Neville Chamberlain did not invent appeasement—but his fervent belief in it led a nation to disasterby Josh Ireland / May 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Not long after German troops marched into Austria in 1938, Ernest Tennant, one of many amateur diplomats who travelled from Britain to Germany during the 1930s, committed his thoughts to paper. “I still believe that it should not only be possible, but easy, to make friends with them. From 1933 to 1935 they looked upon Britain much as a new boy looks upon a house master—even today that feeling has by no means gone.” Imperial condescension has a long half-life.
As historian and journalist Tim Bouverie’s accomplished and lucid account shows, appeasement was, as much as anything else, a catastrophic failure of the imagination. It is easy to understand why men with vivid memories of the Great War might have found another global conflict unthinkable—especially now Britain had become a diminished power. But how did Britain’s political class misunderstand so completely the extent of Hitler’s ambitions, or the unprecedentedly cruel nature of the regime he led?
Psychology is at the centre of the narrative. (By contrast, although his face is on the cover, Churchill appears only as a disregarded voice on its margins.) Chamberlain did not invent appeasement, but became its most fervent apostle, a man convinced that he alone could save his country from disaster.
Bouverie points to Chamberlain’s arrogance and naivety—which were buttressed by fears about public opinion and Britain’s ability to fight another world war, and cocooned by a ruthlessly effective party machine—but these alone are not enough to account for his denial of reality. Even after the humiliation of Munich, even after Kristallnacht and the mass suicides by Jews that followed the Anschluss, even as German tanks rolled towards the Polish border, he still fantasised about disarmament talks: appeasement was a habit Chamberlain could not kick.
Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie is published by Bodley Head (£20)