By Eric Vandenbroeck
British politics on the eve of the Second World War remains a subject of enduring fascination. Also recently two new books came out that cover the subject one by a British and another (see underneath) by an American author.
According to Tim Bouverie's book, the period was dominated by a serious deficiency of strategic imagination that brought about the collapse of Britain’s global power. Britain’s own interests may have been best served by avoiding becoming the policeman of Europe, a role that only postponed the inevitable clash between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In this context, Bouverie's book is well researched, a pacy study of appeasement underlines the mistakes of a narrow, inflexible prime minister, and how few Britons understood the Third Reich. Whereby as we have seen the idea of Anglo-German collaboration against Bolshevism for a time indeed lay at the core of Hitler's foreign policy plans.
In his policy statement, Mein Kampf Hitler had stated that his major international ambition was “Lebensraum in the East”, not a desire to attack the Western Powers, which gave the French and British Governments the hope that diverting Hitler’s ambitions eastward could be achieved.
Meanwhile Churchill’s warnings were ignored; Anthony Eden was replaced as Foreign Secretary by a core member of the Cliveden set, Lord Halifax.
Appeasement, can be told as a story about how the western allies sought to respond through concession to a series of territorial claims and grabs (Manchuria, Ethiopia, Austria, Czechoslovakia) by the so-called revisionist powers (Japan, Italy, Germany). But it is more commonly told, especially in Britain, as the narrower story of how and why the ostensibly “national” but largely Conservative government, led by Stanley Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlain from 1935, essentially did Hitler’s work for him, declining to respond to early provocations and then working out the 1938 agreements over Czechoslovakia that handed over the richest portion of that sole remaining east European democracy. Bouverie tells that latter story, providing some crucial context about the 1919 Versailles settlement and the reasons so many British statesmen felt guilty about their part in making it, but essentially beginning with Hitler’s rise to power. He takes us expeditiously through the 1935 Abyssinian and 1936 Rhineland crises, agreeing with scholars who have seen the latter as the last moment when Britain and France together could have easily curtailed Hitler’s aggression, but out of an excess of caution and some mutual mistrust declined to do so. But the bulk of the book treats the period of Chamberlain’s premiership, when appeasement became, as Bouverie aptly puts it, not a “reactive and desultory policy, tempered by scepticism”, but rather an “active, positive policy, which would carry all before it”.
Bouverie is dismissive of the standard defence of Munich, which is that it gave Britain and France time to prepare for war. Germany, as the intelligence services knew, was not ready for war in 1938, and if Britain, France and the USSR had joined forces to defend Czechoslovakia, Hitler would have been placed in an impossible position. Munich convinced Hitler that the Western powers would never fight. After the agreement, he was heard to say, “Chamberlain shook with fear when I uttered the word war. Don’t tell me he is dangerous.”
But Bouverie gives a lucid account of the reasons for appeasement, which he defines as “the attempt by Britain and France to avoid war by making ‘reasonable’ concessions to German and Italian grievances during the Thirties”.
As the story goes on the evening of August 28, 1938, Neville Chamberlain called his closest advisor to 10 Downing Street for a late-night strategy session. Chamberlain had been the British prime minister a little over a year. He was a former businessman, a practical and plainspoken man, whose interests and experience lay with domestic affairs. But now he faced his first foreign-policy crisis. It involved Adolf Hitler, who had been making increasingly bellicose statements about invading the Sudetenland, the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia.
If Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, it would almost certainly mean a world war, which Chamberlain wanted desperately to avoid. But Hitler had been particularly reclusive in recent months, and Germany’s intentions were so opaque that the rest of Europe was growing nervous. Chamberlain was determined to resolve the impasse. He dubbed his idea, which he put to his advisors that night, Plan Z. It was top secret. Chamberlain would later write that the idea was “so unconventional and daring that it rather took [Foreign Secretary Lord] Halifax’s breath away,” Chamberlain wanted to fly to Germany and demand to meet Hitler face-to-face.
One of the odd things about the desperate hours of the late 1930s, as Hitler dragged the world toward war, was how few of the world’s leaders really knew the German leader. Hitler was a mystery. Franklin Roosevelt, the American president throughout Hitler’s rise, never met him. Nor did Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader. Winston Churchill, Chamberlain’s successor, came close while researching a book in Munich in 1932. He and Hitler twice made plans to meet for tea, but on both occasions, Hitler stood him up.
The only people in England who spent any real amount of time with Hitler before the war were British aristocrats friendly to the Nazi cause, who would sometimes cross the Channel to pay their respects or join the Fuhrer at parties. One of these was the fascist socialite aptly named Unity Valkyrie Mitford as she liked to shock people by greeting them with a raised arm and a cry of “Heil Hitler!” She dined with him frequently in Munich. “He did imitations of marvelous drollery/) But those were social calls. Chamberlain was trying to avert world war, and it seemed to him that he would benefit from taking the measure of Hitler for himself. Was Hitler someone who could be reasoned with? Trusted? Chamberlain wanted to find out.
On the morning of 14 September, the British ambassador to Germany sent a telegram to Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Would Hitler like to meet? Von Ribbentrop replied the same day: yes, Chamberlain was a masterly politician with a gift for showmanship, and he artfully let the news slip. He was going to Germany to see if he could avert war. Across Britain, there was a shout of celebration. Polls showed that 70 percent of the country thought his trip was a “good thing for peace.” The newspapers backed him. In Berlin, one foreign correspondent reported that he had been eating in a restaurant when the news broke, and the room had risen, as one, to toast Chamberlain’s health. Chamberlain left London on the morning of 15 September. He’d never flown before, but he remained calm even as the plane flew into heavy weather near Munich. Thousands had gathered at the airport to greet him. He was driven to the train station in a cavalcade of fourteen Mercedes, then had lunch in Hitler’s own dining car as the train made its way into the mountains, toward Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden, He arrived at five in the evening. Hitler came and shook his hand. Chamberlain would later report every detail of his first impressions in a letter to his sister Ida:
Halfway down the steps stood the Führer bareheaded and dressed in a khaki-coloured coat of broadcloth with a red armlet and a swastika on it and the military cross on his breast. He wore black trousers such as we wear in the evening and black patent leather lace-up shoes. His hair is brown, not black, his eyes blue, his expression rather disagreeable, especially in repose and altogether he looks entirely undistinguished. You would never notice him in a crowd and would take him for the house painter he was.
Hitler ushered Chamberlain upstairs to his study, with just an interpreter in tow. They talked, sometimes heatedly. “I am ready to face a world war!” Hitler exclaimed to Chamberlain at one point. Hitler made it plain that he was going to seize the Sudetenland, regardless of what the world thought. Chamberlain wanted to know whether that was all Hitler wanted. Hitler said it was. Chamberlain looked at Hitler long and hard and decided he believed him. In the same letter to his sister, Chamberlain wrote that he had heard back from people close to Hitler that the German leader felt he had had a conversation “with a man.” Chamberlain went on:
“In short I had established a certain confidence which was my aim, and on my side in spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”
Above Adolf Hitler shakes hands with Neville Chamberlain in Bad Godesberg, on 22 September 1938 during the Sudeten crisis.
Chamberlain flew back to England the next morning. At Heston Airport, he gave a quick speech on the tarmac. “Yesterday afternoon I had a long talk with Herr Hitler,” he said. “I feel satisfied now that each of us fully understands what is in the mind of the other.” The two of them would meet again, he promised, only this time closer to England. “That is to spare an old man such another long journey,” Chamberlain said, to what those present remembered as “laughter and cheers.”
Chamberlains negotiations with Hitler are widely regarded as one of the great follies of the Second World War. Chamberlain fell under Hitler's spell. He was outmaneuvered at the bargaining table. He misread Hitler's intentions, and failed to warn Hitler that if he reneged on his promises there would be serious consequences. History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain.
But underneath those criticisms is a puzzle. Chamberlain flew back to Germany two more times. He sat with Hitler for hours. The two men talked, argued, ate together, walked around together. Chamberlain was the only Allied leader of that period to spend any significant time with Hitler. He made careful note of the man’s behavior. “Hitler's appearance and manner when I saw him appeared to show that the storm signals were up,” Chamberlain told his sister Hilda after another of his visits to Germany. But then “he gave me the double handshake that he reserves for specially friendly demonstrations.” Back in London, he told his cabinet that he had seen in the Führer “no signs of insanity but many of excitement.” Hitler wasn’t crazy. He was rational, determined: “He had thought out what he wanted and he meant to get it and he would not brook opposition beyond a certain point.”
Is this because Chamberlain was naive? Perhaps. His experience in foreign affairs was minimal. One of his critics would later compare him to a priest entering a pub for the first time, blind to the difference “between a social gathering and a rough house.”
But this pattern isn’t confined to Chamberlain. It also afflicted Lord Halifax, who would go on to become Chamberlain’s foreign secretary. Halifax was an aristocrat, a superb student at Eton and Oxford. He served as Viceroy of India between the wars, where he negotiated brilliantly with Mahatma Gandhi. He was everything Chamberlain was not: worldly, seasoned, deeply charming, an intellectual, a man of such resolute religiosity that Churchill dubbed him the “Holy Fox.”
Halifax went to Berlin in the fall of 1937 and met with the German leader at Berchtesgaden: he was the only other member of England's ruling circle to haye spent time with the Führer. Their meeting wasn’t some meaningless diplomatic reception. It began with Halifax mistaking Hitler for a footman and almost handing him his coat, And then Hitler was Hitler for five hours: sulking, shouting, digressing, denouncing. He talked about how much he hated the press. He talked about the evils of communism. Halifax listened to the performance with what another British diplomat at the time called a “mixture of astonishment, repugnance, and compassion.”
Halifax spent five days in Germany. He met with two of Hitler's top ministers, Hermann Goring and Joseph Goebbels. He attended a dinner at the British Embassy, where he met a host of senior German politicians and businessmen. When he returned home, Halifax said that it was “all to the good making contact” with the German leadership, which is hard to dispute. That’s what a diplomat is supposed to do. He had gained valuable insights from their face-to-face encounter about Hitler’s bullying and volatility. But what was Halifax’s ultimate conclusion? That Hitler didn’t want to go to war and was open to negotiating peace. No one ever thought Halifax was naive, yet he was as deluded after meeting with Hitler as Chamberlain was.
The British diplomat who spent the most time with Hitler was the ambassador to Germany, Nevile Henderson. He met Hitler repeatedly, went to his rallies. Hitler even had a nickname for Henderson, “The man with the carnation,” because of the flower the dapper Henderson always wore in his lapel. After attending the infamous Nuremberg Rally in early September 1938, Henderson wrote in his dispatch to London that Hitler seemed so abnormal that “he may have crossed the borderline into insanity.” Henderson wasn’t in Hitler’s thrall. But did he think Hitler had dishonorable intentions toward Czechoslovakia? No. Hitler, he believed, “hates war as much as anyone.” Henderson, too, read Hitler all wrong. According to the American author Malcolm Gladwell the blindness of Chamberlain and Halifax was about the inability of otherwise intelligent and dedicated people to understand when they are being deceived. This is a situation where some people were deceived by Hitler and others were not. And the puzzle is that the group who were deceived are the ones you’d expect not to be, while those who saw the truth are the ones you’d think would be deceived.
Winston Churchill, for example, never believed for a moment that Hitler was anything more than a duplicitous thug. Churchill called Chamberlain’s visit “the stupidest thing that has ever been done.” But Hitler was someone he’d only ever read about. Duff Cooper, one of Chamberlain’s cabinet ministers, was equally clear-eyed. He listened with horror to Chamberlain’s account of his meeting with Hitler. Later, he would resign from Chamberlain’s government in protest. Did Cooper know Hitler? No. Only one person in the upper reaches of the British diplomatic service, Anthony Eden, who preceded Halifax as foreign secretary, had both met Hitler and saw the truth of him. But for everyone else? The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew the least about him personally. The people who were wrong about Hitler were the ones who had talked with him for hours.
This could all be a coincidence, of course. Perhaps Chamberlain and his cohort, for whatever private reason, were determined to see the Hitler they wanted to see, regardless of the evidence of their eyes and ears.
Neville Chamberlain made his third and final visit to Germany at the end of September 1938, two weeks after his first visit. Tire meeting was in Munich at the Nazi Party’s offices, the Führerbau. Italian leader Benito Mussolini and French prime minister Edouard Daladier were also invited. The four of them met, with their aides, in Hitler’s private study. On the morning of the second day, Chamberlain asked Hitler if the two of them could meet alone. By this point, Chamberlain felt he had the measure of his adversary.
Wien Hitler had said his ambitions were limited to Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain believed that “Herr Hitler was telling the truth.” It was now just a matter of getting that commitment in writing.
Hitler took him to his apartment on Prinzregentenplatz. Chamberlain pulled out a piece of paper on which he had written a simple agreement and asked Hitler whether he would sign it. As the interpreter translated the words into German, “Hitler frequently ejaculated, ‘Ja! Ja!’ And at the end, he said, ‘Yes I will certainly sign it,’” Chamberlain later wrote to one of his sisters. “‘When shall we do it?’ I said, ‘now/ we went at once to the writing-table put our signatures to the two copies which I had brought with me.
That afternoon, Chamberlain flew home to a hero’s welcome. A crowd of journalists surged toward him. He took the letter from his breast pocket and waved it to the crowd. “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor Herr Hitler, and here is a paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.” Then it was back to the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street.
“My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
The crowd cheered.
“Now I recommend you go home, and sleep quietly in your beds.”
In March 1939, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. It had taken him less than six months to break his agreement with Chamberlain. On 1 September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and the world was at war.
Analyzed somewhat differently by Tim Bouverie and Malcolm Gladwell both authors agree that Neville Chamberlain believed Hitler's promise that all the Fuhrer really wanted was the Sudetenland, the ethnic-German part of Czechoslovakia, and had no designs on Poland or the rest of Europe.
In Talking To Strangers (published 10 Sep. 2019), Malcolm Gladwell explores why It is so hard to do. The underlying thesis of Gladwell is that people like Berny Madoff (the dishonest investor) and Amanda Knox (falsely accused of murder) had something in common with Hitler, in that they all were what he calls “mismatched”: either a liar acting like an honest person (Madoff, Adolf) or an honest one acting like a liar (Knox).