Exactly 75 years ago, two very different politicians were basking in popular applause. On 4 Oct 1938, Adolf Hitler was paying his first visit to his new domain inside the crippled state of Czechoslovakia. The Germans of the Sudetenland turned out to cheer the man who had redrawn the map of Europe overnight, seizing a territory with over 3 million people.
Meanwhile in London, Neville Chamberlain was sitting on the front bench of the House of Commons, listening to the debate on his agreement with Hitler.
The series of deals known collectively as “Munich” abandoned Czechoslovakia to the Nazis by allowing the Sudetenland to become part of the Third Reich. Yet the British Parliament, like the public at large, was overcome by relief that war had been avoided. Chamberlain was almost universally hailed as a saviour. Earlier, the King and Queen had led Chamberlain to the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge the crowds.
A deal that brought adulation for Chamberlain and Hitler was never going to turn out well for both of them. One leader was always going to lose – and we know, of course, that it was Chamberlain. True, he had wrung promises of good behaviour from Hitler – including a written pledge that annexing the Sudetenland would be Germany’s “final territorial demand” – but these turned out to be empty words. The Second World War began 11 months later.
Chamberlain has duly been condemned as the “appeaser” who fundamentally misunderstood Hitler. I am not going to challenge the orthodoxy; on the contrary, I propose to question the various attempts torehabilitate Chamberlain and excuse his folly.
The most convincing defence is the argument that Chamberlain’s deal with Hitler allowed Britain another year to prepare for war. When I was a student, Lord Hailsham put this case to me with passion, recounting how he had been the pro-Chamberlain candidate in the Oxford by-election of 1938.
When Munich was signed, the British Army had not introduced conscription and the Spitfire had not entered service with the RAF. Hailsham argued that Chamberlain bought time for Britain to remedy both deficiencies by the outbreak of war. His diplomacy may not have been pretty, but he gave Britain a breathing space of 11 vital months.
Yet this exoneration does not convince for two reasons. First, Hailsham’s defence is retrospective: when Chamberlain signed Munich, he did not claim to have delayed war, he thought the disaster had been avoided altogether. Chamberlain’s cry was not “peace for 11 months”, but “peace for our time”.
Second, the Hailsham defence rests on a vital confusion. True, Britain was better prepared for war in a technical sense in 1939, but it does not follow that our overall strategic position was any better than it had been 11 months earlier.
On the contrary, Czechoslovakia was supremely well prepared for a German invasion in 1938. The country had an effective army and formidable array of mountain fortresses protecting its frontier.
If the Czechs had not been abandoned by their supposed allies, they would have fought. And their defence would have been formidable. In order to break through the fortress line protecting the Sudetenland, Hitler would have been forced to concentrate the finest divisions of his army on the Czech frontier.
That would have left Germany’s western border largely undefended. An Anglo-French thrust across the Rhine might have succeeded.
If Britain and France had decided to fight for Czechoslovakia, the Fuhrer’s generals would have been confronted with a war on two fronts from day one. Halting an attack from the west would have been exceptionally difficult. It is possible that the Second World War would have lasted from 1938 to 1939, ending with total victory for Britain and France and saving tens of millions of lives.
We know that Hitler’s generals were desperately worried by this possibility. If Britain and France had chosen to fight in 1938, Germany’s generals might actually have overthrown Hitler. The military high command would not have tolerated a war plan that left Germany defenceless against an offensive across the Rhine. Hitler might have been deposed and a global calamity avoided.
In truth, the Fuhrer was a lot weaker than he looked in 1938. He was gambling that Chamberlain would give way and, tragically, this proved a safe bet.
There is only one convincing defence of Chamberlain and, oddly enough, it was made by Churchill. Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of Churchill’s condemnation of Munich in the Commons. This was, I think, the best speech he ever gave, filled with grim predictions of astonishing accuracy.
Once Czechoslovakia had lost the Sudetenland’s defences, Churchill predicted that the whole country would fall into Hitler’s lap. “Now that the fortress line is turned away what is there to stop the will of the conqueror?” he asked. “I venture to think that in future the Czechoslovak state cannot be maintained as an independent entity. I think you will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured only by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed in the Nazi regime.”
In the event, Hitler seized the rest of the country five months later.
Churchill thought Chamberlain was profoundly wrong, but he respected a principled and well-intentioned opponent. When Chamberlain died in November 1940, Churchill paid him a remarkably generous tribute in the Commons, arguing that Chamberlain’s sole aim had been to preserve peace, his actions sprang from genuine conviction, and his failure was because of Hitler’s dishonesty and wickedness.
Churchill always drew a sharp distinction between Chamberlain and the previous appeasing prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. Chamberlain had appeased Hitler out of real belief. As it happened, appeasement was also popular because the British public wanted above all to avoid war. But Churchill thought that Chamberlain would have appeased Hitler anyway “to the utter disdain of popularity and clamour”.
Baldwin, by contrast, appeased Hitler because he thought this would help to win the 1935 election. As such, Churchill considered Baldwin an unprincipled opportunist who placed “party before country”.
In the end, the Churchill defence of Chamberlain is far more convincing than Hailsham’s. Yes, Chamberlain was wrong, but his motives were noble and he genuinely believed in what he was doing.
But I am not as generous as Churchill. I cannot sweep aside the stubborn realisation that Chamberlain’s misjudgement cost millions of lives. Even in 1938, he should have known that Hitler was not a normal leader who could be trusted to keep a deal. Churchill had worked this out, so why not Chamberlain?
As recently as the 1980s, a playground insult exchanged by Czech schoolchildren was “You Chamberlain!” My sympathies are with the children and with the Czechs who were, as Churchill put it, “silent, mournful, abandoned, broken”. On the 75th anniversary of a great calamity, Chamberlain remains for me a symbol of cravenness and naivety. Quite deservedly, he bears the mark of Cain.