Seventy-five years ago, on Sept. 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact, handing portions of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Chamberlain returned to Britain to popular acclaim, declaring that he had secured “peace for our time.” Today the prime minister is generally portrayed as a foolish man who was wrong to try to “appease” Hitler — a cautionary tale for any leader silly enough to prefer negotiation to confrontation.
But among historians, that view changed in the late 1950s, when the British government began making Chamberlain-era records available to researchers. “The result of this was the discovery of all sorts of factors that narrowed the options of the British government in general and narrowed the options of Neville Chamberlain in particular,” explains David Dutton, a British historian who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister. “The evidence was so overwhelming,” he says, that many historians came to believe that Chamberlain “couldn’t do anything other than what he did” at Munich. Over time, Dutton says, “the weight of the historiography began to shift to a much more sympathetic appreciation” of Chamberlain.
First, a look at the military situation. Most historians agree that the British army was not ready for war with Germany in September 1938. If war had broken out over the Czechoslovak crisis, Britain would only have been able to send two divisions to the continent – and ill-equipped divisions, at that. Between 1919 and March 1932, Britain had based its military planning on a “10-year rule,” which assumed Britain would face no major war in the next decade. Rearmament only began in 1934 — and only on a limited basis. The British army, as it existed in September 1938, was simply not intended for continental warfare. Nor was the rearmament of the Navy or the Royal Air Force complete. British naval rearmament had recommenced in 1936 as part of a five-year program. And although Hitler’s Luftwaffe had repeatedly doubled in size in the late 1930s, it wasn’t until April 1938 that the British government decided that its air force could purchase as many aircraft as could be produced.
All of this factored into what Chamberlain was hearing from his top military advisers. In March 1938 the British military chiefs of staff produced a report that concluded that Britain could not possibly stop Germany from taking Czechoslovakia. In general, British generals believed the military and the nation were not ready for war. On Sept. 20, 1938, then-Col.Hastings Ismay, secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defense, sent a note to Thomas Inskip, the minister for the coordination of defense, and Sir Horace Wilson, a civil servant. Time was on Britain’s side, Ismay argued, writing that delaying the outbreak of war would give the Royal Air Force time to acquire airplanes that could counter the Luftwaffe, which he considered the only chance for defeating Hitler. British strategists, including Ismay, believed their country could win a long war (so long as they had time to prepare for it). This was a common belief, and doubtless factored into Chamberlain’s calculations.
Historians disagree whether the British military’s position relative to Germany was objectively better in 1939 than it was in 1938. The British military systematically overestimated German strength and underestimated its own in the lead-up to the Czechoslovak crisis, then shifted to a more optimistic tone in the months between Munich and the outbreak of war. Whatever the situation on the ground, it’s clear that the British military’s confidence in its abilities was far higher in 1939 than it was during the Munich crisis, especially because of the development of radar and the deployment of new fighter planes. In 1939, the military believed it was ready. In 1938, it didn’t.
Chamberlain’s diplomatic options were narrow as well. In World War I, Britain’s declaration of war had automatically brought Canada, Australia and New Zealand into the fight. But the constitutional status of those Commonwealth countries had changed in the interwar period. According to the British archives, it was far from clear that Chamberlain could count on the backing of these countries if war broke out with Germany over Czechoslovakia. “There was really a feeling that the odds were against the potential of Britain being able to prevail facing Germany and potentially Italy and Japan, and with very few potential allies,” Dutton says. Soviet Russia was seen as a potential enemy to be feared, not a potential ally. America’s neutrality laws made it unlikely that even a willing president could bring the United States into the fight. There is also plenty of evidence in the archives that the British government had near-total disdain for the stability and fighting abilities of France, its only likely major-power ally. The average duration of a Third Republic government in the 1930s was nine months. When war did break out, Chamberlain’s doubts about France’s staying power proved prescient.
Nor was the British public ready for war in September 1938. “It’s easy to forget that this is only 20 years after the end of the last war,” Dutton notes. British politicians knew that the electorate would never again willingly make sacrifices like the ones it had made in World War I. The Somme and Passchendaele had left scars that still stung, and few, if any, British leaders were prepared to ask their people to fight those battles again. Many people saw the work of the Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War and feared that aerial bombardment would ensure that a second war would be more devastating that the first. Any strategy that claimed to offer an alternative to sending large armies to Europe therefore found supporters on every level of British society. “There was a feeling that any sensible politician would explore every avenue to avoid war before accepting war was inevitable,” Dutton says.
If Britain were to go to war with Hitler’s Germany, most people didn’t want to do so over Czechoslovakia. “People spoke of Czechoslovakia as an artificial creation,” Dutton says. “The perception by the ‘30s was there was a problem, it was soluble by negotiation, and we ought to try. It was not the sort of thing that would unite the country [as] an issue to go to war over.”
Nor is the modern view of Hitler reflective of how the Nazi dictator was seen in the late 1930s. Blitzkrieg and concentration camps were not yet part of the public imagination. The British had already been dealing with one fascist, Benito Mussolini, for years before Hitler took power, and top British diplomats and military thinkers saw Hitler the way they saw Mussolini — more bravado than substance. Moreover, many Europeans thought German complaints about the settlement of World War I were legitimate. We now see Hitler’s actions during the early and mid-1930s as part of an implacable march toward war. That was not the case at the time. German rearmament and the reoccupation of the Rhineland seemed inevitable, because keeping a big country like Germany disarmed for decades was unrealistic. Hitler’s merging of Austria and Germany seemed to be what many Austrians wanted. Even the demands for chunks of Czechoslovakia were seen, at the time, as not necessarily unreasonable — after all, many Germans lived in those areas.
So, when Chamberlain returned from Munich with the news that he had negotiated a peace agreement, cheering crowds filled the streets and the press rejoiced.
To Chamberlain’s credit, his views changed as Hitler’s intentions became clearer. When Hitler took Prague and the Czech heartland in March 1939 — his first invasion of an area that was obviously without deep German roots — Chamberlain said he feared it might represent an “attempt to dominate the world by force.” He doubled the size of the Territorial Army (Britain’s version of the National Guard) and, on April 20, launched peacetime conscription for the first time in Britain’s history. Then, on Sept. 3, some 11 months after Munich, he took his country to war.
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.
Nick Baumann is a senior editor in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Mother Jones.