Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and The Road to War by Tim Bouverie
Bodley Head, 2019, ISBN 978 1 847 92440 7, 497pp
Above: Chamberlain (left) and Hitler leave the Bad Godesberg meeting, 23 September 1938 (source: Wikipedia).
This last week has seen the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 1944. D-Day marked the beginning of the end of the war and although Stalin had been pushing for an invasion of mainland Europe in 1943, there was no way that the Allies would have been ready. Of course 75 years is a long time ago. So long ago that I find that I sometimes have to qualify the term “the war” when I am speaking with younger folks. What war? they ask.
It’s a coincidence that I was reading Tim Bouvier’s brilliant book on the origins of the war as the commemorations of the beginning of the end of it were happening in Europe. The end of the war was marked by considerable social upheaval and the erection of the iron curtain that informed geo-political discourse for a generation or two. The events leading up to the war are essentially political though driven by Germany’s National Socialists and the inherent inadequacy of the Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty of Versailles was not a good treaty. Driven to a considerable extent by a French nation that wanted to dismember Germany, the treaty excluded the Germans and did not heal the rift between the French on the one hand, and the Brits and the Americans on the other.
The Treaty of Versailles gave Hitler an excuse to seek to restore Germany’s place in the scheme of European things. But the events that led up to the Second World War are in a way less interesting than the way that the British dealt with them. It’s easy to take a macro-view. The British had wound back military spending after World War I and did not want to be involved in another war. For the Americans, Europe was a long way away and wasn’t of much concern to a country dealing with the after effects of the depression. And the French were politically all over the place with their government changing every five minutes or so. Then there were the Russians who, since 1917, were not an entity that the western powers could trust.
The people who had to deal with the emerging and evolving crisis were mainly born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They were brought up as the sun began to set on the British Empire. Bouverie’s book is subtitled Chamberlain, Churchill and The Road to War but Churchill does not play much of a role. Chamberlain is the central character. In 2017 I reviewed in these pages Munich by Robert Harris. This is a novel that seeks to set Chamberlain in a more positive light than many post-war historians have done. That positive light should certainly be dimmed if not necessarily completely extinguished. Chamberlain was handed a basket case by his prime ministerial predecessor Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin had failed to recognise that the rise of Hitler (he never read Mein Kampf of course) meant that rearmament should have been a priority. The popular justification for Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement is that Britain (and by extension the Empire) was not ready for war. That is certainly true but neither was Germany and Chamberlain should have known that, but listening does not seem to have been the man’s strong point. At the time of the Czech crisis the Wehrmacht possessed only three lightly armoured tank divisions and just enough ammunition to sustain 6 weeks of heavy fighting. Britain and France should have known that.
You cannot doubt Chamberlain’s commitment to maintaining peace in Europe but it seems that he was almost pursuing peace at any price. He never realised that Hitler could not be trusted. He just kept going: doggedly. It was an agreement with Poland that eventually drove Britain to war. But not only was Chamberlain not a good diplomatic strategist, he was also not a war-time leader. He lacked the will for war. He survived for 6 months after the declaration of war before resigning following a confidence vote, which he won, but by a margin that showed he no longer commanded the respect of the House of Commons. He was certainly an optimist. On 30 August 1939, just 3 days before the outbreak of war, Chamberlain wrote to the Duke of Buccleuch: “We are living through difficult hours, but I hope we may yet be successful in avoiding the worst, If so, I shall still hope for a chance to go after your grouse.” An optimist and a man, perhaps, of his time. His time, unfortunately, was not the time he lived in.
This is a book for the reader who is interested in these things, it’s not a particularly light read but it’s a good one. And in 6 months, on 3 September, we will be at the 80th anniversary of the declaration of war on Germany.