Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement revisited

The policy of appeasement pursed by the British government during the 1930s has provoked a considerable amount of historiographical debate in which no genuine consensus has emerged. In order to address whether the British government could have pursued an alternative method to prevent the war in diplomatic terms, I shall acknowledge that the mere nature of this paper falls under the historiographical scope that adheres to appeasement as the only viable option at the time. Therefore, this paper will reject the “guilty men” or “churchillian” thesis — a negative and highly polemical historical judgement of Chamberlain’s policy, the revisionist theory that utilizes an international relations realpolitik theory to describe Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and the counter-revisionist school which accuses Chamberlain of rejecting other viable options such a Franco-British alliance, which may have increased the chances of preventing the Second World War. Although it is always easy to view appeasement anachronistically and conclude that it subsequently led to war, it is essential not to view Chamberlain and appeasement interchangeably and not to hold Chamberlain accountable for all of the Cabinet and the Foreign Office’s decisions since other political actors were just as involved such as the differing opinions within the Foreign Office Committee, the false assessments made by British intelligence and Hitler’s talented diplomatic manipulation. Moreover, by historically contextualizing the constraints under which the development of appeasement operated, I will contend that it was beyond Britain’s authority to make proper provision in peace to defend its Empire against three other major powers and that the British government made a genuine, plausible effort to maintain peace, demonstrating that Chamberlain was merely a “prisoner of forces beyond his control.”

The historical contextualization of the inter-war period is crucial in understanding the development of appeasement. There is, without doubt, that the trauma of the Great War directly impacted Britain’s approach to international diplomacy. The chief lessons that were learned by the British government were to avoid military commitments with other powers and to keep military spending as low as possible — or perhaps complete disarmament — in order to prevent another arms race. This dramatic change in policy established what was known at the time as the “ten-year rule” on 15 August 1919, a War Cabinet policy operating on the assumption ‘that the British Empire will not be engaged in any Great War during the next ten years, and that no Expeditionary Force is required for this purpose.’ It is important to note that this policy was widely accepted within all aims of the British government: the Treasury used it as a guideline to restrict arms expenditure; the Foreign Office gave its support since it promoted the notion of maintaining international peace, while the Chiefs of Staff and the Cabinet agreed without any opposition. The ten-year rule set the framework for British defence policy throughout the inter-war period. Although this policy seemed plausible at a critical moment when Britain is trying to forestall any future international conflicts, it unfortunately gave Germany a head-start in rearming, spending three times more than Britain’s defence budget during 1933–1938. The ten-year policy was one that factored into the inevitable policy of appeasement and demonstrated later on the increasing vulnerability of British military deterrence.

Britain’s economic challenges in the 1930s also constrained policy-makers into an opportunity cost dilemma. Not only did the Great War and the Stock Market Crash in 1929 undermine Britain’s economic strength, but Britain also went through a phase of economic depression after its economy collapsed amid the Central European banking crisis in September 1931. Moreover, MacDonald’s Labour Cabinet was forced off the gold standard due to the government’s inability to ‘protect its over-valued currency in adequate reserves,’ while the Treasury also faced payment deficits of over £104 million during that same year. Britain’s financial crisis was so grave that a year later, the Treasury voiced its concern that the ‘financial and economic risks are by far the most serious and urgent the country has to face.” Therefore, it is unsurprising that a rapid rearmament would divert resources away from an economic recovery, especially at a time when Britain faced domestic issues including cuts in social programmes. Consequently, Britain’s naval modernisation was ranked as one of the lowest priorities throughout 1934–1937, forcing Britain to depend on the United States for naval support over a series of conferences. To Britain’s disadvantage, the US’s isolationist legislation signified its reluctance to aid Britain militarily during any European conflict. Furthermore, historian Stefan Hoffman argues that Chamberlain’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, wasted half a year of production and showed no sense of urgency at a critical time when Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan while fascist soldiers were deployed to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Hence, given these factors, we must not view appeasement merely as Chamberlain’s invention, isolated from the economic and geopolitical conditions of the time.

Chamberlain and his appeasement policy have often been criticized by the “churchillian” historians for being weak, static and passive. However, this historiographical interpretation omits several fundamental considerations that tends be ignored in retrospect. Frank Owen, Michael Foot and Peter Howard’s Guilty Men thesis accuses Chamberlain of being inadequate in rearming Britain before the war, oblivious to Hitler’s true intentions and forceful in pushing through his own policies with a parliamentary majority. Hoffman argues that these accusations did not reflect a rational examination of facts, but rather engaged in a polemical, premature and unsophisticated historical interpretation. In line with Hoffman’s assertion, various examples suggest that Chamberlain was self-confident, while displaying an active effort and responsibility to improve Britain’s situation in the 1930s. For instance, when the Imperial Defence Requirements Sub-Committee recognized Germany as the long-term threat on 28 February 1934, and called for a new defence policy, Chamberlain was the ‘moving spirit’ behind the pressures for increased spending on rearmament. Furthermore, Chamberlain announced in May 1934 that the increased funding should be focused on the Navy and the Air Force based on his assessment of Britain’s weakness during the First World War. This suggestion was not only a collective agreement within British government but also the dominant feature of Britain’s strategy to deter German aggression.

Another counter-argument against the Guilty Men thesis is the fact that Chamberlain did not invent appeasement. Although he continued to endorse appeasement throughout the 1930s, because he certainly was not a Nazi sympathizer. Instead, he genuinely believed that negotiation with the most powerful continental nation at the time was the only means to achieve peace. Thus, as a result of becoming Prime Minister in May 1937, Hoffman affirms that Chamberlain transformed an initially passive policy of appeasement into one that is active and resolute. For example, after the aftermath of thr Anschluss (German’s annexation of Austria in March 1938), Chamberlain called an emergency Cabinet meeting on 12 March 1938 and demanded an increased rate of rearmament towards the Air Force and anti-aircraft defenses. Larry Fuchser views the Austria crisis not as a sign of Chamberlain’s weakness, but instead asserts that Chamberlain took advantage of the Anschluss to secure Cabinet support without Churchill’s Tory influence, demonstrating a clear rejection of Churchill’s ‘grand alliance’ policy. Thus, appeasement should not be seen as a passive policy but an effort to anticipate what was believed at the time to be Germany’s diplomatic strategy.

The other accusation of Chamberlain of having a dictatorial authority in Cabinet is also false. The decisions made by the British Government derive from lengthy discussions among Foreign Secretaries, Prime Ministers and other officials in the Foreign Office and the Cabinet. Therefore, it is overly simplistic and inaccurate to understand the policies produced by the British government as synonymous with Chamberlain’s views. In light of this consideration, it is important to note that many of Chamberlain’s officials contributed to British policy in various ways. For example, a three-hour meeting between Lord Lothian and Hitler on 29 January 1935 contributed to the misperception of Hitler’s true intentions, resulting in Lord Lothian writing back to Chamberlain indicating that Hitler did not want a war and was prepared to renounce it via settling disputes. Similarly, Chamberlain should not be viewed as the sole driving force behind appeasement. In fact, by the end of 1935, it was widely accepted in Cabinet that concessions to Germany were inevitable to achieve lasting peace. Even Anthony Eden’s role during the Rhineland crisis on March 1936 endorsed appeasement by aiming to achieve a league-based disarmament and that Hitler’s re-militarization in the Rhineland was a necessary concession. Evidence also suggests that Britain’s policy to abandon any attempt to resist German aggression in Czechoslovakia was a consensual agreement, believing that Hitler’s aggression was intended only to integrate Sudeten Germans.

Britain’s intelligence services also contributed to the development of British policy vis-à-vis military capabilities and diplomatic relations. Notably, the Cabinet had undergone a fundamental change in policy from mid-December 1938 to mid-April 1939 in reaction to Whitehall’s reception of twenty warnings via secret sources about Germany’s planned aggression in Western Europe including an air strike on London as well as an invasion on the Low Countries. This led to an increased paranoia by early 1939 expressed by Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary in Foreign Office in February: “ I have the profoundest suspicious of Hitler’s intentions… I believe that what he would like best […] would be to smash the British Empire.” Yet, no practical measures were brought forth as an alternative to appeasement. Another example of a massive flaw in Britain’s intelligence was during the internal diplomatic talks with Konrad Henlein, the representative of the Sudeten Deutsche Partei (SDP), in an effort to encourage Czechoslovakia to consult with Germany over the Sudeten question rather than depend on Britain and France for military commitment. Unfortunately, the Foreign Office was convinced that Henlein genuinely sought a fair agreement over the Sudetenland. Henlein successfully convinced Sir Robert Vansittart that he was a ‘wise and reasonable man,’ further demonstrating that Vansittart’s secret services did not even suspect the proximity of Henlein and Hitler’s relationship. Thus, the inability to understand Hitler’s intentions was not solely Chamberlain’s responsibility as it has been one of the various criticisms against him.

As mentioned earlier, the development of appeasement was rooted and influenced by the lessons of the Great War. Hence, the two primary goals of British foreign policy — the need to guarantee economic stability and maintain peace for Britain — remained the core reasons and the most viable options at the time. Notably, Sir Thomas Inskip’s defence policy of December 1937, commissioned by Chamberlain, established a list of priorities in which the defence of Britain was permanent. A year later, Inskip admitted that rearmament would be economically and politically intolerable due to ‘the plain fact which cannot be obscured is that it is beyond the resources of this country to make proper provision in peace for defence of the British Empire against three major Powers in three different theatres of war’. This is precisely what Chamberlain had to face: risk war with Germany which Britain was clearly unprepared to do or find solutions to avoid war. It is without a doubt that the most practical method was to reduce the scale of military commitments and potential enemies, both of which were major factors that led to the Great War.

In practice, Chamberlain and the British foreign office had no choice but to endorse appeasement as the only plausible action. During the German re-militarization of the Rhineland on 14 March 1936, for example, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden acknowledged that ‘not one in a thousand in Britain was prepared to take action with France against Germany.’ Even Vansittart argued in September 1936 that the only credible policy was to rearm as much as possible, while continuing efforts to ensure international peace. In addition, Chamberlain’s position during Germany’s annexation of Austria (Anschluss) was no different: there was nothing which could be done unless Britain was prepared to use force. What further complicated matters was the fact that France was without a government during the Anschluss, and Italy did not express the same initiative as Britain to appease Hitler. Even the British ambassador in Germany, Henderson believed that Britain was in no position to prevent the Anschluss, given that the majority of Austrian youth albeit backed Germany anyway.

It was not until the Munich crisis in 1938 that the policy of appeasement was interrogated while other options were considered by Foreign Office. On 18 March 1938, Lord Halifax presented Foreign Office officials with three possibilities to deal with Hitler’s aggression in Czechoslovakia: the first being a ‘grand alliance’ policy with France and Russia, advocated by Churchill; secondly, a renewed military commitment with France and thus an indirect guarantee to Czechoslovakia; and third, refrain from any commitments and encourage the Czech government to negotiate with Sudeten Germans and pursue better relations with Germany. After a sustained discussion, it was concluded that the third option was the most viable at the time. The ‘grand alliance’ idea was not popular at all, since Czechoslovakia, as historian John Wheeler-Bennett argues, was one of the most protected countries at the time, given that it had signed a treaty of mutual assistance with France in December 1925, and also ratified a similar deal with the Soviet Union in May 1935. Thus, as Chamberlain accurately stated: “ the more one studied the map of central Europe the more hopeless was the idea that any effective help could be swiftly brought to Czechoslovakia in an emergency…we are in no position from an armament point of view to enter such a war.” Moreover, even the Chiefs of Staff report on 21 March 1938 suggested that war with Germany would be ‘suicidal’ and produced a statement expressing the uncertainty and risks of going to war: “We cannot foresee the time when our defence forces will be strong enough to safeguard our territory against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously.” Indeed, this policy was agreed to by Cabinet with little to no opposition.

However, the primary reasons why historians are critical of appeasement was the fact that the British government finally made stiffer policy changes after the Munich crisis, which have argued to have been made at an earlier stage of Hitler’s territorial expansion. For example, Cabinet called for a new air programme aimed to boost the RAF’s defence reserves, Chamberlain made a visit to Rome in mid-January 1939 in a more desperate effort to reach an agreement with Germany and Italy, Cabinet agreed to a Dutch security commitment, proposals were made to double the Territorial Army on 29 March, and a bill authorising conscription was introduced into the Commons. However, as Reynolds asserts, these changes were merely a political reaction where no genuine methods of organization and commitment were made to actually guarantee any progression. These ‘stiffer’ changes were merely a logical response to ease tensions; they lacked substance and solely represented a reactionary discontent with Hitler and a means to impress France and world opinion. Although Chamberlain and his staff failed to assess Hitler’s true intentions, it is much easier to scrutinize the policy of appeasement anachronistically without historicizing Chamberlain’s genuine effort to promote peace and acknowledging the geopolitical and economic challenges that the Chamberlain administration inherited.