How the appeasement of Hitler played into his hands

Trying to placate the Nazi leader was like “scratching a crocodile’s head in the hope of making it purr”.

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The word “appeasement” smells a bit off nowadays. There’s a tang of cowardice about it, a whiff of turpitude. When those who advocate negotiating with an enemy are accused of being “appeasers” the implication is that they are weak, and perhaps also secretly in sympathy with their supposed opponents. Treachery is suspected. What’s more, say the proponents of military action, look at the 1930s. Look at Chamberlain and his boast, on his return from Munich in September 1938, that he had guaranteed “peace for our time”. Appeasement, they say, doesn’t work.

This is nonsense, fortunately. Appeasement, otherwise known as compromise, as making concessions to your rivals and enemies in the hope that they will, in turn, concede a point to you, has averted more wars than the 20th-century dictators ever dreamed of starting. But opprobrium still attaches to the term, and has shadowed the posthumous reputation of Neville Chamberlain, a good-enough prime minister known to his contemporaries as the “Coroner”, whose distinguishing accessory was his unheroic umbrella, and is now remembered as the one who got it wrong.

The story Tim Bouverie tells would be comic, had it not had such a terrible end. It’s a tale of missed trains and bungled interviews. It is also an illuminating demonstration of the theatricality of international politics, the extent to which alliances and treaties and mobilisations are moves in a bluffing-game that degenerates into violence only when someone breaks the rules.

In March 1938 Joachim von Ribbentrop, the outgoing German ambassador, was invited to lunch in 10 Downing Street. A telegram was brought in and handed to the foreign secretary, who handed it to the prime minister. It reported that Hitler had issued an ultimatum to the Austrian president – resign by 6pm or Germany would invade. The atmosphere turned chilly, but a further half hour went by in small talk before the ambassador’s wife could be politely induced to leave. Confronted with the telegram, Ribbentrop followed her. All afternoon the foreign office mandarins argued over the wording of the British government’s protest. At last the permanent undersecretary said to his predecessor “It’s easy to be brave in speech, but will you fight?” No, said the other. “Then what’s it all about?”

The answer being, as Bouverie repeatedly shows, that “it” (British foreign policy under Chamberlain) was about face-saving, about defiance, about defending one’s self-respect by appearing to stand up to the bully, about moves in a game suggesting – but not actually including – the making of war. Within that game appeasement had often proved a successful strategy. The trouble was though, that Hitler wasn’t playing.

Bouverie’s narrative begins in 1933, with the Nazis’ accession to power, but he is properly conscious that it is impossible to talk about the impending war without acknowledging the importance of the previous one, which had left the British determined to avoid further conflict. “I will not have another war. I will not!” shouted King George V after Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. “I will go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself sooner than allow this country to be brought in.” Most of his subjects agreed with him. When Hitler marched into the Rhineland in March 1936 the mood in the House of Commons, wrote Harold Nicolson, was “anything to keep out of war”. As for the electorate, “the people of this country absolutely refuse to have a war. We should be faced by a general strike if we even suggested such a thing.”

Fear of war was complicated by fear of communism. It wasn’t only Rothermere’s Daily Mail that celebrated the “sturdy young Nazis” as Europe’s “guardians against communist danger”. Anthony Eden was more sophisticated, but even his mind reeled at the “curious” prospect of British Tories collaborating with Bolsheviks.

Even more than the “reds”, people feared bombs. In the event of war, predicted Churchill in March 1938, “London will be a shambles in half an hour.” Everyone believed him. And everyone knew that to retaliate in kind would be to break the traditional rules of engagement. In order to overcome the “terror from the air” said Baldwin, “You have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy.” No one, in an era when politicians and chiefs of staff talked a great deal – and sincerely – about “honour”, liked that thought.

Once the Second World War began and Churchill, with his stirring archaic language and antique conception of heroism, was setting the tone of public discourse, England reverted to the culture of the Edwardian era. Bouverie reminds us of a period closer to our present condition – when military action was widely seen as being not only wasteful but also plain stupid. Fear and prudence, and a difficulty in ascertaining which of the totalitarian regimes was the least repugnant, created a riven culture. Bouverie describes an interwar Britain in which friends of long-standing fell out over Europe, and in which public debate became rancorous to a degree that shocked contemporary observers. If that Britain sounds familiar, it is worth remembering, in humility, that the questions then being debated were not about customs regulations and trade deals, but about life and death.

Bouverie has mined an impressive range of sources and quotes from them judiciously. His narrative is lucid, his prose efficient, his put-downs witty – Anthony Eden was “a rising star in a firmament of dullish men”. He opens each chapter with an arresting vignette. He finds a place (usually in footnotes) for quips and quirky characters.

There is another book to be written about appeasement, one in which we might hear from the writers and artists who were struggling to make sense of the “low dishonest decade”, one which pays rather more attention to the mood of the country at large. Bouverie’s representative of the Common Man (there are precious few women of any class in this book) is the chauffeur who told Lady Astor, on being rebuked for neglecting to provide a rug, “Well, we shan’t have any rugs at all when Moscow is in control.” His example of a politician with a social conscience is Bob Cecil (son of Lord Salisbury), who as an Etonian “tried to stop the older boys overworking their fags”. This is old-fashioned top-down history writing, but it tells an important story well.

By focusing on the least charismatic of that story’s chief actors, Bouverie finds a new pathos in it. Chamberlain’s mistake, wrote Duff Cooper, was “that of a little boy who played with a wolf under the impression it was a sheep – a pardonable zoological error but apt to prove fatal to the player who made it”. For Lord Hugh Cecil, his trying to placate Hitler was like “scratching a crocodile’s head in the hope of making it purr”.

Cooper and Cecil, upper-class wits who looked down on the prime minister for snobbish as well as for intellectual reasons, shared a way with words that he could not match. All the same the most terrifying sentence in this book comes from Chamberlain himself. “I’m wobbling about all over the place,” he told his aides as he struggled to find the right response to the invasion of Poland. To quote Cooper again, wobbly-weak Chamberlain had about as much chance of containing Hitler “as little Lord Fauntleroy would have of concluding a satisfactory deal with Al Capone”. 

Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie is published by Bodley Head (512pp, £20)

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes