By Tim Bouverie
Published by Bodley Head
In July 1935, as war threatened over the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, King George V shouted to his aides, ‘I will not have another war. I will not.’ He even threatened to abdicate if Britain went to war again, saying, ‘I’ll go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself, sooner than allow this country to be brought in.’
The king’s outburst reveals intense opposition to the very idea of another war fewer than 20 years after the ‘war to end all wars’. The feeling was widespread across the country. And it was this massive public hostility to war that underlay political thinking in Britain throughout much of the 1930s. Any government that threatened war against a rearming Germany or fascist Italy would have faced extinction at the next election.
Tim Bouverie’s Appeasing Hitler strides boldly and confidently through a decade of British political and diplomatic history. Such history could be dull, but not in the hands of Bouverie, whose narrative is tense and written with great verve.
The British Government was in a quandary as Hitler reshaped and rearmed Germany. Not only was pacifist sentiment strong across the nation, but many in the Establishment felt sympathetic to Hitler, believing that Germany had been unjustly treated at Versailles.
Moreover, Britain’s linchpin ally against Germany, the French Republic, was in deep economic crisis, having suffered a reduction of about 30% of national income between 1930 and 1933, and this had given rise to sharp political polarisation and social conflict.
Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936 effectively tore up the Versailles Treaty and destroyed the authority of the League of Nations. But Hitler was still weak. Should Britain have imposed sanctions and been prepared to use force to resist this? It is one of the big ‘what ifs’ of history.
As it was, the military chiefs told the Cabinet that Britain did not have the military resources to go to war against Germany; and even if Britain and France had declared war and marched successfully to Berlin, the Cabinet was convinced that this would only have thrown Germany into the Communist camp. What good would that have done?
Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden felt compelled to seek a modus vivendi with Nazi Germany. After all, Hitler was not threatening neighbouring countries, just retaking what many thought was naturally his. As Eden’s taxi driver said, ‘I suppose Jerry can do what he likes in his own back garden.’ Exactly.
There were few good options. But, in retrospect, we see inaction in 1936 as a turning point: Britain’s lack of response convinced Hitler that the Western powers were weak, encouraging him to push harder, enlarging his ambition.
CHURCHILL IN THE WILDERNESS
Meanwhile, Winston Churchill was proving to be a thorn in the Government’s side. Secret whistle-blowers within the military and the civil service were supplying him with ammunition to fire at the Government.
Twice he proposed motions following the King’s Speech to the effect that the Government was failing to provide sufficient defence for the country’s safety. But he was deeply unpopular with Tory MPs, and both Baldwin and Chamberlain (successively Prime Minister) were determined to keep him out of office.
In May 1937, when Neville Chamberlain became PM, he did not invent the policy of ‘appeasement’ with which he is now so closely associated: he inherited it from his predecessor. Nonetheless, because of the escalating tension during his premiership, and because he presided over the failure of appeasement and the outbreak of war, Chamberlain carries the main burden of historical blame.
Bouverie’s four chapters on the crisis of the Sudeten Germans in the summer of 1938 provide gripping but thoroughly depressing reading. In his three trips to meet Hitler, analysed in some detail, Chamberlain was totally outmanoeuvred by the German Führer. Not only did he fall for tricks of flattery (Hitler gave him a double handshake, for example, which Chamberlain was told he gave only to specially honoured guests), but he appears to have continued to believe that this really was the end of Hitler’s territorial ambitions in Europe.
As his Cabinet in London divided, and outraged voices spoke out against the betrayal of small nations, Chamberlain was convinced that his diplomacy would bring ‘peace for our time’ – as he put it when he returned from his last meeting with Hitler, clutching his ‘piece of paper’ apparently confirming the ‘desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again’.
Of that agreement, of course, Hitler said cynically to his Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, ‘That piece of paper is of no significance whatsoever.’
The defence of the Munich Agreement, which sacrificed a fifth of Czech territory and much of its natural resources to Germany, has always been that Britain was not ready for war in September 1938. That is true. It took a year for the RAF to be equipped with a sufficient number of Hurricanes and Spitfires and for the Chain Home radar network to be built.
But, as Bouverie points out, Germany was not ready for war in 1938 either, and the Agreement gave her another year to arm and prepare for the assault on Poland, Scandinavia, and then France and the Low Countries. The Agreement remains a squalid low point in British diplomacy, and a great stain on the nation’s reputation.
Tim Bouverie is a journalist who has covered politics for Channel 4 News. This is his first narrative history book – I am sure it will not be his last, and I very much look forward to the next. Recommended.
Review by Taylor Downing