YOU HAVE ONLY to look at the map to see that nothing we or France could do could possibly save Czechoslovakia from being overrun by the Germans if they wanted to do it.1
If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world, I shall be the first to applaud you. But, if not, gentlemen, God help your souls.2
—JAN MASARYK, CZECH AMBASSADOR,
to Chamberlain and Halifax, 1938
ON SEPTEMBER 30, 1938, after a private meeting at Hitler’s apartment, the prime minister flew home from Munich to Heston aerodrome. Emerging from his plane smiling, Neville Chamberlain waved aloft the declaration he and Hitler had signed that morning.
“I’ve got it!” he shouted to Lord Halifax. “I’ve got it!”3 “Here is a paper which bears his name.”4
Drafted by Chamberlain and Sir Horace Wilson, three sentences long, the Munich Accord read: “We, the German Fuehrer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister…regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.”5
At the request of George VI “to come straight to Buckingham Palace so that I can express to you personally my most heartfelt congratulations on the success of your visit to Munich,” Chamberlain was driven to the palace to receive the gratitude of his sovereign.6 Though the trip was only nine miles, so dense were the crowds it took an hour and a half.7
“Even the descriptions of the papers give no idea of the scenes in the streets as I drove from Heston to the Palace,” wrote Chamberlain. “They were lined from one end to the other with people of every class, shouting themselves hoarse, leaping on the running board, banging on the windows, and thrusting their hands into the car to be shaken.”8
At Buckingham Palace, Chamberlain and his wife were invited by the King to “join him on the balcony…as a token of the ‘lasting gratitude of his fellow countrymen throughout the Empire.’”9 “It was…the first time a ruling monarch had allowed a commoner to be acknowledged from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.”10 Thus did George VI and his queen render a royal blessing to appeasement. Beside his sovereign, the prime minister “stood there smiling, the most popular man in the world, more universally acclaimed than any statesman has ever been.”11 From the palace, Chamberlain was driven to 10 Downing Street, where another throng awaited, singing over and over, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” From the window at Number 10, Chamberlain, in the shortest, most famous speech he would ever deliver, declared, “My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”12
“Peace with honour” was the phrase Disraeli had used when he returned from Berlin after redrawing the map of Europe with Bismarck. “Peace in our time,” from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, was the title of a 1928 collection of speeches by Neville Chamberlain’s half brother Austen, the architect of the Locarno pact and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. “In repeating the phrase,” writes a British historian, “Neville believed that he had completed his late brother’s unfinished business: the pacification of Europe.”13
When French Premier Edouard Daladier flew home from Munich, he was stunned to see a huge throng gathered at Le Bourget. He circled the field twice, fearful the crowd was there to stone him for having capitulated to Hitler and betrayed France’s Czech allies by forcing them to surrender the Sudetenland. Daladier was astonished to find the crowd rejoicing and waving him home as a hero of peace.
Across the Atlantic, FDR, who had bid Chamberlain Godspeed on his Munich mission with the cryptic telegram “Good Man!,” wanted to share the glory.14 Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles went on national radio, where he referred to “steps taken by the President to halt Europe’s headlong plunge into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.”15 Credit for Munich, Welles told the nation, must go to Franklin Roosevelt: “Europe escaped war by a few hours, the scales being tipped toward peace by the President’s appeal.”16
In a letter to Canada’s Mackenzie King, Roosevelt wrote, “I can assure you that we in the United States rejoice with you, and the world at large, that the outbreak of war was averted.”17 A week later, FDR wrote to Ambassador William Phillips in Rome, “I want you to know that I am not a bit upset over the final result [Munich Agreement].”18
The New York Times echoed FDR: “Let no man say that too high a price has been paid for peace in Europe until he has searched his soul and found himself willing to risk in war the lives of those who are nearest and dearest to him.”19 Declared the New York Daily News: “[Hitler] has made a significant gesture towards peace…. Now is the time for haters of Hitler to hold their harsh words.”20
The British press outdid the Americans. The morning after the prime minister’s return, the London Times’s story began: “No conqueror in history ever came home from a battlefield with nobler laurels.”21 Margot Asquith, widow of the prime minister who had led Britain into the Great War, called Chamberlain the greatest Englishman who had ever lived.22 Old ladies “suggested that Chamberlain’s umbrella be broken up and pieces sold as sacred relics.”23 From exile in Holland, the Kaiser wrote Queen Mary of his happiness that a catastrophe had been averted and that Chamberlain had been inspired by heaven and guided by God Himself.24 The clerics rejoiced.
The Church of England responded very largely as if the men of Munich had been guided by Almighty God. “You have been enabled to do a great thing in a great way at a time of almost unexampled crisis. I thank God for it,” wrote [the Archbishop of Canterbury] Cosmo Lang to Chamberlain. There were services of thanksgiving in all the churches and cathedrals of England on the next Sunday. In Lincoln Cathedral, the dean held the congregation spellbound “by ascribing the turn of events to God’s wonderful providence.”25
On October 2, Chamberlain wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury, “I sincerely believe that we have at last opened the way to that general appeasement which alone can save the world from chaos.”26
To Western peoples, familiar with shuttle diplomacy, Chamberlain’s journey to Germany may seem routine. But as Graham Stewart writes,
No British Prime Minister had ever intervened in this manner before. Indeed, Chamberlain had never been in an aeroplane before, let alone one making a trip to the heart of Europe. Chamberlain was to be the first British Prime Minister to set foot in Germany for sixty years.27
Not all joined the celebration. The Daily Telegraph was caustic and cutting: “It was Mr. Disraeli who said that England’s two greatest assets in the world were her fleet and her good name. Today we must console ourselves that we still have our fleet.”28
Duff Cooper resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty.
“This is hell,” Harold Nicolson said to Churchill, who muttered in reply, “It is the end of the British Empire.”29 Listening in Parliament as Chamberlain was feted as the Prince of Peace, Churchill was heard to say in a sarcastic aside, “I never knew Neville was born in Bethlehem.”30
On October 5, Churchill rose in the House. “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat,” he began.31
“Nonsense!” cried Lady Astor.32
Churchill continued with an address of great foreboding:
All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness…. We have passed anawful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged and…the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we rise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden times.33
Yet Churchill could not contain his awe and envy at Hitler’s audacity and nerve. On October 4, one day before his mighty address to the Commons, he wrote of Britain’s need to replicate “the spirit of that Austrian corporal” who had bested the British statesmen at Munich:
It is a crime to despair. We must learn to draw from misfortune the means of future strength. There must not be lacking in our leadership something of the spirit of that Austrian corporal who, when all had fallen into ruins about him, and when Germany seemed to have sunk for ever into chaos, did not hesitate to march forth against the vast array of victorious nations, and has already turned the tables so decisively upon them.34
Chamberlain, however, must have sensed he had not really brought home “peace for our time.” In the triumphal ride to Buckingham Palace, he had confided to Halifax, “All this will be over in three months.”35
ACROSS THE NORTH SEA, Adolf Hitler was sullen and silent. As an Austrian, he despised the Czechs’ mongrel state that had come out of the Paris peace conference and then allied itself with archenemy France and the detested Bolshevik regime. He hated Beneš and had wanted to crush his regime in a lightning war and ride in triumph through Prague. Munich had robbed him of his moment. He had the Sudetenland, but to the world it was only because Chamberlain permitted him to take it. Chamberlain was the hero of Munich who had been cheered by throngs of Germans on his trips to Berchtesgaden, Godesberg, and Munich, for the Germans, too, wanted peace and believed he had come to preserve it.
“That senile old rascal,” Hitler raged at his ministers. “If ever that silly old man comes interfering here again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of photographers.”36
Munich has been called the greatest diplomatic disaster in history. It was also a strategic disaster. By surrendering the Sudetenland, which held Czechoslovakia’s mountain fortifications, Prague’s Maginot Line was lost. Hitler would confide to Dr. Carl Burckhardt, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Danzig, how astonished he had been by the strength of the Czech defenses:
When after Munich, we were in a position to examine Czechoslovak military strength from within, what we saw of it greatly disturbed us; we had run a serious danger. The plan prepared by the Czech Generals was formidable. I now understand why my generals urged restraint.37
Six months after Munich, the remnant of Czecho-Slovakia—the name had been hyphenated after Munich on the demand of the Slovaks—was occupied by Hitler, and the thirty-five Czech divisions prepared in September of 1938 to fight to hold the Sudetenland vanished. Paul Johnson describes the Nazi windfall:
As Churchill who perceived the military significance of the capitulation better than anyone pointed out in the Munich debate (5 October 1938), the annexation of Austria had given Hitler an extra twelve divisions. Now, the dismantling of Czech military power released a further thirty German divisions for action elsewhere.
In fact the shift was worse than this. The Czechs’ forty divisions were among the best-equipped in Europe: when Hitler finally marched in he got the means to furnish equivalent units of his own, plus the huge Czech armaments industry. The “turnaround” of roughly eighty divisions was equivalent to the entire French army.38
There is evidence that the ex–chief of the German General Staff Ludwig Beck, his successor Franz Halder, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and other officers were so alarmed at the prospect of war with Czechoslovakia and France, and possibly Russia and Britain, they had planned to arrest Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and Goebbels, but held off after learning Chamberlain was coming to Germany. American historian Ernest May writes:
In 1938, General Beck had ended up advocating that the army seize power. Halder had backed him. Preparations were being made for army units from the Berlin military district to seize the Chancellery when news arrived of Chamberlain’s surprise flight to Berchtesgaden. The plans for a coup were put on hold and then, after Munich, practically ceased.39
U.S. historian Charles Callan Tansill supports this version, contending a putsch had been prepared for September 28, when word came that Chamberlain and Daladier would fly to Munich on the twenty-ninth. Writes Tansill, “‘[T]he old man with the umbrella’ had scared off an immediate shower in favor of the wild tempest of World War II.”40
Munich gave Hitler another year to build up his Panzers and erect his West Wall. “Finally and most important of all,” writes Shirer, “the Western democracies lost Russia as an ally.”41 A Soviet diplomat who had considered an alliance with Britain and France remarked after Munich, “We nearly put our foot on a rotten plank. Now we are going elsewhere.”42
About the character of Hitler and the folly of Munich, Churchill was right. And Chamberlain and Halifax have gone down in history as two of the Guilty Men in the 1940 book indicting the Tory governments of the 1930s. “Appeasement had been designed by Chamberlain as the impartial redress of justified grievances,” writes Taylor. “It became a capitulation, a surrender to fear. This was Chamberlain’s own doing.”43
Few today defend Chamberlain. And appeasement has become a synonym for cowardly surrender to evil that leads to desperate war. As Churchill said to the prime minister, home from Munich: You were given a choice between dishonor and war. You chose dishonor, you will have war.
But why did the British in the autumn of 1938, from palace to pulpit, from Parliament to press, celebrate Chamberlain as a miracle worker of peace? Why was Munich a diplomatic triumph unequaled by a British prime minister since Lloyd George came home from Versailles? What persuaded Britain to break up Czechoslovakia to appease Adolf Hitler?
WHY DID CHAMBERLAIN GO to Munich? What could he have hoped to accomplish by brokering the transfer to Hitler of a Sudetenland that held the mountain fortifications of Czechoslovakia, loss of which would put Prague at the mercy of Berlin?
To answer these questions we must go back to 1919. At Paris, 3.25 million German inhabitants of Bohemia and Moravia had been transferred to the new Czechoslovakia of Tomás? Masaryk and Eduard Beneš in a flagrant disregard of Wilson’s self-proclaimed ideal of self-determination. Asked why he had consigned three million Germans to Czech rule, Wilson blurted, “Why, Masaryk never told me that!”44
H. N. Brailsford, England’s leading socialist thinker on foreign policy, had written in 1920 of the Paris peace: “The worst offence was the subjection of over three million Germans to Czech rule.”45 Austrian historian Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn describes the polyglot state the men of Paris had created:
The Czechs numbered 47 percent of the population of Czechoslovakia. It was only by “annexing” the Slovaks, much against their expressed will, into a hyphenated nation which had never existed historically that they suddenly became a “majority.” In fact, there were more Germans (24.5 percent) in Czechoslovakia than Slovaks. But by clever gerrymandering devices the Czechs maintained a parliamentary majority and exercised an oppressive rule which drove the German minority (inexactly called “Sudeten Germans”) into a rebellious and disloyal nationalism that would evolve into national socialism.46
Masaryk and Beneš, who had demanded the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the principle of self-determination for Czechs, ran a state that was a living contradiction of the principle. For Czechs now ruled Germans, Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, and Ruthenians, who constituted half the population and had never been consulted about being ceded to Prague. Czechoslovakia was a multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural, Catholic-Protestant conglomerate that had never before existed.
Less than a year after the Paris treaties that created Czechoslovakia, leaders of the German and Hungarian minorities in the new state had begun angrily to petition the League of Nations:
More than five million Germans, Magyars, and people of other nationalities have not a single representative in this National Assembly, and all claims advanced by them have been waived aside by the Czechs. All the fundamental laws concerning the Constitution, and the language to be used in the administration, as regards social reform, the expropriation of land, etc., have been determined by this arbitrarily formed National Assembly without a single German-Bohemian or Magyar having been allowed a voice.47
From 1920 to 1938, repeated petitions were sent to the League by the repressed minorities of Czechoslovakia.48 By 1938, the Sudetendeutsch were agitating to be rid of Czech rule and become part of the new Reich. In a fair plebiscite, 80 percent might have voted to secede. On the eve of the 1938 crisis, Lloyd George blamed the impending disaster on the duplicity of Beneš, who had not kept his word given at Paris: “Had the Czech leaders in time, and without waiting for the menacing pressure of Germany, redeemed their promise to grant local autonomy to the various races in their Republic on the lines of the Swiss Confederation, the present trouble would have been averted.”49
European statesmen by 1938 had concluded that severing the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland from Vienna had been a blunder that must be corrected. Neither Chamberlain nor his Cabinet was willing to go to war to deny Sudeten Germans the right to self-determination or keep them under an alien Czech rule. But there were complications. The first was France.
As we have seen, at Paris in 1919, Marshal Foch had wanted to annex the Rhineland and Clemenceau wanted to make it a buffer state. Wilson and Lloyd George had refused, but made a counter-offer: a U.S.-British-French alliance. Should Germany attack France again, America and Britain would fight at her side. But the Senate had refused to take up Wilson’s security treaty and the British had then exercised their right to back out. France was left with no security treaty and no buffer state.
Paris had sought to compensate for the loss of a security treaty with America and Britain, and loss of her former Russian ally to Bolshevism, by negotiating defense pacts with the Little Entente of Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. By 1938, France was thus obligated to come to the defense of Czechoslovakia. But if a war between France and Germany broke out over Czechoslovakia, Britain must surely be drawn in.
Thus, as the Sudeten crisis unfolded, Chamberlain believed Britain must become involved diplomatically to address the valid German grievances and prevent a Franco-German war. The prime minister viewed the prospect of another Great War with horror. The war of 1914–1918 had cost the lives of 700,000 British soldiers, among them his beloved cousin Norman.
Why did Britain not let Paris play the hand? Why not stay out of the crisis and let the French force their Czech allies to give up the Sudetenland? Eden’s biographer, David Carlton, explains. Chamberlain and his Cabinet
were driven to the conclusion…that there was a serious risk, as in 1914, of the French Government going to war over an eastern European quarrel and thereby causing a conflict in western Europe from which the British could not afford to remain aloof. Accordingly, Chamberlain gradually and reluctantly came to take charge of the crisis…. Then, during September, the British Prime Minister assumed the responsibility of negotiating with Hitler and coercing the Czechs into surrender.50
So it was that Neville Chamberlain made three trips to Germany in September 1938: first to Berchtesgaden, then to Bad Godesberg, finally to Munich. But who and what precipitated the crisis of September 1938?
BENEŠ HUMILIATES HITLER
WHAT CAUSED HITLER TO turn with sudden ferocity on the Czechs and President Eduard Beneš, and risk war with Britain and France so soon after his triumph in Austria?
The triggering event occurred two months after Anschluss, while Hitler was still celebrating. Rumors began to fly of an imminent German invasion of Czechoslovakia. The rumors were false, and there is reason to believe the Czechs had planted them with the knowledge of Beneš, who ordered mobilization. As the rumors ricocheted around Europe, London warned Berlin that Britain would not sit still for an invasion. Paris and Moscow renewed their commitments to Prague. Hitler was suddenly in a major crisis not at all of his own making.
Confronted by a united Europe, Hitler was forced to renounce any intent to invade Czechoslovakia. German officers escorted British military advisers along the Czech border to prove there were no preparations for war. When no attack came, the Czechs bragged and brayed about how they had forced Hitler to back down, showing the world how to face down the bully. “It was apparent to Hitler that Beneš had precipitated the crisis to humiliate Germany,” wrote Tansill. “To be falsely accused by Czech officials was to Hitler the supreme insult.”51
[Hitler] convinced himself, Jodl reported, that he had suffered a loss of prestige, and nothing could put him in a blacker, uglier mood. Swallowing his pride, he ordered the foreign office in Berlin to inform the Czech Minister in Berlin on Monday, May 23, that Germany had no aggressive intentions toward Czechoslovakia and that the reports of German troop concentrations on her borders were without foundation….
Hitler, it was believed in the West, had been given a lesson by the firmness of the other great European powers and by the determination of the small one that seemed threatened.52
The Fuehrer was now gripped by “a burning rage to get even with Czechoslovakia and particularly with President Beneš, who, he believed, had deliberately humiliated him.”53 He called in his generals and ranted: “It is my unshakeable will that Czechoslovakia shall be wiped off the map.”54Hitler ordered up Case Green, the plan for invading Czechoslovakia, and rewrote it to read, “It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future.”55 What did Hitler mean by “in the near future”? Keitel explained in a covering letter: “Green’s execution must be assured by October 1, 1938 at the latest.”56 Henderson believed that the Czech provocation and exploitation of the May crisis, and the ridicule that was heaped upon Hitler for backing down to the Czechs, led directly to Munich:
The defiant gesture of the Czechs in mobilizing some 170,000 troops and then proclaiming to the world that it was their action which had turned Hitler away from his purpose was…regrettable. But what Hitler could not stomach was the exultation of the press…. Every newspaper in America and Europe joined in the chorus. “No” had been said and Hitler had been forced to yield. The democratic powers had brought the totalitarian states to heel, etc.
It was, above all, this jubilation which gave Hitler the excuse for his…worst brain storm of the year, and pushed him definitely over the border line from peaceful negotiation to the use of force. From May 23rd to May 28th his fit of sulks and fury lasted, and on the latter date he gave orders for a gradual mobilization of the Army.57
Many “advocates of appeasement” considered the phony crisis of May “a grave blunder and blamed President Beneš for his ‘provocative’ action, while Chamberlain determined never to run so grave a risk of war again,” writes Hitler biographer Alan Bullock.58
For a week [Hitler] remained at the Berghof in a black rage, which was not softened by the crowing of the foreign Press at the way in which he had been forced to climb down. Then, on May 28, he suddenly appeared in Berlin and summoned another conference at the Reich Chancellery…. Spread out on the table in the winter garden was a map, and on it Hitler sketched with angry gestures exactly how he meant to eliminate the State which had dared to inflict this humiliation on him.59
Foolish as was the fake crisis created by Prague in May 1938, it must be seen in the same light as Schuschnigg’s rash plebiscite. Both were desperate cries of imperiled prey who sensed the predator was close at hand.
Yet by painting the phony crisis of May 1938 as a showdown where Hitler had capitulated to their brave defiance, Czechoslovakia and Beneš set in motion the events that would lead to Munich, the end of Czechoslovakia, and Herr Beneš fleeing for his life.
WHY NOT TELL HITLER “NO!”?
WHY DID CHAMBERLAIN NOT reject Hitler’s demands? Why did Britain not elect to fight, rather than abandon the Czechs?
First, as he had written his sister, Chamberlain “didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich, or out of it.”60 He did not believe that maintaining Czech rule over three million unhappy Germans was worth a war. As the British saw the German demands as reasonable, they came to see the Czechs as obdurate. Nevile Henderson, the British envoy in Berlin, thought it necessary, in the interests of peace, to be “disagreeable to the Czechs,” for they were a pig-headed race and President Beneš “not the least pig-headed among them.”61
Many British believed justice was on the German side. The Sudeten Germans, a privileged minority in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, hated the Prague regime and had no loyalty to a nation where they were second-class citizens. Under Wilson’s principle of self-determination, they should have been left under Vienna. Granted a plebiscite, like the people of Schleswig and the Saar, the Sudetendeutsch would have voted to stay with Austria or join their German kinsmen. But this had been unacceptable to the Allies at Paris, especially the French, who had been operating on the principles of realpolitik. Wilsonian principles be damned, France was determined to separate Germans from Germans. And from the standpoint of France’s security, the Allies had been right. Graham Stewart explains their dilemma:
Self-determination had been a great cry of the liberal diplomat for a century, but strategic necessities prevented the Sudeten question being framed in these singularly uncomplicated terms. If the Sudetenland, much of which was mountainous, was absorbed into the German Reich, then the remaining rump Czech state would become virtually indefensible against invasion.62
Strict application of the principle of self-determination would have meant that all Germans in Eupen, Malmédy, Alsace, Lorraine, South Tyrol, Austria, the Sudetenland, Danzig, the Corridor, and Memel must be allowed to secede and join the Reich. But that would resurrect a Germany more populous and potentially powerful than that of the Kaiser.
At Paris, the principles the Allies professed clashed with the security interests they had come to protect. They resolved the question with no small cynicism and hypocrisy, granting self-determination to peoples who wished to be free of German rule, while denying it to Germans. Wilsonian self-determination was sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik and French security. The problem now was that Adolf Hitler was singing Wilson’s song, demanding that Germans in the Sudetenland be granted the same right of self-determination that had been granted at Paris to Poles and Czechs. By 1944, Walter Lippmann realized the insanity of Versailles in elevating the principle of self-determination to infallible doctrine:
To invoke the general principle of self-determination, and to make it a supreme law of international life was to invite sheer anarchy….
None knew this better than Adolf Hitler himself: the principle of self-determination was his chief instrument for enlarging the Reich by annexation, and for destroying from within the civil unity of the states he intended to attack. Hitler invoked this principle when he annexed Austria [and] dismembered Czechoslovakia.”63
What also made the prospect of a war for Czechoslovakia repellent to Chamberlain was that he believed that, as a people, Czechs were “not out of the top-drawer.”64 As he memorably told the nation on the eve of Munich, when war seemed inevitable,
How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing….
However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in a war simply on her account. If we have to fight, it must be on larger issues than that.65
In 1914, Britain had gone to war to save France, and the British had followed Asquith, Churchill, and Grey in when Belgium was violated. But while France and Belgium were just across the Channel, the Czechs were in Central Europe. Why should British soldiers die so Czechs could hold on to three million unhappy ethnic Germans who had lived under Habsburg or Hohenzollern rule for centuries? Thus British principles (supporting the right of self-determination) and British policy (building a permanent peace by rectifying the injustices of Versailles) seemed to dictate pressuring Beneš to give the Sudetenland to Germany, where the Sudetenlanders wished to be.
Thus it was that Munich was regarded, as historian Taylor wrote in 1961, as “a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life; a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples, a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and short-sightedness of Versailles.”66
Finally, Britain lacked the military power and strategic reach to save Czechoslovakia, and Chamberlain knew it. As he wrote to his sister,
The Austrian frontier is practically open; the great Skoda munitions works are within easy bombing distance of the German aerodromes; the railways all pass through German territory; Russia is a hundred miles away. Therefore we could not help Czechoslovakia—she would simply be a pretext for going to war with Germany. That we could not think of unless we had a reasonable prospect of beating her to her knees in a reasonable time, and of that I see no sign.67
In September 1938, Britain was utterly unprepared for war. She had two combat divisions ready for battle in England, none in France, no draft, no Spitfires, and no allies save a reluctant France. Only five of her twenty-seven fighter squadrons were equipped with the new Hurricanes. The RAF “cannot at the present time be said to be in any way fit to undertake operations on a major war scale,” the Air Ministry concluded.68
General Ironside, inspector-general of overseas forces, confided, “Chamberlain is of course right. We have not the means of defending ourselves and he knows it…. We cannot expose ourselves now to a German attack. We simply commit suicide if we do.”69 “In the circumstances,” warned Lord Gort, the new chief of the Imperial General Staff, “it would be murder to send our forces overseas to fight against a first-class power.”70
Even John Lukacs, who regards Churchill as the savior of Western civilization, believes he was wrong in thinking Britain and France could have saved the Czechs by going to war in the fall of 1938:
Churchill was wrong. It would have been disastrous for the Western democracies to go to war in October of 1938. He may have been right morally speaking; practically, he was wrong….
He was wrong, too, in his conviction that in 1938 Stalin’s Russia would have gone to war on the side of the Czechs. He wrote this as late as 1948, in volume 1 of his Second World War. Yet Stalin was even less inclined to honor his military pact with the Czechs than were the French.71
Churchill was also wrong in his wild exaggeration of the martial spirit and fighting prowess of the Czech army. On September 15, two weeks before Munich, Churchill wrote:
Inside the Czechoslovakian Republic there is an absolute determination to fight for life and freedom. All their frontiers, even that opposite Austria, are well fortified and guarded by a strong and devoted army…. [T]he Czechoslovakian army is one of the best equipped in the world. It has admirable tanks, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft artillery. This resolute people have long prepared themselves for the ordeal.72
This was hyperbole. After Munich, when Britain and France told the Czechs to let the Sudetenland go, the Czechoslovakian army folded without firing a shot. Herr Beneš fled.
WHERE FDR STOOD AT MUNICH
COULD BRITAIN HAVE RELIED on America had she defied Hitler?
In September 1938, the month of Munich, FDR disabused Europe of any such notion: “Those who count on the assured aid of the United States in case of a war in Europe are totally mistaken…. Toinclude the United States in a Franco-British front against Hitler is an interpretation that is 100 percent false.”73 That month, America informed France that, in the event of war, America could not, under the Neutrality Act, transfer to her the warplanes she had already purchased. FDR’s message: This is your war, not ours.
Britain’s lack of an army, France’s lack of will, and lack of support from America, Australia, Canada, and South Africa meant Britain and France could not prevail against Germany. In May 1938, in the un-kindest cut of all, Belgian troops maneuvered on the French frontier, as the Belgian foreign minister put it, to “show you that if you come our way in order to support Czechoslovakia, you will run up against the Belgian army.”74
Even should Britain and France together fight Germany to a standstill in France, what would be the purpose of the war? To restore the status quo ante and return the Sudeten Germans to a Czech rule 80 percent of them wished to be rid of? That would only replicate the folly of Versailles and set the stage for yet another crisis. As the British minister in Prague, Basil Newton, wrote, should Britain go to war, the most that could be accomplished was to “restore after a lengthy struggle a status quo which had already proved unacceptable and which, even if restored, would probably again prove unworkable.”75
The brutal truth: The Sudeten Germans wanted to be reunited with their kinsmen and could not forever be denied. And as Britain now believed the decision to deliver them to Prague had been a blunder, why fight a war to perpetuate a blunder? Neither the British nation nor empire, wrote Henderson, would have supported war on Germany to deny Germans the right of self-determination the Allies had so loudly preached at Paris.76
Chamberlain had another motive in going to Munich. He believed the key to peace lay in addressing the grievances of Germany and rectifying the wrongs of Versailles, and he wanted to be the British statesman who restored Germany to her rightful position as a Great Power and converted her into a partner in peace. If this required the return of all German lands and peoples, should they wish to return, Chamberlain would facilitate it, if done peacefully. This is why historian Taylor came in 1961 to plea-bargain on behalf of the appeasers he had opposed at the time of Munich:
Historians do a bad day’s work when they write the appeasers off as stupid or as cowards. They were men confronted with real problems, doing their best in the circumstances of their time. They recognized that an independent and powerful Germany had somehow to be fitted into Europe. Later experience suggests that they were right.77
Had Hitler gone about the in-gathering, by negotiation and plebiscite, of all the lost peoples and provinces of Germany and Austria—the Saar, the Rhineland, the Sudetenland, Danzig, the Corridor, Memel—Britain would have accommodated him. A war to block the unification of the Germans in a national home would not have been acceptable to the British people. Wilson had preached his doctrine of self-determination all too well.
Nor was Chamberlain alone in this conviction. While appeasement is today a synonym for craven cowardice in the face of evil, appeasement as a policy predated Chamberlain. As Andrew Roberts writes in his biography of Halifax, “Although today it is considered shameful and craven, the policy of appeasement once occupied almost the whole moral high ground. The word was originally synonymous with idealism, magnanimity of the victor and the willingness to right wrongs.”78
Henderson described appeasement as “the search for just solutions by negotiation in the light of higher reason instead of by resort to force.”79 Eden, a four-year veteran of the trenches and the toast of the League of Nations Union, who had lost two brothers in the war, described his policy as “the appeasement of Europe as a whole.”80 By appeasement, Eden meant
what liberal opinion had endorsed since Versailles—the removal of the causes of war by the remedy of justified grievances. Thus Eden acquiesced in Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936. True, it was a violation of the Versailles Treaty—but who now defended its one-sided and obsolescent provisions, denying Germany full control of its own territory? True, it had been achieved by force—but who wanted to take back from Hitler what would otherwise have been conceded to him across the conference table with a handshake from a smiling Eden?81
WHY DID FRANCE NOT FIGHT?
BELATEDLY, FRANCE HAD AWAKENED to the realization that her eastern allies might not be strategic assets at all, but potentially lethal liabilities. Having lost her great ally, Czarist Russia, France had looked on Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia as new allies who would fight on her side if Germany invaded Alsace. She now began to realize that France could be dragged into a war with Germany to defend them. The French had always asked, “How can our eastern allies help us?” not “How can we help them?”
France was in another dilemma. Her British assurances took effect only if she acted defensively. But to protect her eastern allies, she had to go on the attack. Her insurance policies thus canceled each other out. If she attacked Germany to aid Poland or Czechoslovakia, she lost Britain. If she remained inside the Maginot Line to await a German attack, she abandoned and lost her eastern allies, whom one historian dismissed as three small hens penned up with a large fox harboring a grievance. Wrote historian Correlli Barnett brutally but accurately, “The French system of alliances…rested on strategic nonsense.”82
By the 1930s, German and British assessments of Versailles and the requirements of peace had converged. Hitler argued that Germany had been dealt with unjustly at Versailles after she laid down her arms. Chamberlain did not disagree. Writes Ernest May,
Abhorring Lloyd George, the British prime minister who was partly accountable for the Versailles Treaty, Chamberlain adopted every chapter of the “revisionist” critique. He believed that emotion had ruled in the 1919 peacemaking, that Germans have been wronged in ways harmful to the world economy and dangerous both politically and economically. He deemed Hitler’s grievances real and Hitler’s demands not unreasonable.83
The British people, too, wished to right the wrongs of Versailles. If that meant granting self-determination to the German-speaking peoples of the Sudetenland, they approved. Appeasement of a Germany they now believed to have been wronged was broadly supported. But with appeasement came the old insoluble problem—and several new ones.
First, restoration of German lands and peoples to the Reich, even if done by plebiscite, meant reconstituting the Germany of Bismarck and the Kaiser that almost defeated a coalition of Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Italy, and the United States. Second, restoring lost German provinces and peoples meant that two allies of France, Czechoslovakia and Poland, must undergo amputation. How were Britain and France to persuade Czechoslovakia to surrender the Sudetenland or Poland to give up Danzig?
The third problem with appeasement was that the new chancellor of Germany was no Ebert, Stresemann, or Brüning. The Hitler of Mein Kampf had made it starkly clear that overturning Versailles and bringing Germans home to the Reich was not the end of his life’s mission. Having let slip the chance to accommodate German democrats, Britain and France now had to deal with a coarse, brutal German dictator who had cold-bloodedly executed the comrades who had helped hoist him to power.
The Allies had been warned of what they were inviting. But they had not listened. Shortly before his death, “exhausted and disillusioned,” Gustav Stresemann, the widely respected German foreign minister, summed up his dealings with the Allies: “I gave and gave and gave until my followers turned against me…. If they could have granted me just one concession, I would have won my people. But they gave nothing…. That is my tragedy and their crime.”84
Thus, long before he flew to Munich for his final meeting, Chamberlain had come to believe that keeping the Sudeten Germans under a Czech rule they despised was not worth a war. And even should Britain go to war, she could not prevent German annexation of the Sudetenland. So, to make a virtue of necessity, he would fly to Munich and effect the peaceful transfer. While there, he would persuade Hitler that German grievances for the return of peoples who wished to belong to the Reich could be met, if only Hitler would renounce force. “Halifax had already visited Germany and had assured Hitler that Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia could be settled in Germany’s favour, provided that there were no ‘far-reaching disturbances.’”85
Finally, after Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, Britain, France, and Germany would guarantee the remnant of Czechoslovakia in which Hitler had professed no interest. An Eastern Locarno. But this guarantee raised a logical question. If Britain and France could not prevent amputation of the Sudetenland, how could they prevent Hitler from overrunning the remnant of Czechoslovakia after it had been stripped of its mountain fortifications, should he decide to occupy that as well?
Thus did Chamberlain volunteer to officiate at the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany—rather than have Hitler take it by force.
AT THE TIME OF MUNICH, Churchill was frozen out of Chamberlain’s Cabinet but still in Parliament and a voice heard not only in England but in Germany and the world. And the more insistent the demands of Hitler, the wider and more attentive his audience.
What alternative did Churchill offer?
Self-determination be damned! Rather than force the Czechs to give up the Sudetenland, Britain should go to war. Yet, in Churchill’s position, there was a contradiction. If Britain was as inferior to Germany in airpower as he had proclaimed, and she had no army in Europe, how could she win Churchill’s war? How could Britain, with two divisions that could be sent to France, stop fifty German divisions from overrunning a Czechoslovakia bordered on three sides by Germany and that harbored a fifth column of three million ethnic Germans? Churchill’s answer: an alliance with Stalin.
But no Western statesman had been more eloquent than Churchill in excoriating Bolshevism. He had described the 1917 decision of the German General Staff to transport Lenin in the famous sealed train from Switzerland across Germany as comparable to having introduced a “plague bacillus” into Russia, adding, “[I]n the cutting off of the lives of men and women, no Asiatic conqueror, not Tamerlane, not Jengiz Khan, can match the fame” of Lenin.86
Since Lenin’s death, Stalin had surpassed him in mass murders that included the forced starvation of the Ukrainians and the Great Terror that began with the torture, show trials, and executions of his revolutionary comrades and went on to consume hundreds of thousands of lives. Was Churchill willing to ally the Mother of Parliaments with this monster?
If Churchill’s assessment of Hitler’s character and Munich were spot-on, his strategic alternative—bring the Red Army into Europe to stop him—appalled Chamberlain, who despised and distrusted the Bolsheviks more than the Nazis and Fascists. Forced to choose between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union controlling Eastern and Central Europe, he would have preferred the former. “Better Hitler than Stalin” was a sentiment shared by leaders of all the nations bordering on Stalin’s empire: Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Rumania. They had all heard the screams from over the border. Living next door, they had none of the romantic illusions about a “brave new world” held by British Labourites and American liberals.
By Munich, when the number of Hitler’s victims still numbered in the hundreds, Stalin had murdered millions in his “prison house of nations” stretching from Ukraine to the Pacific. Chamberlain also believed any alliance with Russia meant certain war with Germany, a war from which Hitler or Stalin would emerge as master of Eastern and Central Europe. Neither result, Chamberlain thought, was worth Britain’s fighting another horrific European war. Here, too, argues Taylor, Chamberlain and the appeasers were prescient:
Again the appeasers feared that the defeat of Germany would be followed by a Russian domination over much of Europe. Later experience suggests that they were right here also. Only those who wanted Soviet Russia to take the place of Germany are entitled to condemn the “appeasers” and I cannot understand how most of those who condemn them are now equally indignant at the inevitable result of their failure.87
In 1938, Chamberlain perceived clearly and correctly the probable outcome of a war with Nazi Germany that Churchill would not perceive until 1944 and 1945. The only force that could save Czechoslovakia in September 1938 was the Red Army. But how does bringing the Bolsheviks’ Red Army into Czechoslovakia save Czechoslovakia?
Nor were the Poles or Rumanians willing to let the Red Army tramp through to save the Czechs. They believed—rightly, it turned out—that if the Red Army came into Europe, it would not go home and they would lose their freedom. Eastern and Central Europe preferred the risks of a German invasion to the certain horrors of a Russian rescue.
But if Chamberlain’s strategic assessment was right and Britain’s vital interests dictated staying out of a war for the Sudetenland, why was Munich a disaster? Why is Chamberlain virtually without defenders?
THE GODESBERG MEETING
CHAMBERLAIN’S FAILURE LAY NOT in his refusal to take Britain to war with Germany over the Sudetenland. There he was right. His failure was in how he behaved at Munich and after Munich.
The prime minister made three trips to Germany that September to persuade Hitler to agree to a plebiscite and the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland to the Reich. On his first, to Berchtesgaden, he had received Hitler’s demands and taken them back to England, where he won Cabinet acceptance. Chamberlain then returned to meet Hitler at Bad Godesberg, to report on the success of his mission to London.
This meeting was held in a hotel kept by one Dreesen, a backer of the Nazi cause. As Henderson relates, it was at Dreesen’s hotel that Hitler “had taken the decision for the ‘blood bath’ of June 1934, and it was thence that he flew with Goebbels to Munich for the arrest and execution of Roehm.”88
At Godesberg, Chamberlain was shaken by the new truculence and intransigence of Hitler. The Fuehrer announced that acceding to his earlier demands was now insufficient. He threatened an immediate occupation of the Sudetenland and war should he meet resistance. Chamberlain replied that Britain could not accept an outcome imposed by naked force. When Neville Chamberlain returned with Hitler’s new demands, the Cabinet rejected them. The French rejected them. The Czechs rejected them.
As Chamberlain did not want the error of 1914 repeated, where the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg were still uncertain, in the final hours before war, whether Britain would fight, he sent Sir Horace Wilson to read Hitler a clear message. If Germany invaded, and the Czechs resisted, and France honored her word to Prague, Britain would fight at France’s side in a new European war. Facing Hitler directly, Wilson read him this message:
The French Government has told us that in the case of a German attack against Czechoslovakia it will faithfully fulfill its obligations. If in carrying out these obligations deriving from its treaties, France became actively engaged in hostilities against Germany, the United Kingdom would feel obliged to come to her aid.89
In Dark Summer, Gene Smith describes Hitler’s reaction as Wilson slowly read to him Chamberlain’s note.
“So! That settles it!” shouted Hitler. “Now I will really smash the Czechs.”90 Hitler’s interpreter Paul Schmidt had never seen him so out of control. “That old shit-hound must be crazy if he thinks he can influence me in this way,” Hitler said of Chamberlain.91
Lord Salisbury. “Isolation is much less dangerous than the danger of being dragged into wars which do not concern us.” (Getty)
Otto von Bismarck. “[Germany] has hay enough for her fork.” (Getty)
Sir Edward Grey. “If we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer if we stand aside.” (Getty)
David Lloyd George. “I never want to be cheered by a war crowd.” (Getty)
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. “Winston…has got on all his war paint…. The whole thing fills me with sadness.”(Getty)
Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. “My God! This is living History…. I would not be out of this glorious delicious war for anything the world could give me.” (Getty)
Kaiser Wilhelm II. “It is not I who bears the responsibility for the disaster which now threatens the entire civilized world.” (Getty)
King Edward VII. “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is.” —Kaiser Wilhelm II (Getty)
Admiral Tirpitz. “This war is really the greatest lunacy ever committed by the white races.” (Getty)
(Left to right) Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson. “Those three all-powerful, all-ignorant men…carving continents with only a child to lead them.” —Arthur Balfour (Getty)
Marshal Ferdinand Foch. “This is not peace, it is an armistice for twenty years.” (Getty)
Prime Minister William “Billy” Hughes of Australia. “You propose to substitute for the Anglo-Japanese alliance and the overwhelming power of the British Navy a Washington conference?” (Corbis)
First Sea Lord Earl Beatty. “That extraordinary fellow Winston has gone mad.” (Corbis)
Arthur Balfour at the Washington Naval Conference (second from right). Severing the Anglo-Japanese alliance “was an act of breathtaking stupidity.” —U.S. historian Arthur Herman (Getty)
Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. “A war with Japan!…I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.” (Getty)
Mussolini and Hitler in Venice, June 1934. “What a clown this Hitler is.” —Benito Mussolini (Library of Congress)
Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. “Hitler is the murderer of Dollfuss…a horrible sexual degenerate, a dangerous fool.” —Benito Mussolini, August 1934 (Getty)
King George V. “I will not have another war. I will not. The last one was none of my doing.” (Getty)
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. “With two lunatics like Mussolini and Hitler, you can never be sure of anything…. I am determined to keep the country out of war.” (Getty)
(Left to right) Foreign Minister Pierre Laval of France, Mussolini, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald of Great Britain, and French prime minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin at Stresa, Italy, 1935. “The Stresa front has been shaken, if not, indeed dissolved.” —Winston Churchill, 1935 (Corbis)
Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. “[T]he greatness of his office will find him out…. I think you will now see what a lightweight Eden is.” —Winston Churchill (Getty)
Hitler and Lord Halifax at Berchtesgaden. “Shoot Gandhi!” —Adolf Hitler
Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. “This Schuschnigg was a harder bone than I first thought.” —Adolf Hitler (Getty)
Hermann Göring. “[H]is personality…was frankly attractive, like a great schoolboy.” —Lord Halifax, 1937 (Getty)
(Left to right) Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, and Mussolini in Munich. “I got the impression that he was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” —Chamberlain on Hitler, September 1938 (Getty)
Chamberlain at Heston Aerodrome, 1938. “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Here is a paper which bears his name.” (Getty)
Czech president Eduard Benes?. Hitler was gripped by “a burning rage to get even…with President Benes?, who, he believed, had deliberately humiliated him.” —historian William Shirer (Getty)
Colonel Jozef Beck of Poland. “If Beck was at fault as a diplomat, the fault lay…in his naïve belief in the sincerity of Allied guarantees and assurances.” —historian Norman Davies (Getty)
(Left to right) Count Ciaro, Lord Halifax, Chamberlain, and Mussolini in January 1939. “These…are the tired sons of a long line of rich men, and they will lose their empire.” —Benito Mussolini (Corbis)
Hitler in Prague, March 1939. “It is the greatest triumph of my life! I shall enter history as the greatest German of them all!” (Getty)
Sir Nevile Henderson (left) and Hermann Göring. “It was the final shipwreck of my mission to Berlin…. Hitler had crossed the Rubicon.” (Getty)
Virgil Tilea, Romania’s minister in London. Instigator of panic. (Getty)
Adolf Hitler on the eve of war, September 1939. “The last thing that Hitler wanted to produce was another great war.” —B. H. Liddell Hart (Getty)
CHURCHILL: “Have you forgiven me?”
STALIN: “It is not for me to forgive. It is for God to forgive.” (Corbis)
“If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.” —Churchill on Hitler, 1937 (Getty)
Man of the Century? “Historians are apt to judge war ministers less by the victories achieved under their direction than by the political results which flowed from them. Judged by that standard, I am not sure that I shall be held to have done very well.” (Getty)
A shaken Wilson replied that his prime minister was only interested in peace. At this, Hitler shouted, “The comments of his ass-kissers do not interest me…. All that interests me are my people who are being tortured by that dirty———Beneš. I will not stand it any longer! It is more than a good German can bear! Do you hear me, you stupid pig?”92
Hitler shouted that the Germans “were being treated like niggers; one would not dare treat even Turks like that.”93
That night, in a speech at the Sportspalast that Alan Bullock calls a “masterpiece of invective which even he never surpassed,” Hitler gave a catalog of his diplomatic achievements—from his pact with Poland, to the Anglo-German Naval Treaty, to the renunciation of Alsace-Lorraine, the friendship with Italy, the peaceful annexation of Austria.94 “And now before us stands the last problem that must be solved and will be solved. It is the last territorial claim which I have to make in Europe, but it is the claim from which I will not recede, and, God willing, I will make good.”95
With the Czech allegations of his cowardice in the May crisis in mind, Hitler now turned the new crisis into a test of manhood between himself and Eduard Beneš:
Now two men stand arrayed one against the other: there is Herr Benes, and here am I. We are two men of a different make up. In the great struggle of the peoples, while Herr Benes was sneaking about through the world, I as a decent German did my duty. And now today I stand over against this man as a soldier of my people…. The world must take note that in four and a half years of war, and through the long years of my political life, there is one thing which no one could ever cast in my teeth: I have never been a coward. Now I go before my people as its first soldier, and behind me—this the world should know—there marches a different people from that of 1918.
We are determined!96
Hitler had overreached.
Though the democracies were not strong enough to defeat him, they suddenly seemed ready to fight. At Chamberlain’s direction, First Lord Duff Cooper ordered mobilization of the fleet.97 France and Czechoslovakia began to mobilize. Their armies would outnumber Hitler’s two-to-one. Mussolini was doing nothing to pin down French divisions on the Italian border. “What Hitler did know,” writes Shirer, “was that Prague was defiant, Paris rapidly mobilizing, London stiffening, his own people apathetic, his leading generals dead against him, and that his ultimatum [to the Czechs to accept]…the Godesberg proposals expired at 2 P.M. the next day.”98
On September 27, an event in Berlin caused Hitler to reconsider and back away from war. Nevile Henderson describes it in his memoirs:
A chance episode had…produced a salutary revulsion in Hitler’s mind. In the afternoon of that Tuesday, a mechanized division had rumbled through the streets of Berlin and up the Wilhelmstrasse past the Chancellor’s window. For three hours Hitler stood at his window, and watched it pass. The Germans love military display, but not a single individual in the streets applauded its passage. The picture which it represented was almost that of a hostile army passing through a conquered city. Hitler was deeply impressed. At that moment he realized for the first time that the cheers of his sycophants in the Sportspalast were far from representing the true spirit and feelings of the German People.99
Hitler was heard to mutter, “I can’t wage war with this nation yet.”100 Bluff called, Hitler sat down and wrote to Chamberlain, urging him not to give up his efforts for a peaceful resolution.
On September 28, as he spoke in the House of Commons of how “horrible, fantastic, incredible that we should be digging ditches and trying on gas masks because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” the prime minister was interrupted. He stopped speaking, read a note, and then, in what Harold Nicolson said was one of the most dramatic moments he ever witnessed, Chamberlain announced: “Herr Hitler has just agreed to postpone his mobilisation for twenty-four hours and meet me in conference with Signor Mussolini and Signor [sic] Daladier at Munich.”101
For a while there was silence and then the whole House of Commons broke into ecstatic cheering and sobbing. Churchill went up to Chamberlain and said to him, sourly, “I congratulate you on your good fortune. You were very lucky.”102
On that third and final trip to Munich, according to aides present, Hitler was surly, angry, rude, brusque. Lord Dunglass, the future prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, described it as the worst experience of his career. Never had he expected to see a British prime minister treated in the manner that Adolf Hitler treated Neville Chamberlain.103
Which raises the question still unanswered by history.
How could Chamberlain believe that by getting the signature of such a man on a three-sentence statement, he had created a bond of trust and he and Hitler would now work together for peace in Europe? When Hitler said the Sudetenland was his last territorial demand, did Chamberlain think he had given up Danzig and Memel? Given Mein Kampf, Hitler’s record as a leader of street thugs who had attempted a putsch in Bavaria, his Night of the Long Knives, his trashing of Locarno, his warmongering at Godesberg, his crudity at Munich, why did Chamberlain trust him not to do what he had boasted repeatedly he intended to do?
Chamberlain was right in believing the Sudetenland not worth a war. He was wrong in believing that by surrendering it to Hitler he had bought anything but time, which he should have used to rally Britain. A good man who wanted peace, he deceived himself into believing he had achieved it. Instead of returning home and reporting that, while war had been averted, Britain must prepare for the worst, Chamberlain came home boasting that he had brought back “peace for our time.” Devastating to his reputation in history, Chamberlain then presented himself to the nation as the only leader who really understood and could deal with Hitler.
Chamberlain staked his place in history on his assessment that Hitler was a man he could do business with and trust to keep his word. Returning from Berchtesgaden, he had told Parliament: “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”104
After Godesberg, Chamberlain assured the Cabinet that Hitler “would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected and with whom he had been in negotiation.”105
Thus did Chamberlain permit himself to be made history’s fool. Thus did he morally disarm his people, who were so desperate to avoid war they were ready to be deceived. By reveling in the celebration of Munich, Chamberlain disarmed himself. He could not now say what had to be said. He could not now do what had to be done: tell the nation it must sacrifice and prepare, for war with Germany was now a possibility and, if British vital interests were imperiled, a certainty. But having declared he had brought home “peace for our time,” how could Chamberlain ask the British to sacrifice to finance the weapons of war? As Sir Harold Nicolson mused, “It is difficult to say: ‘This is the greatest diplomatic achievement in history, therefore we must redouble our armament in order never again to be exposed to such humiliation.’”106 Chamberlain had put all Britain’s eggs in one basket and handed it to Hitler, who, within hours of Munich, was cursing him for having robbed him of the pleasure of smashing the Czechs and exacting vengeance upon Beneš.
Chamberlain was a perfect foil for Hitler—and for Churchill, who, in the euphoria of Munich, declared that Britain had concluded a shameful betrayal and Hitler would digest the Sudetenland and be back for more: “We have sustained a great defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us. We have passed an awful milestone in our history. And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning.”107
In January 1939, Chamberlain went to Rome to confer with the Italian dictator he had met at Munich. He returned satisfied that he had established a rapport. He had asked Il Duce for his thoughts on Hitler. In the Cabinet minutes, Chamberlain described the Duce’s response:
[He, Mussolini] had never taken the opportunity offered to him, but had remained throughout absolutely loyal to Herr Hitler. The Prime Minister said that at the time he had been somewhat disappointed at this attitude, but on reflection he thought that it reflected credit in Signor Mussolini’s character.108
Chamberlain thought it a “truly wonderful visit.”109 In describing his British guests to his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Count Ciano, Mussolini had taken away another impression: “These men are not made of the same stuff as the Francis Drakes and the other magnificent adventurers who created the empire. These, after all, are the tired sons of a long line of rich men, and they will lose their empire.”110
THE FAILURE OF APPEASEMENT
HAD THE BALDWIN-CHAMBERLAIN POLICY of redressing grievances and accommodating legitimate demands been adopted by Britain before 1933, when Germany was ruled by democrats, it might have worked. With their face cards stripped from their hands by Allied magnanimity, Hitler and the Nazis might never have come to power. But once they did, and began to bang the table, Germans concluded it was Allied fear of Hitler and of them that made them so reasonable now. What doomed Chamberlain’s policy was that, in Hitler and his Nazi cohorts, he was confronted by hard, coarse men, full of resentment, who preferred brutality to get what they wanted, who relished humiliating the weak, and whose ambitions extended beyond what Britain could assent to. Hitler knew he would prevail at Munich, said Henderson, for he had put himself in his adversaries’ shoes. Henderson describes Hitler’s thinking:
In September…[Hitler] had not believed that…the French nation would be ready to fight for the Czechs or that England would fight if the French did not. He argued as follows: Would the German nation willingly go to war for General Franco in Spain, if France intervened on the side of the Republican Government at Valencia? The answer that he gave himself is that it would not; and he was consequently convinced that no democratic French Government would be strong enough to lead the French nation to war for the Czechs. That was the basis of his calculations, and his policy was in accordance therewith.111
Hitler’s calculation proved correct. The German generals who were near panic over the prospect of a war over the Sudetenland were discredited.
Though Czechoslovakia had a powerful army, Beneš, abandoned by the British and French, did not order it to resist. Unlike Schuschnigg, who remained in Vienna to face Hitler’s wrath, Eduard Beneš fled.
With Austria and the Sudetenland now his, Hitler in 1938 had added ten million Germans to the Reich without firing a shot. It was a Bismarckian achievement. Yet it is a myth to say Munich led directly to World War II. It was a diplomatic debacle, but it was not why Britain went to war.
The casus belli of World War II emanated from a decision, six months later, that would drag England into a six-year death struggle at the wrong time, in the wrong place, for the wrong reason. That decision would prove the greatest blunder in British history.