesn’t cover. And I’d thoroughly recommend reading the works of historians Gerald Hughes, Paul Kennedy and DC Watt to get a greater understand this period and the policy. But hopefully what this brief chat has done is put into context some of the reasons behind Neville Chamberlain’s doom policy.
 R. Gerald Hughes, The Postwar Legacy of Appeasement: British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (2014) p.1
 R. Gerald Hughes, The Postwar Legacy of Appeasement: British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (2014)
 Kennedy, P. (1976). The Tradition of Appeasement in British Foreign Policy 1865-1939. British Journal of International Studies, 2 (3), p. 195
 R. Gerald Hughes, The Postwar Legacy of Appeasement: British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (2014) p. 23
 Chamberlain’s Declaration of War, 3 September 1939. Audio file and transcript can be found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chamberlain-war-declaration.ogg
Music Used – Public Domain from WikiCommons and Archive.org
- Bach – Cello Suite no. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 – I Prélude
- Bach – Cello Suite no. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 – II. Allemande
- If I Didn’t Care (1939), by The Ink Spots
- Bing Crosby, Wishing (1939)
History Fireside Chats are produced, recorded and researched by Dr Kristopher Lovell.