Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 99
9th April 2003

Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War
Frank McDonagh
Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1998, 196pp, £14.99 (pbk)
ISBN 0 7190 4382 X
Reviewed by Sean Gabb

I read through this book during my lunch break today, sat in an unusually warm and sunny Kensington park. An old man saw the cover with its bold title and rather nice line drawing of Chamberlain. "Neville Chamberlain?" He said to me with an accusing stare. "What a wanker he was." I thought of putting the book down and starting an argument about the realities of British foreign policy before 1940. But lunch breaks for me are far too unusual for wasting on argument with someone who would only start ranting about Saddam Hussein and plastic shredders or whatever—and I get quite enough of that from the Internet. So I smiled and carried on reading.

His reaction, though, was no more than the conventional wisdom. Despite more than 30 years of revisionist scholarship, Neville Chamberlain is still seen by the world exactly as those in and around the first Churchill Government wanted him to be seen. That view is of a weak and confused man out of his depth in the snakepit of European politics. With his rolled umbrella and wing collar, he blundered round Europe in the late 1930s, deceived at every point by bad men of greater intelligence, but hoping that he could settle German demands for territory as peacefully as he might settle a strike in a Birmingham button factory. In the process, he refused to let the country re-arm sufficiently to face the inevitable conflict in defence of liberal civilisation. His name has become shorthand for weakness and self-delusion in foreign policy. "Appeaser" has become one of the ultimate insults in political debate throughout the English-speaking world; and every argument over the present war with Iraq must include some slighting reference to Neville Chamberlain and some lavish praise of Winston Churchill, his apparently more realistic and courageous antithesis.

In fact, this view of Chamberlain has largely disappeared from the scholarly literature. What we have instead is a cool understanding of the limitations of British power in a changing and increasingly hostile world. This book expresses the view briefly yet fully, and it gives useful extracts in support from contemporary documents, and contains a good bibliography for further reading. As such, it is an excellent introduction to the subject for students and for those simply interested in the approach to the greatest war ever fought by this country and the last in which it entered as a primary belligerent.

And that is all I will say about the book. I am reviewing it simply as an excuse for writing more about British foreign policy - this time from the perspective of the 1930s.

Undoubtedly, the Great War had been a disaster for this country. It was an act of stupidity to enter it, and even more stupid not to try for a negotiated settlement in 1916. It had killed nearly a million men, and left many more maimed. Its financial cost had been immense, requiring heavy taxes and a devaluation of Sterling, and a tenfold increase in the national debt. It had also distorted patterns of investment. The vast overseas portfolio built up during the previous generations had been partly liquidated and replaced by heavy indebtedness to American interests. Internally, capital had diverted into an unsustainable expansion of heavy industry—areas in which the country had for some time been losing its comparative advantage, and the products of which could no longer be readily sold in an increasingly fragmented and economically hostile world market. The years before 1914 were not some long, golden summer. But to those looking back from the years after 1918, that is how they often seemed.

But while disastrous, the Great War had not for us been a catastrophe. It was, if in various ways, for Germany, France, Russia and Turkey—but not for us. It had not been fought on our territory. Nor had it been followed by any serious challenge to the established order. Though these did not at all justify the heavy costs, it had even been attended by certain benefits. Germany and Russia and Turkey were destroyed by defeat and revolution. France was prostrate. The United States had briefly emerged as an active great power, only to return to a determined isolationism. In terms of naval supremacy and imperial security, the country was restored to something like the position it had enjoyed after Waterloo. And, while taking the German colonies was of no value, the despoiling of Turkey had given us control over the Middle East and its increasingly important oil reserves.

By 1920, it was clear that the Great War had ripped holes in the financial web that had once bound the world to the City of London. There could be no exact return to the position of 1914. But, if it had shaken the foundations of British power, the War had not undermined them. Something like the old position could still be restored. It was necessary to make a complex and difficult set of changes. At home, it was necessary to cut taxes and spending back towards the levels of 1914, and to force down the price level to the point where the gold standard could be restored at the old parity. At the same time, the over-expansion of heavy industry had to be reversed, so that labour and capital could flow into the more productive new sectors—cars, chemicals, electricals, general light engineering, and so forth.

In the Empire, it was necessary to reduce the commitment to India —returning to something like the system of indirect rule used before the Mutiny—and to shift the balance of imperial interest to the now more valuable Middle East. Outside the Empire, it was necessary to restore as much as possible of the old financial and trading system.

Any one of these required much effort and some luck to achieve. Astonishingly, most of them had been achieved after a fashion by the 1930s. The Great Depression had put an end for the moment to hard money and free trade, but caused little harm overall to the domestic economy. The unemployment and other hardships were mostly confined to the declining heavy industries. From the Midlands down, the country was enjoying a steady increase of output and living standards. Indeed, looked at from about 1935, the Great Depression seemed to serve British world interests rather well.

After 1918, the only potential challenger was the United States. Its size and wealth appeared to place it beyond all hope of competition. If it wanted to outbuild the Royal Navy, it could. However, its prevailing constitutional and moral order made a challenge unlikely. Though it might take an occasional interest outside the Americas, it was essentially isolationist. Though it might have the cash to challenge British primacy, it lacked the will. It had been tricked into the Great War to serve British interests. Now, it had largely withdrawn. The Great Depression seemed to confirm its impotence. The general collapse of its economy after 1931, and the emergence of mass unemployment—averaging, I think, around 35 million—threw it proportionately into a scale of suffering quite unknown in this country. Moreover, the election of Franklin Roosevelt had opened it to a departure from economic orthodoxy that opinion in this country rightly saw as likely to keep it in depression for as far ahead as could reasonably be seen.

All this country needed to consolidate the recovery was time - time for the new arrangements at home and abroad to take full effect. What had to be avoided at all costs was another big war. That would destroy all the cautious but solid progress made since the removal of Lloyd George from power in 1922. The Treaty of Locarno had got us out of all practical European connections after 1925—the guarantee to both France and Germany was in effect a guarantee to neither, as it justified a refusal to enter into close military relations with either. The League of Nations was a useful means of imposing British will elsewhere in the world where it was no longer convenient to act unilaterally.

By 1935, the country had never in living memory enjoyed such profound home and imperial security, or spent so little of the national income on defence. Let all this continue, and by 1960, the financial and strategic costs of the Great War would have scarred over as surely as those of the Napoleonic wars had a century before.

This is the background against which Adolf Hitler was viewed by this country's ruling class. There is no need, I think, to argue that he was a thoroughly bad man. He turned Germany into a semi-socialist police state, and tainted with his embrace what had previously been one of the homelands of liberal civilisation. However, I share the official perception of his early years that he was no threat to this country. His published writings and speeches at the time, and his private conversations made available after his death, all point to a settled ambition. This was to expand German power deep into Eastern Europe. He wanted to gather up the Germanic fragments of the Habsburg Empire under his own rule, and to conquer large colonies of settlement for the German people in Poland and western Russia. That was the consistent purpose of his foreign policy in the east. In the west, his only declared and perceptible aim was to reach a settlement with Britain that would give him a free hand in the east.

Yes, we are told endlessly that his eastern policy was just his first step to conquering the world. Give him Poland and Western Russia and their great resources, the claim goes, and give him the lack of an enemy to the east—Soviet Russia being destroyed—and he would surely turn eventually on Britain. I suppose he might have. But he might also have died his hair green, or applied to join a kibbutz, or had an early sex change operation. In deciding what someone might have done in circumstances different from those he actually faced, we can say nothing for sure. If we want to say anything at all, we can only do so in the light of his stated or revealed intentions. For Hitler, there is no evidence that his ambitions stretched to a conquest or even a humbling of Britain.

He had a sincere, if not always well informed, admiration of Britain and the British Empire. He respected our victory in the Great War, and wanted to avoid another conflict. He did not share the desire of other German nationalists for a return of the lost German colonies. He had no interest in naval construction, and went out of his way to condemn the naval race that had poisoned Anglo-German relations after 1898. He signed a naval agreement with us in 1935, and I think this is the only treaty he ever made that he took care to observe. When the Arabs rose against us in Palestine, they sent emissaries to him in Berlin, seeking financial support. Since they were all good anti-semites, one might have thought they would reach a deal. But Hitler refused all help, declaring in effect that he would not lift a finger against white rule over the coloured races.

It is possible that victory in the east would have raised his ambitions in the west. We cannot be sure that it would not. But neither can we assume that he would have been any more successful in his invasion of Russia than he actually was after June 1941. Without facing us, he would not have had to divide his forces between France, North Africa and the Balkans. At the same time, he would not have had forces hardened in those wars, or the record of invincibility that for a while silenced his internal critics. And the Russian winters would have been no less ruinous of invaders than it had always been before. He would probably have taken Moscow and Leningrad. But I do not know how much further into the Eurasian landmass he could have reached. He would have faced much the same war of attrition with the partisans, and would probably have had to keep a vast army of occupation in the east before it could be made safe for German settlement. He might well have been able to present no threat of any kind to the west. His only contact with us might have been endless requests for loans, and complaints at our unwillingness to join his crusade against Bolshevism.

Even otherwise, he would have dominated much the same area as Stalin did after 1945, and done so at a comparative disadvantage. Most obviously, he was not the acknowledge head of an international conspiracy to spread his rule. He had no bands of committed followers stirring up trouble everywhere from China to Peru. As its name suggests, national socialism was not an ideology for export. It was an ideology of Aryan domination. Even in other Aryan countries, it had little following. Oswald Mosley made a big noise in this country for a while, but never came close to electoral significance. Under Soviet rule after 1945, the Slavs of Eastern Europe went into their factories and film studios and, for a while, worked with something like unforced gratitude for their masters. Under Hitler, they had to be coerced from the start.

Granted, his economic policies were less insanely destructive. At the same time, the expectations of his people were higher, and they had been less frightened by his tyranny out of expressing them. And he was a socialist. If he had presided over a recovery from the Great Depression, that recovery was running into trouble after 1938. Inflation could only be hidden by wage and price controls, and was evidenced instead by shortages of consumer goods—see, for example, how the German forces sent into the Czechlands in March 1939 stripped the shops in Prague bare of things like razor blades and overcoats. Not all the frenzied rhetoric in the world could have saved Hitler's revolution from running out of steam after 1940. It was only the war that kept up a semblance of prosperity into the middle of the decade.

A German domination of the east might have involved us eventually in a cold war. But ours would have been an unexhausted, unbankrupted, unhumiliated Britain and British Empire. There would have been no American support. Neither though would there have been need of any.

There are two further points to be made against me. The first was made by a friend last week, as we sat arguing over what I have just written. Suppose, he asked, Hitler had not only failed to conquer Russia, but had lost. Suppose Stalin had all by himself beaten Hitler and conquered all the way to Germany. Would this not have been worse for us? There would have been no limit to the prestige of Communism, and every Comintern agitator throughout the world would have had a glorious time against liberal civilisation. At least in the real war, the victory was shared between us and them.

I have no answer to this point. It requires more detailed understanding than I have of the relative balance of forces in hypothetical circumstances between Russia and Germany. But while it strikes me as reasonable to say that Hitler might not have won very easily, I find it hard to believe that he could have lost to Stalin.

The second point is the atrocities committed by the Germans. These are often used as justification for going to war. Do I not care about these? My answer is that I do not think they were grounds in themselves for war. An individual has all manner of moral responsibilities, and looking to these will by no means be always in his own interest. A government, however, is a trustee of the nation to which it is accountable, and must look only to the interests of that nation. It would be wrong for our government to visit positive evils on foreigners. It would be right for it to perform such good offices for them as did not involve much cost to us. But it has neither the duty nor the right to go about the world acting as some knight errant, putting down the bad and raising the good. When we talk about the British Government, the adjective is at least as important as the noun.

It must also be said that the worst atrocities were committed towards the end of a general war, and do not seem to have been long premeditated. They happened at a time in which fear of defeat and a misplaced desire for revenge had extinguished the usual moral feeling, and in places far removed from the battlefields that most attracted western curiosity. I have no doubt that an invasion of Russia after about 1943 would have resulted in great atrocities. But I do doubt if these would have been so bloody as the ones actually on record.

Of course, we cannot be definite on what would have happened had there been no outbreak of war in 1939. But the worst I can imagine for us is no worse than did happen after 1945. And it could easily have been better.

This being so, it was not our business if Hitler wanted to tear up the 1919 settlement in the east. It involved us in dangers that can only now be demonstrated behind a mass of subjunctives. Nor, to be fair, was there anything we could have done to stop him. Our guarantee to Poland was a nonsense, bearing in mind our lack of ability to send help. Even if we had—as is often urged—intervened to stop the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, or the union with Austria, or the occupation of the Sudentenland, we probably had not the military power to enforce our will, even against a Hitler weaker than he became. Nor would there have been the public support at home or abroad to legitimise such pre-emptive actions.

And so the policy of Neville Chamberlain was neither cowardly not absurd. It reflected the realities of British power and British interests at that time. I do not accept the accusations of some American conservatives that Winston Churchill was equal to Hitler or Stalin in his infamy. They are angry that he got their country into a war from which it emerged supreme abroad but ruined in its constitutional and moral order at home. I sympathise with this complaint. But he was in every sense a better person.

Even so, did ruin this country. He did so because he never understood the true foundations of British greatness. He saw that splash of red on the map of the world, and never realised that he was looking only at the effect, not at the cause. His ambition was "to make the old dog sit up and wag its tail". In fact, what he wanted for us before 1940, and what he did to us after, was the equivalent of making an invalid get up from his bed and dance too soon after an operation. He brought on the collapse that the Great War had only threatened. He undermined the foundations of our greatness abroad, and at home acted as the front man for a socialist revolution. For five years, he dressed and spoke and acted as if the traditional order was safe in his hand—while quietly behind his back it was taxed and regulated and smeared out of existence. "Why worry? We've had a Labour Government since 1940" was the comment of one observer after the 1945 general election.

All considered, the 20th century as it actually ran was not too bad for this country. We did not lose any big wars, or have a revolution or civil war. We did not even suffer a real economic or financial collapse. Within a few years of each of the two big wars, we had recovered our old living standards in full and were making rapid continued progress. We ended the century as the third or fourth richest and the second most powerful country in the world. We are even remarkably free in practice to live as we please. We did far better than I think we deserved. But it could have been better still. If only we had kept out of those dreadful wars and remained masters of our own fate, the whole world, I have no doubt, would have been a better place.