Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

How Neville Chamberlain Went Wrong

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I believe it is safe to say that most Americans who have ever heard of Neville Chamberlain associate him with appeasement of Hitler and selling out Czechoslovakia at Munich. Why did Chamberlain think that appeasement was a good idea?

Chamberlain had been a managing director of a ship berth manufacturer for 17 years. He had also been Lord Mayor of Birmingham, as had his father before him. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer twice, from 1923-24 and again from 1931-37, at which time he succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister.

Britain had not prospered after World War I, and the Depression had hit hard. Known in Britain as The Great Slump, it was a time of technological progress but economic distress. Official unemployment reached 25%, but some areas in the industrial North of England experienced 70% unemployment. Entire towns, such as Jarrow in Durham, were plunged into hardship as industries closed; the most famous of the hunger marches was the Jarrow Crusade. Chamberlain concluded that the country could not afford to keep up with Germany in military spending.

It was a decision that Chamberlain had reached mostly by himself. Ian Colvin researched the proceedings of the Chamberlain cabinet and found little policy discussion. Ministers who disagreed with Chamberlain, such as Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper, were ignored until they went away in frustration. He is known to have preferred to surround himself with people who would ratify his decisions, such as Samuel Hoare and John Simon.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.
— Neville Chamberlain, radio address, 27 Sept 1938.

Chamberlain had believed that war would be disastrous both for Britain and the Empire, and he was right. What he was wrong about was how to prevent that war. Chamberlain believed that Hitler was a rational statesman with whom one could negotiate rationally. Hitler only respected strength, but Chamberlain did not want to hear that. Because of the way he managed his cabinet, there was no one to persuade him otherwise.

So Hitler had to show Chamberlain the error of his ways. On 15 Mar 1939, contrary to his claims to have no further territorial demands in Europe, Hitler invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia. This area was not ethnically German and there were no legitimate German ethnic claims to it. The action shattered the illusion that Hitler was only seeking redress of the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles.

Britain now belatedly recognized the seriousness of the menace and guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity. When Hitler violated that on 1 Sept, after two further days of “you better or I’m gonna,” Chamberlain reluctantly declared war. Privately, he admitted the futility of his policy:

Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins.



Written by srojak

July 24, 2016 at 12:00 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I enjoyed this. Great background information on Chamberlain. Appeasers have good intentions (they want peace), but they are blind to the true nature of the aggressor. A bully only respects strength, and takes advantage of weakness.

    I wrote a short essay (400 words) called “The Policy of Appeasement” on the World War 2 movie, Glorious 39. If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback:

    Chris Lindsay

    January 5, 2017 at 7:35 pm

  2. @StephenRojak I swerved into this tonight — good stuff. But you have aroused my curiosity; if Chamberlain appeasing Hitler at Munich was a *mistake*, what SHOULD he have done? Do you believe Britain should have gone to war with Germany in late September 1938? Other than war, what choice did Chamberlain have?

    John L. Chapman

    February 28, 2018 at 10:30 pm

    • At the time, the British knew that the Beck group in the German military was opposed to Hitler, but were waiting for the generals to make the first move. But the generals couldn’t make the first move as long as Hitler kept winning easy political victories. If the British had stood up to Hitler, they may have been able to encourage a coup. Had this not worked, they would have had a smaller Germany to oppose and Czechoslovakia as an ally. It would definitely have given them better odds than they had in 1939.


      February 28, 2018 at 10:42 pm

      • @StephenRojak that is a good angle on it and you may well be right. It’s also true Hitler did not believe the British WOULD stand up to him, as he felt they had already written off the Czechs — so if they HAD, he might have backed down, being surprised by their pluck.

        I have some sympathy for Chamberlain in any case — though no fan of his — because it does seem to me that he sensed the British people had no stomach for a war in 1938 and they were certainly under-prepared in terms of force capabilities. He also knew the limitations of the French who would have to come in with them.
        And at least at Munich, the Germans DID have “half a claim” in their favor — the Sudeten Germans DID want to join the Reich. If you are in favor of self-determination it is hard to argue the point (though March of ’39 was blatant naked aggression, and no angle for an excuse).

        In any case, your thesis swerves into what I have firmly come to wish for in our own day …..I do not want to fight all these foreign wars but I do want to speak with moral force. In other words, if the Russians started demanding an annexation of Estonia, I would not want to fight a nuclear war with Putin to stop this, even though the NATO treaty ultimately compels us to do so at the moment.

        But I WOULD say to the Russians, neither we nor anyone else are ever going to attack you in the next thousand years. But we will assist free people who want to be free of your domination ….so we will sell the Estonians and their confederates the latest and greatest in armaments — including if need be theater nuclear weapons, to ensure you leave them alone. I would also be fine with any American volunteers who wanted to go fight for Estonia, as per those American flyers who went to China and England before our entry into WW2 (and of course if the USA left NATO tomorrow, it would likely remain in place, so Estonia WOULD have allies in the region anyway).

        Such a policy by the British and French might have had interesting implications in WW2. If they had told the Germans they were selling weapons to the Poles and Czechs merely for defensive purposes ….and Hitler had then attacked anyway, at least it would have been more costly to the Germans. But if the Brits and French had stayed out, Hitler would have then attacked eastward only, as this was his desired war and desired territorial conquest. Hitler and Stalin slaughtering each other while the Western allies sat back and watched the show might well have been a better outcome in the long run for all concerned.

        John L. Chapman

        March 1, 2018 at 11:47 am

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