Was Chamberlain Correct?

What do you make of this revisionist history of Chamberlain, taking away the stain of his “appeasement”? Could this be the right view,  a new look at a key negotiation fail leading up to WWII?

His­to­ri­ans often find them­selves mov­ing against pop­u­lar opin­ion. In the case of Cham­ber­lain, though, the gap between pub­lic per­cep­tion and the his­tor­i­cal record serves a polit­i­cal pur­pose. The story we’re told about Munich is one about the futil­i­ty and fool­ish­ness of search­ing for peace. In Amer­i­can polit­i­cal debates, the words “appease­ment” and “Munich” are used to blud­geon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dic­ta­tor is not Hitler. Should we real­ly fault Cham­ber­lain for post­pon­ing a poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous fight that his mil­i­tary advis­ers cau­tioned against, his allies weren’t ready for, and his peo­ple didn’t sup­port? “Peo­ple should try to put them­selves into the posi­tion of the head of the British gov­ern­ment in the 1930s,” Dut­ton says. “Would they have taken the appar­ent­ly huge risk of a war [that] might mean Armaged­don for a cause that nobody was real­ly con­vinced in?” Cham­ber­lain’s story is of a man who fought for peace as long as pos­si­ble, and went to war only when it was the last avail­able option. It’s not such a bad epi­taph.

via Slate, “Neville Chamberlain Was Right…”

And no less an austere body than Intelligence Squared has adjudicated the topic:


7 thoughts on “Was Chamberlain Correct?”

  1. This article really opened up my eyes to looking at the situation in a new way. The rise of the Third Reich is always inexorably linked to its obvious militaristic aspirations and suppression of minorities. However, many saw Hitler as a savior, a man who could get them out of the slump post-WWI debts caused them. These debts, as the article mentioned, seemed exorbitant even to the countries that enforced them.
    I agree with the article that Chamberlain really had no other choice. With the US firmly out of any kind of military action, its empire crumbling, and its military essentially powerless, they could not risk an engagement against a power that had proved itself to be both economically powerful and militarily poised. The concession of an already German land to Germany would have seemed like enough of an appeasement to stop any military campaigns, a huge relief to an already taxed state. If nothing else, it bought England enough time to update and revitalize its military.

  2. The intro to the book “Telling Lies” talks about this negotiation, although more from the aspect of how deceit works and the sign that show up when we lie. Hitler was a master liar, and Chamberlain was hoping for peace, and so would be biased to see truth when Hitler gave his pledge of peaceful intentions. I think it this article puts it well when it says that Chamberlain fought for peace as long as possible, and used war as the last resort. If only there was a way to know when to fight and when not to.

  3. It’s definitely important to consider things from different angles, but this article didn’t impact my view of Chamberlain much. He went with appeasement, which at the time was the popular view. Not going to war is almost always going to be the most popular view with the public, and the best for your political career. The issue is he ignored the growing threat that Germany posed. A country that had started the Great War two decades earlier had been banned from having a sizable military, and yet at this point their strength surpassed Britain’s? That alone should be enough of a troubling sign that he shouldn’t have given them any more land, especially considering the fact that Britain was allied with Czechoslovakia and also that Czechoslovakia wasn’t invited to Munich to discuss THEIR lands being given away.

  4. 75-years after the start of WWII, it is very easy to critique the way Prime Minister Chamberlin handled Nazi Germany, simply because we know how it all panned out. We know that Hitler never intended to keep the peace, we know that he intended to commit genocide, and we know that he planned to wage war against the world. What we often forget though, is that in the 1930s, the British government knew none of this, and was simply trying to work with the information they had. The “appeasement” that followed may have actually been one of the smartest diplomatic moves made in the last century.

    As mentioned in the article, Great Britain had gone though a world war only 20 years previous, and so public support for a war at that time could not have been lower. By waiting until Hitler made the first move, Prime Minister Chamberlin almost guaranteed public support for the massive war effort. In addition, this secured the support of his Allies, and provided time to prepare for war. In the end, I am not sure what may have come of WWII had Chamberlin gone to war in 1938. It is for this reason that British “appeasement” during the 1930s should be remembered as one of the reasons we won the war.

    1. I’m not sure how the appeasement could possibly be considered one of the smartest diplomatic moves of the 20th century. You are incorrect when you say that the British government knew none of this. Winston Churchill knew it, and he took the unpopular (but correct) position. Churchill was secretly being given access to the same confidential info that Chamberlain had, but Chamberlain worried more about his political career. In fact, after Churchill gave a speech in Parliament (in regards to you saying they didn’t know Hitler intended to commit genocide) about the treatment of German Jews by Hitler, Chamberlain said, “Well, to listen to Mr. Churchill, you’d think that Hitler wanted to kill every Jew in Europe.” Sounds like Churchill had it right.

      Additionally, to act like there was no choice or that it was a no-brainer is incorrect. Immediately after the Munich agreement Churchill said this, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Again, Churchill had it right.

  5. There’s a lot of evidence that the RAF was not ready to face the Luftwaffe in 1938. The British spent 1938-1940 rushing to prepare for the Battle of Britain. Chamberlain was following the advice of his top staff on this point, and it seems like a sound move from the standpoint of military strategy.

    Chamberlain’s errors regarding the full scope of Hitler’s intentions is worth criticizing, but those errors did not stop him from preparing for war.

  6. Neville Chamberlain has become one of history’s favorite punching bags. While I don’t think he acted correctly by choosing to appease Germany, I also think he could not have possibly imagined what would enfold in the next few years. And with World War I still a vivid, horrible memory in the lives of the British people, I can definitely sympathize with his line of thinking. However, society should learn from his mistake. Countries and tyrannical regimes must be held accountable for their actions and past agreements. Almost nobody likes war, but its necessary for preserving the lives and freedoms of many people. Quoting George Santayana, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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