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Adolf’s British friends

Books | May 2019


Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie

For most people today, any mention of the ‘appeasers’ of the 1930s probably conjures up an image of aristocrats and Right-wing MPs. Surely, we imagine, these were just the worst specimens of an effete political class – people tainted with isolationism, antisemitism and sheer admiration for Mr Hitler as a man who really knew how to get things done.

Such people did exist. We all know about Unity Mitford, who was infatuated with Hitler, and shot herself in despair at the outbreak of the war. Then there was Lord Londonderry, who reported after his two-hour interview with the Führer that he was ‘a kindly man’. There were also Conservative MPs, such as the former colonialist Sir Arnold Wilson, who called Hitler ‘a great instrument of peace in the world’, and said that he was destined to become ‘a venerable and revered figure’.

But as Tim Bouverie shows in this remarkable book, it’s a fatal mistake to suppose that appeasement was the preserve of the aristocracy, big business, Right-wingers or any of the other usual suspects. It was present at all levels of society and across the political spectrum. The Labour Party conference in 1933 voted for disarmament and a general strike in the event of war; even Major Attlee opposed rearmament when he took over as leader two years later. It was the elderly Lloyd George who, in 1936, praised Hitler as ‘the George Washington of Germany’. And when Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938 with his delusory ‘piece of paper’, he received 20,000 letters of thanks from ordinary members of the public, plus a torrent of gifts including flowers, champagne, umbrellas, salmon flies and a grand piano.

Britain was after all a democracy, and public opinion – moulded to some extent, admittedly, by pro-appeasement newspaper editors and proprietors – was a reality that the leading politicians on both sides had to consider carefully. In this book’s grand sweep of political narrative, from 1933 to 1940, none of the principal players was motivated by starry-eyed enthusiasm for Hitler. They were trying to do their best as statesmen, convinced (correctly) that the prospect of another war was terrible and deeply unpopular, and persuaded (incorrectly, as gradually became clear) that almost any compromise was worth making to avoid it.

To us, who know what is coming, the story can read only as a sequence of ghastly mistakes, political misjudgements, bureaucratic stupidities and diplomatic missed opportunities. The basic rule that people believe what they want to believe is fully on display here: accurate intelligence about Hitler’s plans was disregarded, while ludicrous overestimates of his military strength went unchallenged. (The Chiefs of Staff told Chamberlain in 1938 that if we went to war over Czechoslovakia, Germany could drop up to 36,000 tons of bombs on England in the first two months – almost half the total actually dropped in the entire war.)

The worst errors were diplomatic. A casual attempt to detach Mussolini from Hitler succeeded only in infuriating the French, who were not consulted; indeed the relationship with France was systematically neglected. Relations with Stalin were handled even more clumsily. An Anglo-French-Russian ultimatum to Hitler would have stopped him in 1938; and, even without Russian help, the Czech and French armies, plus some British airpower, could very probably have defeated Germany then. Yes, the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia gained us precious time for rearmament. But it gave that time also to Hitler, who was arming faster, and it gave him in addition all the weapons and munitions factories of the militarily powerful Czech state.

It would be easy to present the internal political history here as a story of good guys and bad guys. The good ones are indeed impressive: not just Churchill and his friends, but also independent-minded politicians such as the young Ronald Cartland MP, who made an electrifying anti-Chamberlain speech in early August 1939, was vilified by most of his colleagues and died in action nine months later, leading his men to Dunkirk. The bad ones include sinister backstairs officials such as Chamberlain’s fixer and media-manipulator, Sir Joseph Ball. But the real interest lies with those in the middle – men such as Halifax, who turned against appeasement at a crucial point in 1937, only to turn back again in May 1940.

The skill with which Tim Bouverie navigates here through the worlds of politics, officialdom and diplomacy is quite exemplary. He has done original research in many private archives; his explanations of complex issues are always lucid; his narrative style is thoughtful, unshowy and always a pleasure to read. His final judgement on the appeasers is carefully measured and balanced – and all the more damning for that.

This is, quite simply, the best book ever to have appeared on this whole subject.