BOOK OF THE WEEK
by Tim Bouverie (Bodley Head £20, 512 pp)
Can you imagine a nation split down the middle on a major political conundrum that would decide the course of its history?
A rancid, rancorous argument taking place among people and politicians in which each side abused the other as fools and knaves, idiots and traitors? Where friendships were broken and even families divided into rival camps? A Tory party locked in civil war?
No, not Brexit. The issue we’re talking about here was appeasement — what to do about the threat from Germany under Hitler; whether to confront him head on and risk war or try to compromise with him in the hope of preserving peace.
Tim Bouverie explores the divide in Britain during the height of Hitler’s power, as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (pictured after Munich) waved a piece of paper signed by Germany promising peace
As I made my way through Tim Bouverie’s impressive and very readable account of the war-or-peace debacle between 1933 and 1939, though he never mentions Brexit, I was struck forcibly by the similarities of that episode to the situation we now find ourselves in.
Not the characters involved. It would be a cheap shot to cast Theresa May as the vain, dogged, but also vacillating prime minister Neville Chamberlain and Boris Johnson as Winston Churchill (though some Leavers might be tempted to do so, especially Boris himself!). And to equate the EU, for all its faults, with the Third Reich, would be absurd.
But what the two situations have in common — apart from the magnitude of the policy decision that had to be made — were the deep divisions in the country, the toxic nature of the exchanges and the fact that each side was/is blindly certain of its own correctness.
Both persuasions had strong, plausible and moral arguments. Appeasers, scarred by the horrors of World War I trenches, were determined to avoid another blood-filled conflict at all costs, and resolved to make whatever concessions necessary to keep the peace.
They also felt strongly (and rightly) that the post-war emasculation of Germany by the greedy victors of 1918 had been unfair and needed to be put right.
Out of conscience, they did not stand up against Hitler’s creeping expansionism and did nothing when each red line — Germany re-arming, re-militarising the Rhineland, annexing Austria and absorbing a chunk of Czechoslovakia — was broken. Over-optimistically, they believed his promises to stop. Others seeking an understanding with Berlin argued, also with some validity, that Nazi Germany was an essential cushion against the greater threat posed by the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union.
The other side, the war party, led most vociferously by Churchill, were equally adamant that Hitler was the more immediate worry, that his ambition was not just to redress the wrongs done to Germany but to overrun Europe, that his totalitarian and anti-Semitic regime was cruel and immoral and that a squaring up to him was inevitable, sooner or later.
Anti-appeasers saw each nod of acquiescence to the dictator as a nail in our own coffin.
Neville Chamberlain (pictured left with Hitler) was heavily blamed when Hitler’s forces marched through France and threatened the Chanel in 1940
Events proved Churchill and co right, the appeasers wrong. As Hitler’s forces marched through France and threatened the Channel in 1940, the blame was heaped on Chamberlain, the man who made the wrong call. He was (and still often is) vilified as a weak individual whose actions (or, rather, inactions) betrayed the country.
As for the policy he had so resolutely pursued, appeasement became a dirty word. Guilty Men, a bestselling book published following Dunkirk in 1940, named Chamberlain as chief among those to blame. It set the tone not just in the minds of contemporaries, writes Bouverie, but for large swathes of posterity. It became the received wisdom.
Yet how quickly Chamberlain’s detractors forgot that, not long before, he had been hailed as a hero. Returning from his famous meeting with Hitler in Munich in September 1938, waving a piece of paper signed by Germany, with a promise of ‘peace for our time’, he was greeted not with scepticism for having sold out the Czechs but with mass adulation.
This rather quaint-looking Englishman, with his wing-collar, rolled umbrella and his passion for fly-fishing, was treated as if he were a returning Horatio Nelson. Ecstatic crowds cheered him as he stood with the King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
Choruses rang out of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, while in the House a fellow Tory MP described him as ‘the greatest European statesman of this or any other time’.
Not long before Hitler’s forces marched through France, Neville (pictured left with Hitler) had been praised for his attempts at keeping peace
Bouverie relates how ‘Chamberlain dolls’ flew off the shelves of toy shops and Downing Street was flooded with presents of cigars, champagne, pipes, kippers, salmon-flies, clocks and home-knitted socks for him.
His face was embossed on commemorative plates. The grateful French wanted to buy him a house in France with a trout stream.
Those who opposed his deal — such as Duff Cooper, who resigned from the Cabinet in protest, calling the Munich agreement ‘peace with terrible, unparalleled dishonour’ — were trashed. A cohort of 30 anti-appeaser Tory MPs faced de-selection in their outraged constituencies.
Novelist Barbara Cartland, sister of an anti-appeaser Tory MP, recalled how ‘people who were ordinarily calm and unpolitically-minded lost their tempers, were furious with those who disagreed with them, rude and offensive at the slightest provocation’.
Churchill and Cooper were denounced as ‘traitors who should be shot’ and Cooper grabbed one pro-appeasement MP by the throat.
Meanwhile, anti-appeaser Harold Macmillan showed the intensity of his feelings by gleefully burning an effigy of Chamberlain on his Guy Fawkes bonfire on November 5.
By the time Neville (pictured left with Hitler) agreed to make an assault, war was inevitable and Hitler had become unstoppable
And then suddenly the mood of this generally pro-appeasement country switched. Hitler’s unleashing of the Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews that same November shocked even Chamberlain, who now began to realise that, as he gloomily told his sister Ida in a letter, ‘Nazi hatred will stick at nothing’.
Four months later, Hitler’s military takeover of the part of Czechoslovakia he didn’t already occupy was proof that appeasement was achieving nothing except letting the dictator have his way. Chamberlain at last dug in, making any assault on Poland his ultimate red line, but by then Hitler was unstoppable and war inevitable.
In July 1939, an opinion poll showed 76 per cent for war if Poland was invaded — a remarkable turnaround for a nation that had so recently put its faith in peace.
In retrospect, it seemed so obvious that appeasement wouldn’t work. How could Chamberlain and his supporters have been so deluded to think it could? But what Bouverie’s excellent and well-researched book shows clearly is that nothing was obvious at the time — though both sides of the argument thought it was.
Only one side could be right, and that was decided not by the passion of the debate but by events, by the future no one could see for sure but only guess at.
APPEASING HITLER by Tim Bouverie (Bodley Head £20, 512 pp)
The same goes for our present Brexit predicament. It will be over one day, one way or the other. There will be winners and losers. And, as in Chamberlain’s case, heroes who became zeroes — while in Churchill’s, the wheel turned him the other way round.
It is useful to remember — a safety valve for our sanity in these mad times — that future generations may look back on the furious Leave-Remain debate and wonder what the fuss was about. They’ll ask why it was so hard to resolve, so angry and so dogma-dominated. Surely, they will say, it was obvious.
If only it were. The right thing to do, which policy to pursue, whether to be brave or cautious, was no more clear in the big debate of the Thirties than it is for us in our dilemma now.
Tim Bouverie will be appearing at the Chalke Valley History Festival on June 29. For tickets visit cvhf.org.uk