Ap­peas­ing the Nazis

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - By Robert Crowcroft

The 1938 Mu­nich agree­ment not only failed to avert war, but caused a do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, writes Robert Crowcroft

On 30 Septem­ber 1938 the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain climbed out of an aero­plane at He­ston aero­drome in Lon­don. Wait­ing for him on the tar­mac were jour­nal­ists and pho­tog­ra­phers. Cham­ber­lain had just re­turned from a sum­mit with Adolf Hitler in Mu­nich, and his mood was one of tri­umph. The prime min­is­ter be­lieved he had pulled off a diplo­matic coup that would pre­vent a dev­as­tat­ing Euro­pean war. He bran­dished a piece of pa­per bear­ing Hitler’s sig­na­ture, an im­age cap­tured by the pho­tog­ra­phers and des­tined to be­come one of the iconic vis­ual records of the cen­tury. Later, in Down­ing Street, Cham­ber­lain boasted that the set­tle­ment he ne­go­ti­ated rep­re­sented noth­ing less than “peace for our time”.

Septem­ber sees the 80th an­niver­sary of the in­fa­mous Mu­nich agree­ment. It was reached in re­sponse to Nazi Ger­many’s de­mand to an­nex those bor­der re­gions of neigh­bour­ing Cze­choslo­vakia home to 3 mil­lion eth­nic Ger­mans. Hitler threat­ened to sim­ply march his forces across the fron­tier and seize the dis­puted ter­ri­tory, the Sude­ten­land. It seemed likely that Bri­tain, France and the Soviet Union would all be dragged in should con­flict erupt.

Through­out Septem­ber, Cham­ber­lain engaged in fran­tic diplo­macy, trav­el­ling to Ger­many three times to bro­ker a peace­ful so­lu­tion. At Mu­nich on 29 Septem­ber he agreed to the in­cor­po­ra­tion of the Sude­ten­land into the Re­ich while se­cur­ing Hitler’s recog­ni­tion of the in­de­pen­dence of the rest of the Czech state. The prime min­is­ter hoped this would mark the dawn of a new era of Euro­pean sta­bil­ity.

Yet Mu­nich rapidly be­came sym­bolic of the dan­gers of ap­peas­ing ag­gres­sive govern­ments. The agree­ment un­rav­elled and Hitler seized the rest of Cze­choslo­vakia in March 1939, a cru­cial stage on the road to the Sec­ond World War. Nowa­days Mu­nich oc­cu­pies a place in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion as the moment when a chance to mar­shal re­sis­tance to Hitler was lost, and an ex­am­ple of the folly of trust­ing the un­scrupu­lous.

What is per­haps less fa­mil­iar is the deep po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in Bri­tain pro­voked by Hitler’s de­signs on the Sude­ten­land. Cham­ber­lain’s diplo­macy sparked a re­volt in the rul­ing Con­ser­va­tive party – and even in­side his own cabi­net. West­min­ster was gripped by in­trigue, and there seemed a real pos­si­bil­ity that the prime min­is­ter could fall. De­spite the like­li­hood of a Euro­pean war, politi­cians still usu­ally per­ceived mat­ters through the lens of their own in­ter­ests and prospects. And this po­lit­i­cal strug­gle had an im­por­tant ef­fect on Bri­tish diplo­macy, as well.

Po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ters

At the heart of the cri­sis was the for­eign sec­re­tary, Lord Hal­i­fax. At first sight this seems strange. Hal­i­fax was just as re­spon­si­ble as Cham­ber­lain for the di­rec­tion of Bri­tish for­eign pol­icy, and a long­stand­ing ad­vo­cate of ac­com­mo­dat­ing Ger­man am­bi­tions through con­ces­sion. Yet, by Septem­ber 1938, Hal­i­fax was a wor­ried man. He sensed that pub­lic opin­ion was tir­ing of in­ef­fec­tive con­cil­i­a­tion abroad. Al­low­ing Bri­tain to ap­pear weak in the face of Hitler’s be­hav­iour could prove po­lit­i­cally dis­as­trous at the gen­eral elec­tion due to take place within the next two years. The gov­ern­ment lost sev­eral par­lia­men­tary seats at by­elec­tions ear­lier in the year, while

Labour and Tory rebels were in full cry against Cham­ber­lain’s “shame­ful sur­ren­der”

the op­po­si­tion Labour party and grow­ing num­bers of news­pa­pers were quick to draw at­ten­tion to its dif­fi­cul­ties abroad. This was com­pounded by crit­ics on the Con­ser­va­tive back­benches in the House of Com­mons, most no­tably Win­ston Churchill. As if that was not bad enough, Cham­ber­lain him­self came across as pompous and sar­cas­tic.

Hal­i­fax feared that the gov­ern­ment had “lost touch with the float­ing vote”. He re­solved it was po­lit­i­cally es­sen­tial to cor­rect the pop­u­lar per­cep­tion of flac­cid­ity in for­eign pol­icy. When it be­came ap­par­ent on 7 Septem­ber that a Ger­man in­va­sion of Cze­choslo­vakia was im­mi­nent, Hal­i­fax seized the op­por­tu­nity to dis­tance him­self from Cham­ber­lain – and the poli­cies of which he him­self had been an ar­chi­tect. He likened him­self to “grop­ing in the dark like a blind man try­ing to find his way across a bog”. In­di­cat­ing a new will­ing­ness to re­sist Ger­many, the for­eign sec­re­tary pressed Cham­ber­lain to dis­patch a mes­sage to Hitler threat­en­ing war over Cze­choslo­vakia. The prime min­is­ter was an­gry and be­lieved that Hal­i­fax was “go­ing off his head”, but could not af­ford to be iso­lated by a rift with his clos­est ally.

Cham­ber­lain was also con­scious that “many oth­ers”, in­clud­ing Churchill, were lin­ing up to ex­ploit the cri­sis. Still, he was de­ter­mined that he alone would make Bri­tish pol­icy. So he de­vised an idea that, he said, “took Hal­i­fax’s breath away”: he would fly to Ger­many to meet Hitler face-to-face. Cham­ber­lain re­turned to Lon­don on 16 Septem­ber with Hitler’s agree­ment to hold plebiscites in the Sude­ten­land in or­der to ver­ify that the in­hab­i­tants wished to join the Re­ich.

Cham­ber­lain ad­mit­ted that he “didn’t care two hoots” where the Sude­ten Ger­mans lived; he sim­ply aimed to avoid war. Sev­eral mem­bers of the cabi­net were un­happy that Bri­tain was in­volved in carv­ing up a demo­cratic state, and ex­pressed a de­sire for a “dif­fer­ent” pol­icy. Yet when Cham­ber­lain coldly de­manded “and what pol­icy is that?”, they had no an­swer.

Prob­lems arose when Cham­ber­lain re­turned to Ger­many on 22 Septem­ber. En­cour­aged by the prime min­is­ter’s will­ing­ness to ac­cede to his de­mands, Hitler changed his mind and in­sisted on the im­me­di­ate ab­sorp­tion of the Sude­ten­land. Pan­ick­ing, Cham­ber­lain asked the führer to be rea­son­able: he had “taken his po­lit­i­cal life in his hands” in pur­suit of a deal, and pub­lic opin­ion would turn against him. Hitler was un­moved by Cham­ber­lain’s pleas.

Over in Lon­don, mean­while, Hal­i­fax’s doubts con­tin­ued to gnaw at him. A protest march on 22 Septem­ber drew thou­sands of peo­ple onto the streets of West­min­ster. There were de­mands that “Cham­ber­lain must go”. The news­pa­pers were hos­tile, while both the Labour party and Con­ser­va­tive rebels were in full cry in warn­ing against a “shame­ful sur­ren­der”. MP Harold Ni­col­son raged: “This is hell. It is the end of the Bri­tish em­pire.” In pri­vate, Win­ston Churchill was ex­cited, know­ing that the only way he would ever be in­vited to re­turn to of­fice was if a new gov­ern­ment was “forced upon us” should “the for­eign sit­u­a­tion darken”. Even loyal Con­ser­va­tives were “ap­palled by the force of opin­ion”, as one MP noted.

All of this made a ma­jor im­pres­sion on Hal­i­fax. When he heard that Cham­ber­lain’s re­sponse to Hitler’s in­tran­si­gence had been to of­fer him yet more Czech ter­ri­tory, he sent a tele­gram to the prime min­is­ter say­ing that he was “pro­foundly dis­turbed”. He ad­vised Cham­ber­lain that the “great mass” of opin­ion both in par­lia­ment and the coun­try felt that “we have gone to the limit of con­ces­sion”. He wanted Cze­choslo­vakia to

mo­bilise its army and for the prime min­is­ter to warn Hitler that Bri­tain would fight.

Hal­i­fax’s own civil ser­vants in the For­eign Of­fice recog­nised that, for “in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal rea­sons”, Bri­tish strat­egy had to be rad­i­cally amended. More­over, as his bi­og­ra­pher An­drew Roberts ob­serves, Hal­i­fax would have had to be “su­per­hu­man” not to at least en­ter­tain the no­tion that re­sist­ing Cham­ber­lain might lead to him be­com­ing prime min­is­ter him­self.

Cham­ber­lain raced home to Lon­don a cou­ple of days later in or­der to con­front his cabi­net. The stage was set for a show­down be­tween the prime min­is­ter and the for­eign sec­re­tary. Hal­i­fax en­dured a sleepless night be­fore de­cid­ing to come out against Cham­ber­lain. At the cru­cial cabi­net meet­ing the next day, he care­fully ex­plained that he was “not quite sure” that he and Cham­ber­lain were “still work­ing as one”. He also made clear his op­po­si­tion to the prime min­is­ter’s pol­icy. This was a po­lit­i­cal hand grenade tossed into Cham­ber­lain’s lap, who lamented it as “a hor­ri­ble blow”.

Hal­i­fax ar­gued that if the Czechs chose to re­sist Ger­many, Bri­tain and France should fight with them. His stance was prob­a­bly rooted more in pol­i­tics – anx­i­ety about how the gov­ern­ment was per­ceived at home – than strate­gic dis­agree­ment with Cham­ber­lain. He be­lieved that there loomed a con­fronta­tion in eastern Europe be­tween Ger­many and the

A Cham­ber­lain sup­porter stated that Hal­i­fax pos­sessed “eel-like qual­i­ties” and a ca­pac­ity for “sub­lime treach­ery”

Soviet Union that Bri­tain should steer clear of. Yet now he de­clared that “the ul­ti­mate aim” of pol­icy should be the “de­struc­tion of Nazism”. Cyn­ics thought this rather op­por­tunis­tic. One of Cham­ber­lain’s friends con­cluded that Hal­i­fax pos­sessed “eel-like qual­i­ties” and a ca­pac­ity for “sub­lime treach­ery”. Yet this was a cli­mate in which sev­eral cabi­net min­is­ters were con­tem­plat­ing res­ig­na­tion, and back­bench crit­ics in­clud­ing Churchill and an­other fu­ture prime min­is­ter, Harold Macmil­lan, were pre­par­ing to press for a new gov­ern­ment if “Cham­ber­lain rats again”.

The prime min­is­ter felt “all over the place” and, see­ing lit­tle al­ter­na­tive, agreed to send a stern warn­ing to Hitler. The armed forces were mo­bilised, gas masks were dis­trib­uted among the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, and an­ti­air­craft guns were de­ployed in cen­tral Lon­don. Cham­ber­lain then dis­patched his most trusted aide, the civil ser­vant Sir Ho­race Wil­son, to Ger­many to see Hitler on his be­half. Wil­son warned the führer that the “sit­u­a­tion in Eng­land” was “ex­tremely se­ri­ous”, and a new gov­ern­ment might de­clare war. The out­break of a ma­jor con­flict seemed likely – and over a bor­der that few in Bri­tain ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered a vi­tal na­tional in­ter­est. It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tion. To a con­sid­er­able ex­tent, it was a prod­uct of high-po­lit­i­cal con­flict at West­min­ster.

A smoul­der­ing vol­cano

On the af­ter­noon of 28 Septem­ber, Cham­ber­lain went to the House of Com­mons to ex­plain his pol­icy. He knew his fu­ture was at stake. Churchill was plan­ning to strike openly at him, and oth­ers would likely do the same. While the prime min­is­ter spoke for an hour, Churchill sat on the back­benches smoul­der­ing like a vol­cano. So many MPs passed him notes urg­ing him to at­tack the gov­ern­ment that he had to tie them all together with an elas­tic band.

To­wards the end of Cham­ber­lain’s speech, how­ever, an­other note ap­peared. Hastily passed along the front bench to the prime min­is­ter, the folded piece of pa­per car­ried a new of­fer from Hitler. The führer was con­ven­ing a con­fer­ence, to be held at Mu­nich the next day. One ob­server noted that, hav­ing read it, Cham­ber­lain’s “whole face, his whole body, seemed to change… he

ap­peared 10 years younger and tri­umphant”.

Con­sid­er­ing the mat­ter for a moment, the prime min­is­ter re­layed this news to the cham­ber. Hitler had backed down. The re­lief was pal­pa­ble. MPs on both sides of the house sud­denly erupted into a roar of spon­ta­neous cheer­ing. Harold Ni­col­son thought it was “one of the most dra­matic mo­ments I have ever wit­nessed”. When the prime min­is­ter took his seat, “the whole house rose as a man to pay trib­ute”. Cham­ber­lain told his sis­ter that it was “a piece of drama that no work of fic­tion has ever sur­passed”. Churchill, in con­trast, “looked very much up­set”.

Dash­ing to Mu­nich to meet Hitler for the third – and fi­nal – time, on 29 Septem­ber, Cham­ber­lain en­tered into a 14-hour ne­go­ti­a­tion com­pleted in the mid­dle of the night. Un­der the agree­ment, the Ger­manspeak­ing ar­eas of the Sude­ten­land were to be in­cor­po­rated into the Re­ich and an in­ter­na­tional commission would over­see plebiscites else­where along the bor­der. Cham­ber­lain and Hitler also signed the An­glo-Ger­man dec­la­ra­tion af­firm­ing “the de­sire of our two peo­ples never to go to war again”. The prime min­is­ter re­turned home a na­tional hero.

Cham­ber­lain had es­caped the trap his po­lit­i­cal ri­vals had set for him. True to form, many of them in­ter­preted the Mu­nich agree­ment in terms of what it meant for their own prospects. Some feared Cham­ber­lain would call a snap gen­eral elec­tion in which he would romp to vic­tory. A pan­icked Churchill ex­plored build­ing an al­liance with Labour, the Lib­er­als and rebel Con­ser­va­tives, propos­ing that a com­mit­ment to the League of Na­tions and “col­lec­tive se­cu­rity” might form the ba­sis for a joint cam­paign. When Macmil­lan protested: “That is not our jar­gon,” Churchill roared back: “It is a jar­gon we may all have to learn!”

The choice of evils

The prime min­is­ter’s spec­tac­u­lar tri­umph proved fleet­ing. Within weeks, the Mu­nich set­tle­ment un­rav­elled. The plebiscites were never held and Hitler sim­ply ab­sorbed the dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries. Some had pre­dicted this all along. In­deed, Hal­i­fax hardly of­fered a ring­ing en­dorse­ment of Mu­nich when he pub­licly de­scribed the agree­ment as merely the best “of a hideous choice of evils”. Churchill pre­dicted: “This is only the be­gin­ning of the reck­on­ing.”

In March 1939 Cze­choslo­vakia was ab­sorbed into the Re­ich. In the af­ter­math, Hal­i­fax forced a weak­ened Cham­ber­lain to erect a se­ries of mil­i­tary trip­wires in the form of Bri­tish guar­an­tees of Poland, Greece and Ro­ma­nia. Hal­i­fax again cal­cu­lated that a show of Bri­tish strength was es­sen­tial – both for peace abroad and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity at home. Th­ese guar­an­tees paved the way for the dec­la­ra­tion of war in Septem­ber 1939, and the fall of Cham­ber­lain eight months later (by the end of 1940, he was dead).

The Mu­nich agree­ment is en­trenched in pop­u­lar mem­ory as a diplo­matic dis­as­ter and a source of en­dur­ing lessons for the fu­ture. The po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in Bri­tain pro­voked by Hitler’s am­bi­tions to­wards the Sude­ten­land is much less fa­mil­iar. Yet it was one of the most con­se­quen­tial of the cen­tury. It high­lights that, even in mo­ments of great dan­ger, politi­cians will nat­u­rally look out for them­selves. How­ever it also re­minds us to pay close at­ten­tion to the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween for­eign and do­mes­tic pol­icy. More of­ten than we might imag­ine, th­ese two are in­ter­twined.

Pyrrhic vic­tory Neville Cham­ber­lain holds aloft the fa­mous piece of pa­per at He­ston aero­drome on 30 Septem­ber 1938. The back­ground im­age shows peo­ple demon­strat­ing against Bri­tish con­ces­sions to Hitler, White­hall, 22 Septem­ber

Win­ston Churchill – pic­tured in his coun­try home, Chartwell in Kent, in 1939 – be­lieved that the only way he would be in­vited back into gov­ern­ment was if “the for­eign sit­u­a­tion dark­ened”

For­eign sec­re­tary Lord Hal­i­fax dis­tanced him­self from the prime min­is­ter in late 1938

The Daily Ex­press gives the Mu­nich agree­ment a rap­tur­ous re­cep­tion on 30 Septem­ber 1938

Adolf Hitler, Neville Cham­ber­lain (cen­tre) and Ger­man for­eign min­is­ter Joachim von Ribben­trop (right) in Mu­nich. The diplo­matic ground that the prime min­ster ceded dur­ing his vis­its to Ger­many ap­palled many of his col­leagues back home

LEFT: Res­i­dents of a Sude­ten­land town greet Ger­man troops in Oc­to­ber 1938. The Mu­nich agree­ment had seen Bri­tain giv­ing its as­sent to the Nazi ab­sorp­tion of Ger­man-speak­ing ar­eas of Cze­choslo­vakia

ABOVE: “We thank our leader,” de­clares a Ger­man pro­pa­ganda post­card cel­e­brat­ing Nazi vic­tory in elec­tions in the Sude­ten­land, De­cem­ber 1938

The news that Bri­tain is at war with Ger­many is pro­claimed in Lon­don, 3 Septem­ber 1939. Neville Cham­ber­lain’s gov­ern­ment would fall just eight months later

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