Putting Neville Chamberlain in Historic Context

One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen -- knowledge the players at the time did not have.

Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler's part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later.  In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler's generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.

But all that being said, let's not forget the historic context.  World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe.   It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death.   And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree).  They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy.  If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.

There simply was no energy in 1938, no collective will to start another war.  Even in France, which arguably had the most to lose from a reinvigorated Germany, the country simply could not face another war.   As an illustration, one could argue that an even better and more logical time to "stop Hitler" occurred before Munich in March of 1936 when Hitler violated the Versailles Treaty and reoccupied the Rhineland with military forces.  France had every right to oppose this occupation, and Hitler's generals said later that their forces were so puny at the time that the French could have stopped them with a brigade and sent them running back across the Rhine.  And the French did nothing.

In addition, Britain and France had very little ability to do much about Hitler's ambitions in Eastern Europe anyway.  How were they going to get troops to the Sudetenland?  We saw later in Poland how little ability they had to do anything in Eastern Europe.

And finally, everyone was boxed in by having accepted Woodrow Wilson's formula of "self-determination of peoples."  Building the entire post-war realignment on this shoddy building block is what really led to disaster.  Emphasizing this essentially nationalist formulation as the fundamental moral principle of international relations -- rather than, say, the protection of individual rights of all peoples -- really empowered Hitler.  In the Saarland, in the Rhineland, in Austria, and in the Sudetenland, it lent him the moral high ground.  He was just fulfilling Wilson's formulation, wasn't he?  These were all majority-German lands coming home to Germany.

Postscript:  Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe.  I still wish he hadn't given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do?  Was there any appetite for extending the war?  Zero.  That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives.  All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.


  1. SamWah:

    About the Bombs: Admiral Daniel Gallery (Capt. of the Enterprise, captured the U-505) wrote a number of books later, in one of which he claimed we did not need to use the bombs, we could have blockaded Japan and starved them into submission. I suspect he was right, but killing a couple hundred thousand instead of starving millions of women and children (and noncombatant men) seems a better choice to me. Imagine for yourself what the Left would say about that starvation today, had we done that.

  2. slocum:

    We also could have accepted a negotiated end to the war rather than settle for nothing less than total victory and unconditional surrender. The Japanese government would have been left in power, yes, but given the disastrous war they started, for how long?

  3. mlhouse:

    Well, what you are missing is that if the Czechs would not have been sold out they probably could have defended themselves. The loss of the frontier areas given up in the Munich Agreement meant the loss of fortifications that gave them a chance to defend themselves. Once those fortifications were gone the entire country was open for invasion.

  4. tmitsss:

    As long as North Korea?

  5. Matthew Slyfield:

    What makes you think a negotiated end to the war would have even been possible? You that the US could have accepted such an end to the war, but would Japan have accepted it?

  6. Duvane:

    This, in my opinion, is the great failure of Munich. Very few people could even suspect at the time how totally untrustworthy and how aggressive Hitler would turn out to be, nor could they have any clue as to the plotting against him going on behind the scenes, not to mention how much his success at Munich would embolden him. All that is completely hindsight. But Czechoslovakia had at least a shot of putting up a decent defense before Munich, and that should have been at least somewhat apparent at the time. The fact that they would be almost totally defenseless after Munich was obvious to anyone.
    In a way, this supports the point of the post, to the the extent that Munich is as much a lesson in not meddling as it is a lesson in responding in force. Britain and France effectively prevented Czechoslovakia (who was not represented at the meeting) from defending herself. This allowed them to adhere to the letter of their treaty obligations, but morally it was an abrogation; had they instead allowed events to play out without interfering, it would have been no worse morally, and its hard to see how it could have turned out any worse in the event.

  7. Thomas Reid:

    Surely dropping our demand for unconditional surrender was preferable to dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. As a civilized nation, there's no way for us to justify what was essentially an act of terrorism.

  8. mlhouse:

    The only thing I disagree with in your analysis is that very few people could suspect that Hitler was untrustworthy. While the Germans had violated the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler accelerated those violations: reoccupation of the Rhineland, reinstating conscription, ignoring all of the treaty clauses with respect to force levels. Hitler basically cheated on the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Treaty the day after it was signed.

    This is what Autocrats do. They rarely negotiate in good faith. When morons like Neville Chamberlain or Barrack Obama "negotiate" it is clearly appeasement and it is always expected. Look at the "good faith" the Iranians have demonstrated so far! And in these appeasements the autocrats will get concrete concessions from the poorly led democracy: land in Hitler's case, the elimination of economic sanctions in the Iranians in exchange for promises that the autocrats will break when it suits their purpose.

  9. Gil G:

    Why mention the bombs? There's no evidence of any long term damage done by the bombs. Looking at Detroit then and now shows there are far worse things for humanity.

  10. kidmugsy:

    The question that Chamberlain faced was whether Hitler was a Bismarck or a Napoleon. Only once he'd scooped up the non-German parts of Czechoslovakia was it clear that he was a Napoleon. As you say, there was nothing that could be done directly in Eastern Europe, as the footling guarantee to Poland showed. In fact there was very little Britain could do about Germany anyway without France's active participation, and she'd shown no appetite for it from the Rhineland crisis onward. Pointing the finger at Wilson has considerable merit: you'd have thought that someone with a decent education could see the hopeless stupidity of his own nationalist proposals; unless, that is, they were cynically designed to handicap Europe in a way that would enrich the US. Fool or knave? I dunno.

    Almost everything that everyman says about Chamberlain is hopelessly polluted by hindsight and is thereby worthless: just empty moral preening, mostly.

  11. SethRoentgen:

    That powerline piece is somewhat missing the point. Bye-and-large, the UK stayed out of European politics, except when directly threatened (Napoleonic wars and WWI). In peace time, the UK military comprised mostly the Royal Navy, to keep the trade routes open, and a small army serving as a colonial police force. The UK didn't see the need for a million man peace time army, ready to deploy (How? By bicycle?) to central Europe to protect the Czechs from Germany. Nor did it see its role as military enforcer in mainland Europe if the denizens couldn't manage it for itself.

    It wasn't that "Chamberlain had allowed its military strength to diminish dramatically", more that the UK had returned to pre-WWI levels of manning.

  12. slocum:

    At the point where Germany had already been defeated and Japan had lost Okinawa and was down to just the 'home islands', the end was inevitable, and yes, I believe they would have agreed to a armistice on terms very favorable to the allies.

  13. JohnM:

    You make no allowances for the fact that the negotiated peace with Germany in 1918 only created a Carthagian peace. The victors of WWII had that thought at the back of their minds when they made the demands of Germany Italy and Japan. They understood that unconditional surrender made the war longer but they thought it would avoid a third world war.

  14. NL7:

    I agree with the overall point that hindsight ruins our ability to see historical decisions prospectively. Regarding Yalta, the Allies probably could have sped up a bit and grabbed more of Germany and then not withdrawn from those portions in the eventual DDR that they yielded. Regarding nuclear use on Japan, a 1945 report projected they would likely surrender by the fall of 1945 and almost certainly surrender by early 1946, due to being cut off from resources.

    Though I also disagree with Yalta and Hiroshima philosophically. Burning tens of thousands of civilians, including children and other noncombatants, is immoral killing. Dividing the world into "spheres of influence" with Russia, UK, China, and the US theoretically dominating the lesser peoples of the world, is immoral imperialism. So I look at history trying to see practical reasons that people should avoid doing things that I already oppose morally. That's just a second layer of bias.

  15. Not Sure:

    "Imagine for yourself what the Left would say about that starvation today, had we done that"

    No imagination necessary.

    Madeline Albright's (Secretary of State under Bill Clinton) response to Lesley Stahl's question regarding sanctions against Iran ("We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?")...

    "We think the price is worth it."

  16. Mike Powers:

    What's ridiculous about the whole thing is, as you point out, that if Woodrow Wilson hadn't been so insistent that European Problems Should Be Solved By Europeans, then there wouldn't even have been a World War 1. Pretty much the only consistent thing in Wilhelm II's thinking about military action was "if the Americans get involved I'm screwed, I can pull this off as long as the Americans don't get involved" and then you've got Wilson saying "America will never get involved" and Kaiser Bill's all "okay then!"