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Our debt to Neville Chamberlain

by Roy Cartwright

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Contributed by 
Roy Cartwright
Article ID: 
A6655197
Contributed on: 
03 November 2005

I was just about old enough to be aware of the mood of the people around me, family, neighbours and teachers, at the time of the Munich conference in 1938 and how it changed during 1939.
With the memory of the First World War still fresh and aware of our failure to rearm (for which Baldwin, not Chamberlain was responsible), the country was mentally and materially unprepared for war. So Chamberlain was cheered when he declared ‘peace in our time’. But in most minds there was a nagging question: ‘How much time?’ When he spoke of ‘Herr Hitler’s signature’ on the treaty the question was ‘What is that worth?’
Munich was seen not as ‘appeasement’, but as a final warning, which we hoped would be heeded while preparing for it not to be.
Under Neville Chamberlain’s leadership the people of Britain were braced for the courageous decision to declare war in September 1939 when Hitler continued his aggression. Meanwhile the physical preparations for war were intensely pursued.
Factories and shipyards worked all hours turning out munitions, planes, tanks and ships. Personnel were enlisted — my young uncle volunteered for the army (by volunteering and not waiting for conscription he could choose the branch of service he joined) and my father underwent training to serve as an Air Raid Warden.
We all collected our gasmasks and were shown how to use them; plans for evacuation were put in place; we were told and helped to prepare for blackout. At the same time an army was being formed for service in France.
My father’s job was the maintenance of a fleet of cargo ships crossing the Atlantic, and he was busy preparing them for the likelihood of war; arrangements and instructions were in hand for forming convoys to sail with naval escorts.
During 1939 I had a trip on the last leg of one of their voyages from London to Liverpool, and I remember how much the crew were speaking of war preparations. I also remember the aircraft fuselage being carried on the deck, the rest of it being in the hold.
In the year after Munich the country was put on a war footing, because we had few illusions about Hitler’s intentions. In September 1939 we still didn’t want war, but we were ready for it.
All this was achieved under Neville Chamberlain’s leadership, because the majority of people trusted him as they would not have trusted Churchill, for instance at that time.
The aircrews who flew in the Battle of Britain were recruited, trained and equipped under Chamberlain; their planes were built and the stations from which they flew wee established while he was Prime Minister.
In the short time left to him after his resignation loyalty to his country and its new leader prevented him fro speaking up. Had he survived to publish his memoirs and have his period in office properly appraised he might now be ranked with the great Prime Ministers. Perhaps one day he will.

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Message 1 - Re: Our debt to Neville Chamberlain

Posted on: 03 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mr Cartwright

You seem to be suggesting that Chamberlain was insincere at Munich and was merely playing for time to rearm for war. He was a much better man than that, however misguided.

To solely blame Baldwin seems rather odd, since Chamberlain took office as Prime Minister on 28 May 1937. You say that "Munich was seen not as ‘appeasement’, but as a final warning, which we hoped would be heeded while preparing for it not to be". Who is this 'we'? Certainly not the British public nor the majority of informed opinion.

Munich was very much seen as 'appeasement', then a very highly respected term and government policy. But it was Neville Chamberlain who elevated appeasement to official government policy; a step Baldwin never took. It is only with hindsight that we see appeasement for what it really was, blind self delusion and wishful thinking. But hindsight is a gift not given to us until it is too late. It was only after Munich that the debate about appeasement began. The wake-up call didn't come at Munich, seen at the time by most as a great diplomatic triumph, it came with the German invasion of the rump state of Czechoslovakia in defiance of the Munich agreement.

Both Baldwin and Chamberlain fully believed in appeasement, for them it was a genuine and principled attempt to come to terms with the dictators. The 'failure' to re-arm wasn't seen as a failure in the 1930s but rather as a way of reducing international tensions, resting on a strong desire to avoid international conflict. They were all still under the shadow of WW1, and the killing fields of Flanders.

Regards,
Peter Ghiringhelli

 

Message 2 - Re: Our debt to Neville Chamberlain

Posted on: 14 November 2005 by Roy Cartwright

Dear Peter,
I read with interest your comments on my contribution, which might have seemed to challenge the conventional wisdom on Chamberlain. It is based, however, on my own recollection of and reflection on the events and moods of those times.
Chamberlain’s record is overshadowed by that of Churchill and perhaps (dare I suggest?) a little distorted by the latter in his historical writings. Nor is his reputation helped by his forlorn appearance at the time he resigned, when he was already terminally ill. I seriously wonder whether he would have handed over sooner if he could have been sure that he would be succeeded by Churchill rather than Halifax, who was still ready to do a deal with Hitler.
At first, when he succeeded Baldwin, it is true, he continued the same European policy. This was what his cabinet and the country wanted him to do, not only because of memories of the First World War, but also (as I have suggested elsewhere on this site) because the real menace was thought to be Soviet communism and the subversive activities of the Comintern.
Hitler was admired by many as the man who had stopped Germany ‘going red’ at the time of the Depression, and would now stand in the way of any Soviet encroachment in central Europe. It was feared that the Communists would exploit any conflict in the west as they had tried to exploit the revolution in Spain. (I was reminded of this only a few days ago by a photograph in The Times obituary pages of a group of volunteers in the International Brigade under a banner bearing the Hammer and Sickle. A more domestic piece of evidence was in the comics I used to look at where, until the end of 1938, the spies and saboteurs in the stories all had names ending in ‘-ski’.)
Remarkably it was Churchill, who was most outspoken in his opposition to socialism and communism, who was also the first to recognise the threat Hitler posed to the west.
Neville Chamberlain was neither appeaser, nor insincere or naïve when, by-passing the ineffective League of Nations, he faced Hitler at Munich in an attempt (not very hopeful in the long term) to stop a border dispute (in which Hitler’s case was not without foundation — the Sudeten Germans were having a raw deal) from becoming open war which could have spread across Europe; though not to Britain unless we wished to intervene. Chamberlain realised , however, that we would have to intervene to stop Hitler becoming all-powerful in Europe. He was not deliberately planning to attack Germany, but feared it might come to that.
Nor was Hitler planning to attack Britain; on the contrary, he still had a vision of Britain as a willing partner in a Grand Coalition led by a Greater Third Reich against the Soviet Union. Because each had hoped to avoid attacking the other we started with a ‘phoney war’.
You say that the debate about appeasement began after Munich; it would be truer to say that it was a debate about the end of appeasement. If Munich was seen in this country as a diplomatic triumph it was not only because war had been avoided for a time, but also because it had been made apparent that Britain and France were prepared to contemplate war (though there were, of course, some, particularly among the ‘intellectual’ classes, who wanted to see it as a triumph for appeasement).
So there followed a vigorous campaign of preparation for war, involving civilians as well as the fighting services, and a year later Chamberlain presented an ultimatum over Poland and broadcast that speech showing he meant to follow it through; that was not the action of an appeaser.
It was at the time of Munich that the mood in Britain rapidly changed, and after Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia most people, including teachers in classrooms, were speaking openly as though the question was not whether but when the war would start.
In short, I believe that Munich represented not the climax of appeasement, but the end of appeasement; not the confirmation of previous policy, but its reversal. Chamberlain recognised this; Hitler, alas, did not.

Regards.
Roy C.

 

Message 3 - Re: Our debt to Neville Chamberlain

Posted on: 14 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Roy

I must confess, I cannot remember a single thing about British politics before the war. I was just nine years old when war broke out and far more interested in the Dandy and Beano. However, I have read fairly widely since.

I am surprised that you say that Hitler was admired by many. This was true of Mussolini, but never of Hitler. From the very outset he was correctly perceived as a menace, given his appalling racial theories and his very real attacks on Jews.

Contrary to what you say, a great many admired Soviet Russia in the 1930s not Nazi Germany. Later, Britons flocked to the Spanish republican cause, only an extreme few to Franco. I don't know of any, apart from Sir Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists, who held that 'the real menace was thought to be Soviet communism and the subversive activities of the Comintern'.

You say that "Hitler was admired by many as the man who had stopped Germany ‘going red’ at the time of the Depression". But here it seems to me that you are conflating two separate events. The Depression was in 1929. The time when Germany seemed to be 'going Red' was in 1919. Hitler was completely unknown then; it was the Frei Corps who battled with Communists in the immediate post-war years, leading to the brutal murders of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebnecht and many other 'Reds'. Hitler had nothing to do with this, other than approving it whole heartedly. I qualified 'Reds' because the Frei Corps, and later the Nazis, branded anyone even mildly socialist or democratic as a Red.

You also say "Neville Chamberlain was [not an] appeaser". But he was an appeaser and appeasement was government policy. 'Appeasement' only became a term of disparagement after 1939. Prior to that it was seen by eminent politicians in both Britain and France, and by powerful press-barons, as a very honourable and sensible course of action. To say that Chamberlain was not an appeaser is to turn history on its head, why do you think Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary in 1937?

I do not think that Churchill ever distorted Chamberlain in is writings, he was far too great a man for such pettiness. Have you read Churchill's magnificent tribute to Neville Chamberlain, his speech to the House of Commons on 12 November 1940? It is far too long to give in full here, but I should like to give a flavour of it:

"It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspectives of time have lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle the gleams the passions of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. ... It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crisis of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was the faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart - the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what we call the verdict of history in concerned."

For a modern synthesis, read "The Drift To War 1922-1939" by Richard Lamb (W H Allen, 1989).

One of the books I rely on for the zeitgeist of the time is "An Intelligent Man's Review of Europe Today", by G.D.H. Cole and M.I. Cole, published in 1933.

Regards,
Peter

 

Message 4 - Re: Our debt to Neville Chamberlain

Posted on: 03 December 2005 by Roy Cartwright

Dear Peter,
Having done some re-reading to refresh my memory about the events of 1938-40 I would agree with Churchill’s tribute to Chamberlain which you quote, apart from the three words ‘deceived and cheated’ (uttered at a time which called for emphasising the villainy of Hitler). It is a long time since I read his history of the period and I do not have it to hand, but I believe he wrote in similar terms. We must allow for Churhillian over-simplification and over-statement; but the word ‘distort’ I used previously was clumsy and I should not have used it.
Churchill’ words in the House of Commons suggest that he would regret the strange and sad paradox that whereas the second world war is hailed as a triumph over totalitarian tyranny, the man by whose courageous decision it was inaugurated has gone down in history so far as the appeaser of tyrants.
The Munich agreement itself was not remarkable; call it appeasement or betrayal or what you will, it was the only outcome that accorded with political and military reality. What was remarkable was the presence of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, not only at the conference but also at three private meetings with Hitler which took place in that month of September.
Chamberlain had inherited a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of Europe coupled with a military and naval policy, severely constrained financially, which looked to the maintenance of the empire rather than to maintaining Britain’s position as a European state.
Under Chamberlain that began gradually to change, driven by events — he was a pragmatist and hence sometimes seemed to lack direction. Rearmament was well under way before Munich, with particular attention to preparing the country to defend itself in a European war. Then, when the Sudeten crisis blew up he took to the air to intervene. Strictly speaking there was no need for him to do so; Britain did not have treaty obligations with Czechoslovakia, only France did; but he realised that it would be difficult for Britain to stay out of a war in which France was involved.
So, leaving his country braced for war, he went to meet Hitler. (We really were braced for war; my parents sent me to a friend in the country in case London was bombed.)
When he returned he said nothing that was not true; but the way the outcome of Munich was presented bears the marks of ‘spin’ (a new name for an ancient art which perhaps our generation is better able to recognise). It was intended for immediate popular and foreign consumption, perhaps with an eye particularly to the stock markets. The papers continued to proclaim peace because talk of war would frighten the advertisers; they carried many advertisements, however, for air raid shelters and the like, trade in which was booming. (I recall a massive structure appearing in a neighbour’s garden, obviously expensive and comfortably furnished; it was flooded in the next heavy rainstorm and never used.)
After the post-Munich euphoria had evaporated preparations for possible war affecting both armed services and civilians continued unabated.
In those private meetings Chamberlain and Hitler had not discussed just the minutiae of the Sudeten problem, which, on his own admission, did not in fact interest Chamberlain very much. They were mainly concerned with the relations between their two countries in a world in which Germany had emerged as a major power and Britain was adopting a position as a European power.
They drew up and signed a treaty to regulate those relations. In it they professed to desire peaceful co-existence, but recognised that situations would arise which would bring them into conflict and would have to be solved by negotiation if they were to avoid war. Did Chamberlain put his signature on that treaty alongside Hitler’s because he already trusted Hitler or because he did not and wanted something in writing he might want to use later? I believe the latter.
Both men were experienced politicians and knew the risks they were taking. Chamberlain could only hope that Hitler would be deterred from ventures to which Britain would be opposed, and went on insuring against the risk he was taking by preparing for war; while Hitler had to hope that Chamberlain lacked the resolve, the political authority and the resources actually to stand in his way. Each man misjudged the other; but it was Hitler who made the disastrous mistake.
Chamberlain’s disastrous mistake came in April 1940 when he expected Hitler to respect the neutrality of Denmark and Norway and not invade them to open up the seas in which thitherto Britain had enjoyed nearly absolute, if not always effective command. So Chamberlain’ was replaced by Churchill, who had to warn the country of the possibility of invasion.
It was spared that ordeal (in battles of which I was occasionally a distant witness) by the Air Force which had been brought up to fighting strength while Chamberlain was Prime Minister. For that much at least he deserves credit.
I believe, however, that but for Neville Chamberlain’s recognition of changing realities, timely diplomatic initiative, leadership and courage, Britain would either have looked on helplessly and ignominiously while the Nazi grip was extended to reach from the Soviet border to the Atlantic and Mediterranean, or else have been swept into a German-led coalition against the Soviet Union. If instead the country had found itself at war with Germany it would have suffered a defeat and occupation from which even Winston Churchill would not have been able to save it.
With apologies for taking so long over this reply,
Kind regards,
Roy

 

Message 5 - Re: Our debt to Neville Chamberlain

Posted on: 04 December 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Roy

With all respect, you are still seeing 'appeasement' anachronistically as a disparaging term, which it most certainly wasn't in 1938. Then 'appeasement', as Paul Kennedy puts it, was "the policy of settling international quarrels by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict which would be expensive, bloody and possibly dangerous." ("Strategy and Diplomacy"). The very word seemed apt in that it was from Old French 'apaisier', from 'pais', from Latin pax - peace. Appeasement was seen as a way of solving international problems peacefully. The British government did not see itself as being "an appeaser of tyrants", but as appeasers of national redemptionist demands.

You say that "If Munich was seen in this country as a diplomatic triumph it was ... because it had been made apparent that Britain and France were prepared to contemplate war" and that "The Munich agreement was the ... only outcome that accorded with political and military reality".

But that was the very thing that was not made apparent, far far from it. Mussolini saw Britain's and France's position as craven surrender saying of Chamberlain and Deladier that they represented 'decadent' democracies. The Munich Pact which sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia wasn't just an Anglo-German affair - it was a pact agreed between Britain and France, on one side, and Germany and Italy on the other - it had been arranged by telephone at the last minute by Mussolini, just four hours from a deadline set by Hitler. See especially Ciano's diary for 28 September 1938 and the contempt in which both Mussolini and Hitler held Britain and France. Ciano records that François Poncet blushed deeply as he gathered the documents of the agreement saying, "Voila comme la France traite les seuls alliés qui lui étraient restés fideles"; the cut-and-dried surrender of Czechoslovakia summed up scornfully by Ciano in a short pithy sentence: "firma, stretta di mano, partenza" ('signature, hand shake, departure').

You say also "In those private meetings [at Munich] Chamberlain and Hitler had not discussed just the minutiae of the Sudeten problem, which, on his own admission, did not in fact interest Chamberlain very much. They were mainly concerned with the relations between their two countries in a world in which Germany had emerged as a major power and Britain was adopting a position as a European power.
They drew up and signed a treaty to regulate those relations. In it they professed to desire peaceful co-existence, but recognised that situations would arise which would bring them into conflict and would have to be solved by negotiation if they were to avoid war. Did Chamberlain put his signature on that treaty alongside Hitler’s because he already trusted Hitler or because he did not and wanted something in writing he might want to use later? I believe the latter." But there was no treaty! It was simply a joint declaration of intent, with no international legal basis. literally a piece of paper (quite separate from the Munich Agreement) signed by Hitler and Chamberlain shortly before Chamberlain flew back to London.

As for not discussing "the Sudeten problem, which, on his own admission, did not in fact interest Chamberlain very much", the entire agreement was about the minutiae of the border 'problem', for the full text of the Munich Agreement go here http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/imt/document/munich1.htmAbout links

Further you comment that "Both men [Hitler and Chamberlain] were experienced politicians and knew the risks they were taking."

Hitler was already determined on war in 1938. The evening before the Munich Agreement, Hitler said to Ciano, "There will come a time when united we shall have to fight France and England; it will be better for this to happen while the Duce and I are the leaders of our countries, and whilst we are both still young and vigorous." When all was lost, in 1945, he remarked bitterly "From the military point of view it was in our interest to begin [the war] a year earlier. In 1938 I ought to have seized the initiative ... But I couldn't do anything since the British and French agreed to all my demands at Munich" (page 742, "Hitler", Joachim Fest, 1974). So much for Hitler's peaceful intentions. It was only after the Munich Agreement was trampled upon, and the formidable defensive border of Czechoslovakia dismantled, that Chamberlain woke up as to what was going on.

Regards,
Peter

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