Peace for a Time: Neville Chamberlain’s Negotiation of the Munich Agreement

The Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, is widely perceived today as a terrible mistake made by a weak leader. The standard narrative is that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, blinded by his own idealism, fed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to the Nazi war machine in the naïve hope of appeasing an insatiable Hitler. It is true that Chamberlain was highly idealistic, and he failed as a leader by placing his own public relations above national diplomacy, by disdaining foreign policy experts and by sidelining colleagues who challenged his strategy of appeasement. However, there were strong military, diplomatic and political reasons not to risk war with Germany in September 1938. Neville Chamberlain failed his nation, but a better leader most likely would have been forced to make the same choice.

Though Neville Chamberlain’s previous government roles were not in foreign relations,[1] he had a strong diplomatic vision, shaped and informed by his prominent political family. His father, Joseph Chamberlain, was an imperial leader who planned the British annexation of the Boer republics in southern Africa.[2] His half-brother, Austen Chamberlain, won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping negotiate the Locarno Pact as foreign minister during the 1920s.[3] Like them, and like many members of the British foreign policy establishment, Neville Chamberlain believed that Britain had a special role in the defense of international order. In March 1938, after Hitler annexed Austria, Chamberlain showed his instincts when he said that “France, as usual has been caught bathing, and the world looks to us.”[4] Chamberlain’s conviction in Britain’s responsibilities to the global order also tied into his belief, formed from years of government service in financial and health issues, that arms races were inherently wasteful. Chamberlain saw armament reduction initiatives like the 1921-1922 Washington Conference as vital, and perceived his duty to be the restoration of sanity: he wrote in October of 1937 that he had “far reaching plans” for “the appeasement of Europe and Asia and for the ultimate check to the mad armaments race.”[5]

In May of 1938, only months after absorbing Austria, Hitler began to publicly agitate for reuniting the three million German-origin citizens of Czechoslovakia’s “Sudetenland” with Germany.[6] Seeking a peaceful settlement, Chamberlain flew to Germany for the first of three meetings with Hitler on September 15.[7] The move was bold but was fatally flawed in two ways, handing Hitler the advantage.

First, Chamberlain mixed his idealistic goal for peace with self-serving public opinion calculations. Chamberlain had succeeded to party leadership in 1937, and had not yet won a general election.[8] With the economy continuing to struggle, diplomatic success was one way to bolster his electoral odds. At that point, only Hitler and Franklin D. Roosevelt had used airplanes to campaign,[9] and Chamberlain’s flight to meet Hitler seemed aimed to capture public attention. His return from the third meeting, at Munich, showed what he had been seeking: Chamberlain stepped off his plane onto a London airport tarmac in front of a wildly cheering crowd, held up the nonaggression pact he had signed with Hitler, and dramatically proclaimed that he had achieved “peace for our time.”[10] However, in pursuit of this heroic image, Chamberlain placed personal publicity success ahead of good diplomacy. By the end of his initial meeting with Hitler, Chamberlain had already made a major concession by accepting the use of plebiscites to determine which regions of Czechoslovakia were over 50% German and would be handed over.[11] In the following meeting, on September 22, Hitler presented new demands: that the German army would occupy the Sudetenland, with all Czechoslovaks being evacuated by September 28. Chamberlain flew back to London to persuade his government to accept the new demands, and wrote a note back to Hitler, “I feel certain that you can get all essentials without war, without delay.”[12] By the time Hitler proposed a final meeting at Munich for September 29, he doubtlessly recognized that Chamberlain had invested so much in the publicity of the negotiations that “he was willing to accept any settlement which could be portrayed positively at home.”[13] At Munich, Hitler got almost all of his demands.[14]

In addition to his willingness to sign an unbalanced deal in order to win a public-relations victory, Chamberlain failed his nation by declining to consult foreign policy experts throughout the negotiations and by ignoring the concerns of those who opposed his policies. Before the crisis, Chamberlain had already cleared the foreign office of top diplomats who did not share his vision for peace through appeasement. In January 1938 he pushed permanent undersecretary Sir Robert Vansittart, the foreign office’s leading voice on the rising threat posed by Germany, “upstairs” into a ceremonial but politically powerless role.[15] Only weeks later Anthony Eden, foreign secretary and another vocal opponent of appeasement, resigned to protest Chamberlain’s attempts to conciliate Germany and Italy.[16] On these departures, Chamberlain wrote “I suspect that in Rome and Berlin the rejoicings will be loud & deep.”[17] Some members of the British foreign policy establishment recognized that Chamberlain was out of his depth: in March 1938 Sir Horace Rumbold, who had been ambassador to Berlin when Hitler seized power, wrote that Chamberlain didn’t know “the technique of dealing with Dictators who are necessarily bullies. The more you truckle to them the more arrogant they become.”[18] However, there were few opportunities to pressure the Prime Minister to reconsider. When Chamberlain travelled to negotiate with Hitler, “there were no advance preparations and [he] travelled without expert advisers.” This stood in striking contrast to other interwar conferences, in which Prime Ministers had been prepared extensively and had brought teams of experts.[19] After Chamberlain’s second meeting with Hitler, even the new “heretofore compliant” foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was alarmed enough by Chamberlain’s concessions to push back against appeasement.[20] Instead of addressing opposition from his closest advisors, however, Chamberlain left for Hitler’s proposed final meeting in Munich without convening his cabinet. He most likely did so in order to avoid further pressure, believing that popular support for a peace deal would reestablish his political position.[21]

However, even if Chamberlain had not been visibly desperate for a deal, had included experts in his negotiations and had considered colleagues’ dissenting viewpoints, he was in an incredibly difficult situation. With hindsight, some would argue that firm British and French opposition to German expansion would have restrained Hitler from further aggression. This is possible, but conjectural. What is certain is that any British leader who tried to stop Germany in September 1938 risked war, and Chamberlain’s fear of war over Czechoslovakia was not purely based on his own ideology: it was in line with Britain’s painful military, diplomatic and political realities.

First, Britain was not prepared for war in September 1938. Since 1919, British military planning had been based on the “ten-year rule” – made permanent in 1928 by Winston Churchill himself – which set the armed forces’ budgets assuming that Britain would not fight a major war for 10 years.[22] Britain did not begin to rearm until 1934, and in September 1938, the process was still ongoing. At that point, Britain could have only sent two poorly equipped divisions to the continent if war broke out.[23] Naval rearmament had begun in 1936 as a five-year plan, and it wasn’t until April of 1938 that the RAF was authorized to purchase as many aircraft as could be produced: Colonel Hastings Ismay noted in the midst of the Czech crisis that “delaying the outbreak of war would give the [RAF] time to acquire airplanes that could counter the Luftwaffe.”[24]

Second, before World War Two, Western military planners vastly overestimated the threat of aerial bombing. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s statement in the House of Commons in 1932, that “the bomber will always get through,” was commonly assumed.[25] Germany’s 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War carried “Exaggerated reports of 5,000 casualties,” which were widely believed.[26] Based partially on these numbers, in 1938 the Committee of Imperial Defense reported that a German bomber offensive against Britain would kill 500,000 civilians in the first three weeks.[27] In reality, Germany’s “London Blitz” bombing campaign killed 28,556 Londoners and hospitalized 25,578 over the course of about eight months,[28] but Chamberlain cannot be faulted for taking military experts’ overly dire estimates seriously.

Third, Britons still carried the scars of World War One. Public opinion was strongly against war, especially over a country as obscure as Czechoslovakia.[29] In addition, since World War One, Commonwealth countries had become much more autonomous. Though Britain’s declaration of war in World War One had automatically brought in Canada, Australia and New Zealand on its side, this was no longer guaranteed in 1938. If those countries felt that Czechoslovakia was not worth fighting for, Britain could be left fighting with no allies but France.[30]

Fourth, the UK was desperately short of reliable allies in 1938. Throughout the year leading up to the Munich conference, Chamberlain discussed the French government’s habit of disintegrating, its financial instability, its industrial troubles, and even suspected it of being in touch with his opposition.[31] UK experts were distrustful of the Soviet Union, and Chamberlain was highly dismissive of the U.S., which he saw as timid and isolationist.[32] Though Chamberlain should have invested more work in building up a relationship with America – “He made no attempt to establish personal relations with Franklin Roosevelt” and he stated at one point that “the Americans are so rotten it does not matter who we send” to represent Britain in Washington[33] – no responsible British leader could have gone to war in 1938 expecting the U.S. to join in support.

Once Hitler’s intentions became clear, it was easy to criticize Chamberlain’s decision at Munich: he was presented as having surrendered to Hitler’s bullying tactics, strengthening Germany’s war machine with Czechoslovakia’s natural resources and arms industry[34] while disgracefully sacrificing an ally against German expansion, until war inevitably broke out anyway. However, this narrative fails to account for the dire situation Chamberlain faced. Britain was simply not ready for war, and at that point, it was still not certain that war was inevitable. Chamberlain’s real failure was in placing his public image over effective statecraft, in choosing not to consult with experts to prepare for his summits with Hitler, and in pursuing his idealistic goal of peace through appeasement while ignoring the concerns of those who questioned his vision. In the end, Chamberlain did fail his country in September 1938. What is less clear is whether another leader could have done much better.

 


Endnotes

[1] Erik Goldstein, “Neville Chamberlain, the British official mind and the Munich Crisis,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 10, no. 2-3 (1999): 276.

[2] Ibid., 277.

[3] “Sir Austen Chamberlain – Biographical,” Nobelprize.org, accessed September 18, 2017.

[4] Goldstein, “Neville Chamberlain, the British official mind and the Munich Crisis,” 278.

[5] Ibid., 277.

[6] Ibid., 283.

[7] Ibid., 287.

[8] “Neville Chamberlain,” Encyclopædia Britannica, January 12, 2017.

[9] Goldstein, “Neville Chamberlain, the British official mind and the Munich Crisis,” 283.

[10] Christopher Klein, “Chamberlain Declares ‘Peace for Our Time,’ 75 Years Ago,” History.com, September 30, 2013.

[11] Goldstein, “Neville Chamberlain, the British official mind and the Munich Crisis,” 288.

[12] Ibid., 289.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Munich Agreement,” Encyclopædia Britannica, December 16, 2016.

[15] John Simkin, “Robert Vansittart,” Spartacus Educational, April 2016.

[16] “Anthony Eden,” Encyclopædia Britannica, January 17, 2017.

[17] Goldstein, “Neville Chamberlain, the British official mind and the Munich Crisis,” 284.

[18] Ibid., 285.

[19] Ibid., 284.

[20] Ibid., 288.

[21] Ibid., 289.

[22] “The ten-year rule and disarmament,” The National Archives.

[23] Nick Baumann, “Neville Chamberlain Was Right,” Slate.com, September 28, 2013.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Blitz WW2 – The Battle of London,” Military History Monthly, January 22, 2011.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Michael McCarthy, “The Big Question: Was Neville Chamberlain really the failure portrayed by history?” The Independent, August 19, 2009.

[28] “The Battle of London,” Military History Monthly.

[29] McCarthy, “The Big Question.”

[30] Baumann, “Neville Chamberlain Was Right.”

[31] Goldstein, “Neville Chamberlain, the British official mind and the Munich Crisis,” 279.

[32] Ibid., 280.

[33] Ibid., 281.

[34] J. Goldmann, “The Armament Industry of Czechoslovakia,” Bulletin of the Oxford University Institute of Economics & Statistics 5 no. 12 (2009): 201.


Bibliography

“Anthony Eden,” Encyclopædia Britannica, January 17, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Eden.

“Blitz WW2 – The Battle of London.” Military History Monthly. January 22, 2011. https://www.military-history.org/articles/world-war-2/blitz-ww2.htm.

“Munich Agreement.” Encyclopædia Britannica. December 16, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/event/Munich-Agreement.

“Neville Chamberlain,” Encyclopædia Britannica, January 12, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Neville-Chamberlain.

“Sir Austen Chamberlain – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Accessed September 18, 2017. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1925/chamberlain-bio.html.

“The ten-year rule and disarmament,” The National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/10-year-rule-disarmament.htm.

Baumann, Nick. “Neville Chamberlain Was Right.” Slate.com. September 28, 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2013/09/neville_chamberlain_was_right_to_cede_czechoslovakia_to_adolf_hitler_seventy.html.

Goldmann, J. “The Armament Industry of Czechoslovakia.” Bulletin of the Oxford University Institute of Economics & Statistics 5 no. 12 (2009).

Goldstein, Erik. “Neville Chamberlain, the British official mind and the Munich Crisis.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 10, no. 2-3 (1999).

Klein, Christopher. “Chamberlain Declares ‘Peace for Our Time,’ 75 Years Ago.” History.com. September 30, 2013. http://www.history.com/news/chamberlain-declares-peace-for-our-time-75-years-ago.

McCarthy, Michael. “The Big Question: Was Neville Chamberlain really the failure portrayed by history?” The Independent. August 19, 2009. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-big-question-was-neville-chamberlain-really-the-failure-portrayed-by-history-1774449.html.

Self, Robert. “Was Neville Chamberlain really a weak and terrible leader?” BBC. September 30, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24300094.

Simkin, John. “Robert Vansittart.” Spartacus Educational. April 2016. http://spartacus-educational.com/Robert_Vansittart.htm.

Comments are closed.

YRIS is a student publication, and Yale University is not responsible for its content.