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.