Chamberlain and appeasement
Since 1945 historians have disagreed passionately about Chamberlain's policy of trying to satisfy Hitler's demands, known as 'appeasement'. There have been two conflicting views: some historians say appeasement was cowardly and stupid because it encouraged Hitler to demand more and more; other historians are much more sympathetic and say that Chamberlain's decisions made a lot of sense at the time.
Was the British policy of appeasement justified?
Two Interpretations of Chamberlain's response to Hitler
• Interpretation A
Chamberlain was foolish. He misunderstood Hitler. Chamberlain thought that Hitler was a reasonable man. He was wrong.
• Interpretation B
Chamberlain was no fool! It's easy to look back and criticize Chamberlain but he was in a difficult position. Appeasement seemed sensible at the time.
The Personality of Chamberlain
Like many people who had lived through the First World War, Chamberlain was horrified at the idea of another war. He believed passionately in the importance of peace.
Chamberlain was not used to dealing with fanatics like Hitler. He was a great believer in the power of talk and negotiations. In 1937 he said to the Soviet ambassador to London: 'If only we could sit down at a table with the Germans and run through all their complaints and claims. That would greatly reduce the tension.' Chamberlain was an honest man and assumed that other leaders were also honest.
He believed Hitler when the German leader said that after Czechoslovakia there would be no more threats to peace in Europe. Hitler was in fact lying. On his return from Munich Chamberlain told his colleagues that Hitler now respected him. This was not true. In private Hitler described Chamberlain as a worm and said that he would like to kick him down a flight of stairs.
Concern for the Empire
The British Empire mattered a great deal to British politicians in the 1930s. The most powerful voices in the Empire were those of the self-governing countries, known as the dominions - Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The dominions were great supporters of appeasement and made it very clear at the time of Munich that they would not back Britain if it came to a war over Czechoslovakia.
On 1 September 1938 Chamberlain was told that the South African and Australian governments would not give military support if war broke out. On 24 September the South African parliament voted in favor of neutrality if war broke out between Germany and Britain. It was clear to Chamberlain that an aggressive policy towards Germany would split the British Empire.
The Empire influenced Chamberlain in another way. Much of the Empire was in Asia where Britain faced another threat in the form of the rise of Japan. British military leaders were terrified at the idea of a war with both Germany and Japan. The generals and admirals did not believe that Britain was strong enough to fight both countries at the same time. The military leaders supported the idea of appeasement of Germany.
The Sleeping Superpowers
If Britain had been given effective support by the USA or the USSR its leaders could have taken a harder line towards Germany. This was not possible because the USA maintained its 'isolationist' policy and the British leaders did not trust the communist USSR.
Until the late 1930s American spending on defense was very limited. As a result, the Americans did not have the military strength to match their economic strength. Although the USA was a very rich country, in 1937 it spent only 1.5 per cent of its national income on defense. By contrast, Germany was spending 23.5 per cent of its total income on defense in the same year.
The USA was rightly described as a 'sleeping giant'. As a result of the longstanding policy of isolation, the American armed forces were in no position to fight. In 1937 the USA had a small standing army, largely equipped with inefficient, old-fashioned weapons. The American air force was considerably outnumbered by the German and Japanese air forces.
The American President, F. D. Roosevelt, hated war. He was also a realistic politician who tried to respond to the mood of the American people. America had been devastated by the Depression and the American people were concerned with the need to rebuild their own country.
Many Americans were not interested in what happened in Europe. Other Americans did care about the wider world but felt that the USA should try to stamp out war and the arms trade. A temporary Neutrality Act was passed in 1935 and this was made permanent in 1937. As a result, Chamberlain could expect no help from America in any struggle with Germany.
The Soviet Union was another source of potential support against Hitler. The Soviet Red Army was large but the British authorities did not have a very high opinion of its ability. The British leaders hated communism. The unreliability of the USSR was heightened by the purges that Stalin carried out in the late 1930s. The Soviet leader accused many leading communists of treachery and many them were killed.
In 1937 the purges reached the Red Army. Stalin destroyed almost his entire military leadership: 35,000 leading officers were executed, including nearly all his top military experts of the 80 members. Of the Supreme Military Council, 75 were executed. This greatly weakened the fighting capacity of the Soviets. It also convinced British leaders that Soviet military help against Germany was of little use.
Chamberlain knew that without support from other powerful countries, war with Germany was risky. In the First World War, Britain and France fought Germany with allies in Russia, Italy and Japan. Even with these allies, Britain and France were only able to defeat Germany when the USA entered the war. In the late 1930s Britain and France had no powerful allies. If it came to war they could not be sure of winning.
Playing for time
Appeasement was a complex policy. It was not just a question of giving in to Hitler. The negotiations were accompanied by a policy of rearmament so that, if necessary, aggression could be resisted by force.
Between 1934 and 1938 Britain increased four-fold the amount of money spent on defense. One view of appeasement is that it gave Britain time to rearm so that when the crisis with Germany finally came to a head in 1939 Britain was better prepared. At the time of Munich in 1938 Chamberlain felt that rearmament had not gone quite far enough for Britain to risk a war. His military advisers urged him to play for time.
At the end of the war Hitler himself looked back to Munich and wondered if he had not made a mistake. He felt cheated by the Munich deal. He told his assistant, Bormann, that Germany should have gone to war in 1938 over Czechoslovakia.