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The Myth of Appeasement

Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel, In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1998. Hardback, 322pp, £14.99.

Reviewed by Steve Parsons

ON ONE of the few occasions when the BBC gave air time to an opponent of the NATO war against Serbia in 1999, Tony Benn faced an aggressive interviewer who wanted to know how he could possibly advocate appeasement towards Milosevic. Surely, Benn’s questioner demanded, he realised where such a policy had led in the 1930s?

Benn gallantly challenged such an interpretation. Apart from the obvious absurdity of comparing Milosevic and Serbia to the likes of Hitler and an aggressive Germany, which was clearly the most powerful state in Europe at the time, he refused to accept that the response of Chamberlain and the British establishment towards Hitler and Nazism in the run-up to the Second World War was one of appeasement. In fact, Benn claimed, it was one of support and encouragement. He was, as could be expected, given no further time to flesh-out his argument and there the matter was left.

"Appeasement" is the generally accepted term to describe the Western powers’ response to Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. It is of course most clearly associated with Neville Chamberlain and his period as British Prime Minister from 1937-39. Chamberlain and the other Western statesmen, so the argument goes, were so horrified by the possibility of war, the slaughter of the First World War being still fresh in everyone’s minds, that they went to their utmost in placating Hitler in order to resolve any differences in a peaceful manner. This was combined with an acknowledgement that Germany had been too harshly treated in the Versailles Peace Treaty and the belief that Hitler, like any other politician, would be amenable to compromise. A standard book on modern European history presently used for A-level history in British schools claims that when Chamberlain "came face to face with Hitler in September 1938 he told him that armaments were ‘eating up the capital which ought to be employed on building houses, on better food and on improving the health of the people’. For these reasons, Chamberlain regarded the pacification of Hitler as a positive policy with ... diplomatic and economic virtues" (J. Traynor, Challenging History: Europe 1890-1990, 1990, p.299). Chamberlain is thus accorded the noblest of motives but condemned for being hopelessly naive in allowing Hitler to fool him and gain one concession after another until the final act of aggression, the German invasion of Poland, forced Britain and France to declare war.

Such a picture of events has been given further sustenance over the last few years by a work of fiction, the best-selling prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which has been turned into a major film of the same title. It recounts an unrequited love affair between a butler and housekeeper in the historical setting of the inter-war years. Both are in service for a Lord Darlington who, in the sub-plot, holds conferences at his stately home, Darlington Hall, involving various influential figures from England, Germany and other European countries, in an effort to improve international understanding, and specifically Anglo-German relations. [Note] Lord Darlington is presented as an honourable if tragic figure – a man motivated by a desire to right some of the wrongs that had been done to Germany and encourage the forces of compromise and peace; someone "out of his depth", incapable of understanding the aggressive character of Nazi Germany’s foreign policy in which war was an intregal element.

The book In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion sets out to comprehensively challenge the "appeasement" interpretation through the copious use and analysis of archive sources of the British political elite (politicians, civil servants, military men, ambassadors etc): official and unofficial correspondence, conference notes, cabinet minutes and diaries. There is a close and detailed examination of the Chamberlain-Hitler meetings held in September 1938.

The evidence is presented to support Benn’s contention that far from discouraging German aggression the Chamberlain government was an active player in encouraging that aggression, attempting, although eventually failing, to ensure that it took a particular direction which accorded with perceived British interests. Fanatical anti-Sovietism, combined with a sympathy for Fascism and Nazism, was widespread amongst the British elite (and for that matter their French equivalent). A resurgent Germany under Nazi control need not therefore be feared – it could even be seen as part of a "civilising mission" which could lead to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the defence of private property and privilege. (A militaristic Japan had been viewed in similar terms, and although a British initiative to form an Anglo-Japanese non-aggression pact in 1934 had come to nothing, there was an acceptance of Japanese sovereignty over the territory in the Far East it had conquered.) The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, writing to the Foreign Office in 1937, summed up the matter in the following way: "To put it bluntly, Eastern Europe emphatically is neither definitely settled for all time nor is it a vital British interest and the German is certainly more civilised than the Slav, and in the end, if properly handled, also less potentially dangerous to British interests – One might even go so far as to assert that it is not even just to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or being prepared for war against the Slav provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it" (p.103).

This background is in part an explanation for the phenomenon of upper-class Soviet spies from Cambridge and Oxford. One of their number, John Cairncross, describes in his autobiography how his brief flirtation with Communism at Cambridge died away once he left the university and began a career in the Foreign Office. However, he soon became aware that: "Some people in the Foreign Office were even prepared to envisage a division of power between Britain and Germany, the one retaining its Empire and the other taking over Europe. I remember talking with people who prepared to meet Germany’s claims if, for instance, Hitler were replaced by the more jovial Hermann Goering" (John Cairncross, The Enigma Spy, p.53). In response, Cairncross allowed himself to be recruited by Soviet intelligence.

The emerging opposition to the course of Chamberlain’s foreign policy by those like Churchill arose not as a result of anti-Fascist sentiments, or a commitment to "democracy" and "collective security", or "a concern for the plight of small nations", but because it was believed that German dominance in Eastern Europe (in particular the Balkans) would eventually lead to undermining of Britain’s control over its colonies. It should be remembered that Churchill had no problems supporting the signing of the Anglo-German Navy Treaty in June 1935, which "ran a coach and horses" through the Versailles agreement by allowing Germany to build a navy to 35% of the strength of the British navy while setting no restrictions on the size of German land forces. It was assumed that German naval strength would be concentrated in the Baltic and be directed against the Soviet Union.

In one of the meetings between Chamberlain and Hitler in September 1938, occasioned by the "crisis" in Czechoslovakia, Hitler is minuted as making the following remark: "Between us there should be no conflict, we will not stand in the way of your pursuit of your non-European interests and you may without harm let us have a free hand on the European continent in Central and South-East Europe. Sometime we will have to solve the colonial question; but this has time, and war is not to be considered in this case" (p.141). This of course is in complete accord with Hitler’s oft expressed admiration for Britain and the British Empire, but what is significant is that Chamberlain made no objections to what had been said and the meeting ended on a note of agreement and friendship. Czechoslovakia had already been written off by the British government in early 1938, but what Chamberlain was concerned to do was to make more formal the, until that time, general informal "meeting of minds" that Germany be given a free hand in Eastern Europe and in return would not "turn its gaze" to the West.

In a meeting between British and French leaders immediately before Munich, Chamberlain made the following extremely revealing intervention: "There had been indications that there might be in the minds of the German Government an idea that they could begin the disruption of Russia by the encouragement of agitation for an independent Ukraine" (p.174). He went on to say that it would be "unfortunate" if France as a result became drawn into a conflict on the side of the Soviet Union, the French foreign minister replied that he had also heard such rumours but could assure him that France felt only obligated to the USSR if it came under direct German military attack. Even after the Munich Agreement was broken and Hitler used military power to over-run the rest of Czechoslovakia, nothing more than verbal condemnations emanated from the British and French governments. (A military response had been virtually excluded by the terms of the Munich Agreement. At least three of the four signatory countries – Germany, Italy, France and Britain – would have to agree.) In fact, although Halifax, the British foreign secretary, had received a month’s forewarning of what would happen, no warnings were ever issued to dissuade Germany from taking such a course of action.

The event which finally shattered the Chamberlain-Hitler understanding was the decision by Germany, in its dismembering of the Rump-Czechoslovakia, to give Ruthenia to Hungary in March 1939. Ruthenia contained many Ukrainians and it was assumed that Hitler would use this area as a base from which to agitate for "a free Ukraine". By giving the area to Hungary there was a seeming abandonment of such a project and a worrying indication that Hitler was shifting the direction of German expansion from the East to the West. It was only then that commitments were made by Britain and France to Poland so as to threaten Germany with the possibility of a war on two fronts. The threat did not work, as the Nazi-Soviet pact allowed Hitler to rapidly conquer Western Poland.

Why did Hitler take such a step? In the weeks before the German attack on Poland on 1 September 1939 Chamberlain had still not given up hope, and in a series of secret meetings "The Germans were assured that if they returned to their original policy of subordinating eastern Europe and leaving western Europe alone, the Western powers would do nothing to save Poland or any other country within the recognised German sphere of influence. Ultimately, however, Hitler feared that the leaders of the democracies were too easily replaceable by firm anti-Nazis, who he feared would take advantage of his eastern campaigns to attack Germany’s western flank" (p.200). Hitler’s severe hypochondria and belief that he had not that many years left, together with his megalomania – the belief that only he could ensure that Germany achieved its rightful place as the leading power in the world – meant that he forced the pace of developments. The internal dynamics of German society post-1933, with rapid rearmament, full employment and deficit economics, necessitated the resort to war and the conquest of resources (this after all fitted into the racist and social-Darwinist ideological basis of National Socialism). German impatience and aggressive behaviour caused greater and greater problems for the British government, with a growing anti-Nazism among the general populace and eventually even Halifax coming to doubt whether German aggression could be restricted to the East. Hitler, like Chamberlain, had hoped up to the last minute that war between Britain and Germany could be avoided, and even in the succeeding months of "phoney war" important figures had still not given up hope that some form of reconciliation could be brought about.

In Our Time ends with an appendix, a useful 25-page survey and critique of some of the best known published historical works on the subject. The evidence has long been available but many historians have downplayed or ignored British collusion in giving Hitler a free hand in central and eastern Europe. The appendix "outlines their conclusions and evidence and suggests that, whatever the intent of these historians, there is a great deal of self-delusion to their arguments" (p.255).

The inspiration for Lord Darlington is Lady Astor who held lunches and weekend parties at her country house Cliveden and the negative term "Cliveden Set" came into parlance on the Left to describe pro-Nazi activity amongst the upper classes. Today the "Cliveden Set", as an historical reality, is regarded with scepticism, particularly as the Communist Party journalist, Claud Cockburn, someone with a problematical regard for the truth, first used the term. However, what should not be in doubt is that sympathy for Fascism and Nazism was widespread amongst the British elite – Mussolini and Italian Fascism had their upper-class fans from the 1920s, while Fellow Travellers of the Right by Richard Griffiths (Oxford University Press, 1983) claims 1936 was a turning-point as regards enthusiasm for Nazi Germany, which increased significantly in that year following the German reoccupation of the Rhineland. [Back to text]