Appeasement has been the subject of debate for eighty years among academics and politicians. The historian's assessment of Chamberlain has ranged from condemnation to the judgment that he had no alternative and acted in Britain's best interests. The word "appeasement" has been used as a synonym for cowardice since the 1930s and it is still used that sense today as a justification for firm, often armed, action in international relations.
Chamberlain's policy of appeasement emerged out of the weakness of the League of Nations and the failure of collective security. The League of Nations was set up in the aftermath of the First World War in the hope that international cooperation and collective resistance to aggression might prevent another war. Members of the League were entitled to the assistance of other members if they came under attack. The policy of collective security ran in parallel with measures to achieve international disarmament and where possible was to be based on economic sanctions against an aggressor. It appeared to be ineffectual when confronted by the aggression of dictators, notably the Empire of Japan's invasion of Manchuria, German Führer Adolf Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland, and Italian leader Benito Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia.
In September 1931, League member Japan invaded Manchuria, a Chinese province. China appealed to the League and the United States for assistance. The Council of the League asked the parties to withdraw to their original positions to permit a peaceful settlement. The U.S. reminded them of their duty under the Kellogg-Briand Pact to settle matters peacefully. Japan was undeterred and went on to occupy the whole of Manchuria. The League set up a commission of inquiry that condemned Japan, the League duly adopting the report in February 1933. Japan resigned from the League and continued its advance into China. Neither the League nor the United States took any action. "Their inactivity and ineffectualness in the Far East lent every encouragement to European aggressors who planned similar acts of defiance."
In March 1936, in a challenge to the Versailles Settlement, Hitler sent German troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. It was a gamble for Hitler and many of his advisers opposed it. German officers had orders to withdraw if they met French resistance, but there was none. France consulted Britain and lodged protests with the League. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said that Britain lacked the forces to back its guarantees to France and that public opinion would not allow it. In Britain it was thought that the Germans were merely walking into "their own back yard". Hugh Dalton, a Labour Party Member of Parliament who usually advocated stiff resistance to Germany, said that neither the British people nor Labour would support either military or economic sanctions. In the Council of the League, only the Soviet Union proposed sanctions against Germany. Hitler was invited to negotiate. He proposed a non-aggression pact with the Western powers. When asked for details he did not reply. Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland had persuaded him that the international community would not resist him and put Germany in a powerful strategic position.
Mussolini had imperial ambitions in Abyssinia. Italy was already in possession of neighbouring Eritrea and Somaliland. In December 1934 there was a clash between Italian and Abyssinian troops at Walwal, near the border between British and Italian Somaliland, in which Italian troops took possession of the disputed territory and in which 150 Abyssinians and 50 Italians were killed. When Italy demanded apologies and compensation from Abyssinia, Abyssinia appealed to the League. The League persuaded both sides to seek a settlement under a friendship treaty they had signed in 1928, but Italy continued troop movements and Abyssinia appealed to the League again. In October 1935 Mussolini launched an attack on Abyssinia. The League declared Italy to be the aggressor and imposed sanctions, but coal and oil were not included; blocking these, it was thought, would provoke war. Albania, Austria and Hungary refused to apply sanctions; Germany and the United States were not in the League. Nevertheless, the Italian economy suffered.
In April 1935 Italy had joined Britain and France in protesting against Germany's rearmament. France was anxious to placate Mussolini so as to keep him away from an alliance with Germany. Britain was less hostile to Germany, set the pace in imposing sanctions and moved a naval fleet into the Mediterranean. But in November 1935, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare and the French Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, had secret discussions in which they agreed to concede two-thirds of Abyssinia to Italy. A public outcry forced Hoare and Laval to resign. In May 1936, undeterred by sanctions, Italy captured Addis Ababa, the Abyssinian capital, and proclaimed Victor Emmanuel III the Emperor of Ethiopia. In July the League abandoned sanctions. This episode, in which sanctions were incomplete and appeared to be easily given up, seriously discredited the League.
Under the Versailles Settlement, Czechoslovakia was created, including the Sudetenland, which had a large German population. In April 1938, Sudeten Nazis, led by Konrad Henlein agitated for autonomy. Chamberlain, faced with the danger of a German intervention, warned Hitler that Britain might intervene. Hitler ordered an attack on Czechoslovakia. Lord Runciman was sent by Chamberlain to mediate in Prague and persuaded the Czech government to grant the Sudetans virtual autonomy. Henlein broke off negotiations and Hitler railed against Prague.
In September, Chamberlain flew to Berchtesgaden to negotiate directly with Hitler, hoping to avoid war. Hitler now demanded that the Sudetenland should be absorbed into Germany, convincing Chamberlain that refusal meant war. Chamberlain, with France, told the Czech president that he must hand to Germany all territory with a German majority. Czechoslovakia would thus lose 800,000 citizens, much of its industry and its mountain defences in the west. In effect, the British and French pressed their ally to cede territory to a hostile neighbour.
Hitler then informed Chamberlain that Germany was about to occupy the Sudetenland and that the Czechoslovaks had to move out. The Czechoslovaks rejected the demand, as did the British and the French. Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to put the dispute to a four-power conference. Czechoslovakia was not to be a party to these talks. On 29 September, Hitler, Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier (the French Prime Minister) and Mussolini met in Munich. They agreed that Germany would complete its occupation of the Sudetenland, but an international commission would consider other disputed areas. Czechoslovakia was told that if it did not submit, it would stand alone. At Chamberlain's request Hitler signed a peace treaty between the United Kingdom and Germany. Chamberlain returned to England promising "peace for our time". The following March, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, divided among Germany, Hungary, Poland, and an independent Slovakia.
The failure of Munich precipitated a shift in policy and Chamberlain set in place preparations for war, including an expansion of civil defence. In March 1939 Chamberlain assured the Poles that Britain would support them if their independence was threatened. On 1 September Hitler invaded Poland and on 3 September Britain declared war on Germany.
Chamberlain's conduct of the war was not popular and on 9 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Chamberlain died on 9 November the same year. Churchill delivered a tribute to him in the House of Commons in which he said, "Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged."
Most Conservative politicians were in favor of appeasement, though Churchill says their supporters were divided. As Chamberlain left for Munich the whole House of Commons cheered him noisily. Churchill was unusual in believing that Germany menaced freedom and democracy and should be resisted over Czechoslovakia. A week before Munich he warned, "The partition of Czechoslovakia under pressure from England and France amounts to the complete surrender of the Western Democracies to the Nazi threat of force. Such a collapse will bring peace or security neither England nor to France."
Czechoslovakia did not concern most people until the middle of September 1938, when they began to object to a small democratic state being bullied. Nevertheless, the initial response of the British public to the Munich agreement was generally favorable. On 30 September, on his return to Britain, Chamberlain delivered his famous "peace for our time" speech to delighted crowds. He was invited by the royal family on to the balcony at Buckingham Palace before he had reported to Parliament. The agreement was supported by most of the press, only Reynold's News and the Daily Worker dissenting.
In parliament the Labour Party opposed the agreement. Some Conservatives abstained in the vote. The Conservative Duff Cooper, who had resigned from the government in protest against the agreement, was the only MP to advocate war.
The journalist Shiela Grant Duff's Penguin Special, Europe and the Czechs was published and distributed to every MP on the day that Chamberlain returned from Munich. Her book was a spirited defence of the Czech nation and a detailed criticism of British policy, confronting the need for war if necessary. It was influential and widely read. Although she argued against the policy of "peace at almost any price" she never actually used the word "appeasement" and did not take the personal tone that Guilty Men was to take two years later.
Once war broke out, appeasement was blamed for the failure to stop the dictators. The entry of Churchill as Prime Minister hardened opinion against Chamberlain. Three pro-Labour British journalists, Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard, writing under the name of "Cato" in their book Guilty Men, damned the policy of appeasement and called for the removal from office of every appeaser. The book defined appeasement as the "deliberate surrender of small nations in the face of Hitler's blatant bullying." It was hastily written and has few claims to historical scholarship, but Guilty Men shaped subsequent thinking about appeasement. This change in the meaning of "appeasement" after Munich was summarised later by the historian David Dilks: "The word in its normal meaning connotes the pacific settlement of disputes; in the meaning usually applied to the period of Neville Chamberlain premiership, it has come to indicate something sinister, the granting from fear or cowardice of unwarranted concessions in order to buy temporary peace at someone else's expense.
Historians have subsequently explained Chamberlain's policies in various ways. It could be said that he believed sincerely that the objectives of Hitler and Mussolini were limited and that the settlement of their grievances would protect the world from war; for safety, military and air power should be strengthened. Many have judged this belief to be fallacious, since the dictators' demands were not limited and appeasement gave them time to gain greater strength.
In 1961 this view of appeasement as avoidable error and cowardice was set on its head by A.J.P. Taylor in his book The Origins of the Second World War. Taylor argued that Hitler did not have a blueprint for war and was behaving much as any other German leader might have done. Appeasement was an active policy, and not a passive one; allowing Hitler to consolidate himself was a policy implemented by "men confronted with real problems, doing their best in the circumstances of their time". Taylor said that appeasement ought to be seen as a rational response to an unpredictable leader, suited to the time both diplomatically and politically.
His view has been shared by other historians, for example, Paul Kennedy, who says of the choices facing politicians at the time, "Each course brought its share of disadvantages: there was only a choice of evils. The crisis in the British global position by this time was such that it was, in the last resort, insoluble, in the sense that there was no good or proper solution." Martin Gilbert has expressed a similar view: "At bottom, the old appeasement was a mood of hope, Victorian in its optimism, Burkean in its belief that societies evolved from bad to good and that progress could only be for the better. The new appeasement was a mood of fear, Hobbesian in its insistence upon swallowing the bad in order to preserve some remnant of the good, pessimistic in its belief that Nazism was there to stay and, however horrible it might be, should be accepted as a way of life with which Britain ought to deal.
The arguments in Taylor's Origins of the Second World War (sometimes described as "revisionist") were rejected by many historians at the time and reviews of his book in the UK and USA were generally critical. Nevertheless, he was praised for some of his insights. By showing that appeasement was a popular policy and that there was continuity in British foreign policy after 1933, he shattered the common view of the appeasers as a small, degenerate clique that had mysteriously hijacked the British government sometime in the 1930s and who had carried out their policies in the face of massive public resistance; and by portraying the leaders of the 1930s as real people attempting to deal with real problems, he made the first strides towards attempting to explain the actions of the appeasers rather than merely to condemn them.
In the early 1990s a new theory of appeasement, sometimes called "counter-revisionist", emerged as historians argued that appeasement was probably the only choice for the British government in the 1930s, but that it was poorly implemented, carried out too late and not enforced strongly enough to constrain Hitler. Appeasement was considered a viable policy, considering the strains that the British Empire faced in recuperating from World War I, and Chamberlain was said to have adopted a policy suitable to Britain's cultural and political needs. McDonough, who represents this point of view, describes appeasement as a crisis management strategy seeking a peaceful settlement of Hitler's grievances. "Chamberlain's worst error," he says, "was to believe that he could march Hitler on the yellow brick road to peace when in reality Hitler was marching very firmly on the road to war."
U.S. President Harry S. Truman thus explained his decision to enter the Korean War in 1950, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden his confrontation of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Suez Crisis of 1956, U.S. President John F. Kennedy his "quarantine" of Cuba in 1962, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson his resistance to communism in Indochina in the 1960s, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan his air strike on Libya in 1986.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invoked the example of Churchill during the Falklands War of 1982: "When the American Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, urged her to reach a compromise with the Argentines she rapped sharply on the table and told him, pointedly, 'that this was the table at which Neville Chamberlain sat in 1938 and spoke of the Czechs as a faraway people about whom we know so little'."
The spectre of appeasement was raised in discussions of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair also cited Churchill's warnings about German rearmament to justify their action in the run-up to the 2003 Gulf War. In May 2008, Bush cautioned against "the false comfort of appeasement" when dealing with Iran and its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Standing up for appeasement: Alexander Rose argues that appeasement is a mark of civilization--it just doesn't work against enemies who don't share your values.
Mar 22, 2002; THE URGE to appease others--especially our enemies--is, perhaps, the noblest sentiment to which we can aspire. Indeed, the very...