Resurrecting the Ghost of Neville Chamberlain (Again)

Neville Chamberlain.jpg

Recently, on a Facebook discussion thread on Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un, the ghost of Neville Chamberlain made another one of his frequent appearances. One of the participants likened Trump to Chamberlain and Kim to Hitler. To me, comparisons like this are highly problematic. The circumstances and personalities surrounding the problem of a nuclear armed North Korea in 2018 are worlds apart from those dealing with an expansionist Nazi Germany in 1938. But from the onset of the Cold War to present-day, Chamberlain and the idea of "appeasement" have been used repeatedly as a kind of boogie man to close off the possibility of examining various post-World War II political situations on their own merits and particular historical backgrounds. Since the ghost of Chamberlain is almost certainly guaranteed to rise again in the future, why don't we take a closer look at the historical figure and clear away some of the myths surrounding him in light of the most recent historical evidence.

In the 1980s, using the British equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, Clive Ponting, a former senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defense turned historian wrote, 1940: Myth and Reality. Chamberlain and the issue of appeasement figure prominently in Ponting's book but there are also a lot of factors usually left out of analyses of Britain's conduct in the pre-war period. One of these was the financial drain the British Empire was having on the mother country, which bore the primary responsibility for defending its far-flung colonies. Closely related to this was British war planning, which by the early 1930s was already taking into account the possibility the empire might one day have to fight Germany, Italy and Japan, all at the same time. Britain's leadership felt that the country would not be fully prepared for such a war or even more limited variations until 1939 at the earliest.

Often overlooked, the issue of war finance was also of paramount concern. During the first world war Britain and France borrowed heavily from U.S. banks in order to continue their massive purchases of weapons and other war materiel. By 1917, they had overextended themselves so badly that both were facing bankruptcy, the inability to continue the war and the attendant ruin of their American creditors. In a nick of time, the U.S. declared war on the German Empire and extended federal loan guarantees to the British and French. Socialist historian Sidney Lens (1912-1986) saw this as a key underlying factor in the U.S. decision to go to war (see Lens's The Forging of the American Empire.).

Once again, in the late 30s, Britain was confronted by the reality that it had extremely limited financial resources to both maintain the empire and fight another world war. This made the timing of the war critical. It couldn't go on for too long unless the titanic resources of the United States were once more brought to bear – a possibility that was by no means guaranteed.

All of these factors were on Chamberlain's mind as he confronted the Czechoslovakian crisis that became forever tied to his name. Was it worth it to go to war over Czechoslovakia? Though a small country, it was the only bona fide democracy left in Eastern Europe by that time, had a well-equipped and trained army, the massive Skoda Armaments works inherited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a ring of strong fortifications in the mountainous Sudetenland region, bordering Nazi Germany.

Annexation of the Sudetenland was, of course, Hitler's initial objective in Czechoslovakia; the argument being that this was ethnic German territory, which deserved to be united with his Third Reich and that the Sudetenlanders were being mistreated by the Czechs to boot. Hadn't it been American President Woodrow Wilson who articulated the right to "national self-determination?"

It's interesting to speculate on what might have happened if war had broken out in September 1938, instead of one year later. But neither the British or French thought they were ready. Yes, Chamberlain, along with his French counterpart Edouard Daladier and Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, sacrificed the Czechs to appease Hitler and perhaps avoid a repeat of the carnage of World War I. But Chamberlain had also bought time to build more Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes and to conduct the war, when and if it came, on a timetable more advantageous for Britain.

It's also interesting to note that the event which brought about Chamberlain's political downfall, the badly botched British/French invasion of Norway in April 1940, was strongly advocated by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Churchill hoped that a successful Allied occupation of Norway would have facilitated aid the Finns, who were under attack from Stalin's Soviet Union. This might very well have resulted in Britain having to fight Russia as well as Germany, Italy and Japan. Subsequently, Chamberlain, the "appeaser," became a key player in the war cabinet, often chairing meetings during Churchill's many absences. As he still remained leader of the Conservative Party (Churchill had been appointed by the king, not elected) Chamberlain marshaled support for the new prime minister, who was seen by many as a dangerous maverick. When Germany broached the subject of a negotiated peace with Britain after the fall of France in June 1940, Chamberlain was instrumental in helping to persuade the Cabinet to reject negotiations. He succumbed to terminal cancer a few months later on November 9, 1940. Before he died, Churchill offered to make Chamberlain a Knight of the Garter, the highest order of British chivalry. Chamberlain refused, saying he would "prefer to die plain Mr. Chamberlain, like my father before me, unadorned by any title."

Oh, the ironies of history!

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JekyllnHyde's picture

At the time Chamberlain made the decision about the 1938 Munich Pact, very few voices in the British foreign policy establishment were advocating an aggressive stance towards Nazi Germany. As you point out, with limited resources preservation of the British Empire was their primary concern - particularly for the military brass. Chamberlain made the same calculation in 1938 that Stalin did when he signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939: doing so was largely an acknowledgment of the USSR's limited military capabilities at the time. Just like the British, he knew he'd have to fight a war later on. Just not yet.

As to Churchill, he made several boneheaded decisions throughout his political career. Among them, the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign during World War I; how to deal effectively with the losers of that war (sending troops to aid the White Army in the 1917-21 Russian Civil War); as Chancellor of the Exchequer, initiating Britain's return to the gold standard with negative consequences for employment and growth (remember John Maynard Keynes' "The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill?"); and Norway in 1940. He was, however, mostly right about one big idea: both Nazi Germany and, later, the Soviet Union had to be confronted by the West. That's what most people remember him for.

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A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

Radical Reformer's picture

@JekyllnHyde I'm a big fan of Keynes but never heard of this article. Thanks for mentioning, will have to check it out.

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JekyllnHyde's picture

@Radical Reformer

I edited my above comment a bit to provide better clarity.

Not unlike Keynes, Churchill was opposed to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles for it placed onerous and unrealistic demands upon Germany, which Keynes predicted would lead to tremendous economic and political instability in Germany. As a play on words, Keynes titled his later 1925 economic critique of Churchill using words to remind readers of his 1919 book, "The Economic Consequences of the Peace."

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A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

Radical Reformer's picture

@JekyllnHyde If I'm not mistaken, Keynes, who was originally part of the British delegation to Versailles, resigned in protest over the harshness of the terms against Germany, especially the reparations.

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It's always Munich
It's always Hitler

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ggersh's picture

was the one instrumental in wanting to keep the course
and not sign a peace agreement with Hitler.

Also many in power in the UK were very much pro Germany.

When Germany broached the subject of a negotiated peace with Britain after the fall of France in June 1940, Chamberlain was instrumental in helping to persuade the Cabinet to reject negotiations.

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"In 2008, Beijing and Washington pumped in massive amounts of money to bail out speculators in the name of saving the economy and helping workers. The reality is that they used workers’ money to enrich parasites." Andy Xie

Radical Reformer's picture

@ggersh Ponting, citing previously unavailable cabinet meeting minutes, reveals that, at least momentarily, Churchill was flirting with the idea of a negotiated peace. He was willing to give up Gibralter and to give Germany back, the former African colonies Britain had taken after WW I. This was also recently portrayed in the move Darkest Hour. But perhaps, I should have phrased this sentence differently ie "Chamberlain helped to persuade..."

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Steven D's picture

of the leaders at the time. Churchill was very much an outlier. US was more pro-German among our Elites than pro-Britain (other than FDR). In hindsight, Chamberlain gave up too much, an underestimated Nazi Germany. But he couldn't have known that at the time.

As for the constant appeasement comparisons, every war we have fought since WWII has raised the example of Chamberlain and appeasement to justify unnecessary wars.

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"You can't just leave those who created the problem in charge of the solution."---Tyree Scott

Radical Reformer's picture

@Steven D @Steven D Yes, Steven. I read Jacques Pauwel's, The Myth of the Good War recently. Not only were a lot of American elites pro-German but actually pro-Hitler and pro-Nazi. Many of them did profitable business with the Third Reich and saw the Soviet Union as the real enemy.

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I wish I would have bookmarked article, but one book claimed that Chamberlain encouraged Hitler to invade the Soviet Union as a way of diversion and also more importantly stop communism. From what I remember Chamberlain was encouraged by how Hitler took the invasion proposal.

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Sigh

EdMass's picture

I'm reading his compendium on WWII. He is very forgiving of Chamberlain. He says, he did the best he could based on the political climate in Britain leading up to the war. Churchill gave him a senior post in the government after Churchill took power.

Things are seldom as they seem.

The weight of history colors our perspective of the motivations of the past.

If you believe that Chamberlain wanted to sink Britain and submit to the Nazis, you really need to do more historical research

It's kinda like Bill Buckner letting that ground ball go through his legs in the World Series, tanking the Red Sox and ruining him for the rest of his life.

Joke: What does Bill Buckner and Michael Jackson have in common? They both wear a glove for no apparent reason...

History is a crueler mistress than the Sea.

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