Appeasement has become a popular topic recently, with Tim Bouverie’s excellent Appeasing Hitler standing out. But Adrian Phillips gives us a new and fascinating angle on the whole sorry saga of miscalculation and moral surrender that led up to the Second World War.
Neville Chamberlain is, of course, the central character, and Phillips has very little positive to say about him. Chamberlain’s overwhelming vanity was shown by the way he always believed everything he did was a triumph. His letters to his sister reveal his delight at the way others flattered him, whether it related to diplomacy or to polite responses to his skills in fishing, shooting, or even acting.
Being so sure of his abilities meant he never had doubts. Perhaps his worst judgement of all was his description, after being flattered by Hitler, of the German Chancellor as ‘a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word’. Oh dear!
But Phillips also emphasises the role of a senior civil servant, Sir Horace Wilson, who became not only the Prime Minister’s principal adviser, but also a close friend. Wilson stayed out of the limelight, but by running the Downing Street office had almost unlimited influence.
His real power derived from Chamberlain, who relied on Wilson’s judgement, often preferring his advice to that of the Cabinet, especially when emanating from the Foreign Office: a remarkable state of affairs.
The two men, although very different personalities, were convinced that their policies were right. And from the start of his premiership, Chamberlain was determined to pursue a rapprochement with the dictators.
He rejected an overture from President Roosevelt to mediate, keeping America out of European affairs for four crucial years. He opened a back channel to Mussolini, whom he wanted to encourage, which eventually led to a falling out with the Foreign Office and the resignation of Anthony Eden.
And Wilson developed a network of contacts to ensure the government’s view was dominant. He courted Sir John Reith, Director-General of the BBC, who gave appeasement a good hearing on the influential radio service and kept Winston Churchill, its principal critic, of the air waves.
The Overmighty Mandarin
The origins of the book lies in a MPhil thesis Phillips wrote on the policy machinery of Downing Street. This gives him detailed knowledge of how government worked. But this is not dry old stuff. It is full of personalities and political battles, with Chamberlain and Wilson repeatedly outmanoeuvring their opponents.
Churchill’s repeated attacks on the government’s rearmament policy, especially with regard to the air, prompted by secret briefings from disaffected RAF officers, are well known. Phillips analyses them forensically and shows how both Chamberlain and Wilson were upset and offended by them.
Phillips’s research also enables him to drill down through the labyrinthine levels of government to reveal some forgotten heroes. For instance, Air Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman joined the Air Council Committee of Supply in 1938 and took over aircraft design and production. The prevailing view (and that of Chamberlain and Wilson) was that increasing production of old, simple-to-manufacture models like the Gladiator biplane and the Fairey Battle would suffice, giving the RAF quantity but not quality. Freeman, however, succeeded in pushing through the building of the RAF’s brilliant new fighters – the Spitfire and the Hurricane – just in time for 1940.
Several chapters deal with the attempt to solve the Czech crisis. Foreign policy decided on by Chamberlain and Wilson was now forced through the Cabinet’s Foreign Policy Committee almost without discussion. Fake news, as we would see it today, was put out to the effect that the Prague government had asked for Britain’s intervention to settle the Sudeten German crisis.
As long as Chamberlain’s objective was to accommodate Hitler’s ‘just’ demands, it was, of course, impossible to solve the crisis in any way other than by giving in. This Chamberlain does in the first example of shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth to meet Hitler, ending at Munich, where he maintained that Hitler was an honourable man and the ‘piece of paper’ he had got the Führer to sign would bring ‘peace in our time’.
Churchill was deeply opposed to caving in to Hitler at Munich and ostentatiously abstained in the Commons vote on the agreement. It was a parliamentary turning-point. Had Hitler been honourable and presented no more demands, then Churchill and the abstainers would have been left on the scrapheap of history. As it was, the next three Conservative Prime Ministers – Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan – were all abstainers.
In August 1939, as war looked increasingly inevitable, Wilson fought to the last minute to offer a deal to Hitler. Phillips’s final chapters chronicle the collapse of appeasement, the declaration of war, and the final reluctant admission of Churchill to the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. The ‘Men of Munich’ became the Guilty Men according to a 1940 bestseller.
Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler is a good read from a historian who intimately understands the workings of government, and who tells with a firm and relentless drive of an over-powerful government adviser pursuing a totally mistaken policy.
Review by Taylor Downing
This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.