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“… and is there nothing more you want?”

Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II

By David Faber
Simon & Schuster, 2009

Any account of Munich – and David Faber has written a very strong one, a worthy addendum to Telford Taylor’s mammoth account from 1979 – must be an appraisal of Neville Chamberlain. This is predictable and also therapeutic; when anti-Chamberlainites spit out the word “appeaser” or grimace sarcastically over “peace for our time,” they’re crowing in the kind of self-reassuring way that only happens after the fact. They would have done better, they imply. Historians continually warn against the dangers of hindsight, but is there any other way to view Chamberlain at the crux of the 20th century?

It’s important to remember that by the time Chamberlain flew to Munich in 1938 for a hurried meeting with Adolf Hitler, the calm of Europe had already been shattered. Almost from the first moment he came to power in 1933, Hitler had been provoking crises, loudly asserting Germany’s right to a place in the sun, saber-rattling along every border and demilitarized zone imposed by the Treaty of Versailles that had responded to the carnage of the First World War by declawing Germany. Hitler embarked on a massive rearmament campaign, and his hoarsely shouted speeches featured a rabid nationalism that tended to embody its own justifications for everything the new dictator wanted to do. One by one, the provisions of Versailles –provisions designed to make Germany militarily harmless and keep her that way – were nibbled away as a complaisant West looked the other way. As the historians Palmer and Colton have written:

Adolf Hitler perceived these weaknesses with uncanny genius. Determined to wreck the whole treaty system, he employed tactics of gradual encroachment that played on the hopes and fears of the democratic peoples. He inspired in them alternating tremors of apprehension and sighs of relief. He would rage and rant, arouse the fear of war, take just a little, declare that it was all he wanted, let the former Allies naively hope that he was satisfied and that peace was secure; then rage again, take a little more, and proceed through the same cycle.

The specific prompting of the Munich meeting was the crisis in Czechoslovakia. Hitler had come to focus on the collection of German communities located in Western areas of that neighboring country, claiming they were being harshly treated by their Czech overlords and loudly demanding that these Germans be allowed to reunite with the Fatherland. He had mobilized his army along the Czech border, and the Czechs had called for the intervention of France or Russia (both of whom had pledged to uphold Czechoslovakia in the event of Germany aggression), or even Great Britain. By the early autumn, it was clear that this was another Hitlerian crisis had arrived.

The danger of hindsight here is that it will naturally minimize the sheer weight the First World War had on all of this. Every statesman and army commander looking at Germany in 1938 could remember the horrors and attritions of the Great War; none of them had any wish to relive those horrors. Although Neville Chamberlain hadn’t personally participated in the Great War, he was not alone in his willingness to do almost anything to avoid another. And he had his own worries about historical hindsight; who could say, after all, if this German strutting wouldn’t look minor and comical in a few years time? Who could be sure the nations of Europe wouldn’t look back on the summer of 1938 and say, “for a little while there, things looked bad – but then, it’s always darkest before the dawn”? Or worse, infinitely worse: “yes, things looked bad – but if only Chamberlain hadn’t overreacted, so much pain and suffering would have been avoided.”

Chamberlain, as Prime Minister of a nation that suffered tremendously during that Great War, had an unwritten, imperative duty to avoid plunging his country into a second such cataclysm, and for all that we can say about him, we cannot begrudge him his patriotism. He was a reasonable man, and he believed in reason. If Hitler seemed implacable on the subject of Czechoslovakia, it was because the right reason, or the right amount of reason, hadn’t yet been brought to bear on him (or perhaps even that he had reason to be).

Hitler was implacable on the subject of Czechoslovakia – far more so than Chamberlain knew. The German dictator had long since set his plans for the invasion of the country, which he viewed as a rickety abomination of state-making, an insulting construct of the Great Powers; October 1st was his secret date for this invasion, but perhaps in his saner moments he had no wish to risk in war what he could win at a bargaining table. And it flattered his enormous vanity that the Prime Minister of Britain would pack himself onto a plane and fly to Germany with petitions in hand.

Munich was the third such meeting. First, Chamberlain had gone to Berchtesgaden to meet Hitler on September 15. The two exchanged some nervous niceties and then concentrated on business – specifically the three million ethnic Germans currently living in the Sudetenland areas of Czechoslovakia who were, according to Hitler, yearning to be repatriated. When Hitler hinted that he was willing to face the prospect of another world war in order to effect that reunion, Chamberlain (speaking through Hitler’s interpreter, Dr. Schmidt) tried to clarify the issue, asking, “… you say that the three million Sudetenland Germans must be included in the Reich; would you be satisfied with that and is there nothing more you want? I ask because there are many people who think that is not all; that you wish to dismember Czechoslovakia.” Hitler told him that he wanted no Czechs ruining the racial purity of his Reich – he was only asking that those three million Germans be given a plebiscite, that they be allowed to determine for themselves whether or not they would return to Germany, and that it all happen very quickly. Despite those hints about starting another world war, it all sounded … reasonable.

Chamberlain left the meeting and Germany with guardedly high spirits (Hitler and his court snickered at him behind his back, mocking his age, his omnipresent umbrella, and the very fact that he had agreed to fly over for the meeting in the first place) (one would be tempted to say that the Nazis are at their ugliest in the little details, were the big details not so awe-inspiringly ugly). He consulted with his Cabinet, consulted with his political allies, consulted with the French and with the Czech government. He used every bit of personal, diplomatic, and extra-diplomatic pressure he could think of, and he got all parties to agree to Hitler’s demands. At Berchtesgaden Hitler had clearly stated what he wanted from Czechoslovakia, and Chamberlain had flown home and procured it for him. Then on September 22 he flew back to Germany, to Godesberg, confident that only formalities were left, confident that he had used reason and diplomacy to avert war. Faber does a quietly masterful you-are-there job of drafting the scene:

At last he [Chamberlain] finished speaking, and leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied look on his face, one that Schmidt construed as implying: “Haven’t I worked splendidly during these five days?”

Hitler thanked Chamberlain “for his great efforts to reach a peaceful solution,” and cautiously inquired whether the proposals that he had just outlined “were those he had submitted to the Czechoslovak Government.”

“Yes,” replied Chamberlain, without hesitation.

To [Dr.] Schmidt’s surprise and [British attaché Ivone] Kirkpatrick’s horror, Hitler gazed down at the table and in a dry, rasping voice, replied almost regretfully: “Es tut mir furchtbar leid, aber das geht nicht mehr.” With that he pushed his chair back from the table, crossed his legs and folded his arms, and turned to scowl at the Prime Minister while Schmidt interpreted. “I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Chamberlain, but this is not possible anymore. I can no longer discuss these matters. This solution, after the developments of the last few days, is no longer practicable.” Chamberlain sat bolt upright, his face flushed with anger, and for a few moments was too astonished to speak. After what seemed like an interminably painful silence, he at last composed himself sufficiently to ask Hitler the reason for his sudden change of mind.

(The “developments” referred to here were reports handed to Hitler detailing alleged atrocities committed by the Czechs against defenseless Sudeten Germans, although obviously Faber’s bizarrely Edwardian thirty-two words in English add some padding to Hitler’s ten in German, which mean, “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work anymore.”)

Safe to say any other Prime Minister the English could have fielded in 1938, facing such an abrupt and bullying change, would have packed up his papers and gone back home, and even that can be made not to condemn Chamberlain – we’d be using it as praise, “anybody else would have quit!” – if things had turned out differently. As matters stood, Chamberlain was badly knocked off his game – he returned to his hotel room, consulted with his staff, phoned the French government, and agreed that the Czechs should be told that, in the circuitous phraseology of diplomacy, the British and French governments could no longer take responsibility for advising them not to mobilize their armed forces.

But hope rebounds with breakfast, and in the morning of the 23rd he sent Hitler a note saying he would take the new terms to Prague. He wasn’t optimistic that they’d be accepted, he wrote, but if the Sudetenland Germans themselves (as opposed to the Nazi army) could oversee the peaceful transfer of the territories Hitler was demanding, it’s possible the Czechs would agree.

He asked for a written document of the German position. Hitler waited several hours and then replied with more bombast about Czech “tyranny” against the Sudeten Germans and the impossibility of compromise. Chamberlain wrote back that if this were the case, his mission was a failure and he would be returning to England. But the two men met on the evening of the 23rd nevertheless, and Hitler presented Chamberlain with a “memorandum” laying out the latest form of his demands – including that the Sudetenland Czechs begin evacuation of the disputed areas on the 26th and be finished no later than the 28th, taking with them nothing but what they could carry – hardly what Chamberlain was hoping for, as Faber tells it:

Chamberlain was appalled. “But that’s an ultimatum,” he exclaimed, throwing his copy on the table in disgust, and getting up from his chair as if to leave. “Ein Diktat,” interjected [British ambassador Sir Nevile] Henderson, who always enjoyed an opportunity to show off his German, and knew it to be an emotive word for Hitler, who had for years used it to describe the Treaty of Versailles. “With the most profound regret and disappointment, Chancellor,” continued Chamberlain, “I have to state that you have made no effort to assist my attempts to secure peace.” Hitler, who was wholly unaccustomed to being addressed in such language, in turn “looked pained” at the vehemence of the Prime Minister’s reaction. Chamberlain was, Hitler assured him, “grievously mistaken.” It was “nothing of the sort,” he continued. “It is not a diktat at all: look, the document is headed by the word ‘memorandum.’”

Chamberlain later wrote that he responded by saying he was more concerned with substance than semantics, but after the briefest of pauses, he must have found he could live with the substance if the semantics were softened somewhat. Hitler grandly altered a few piddling phrases and benevolently told Chamberlain he would relax his deadline to October 1st, exactly as if that date hadn’t been his plan all along. The meeting broke up after one in the morning with Chamberlain assuring Hitler that after this business was settled, their two countries could look forward to working together amicably and Hitler assuring Chamberlain that the German parts of Czechoslovakia were his last territorial demands in Europe.

“And so,” Telford Taylor writes, “at home and abroad, all these voices were whispering or shouting in Neville Chamberlain’s ear: ‘You are right. Stick at it. There must be no war.’” And we can assume Chamberlain was hearing those voices, because he took Hitler’s October 1st deadline and his redrawn maps and flew back to England with every intention of making the Czechs – and the French – accept it all as the only (albeit high) price of peace.

His task was much harder than after Berchtesgaden. This looked too much like humiliation, like pampering a grabby dictator – like craven appeasement.

At Munich, left to right: Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, Galeazzo Ciano

On September 29th, Chamberlain went again to Germany, to Munich. There he met with French Premier Edouard Daladier, Italian Duce Benito Mussolini, and Hitler. “With everyone sitting in comfortable chairs,” Faber writes, “the atmosphere was far from businesslike; there was no agenda, no chairman, no one to take notes, and not even any paper or pencils for the leaders to take their own.” Mussolini put forward a written plan of action, and despite the fact that it had been dictated to him by Germany and was virtually identical to the Godesberg “memorandum” Hitler had shown Chamberlain only days before, everyone present claimed to welcome it as clear-headed new direction (Faber: “the naivete of the British and French leaders seems breathtaking”). It called for the parceling up of Czechoslovakia, with pieces going to Germany, Poland, and Hungary, roughly according to ethnic composition. After a little quibbling, all parties agreed to the dictators’ terms. No representative of the Czech government was permitted in the room. After a good deal of persuading, Hitler agreed that they could wait nearby to learn of their country’s fate.

This was not a diplomatic summit that could console the virtuous. It was a cowardly betrayal, as the English and certainly the French (who were actually bound to Czechoslovakia by treaty) knew perfectly well. The meeting broke up late at night, but the drama of Munich had one last act, as Faber relates:

Before leaving the Fuhrerbau the previous night, Chamberlain had asked Hitler if they might meet the following morning for a private talk; the Fuhrer apparently “jumped at the idea.” Therefore on the morning of September 30 Chamberlain woke early after just a few hours sleep, and summoned an exhausted William Strang to his room; he asked the official to draft a short statement on the future of Anglo-German relations. While he was dressing and having breakfast, Strang composed three short paragraphs for Chamberlain to approve; the resulting document remains one of the most famous documents of the twentieth century.

That private agreement had at its core “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again,” and reports vary as to how the German dictator responded to it – one account has him responding enthusiastically as it was translated to him, another claims he was visibly disinterested the whole time and only signed the thing to please the departing Chamberlain. It’s easy to guess that Hitler felt contempt for such a flimsy gesture; Chamberlain’s aides were dismayed at how much the little piece of paper seemed to mean to the Prime Minister.

But that little piece of paper is crucial to the appraisal of Chamberlain that must arise even from so just-the-facts an account as Faber’s. We keep returning to Munich, studying the meetings and the men, inevitably putting ourselves in their places, inevitably wondering what might have happened if things had gone differently. Germany in the early autumn of 1938 was in no condition to face the united armies of France and Great Britain (and, for all Germany knew, Russia as well), and in the event of such a war, it would have been lunacy to expect the United States to remain neutral (as several historians have put it over the intervening decades, if Hitler dreamt that America would view a German-occupied London the same as she viewed a German-occupied Czechoslovakia, he was even more delusional than anybody knew). If Hitler’s posturing over Czechoslovakia had been met with unwavering force – if Chamberlain had at any point said, “You forget yourself, Chancellor – if Germany attacks Czechoslovakia, France and England will attack Germany” – Hitler might have stopped, might even have been overthrown by Army officers waiting for just such a serious check in his imperial progress). So we can tell ourselves, and so we damn Chamberlain, who cajoled and cudgeled the Western powers to make one bad deal after another with this German leader, telling everyone (including himself) the whole time that the man could be trusted, that if he gave his word, he’d keep it. Hitler had already broken his word publicly many times – wasn’t that enough for Chamberlain?

Chamberlain returns to London with the Munich agreement

That little private agreement in the wake of Munich says it was not. It shows Chamberlain’s mind more clearly than a thousand pages of memoranda could. This businessman raised late in life to national politics held a sacred trust, and he felt its power more than anyone, and we’ve seen it already: there must be no war. Chamberlain was willing to do almost anything to avoid the catastrophe of another European war. He imagined aerial bombardments, gas attacks, and the casualties of the Great War, and in his peaceful horror, he was willing to sacrifice Czechoslovakia to avoid those things. Not honorable, not brave – but a thing he was willing to do, to stave off far worse.

Faber paints a portrait of a man bewildered by forces and personalities his tidy mind couldn’t comprehend. In this book, as in real life, Chamberlain is a forceful, meticulous middle-manager, prone to bullying his adversaries and boasting about it to his partisans. Although sometimes unsavory, this is fair (generous, even, considering how vitriolic other historians have been on the same point), but it’s limited. It’s a forensic kind of hindsight that fails to take into account one embarrassing little detail: Neville Chamberlain was right.

More right than even he himself knew. The Second World War he fought so desperately to avert was larger, longer, and entirely more disastrous than the First. All its horrors ended up being worse than the horrors he (and others) envisioned. Chamberlain thought there might be a rational limit to the territorial aggression of Adolf Hitler, and in this he was wrong. But the gamble was worth Munich. The peace it might have bought was worth ten Czechoslovakias. Chamberlain was willing to look weak in the eyes of his countrymen, his enemies, and posterity in order to keep the world back from what he called “the abyss,” from an open war with Germany whose ends could not be predicted. Faber describes those efforts in finely marshaled detail, but he awards no laurels. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

A.C. Childers was born in Chippenham, England and works as a freelance writer and editor in London.

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