The truth is far from that. Chamberlain and Daladier were no weaklings, no cowards who were afraid of Hitler. Munich happened because these two leaders had their own compulsions.
In short, these two men were caught in a time where there were no easy options. They did their best under the circumstances. History has not been kind and fair to these men.
Let us go back and try to see matters objectively.
"Again and again Canning lays it down that you should never menace unless you are in a position to carry out your threats."Neville Chamberlain, September 1938
In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.Neville Chamberlain
If the Empire was a source of British strength, it was also the source of fundamental weakness. By the 1930s it was a structure almost impossible to defend adequately, even if Britain had enjoyed sufficient resources to attempt it. Britain, however, simply lacked the economic strength and military capacity to hold the Empire together in the face of serious threat. It was Chamberlain’s private view that ‘We are a rich and a very vulnerable empire and there are plenty of poor adventurers not very far away who look upon us with hungry eyes.’ This was a much more realistic assessment.
Appeasement is not always wrong. All concessions among enemies cannot be mistaken, or else politics would consist of little more than fighting
A stable world system was the only hope for the Empire’s survival. ‘We all agree – we want peace,’ wrote a Chief of Staff in the 1930s, ‘not only because we are a satisfied and therefore naturally a peaceful people; but because it is in our imperial interests, having, an exceedingly vulnerable empire, not to go to war.’
British power before 1914 rested on British economic strength: financial stability at home, and a stable trading and investing environment abroad. War damaged British economic interests more than those of other powers because Britain lived on exports and overseas investment. The Great War damaged British trade abroad irretrievably; the cost of the war reduced British investments overseas by two–thirds, and threatened the stability of the home economy through inflation and war debts. Though some measure of stability was restored in the 1920s, the British economy never recovered the special position it had once enjoyed. British trade in 1921 was less than half the level of 1913; cotton exports, the core of British pre–war trade, also fell by over half during the 1920s. Unemployment was well over a million for most of the decade and the government was saddled with a National Debt sixteen times greater in 1920 than it had been in 1910. A foreign policy of peaceful co–operation was essential to safeguard trade and to rebuild the foreign investment on which British economic influence had been based.
Japan was a potential threat, but clearly not in the immediate future. Without financial security future defence programmes were put at risk. The rise of Hitler evoked a similar caution. It was appreciated that Germany was a revisionist power, but it was also evident that Hitler’s priority was economic recovery and reemployment, as it was in Britain. Britain’s financiers and industrialists hoped to profit from German recovery with increased opportunities for trade and investment. By 1937 more than 50 per cent of the international credit extended to Germany was British, double the level of 1933.
The question that confronted British statesmen down to the outbreak of war in 1939 was quite simply how to regain the lost security of the Empire. The military’s answer was an obvious one: ‘So long as [the] position remains unresolved diplomatically, only very great military and financial strength can give the Empire security.’ British politicians knew this; but the answer was not straightforward at all. Financial strength could not be taken for granted. The economy was well on the way to recovery in 1936 but few politicians would have gambled with it.
The British approach to Germany was essentially pragmatic. It was not evident, as it was soon to become, that German ambitions were entirely open–ended and violent. But British leaders were not naive. The search for political solutions went hand in hand with a firm decision in 1934 to reverse the long decline in British military strength and to embark on an extensive rearmament. In November 1933 the Cabinet set up the Defence Requirements Committee to report on the long–term shape of Britain’s defence effort. Though the sums of money proposed were trimmed back by an anxious Treasury, it was agreed to expand the navy, build a secure naval base at Singapore, and pour more resources into the RAF, with particular attention to air defences to meet the threat of the bomber. The army had to take third place, as it had throughout the 1920s.
It is easily forgotten that Chamberlain, man of peace that he was, did not exclude the possibility of war. ‘Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me,’ he told radio listeners late in 1938, ‘but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted.’
High levels of government spending on arms produced rising costs and the prospect of inflation, and serious shortages of skilled labour. There was never a point at which high levels of military spending would not have distorted and damaged the economy. Churchill’s view that the German threat could be met only by very high levels of current military expenditure ignored the constraints of industrial capacity, manpower and financial security, and underestimated the potential for a much more effective war effort three or four years hence. Large fleets of biplanes and light bombers in 1938 would have been unlikely to deter Hitler, or for that matter Japan and Italy, and would have sacrificed the resources needed for the new weapons in the pipeline. The British rearmament effort from its nature needed not money but time.
The government recognized that it would be some time before Britain was secure from such a threat. The programmes would be complete or near completion in 1939 and 1940. Against this background Chamberlain embarked on his active efforts to settle the grievances of Europe.
There were few defenders of the Czech state among British leaders. It was regarded as a ‘highly artificial’ creation, whose integrity was not a vital British interest. It was not an issue, remarked Alexander Cadogan, head of the Foreign Office, ‘on which we would be on very strong ground for plunging Europe into war’. Nor could the Czechs be given serious military help. The Germans, it was thought, would overrun them ‘in less than a week’
If Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and France went to her aid, Britain would be obliged to help France. This was an obligation not of morality, but of necessity. German defeat of France would tilt the European balance so overwhelmingly against Britain that it could not be contemplated. Yet even with France the military prospects in 1938 looked far from satisfactory. There would be no point in fighting Germany, Chamberlain argued, ‘unless we had a reasonable prospect of being able to beat her to her knees in a reasonable time and of that I see no sign’. It was the central purpose of British strategy during the months of crisis in 1938 to avoid a European war before British rearmament was completed. The object was not so much to appease Hitler as to restrain France.
Even Chamberlain’s critics saw the sense of preserving peace in 1938. Eden acknowledged that ‘Munich has given us time at least’; Roosevelt telegraphed the simple words ‘Good man’.
The villain is a different Chamberlain, one of the ‘Guilty Men’ who failed to stand up to fascism in 1938 and fight; who put the self–interest of Britain’s ruling classes before good sense and morality. A ‘British Tory’, as Roosevelt privately sneered, ‘who wants peace at a great price’. Yet it is difficult to see what room for manoeuvre Chamberlain really had in 1938. The list of factors cautioning peace was a formidable one. Chamberlain was protecting not just Britain but the British Empire. The simultaneous threat from Italy and Japan loomed larger rather than smaller as the Czech crisis worsened. Chamberlain had been premier for only a year; he was understand– ably not prepared to crown that period by deliberately courting a war that all his military advisers warned him would destroy the Empire. In 1938 the rearmament programme was only halfway to its goal and was facing major problems. Until it was complete Britain had almost nothing with which to threaten Hitler, except what General Pownall called ‘our poor little army’. The RAF plans to bomb Germany proved on closer inspection in 1938 to be completely worthless. Though British military intelligence rightly observed that Germany was far less formidable than the public image suggested, the element of risk was enormous. Most terrible of all was the threat of the ‘knock–out blow’ from Germany’s bomber force.
What was more important was the knowledge Chamberlain had that within twelve months Britain’s military position would be quite different.
All the Dominions except New Zealand were hostile to the idea of fighting for Czechoslovakia. On 1 September the Prime Ministers of both Australia and South Africa confirmed that they would not become involved on Britain’s side. On the 24th the four High Commissioners in London of New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Australia announced that ‘the German proposals can’t be allowed to be a casus belli’,’" and they continued to press this view up to the 28th, the day that Hertzog, the South African premier, got unanimous parliamentary approval for a declaration of neutrality. The fear of Empire disunity was an important one to Chamberlain, as it would have been for any British prime minister. ‘There would be no point in fighting a war that would break the British Empire,’ explained Britain’s charge d’affaires in Washington, ‘while trying to secure the safety of the United Kingdom.’
Chamberlain saw the British options plainly: ‘Hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst’.
In October Chamberlain explained that ‘it would be madness for the country to stop rearming … We should relax no particle of effort.’ Chamberlain had been a re-armer before Munich; he remained one thereafter.
Chamberlain sought to capitalize on the temporary advantage won at Munich, but he had few illusions left about Hitler. According to one official, whenever Hitler’s name was mentioned, Chamberlain ‘made a face like a child being forced to swallow castor oil’.
Appeasement, he confessed, was not a ‘very happy term’ nor one that accurately described his wider purpose, which was to ensure ‘that no Power should seek to obtain a general domination of Europe’. But now Germany was a threat to British liberty. This Chamberlain announced, ‘we will never surrender’. If the threat of domination should come Britain would resist it ‘to the utmost of its power’.
‘Hitler wants to dominate Europe,’ Chamberlain told the French Foreign Minister on 21 March. ‘We shall not permit it.’
Chamberlain’s repeated fear that ‘the burden of armaments might break our backs’ was realizing itself under the pressure of emergency. The balance of payments crisis grew deeper as Britain sucked in the extra imports for defence. British gold reserves fell to half the level of 1938 as capital flowed away from London in search of safer havens. The first signs of inflation were evident. The Chancellor of the Exchequer became more insistent as the year went on that Britain faced imminent financial collapse. ‘We shall find ourselves in a position’, he told the Cabinet in May, ‘when we should be unable to wage any war other than a brief one.
By late August the Dominions had moved from strong support for appeasement to staunch support for war. Commonwealth unity was, according to Chamberlain, ‘all important’. The Dominions, like Britain, began after Prague to see the real dangers posed by the Axis powers. In April 1939 the new Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, let it be known that ‘If Britain was at war, Australia was too.’ New Zealand was drawn closely into British defence planning during 1939 and gave Chamberlain unqualified support during August. In Canada the premier, Mackenzie King, had preached appeasement since the Imperial Conference of 1937 but had changed his mind by January 1939. Gradually in the late summer of 1939 the nationalist revival in Britain and France began to affect Canada’s two populations and an evident enthusiasm to defend democracy against fascism and aggression replaced a widespread isolationism. The exception was South Africa. Even here Britain’s old Boer enemy, Jan Smuts, was able to blunt the isolationism of the Afrikaner nationalists sufficiently to bring South Africa into war by a narrow parliamentary majority.
The final ultimatum and declaration of war had to be co–ordinated with France, which wanted a forty–eight–hour delay to permit evacuation and initial mobilization to take place. On 2nd September Ciano proposed a conference of all the major powers; Chamberlain and Halifax could only accept it on the complete withdrawal of all German troops from Poland, something which both they, and Ciano, knew to be impossible. But the problems with both France and Italy led to an unfortunate delay in sending the final ultimatum, and aroused suspicion in Parliament that Chamberlain was seeking to avoid war. By the evening of 2 September the French would still not agree to co–ordinate an early ultimatum.
If the blood of France and of Germany flows again, as it did twenty-five years ago, in a longer and even more murderous war, each of the two peoples will fight with confidence in its own victory, but the most certain victors will be the forces of destruction and barbarism.
Even while the 1919 settlement was being drafted, French leaders knew that the problem of Germany would never disappear, though its potential for damage could be limited. ‘Mark well what I’m telling you,’ said Georges Clemenceau, France’s great war leader and her representative at the Peace Conference in Paris, ‘in six months, in a year, five years, ten years, when they like, as they like, the Boches will again invade us.’ With a prophetic accuracy France’s other great war leader, the supreme Allied commander, Marshal Foch, warned his countrymen: ‘This is not a peace: it is an Armistice for twenty years.’ Throughout those twenty years French politicians and soldiers tried to come to terms with this stark reality: the peace could not be permanently enforced, and Germany, slowly, but apparently inexorably, regained her former vigour.