Chamberlain and Appeasement: the Differing Views of Historians


  • Guilty Men published in July 1940 by “Cato” (pseudonym for three journalists, including Michael Foot). Argued Macdonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain had all been weak and vacillating in face of the rising threat of Nazism. All those associated with Appeasement should leave the government. Reinforced by Churchill war memoirs, published after the war, arguing that the war could have been avoided had Britain rearmed earlier and with France prevented the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936. ‘Appeasement’ of dictators seen as immoral, stupid and foolish: this lead to the Suez misadventure in 1956. Underpinned by Cold War.
  • The assumption was that the UK was a world power that had the duty to intervene to crush dictatorships on the European Continent. UK governments should have realized Hitler was hell-bent on European and world conquest from the beginning. But in 1961 A.J.P. Taylor in The Origins of the Second World War argued Hitler did not intend this. The war was caused by Chamberlain’s interventionism. Followed by Gilbert and Gott, The Appeasers, showing they were honourable men who did everything possible to avoid war.
  • In the 1960s the thawing of the Cold War relaxed attitudes, opening of documents under 30-year-rule gave new insights, loss of UK global power led historians to stress limits on Chamberlain’s freedom of manoeuvre. Appeasers hoped for the best, prepared for the worst – tried to preserve peace while rearming. Rearmament difficult because of economic depression and hostile public opinion. Lack of Allies, reluctance of Dominions. Thus Appeasement was a realistic policy under the circumstances, as argued by historians such as David Dilks, biographer of Chamberlain.
  • Counter-revisionists (e.g. R.A.C.Parker) argued Chamberlain over-cautious in rearming, seriously overestimated German military strength, and manipulated public opinion in favour of Appeasement. Chamberlain’s lack of realism about German foreign policy. He clung to Appeasement long after it was manifestly not going to work – even in September 1939.
  • Their critics in the 1990s, such as John Charmley, argued that Britain should have stayed out of the war and let Hitler and Stalin slug it out. Stalin would have won (Russia did in the end defeat Germany virtually unaided) but at the cost of exhausting his resources, so the Soviet threat to Europe would have been eliminated. Britain would not have bankrupted herself, so could have retained the British Empire. What real British interests were involved in a European was anyway? A counterfactual argument.

Appeasement: the constraints on British foreign policy

  • Public opinion undoubtedly against war (legacy of 1914-18, fear of bombing, people’s loss of near relatives and friends, the war to end war)
  • Belief in ‘new diplomacy’, especially disarmament and settling disputes through League of Nations.
  • General anticommunism, USSR seen as main threat in 1930s. Hitler’s main threat seemed to be against the East, and he was fiercely anti-communist; this won a lot of sympathy among British Conservatives. What in any case was the British interest in fighting for Poland or Czechoslovakia, both of which seemed to be oppressing their German minorities?
  • Key belief that Germany had been too harshly treated at Versailles. Belief that reparations had damaged its economy, guilt at not extending principle of national self-determination to Germans. Until March 1939 Hitler seemed to be merely getting back what Versailles had unjustly denied Germany; and he constantly claimed he only wanted peace.
  • Economic depression meant general reluctance to spend on arms.
  • British and French prioritization of Empire. Czechoslovakia ‘a far-away country of which we know nothing’ – unlike, say, India or South Africa.
  • Belief that Hitler was pro-British; his constant reassurances that he admired the British Empire and would never go to war with Britain.

Why did Britain go to war in 1939?

  • Change of mind after German occupation of Prague: Hitler now conquering non-German states. UK guarantee to Poland. General feeling in UK that Hitler’s demands were limitless and aimed at total domination of Europe.
  • More accurate intelligence convinced UK and French leaders that German arms not so superior, while their own rearmament since Munich was bearing fruit: thus a general war was winnable. Ability to counter air raids through radar.
  • Realization that if Germany conquered France, Belgium and Holland, Denmark and Norway, as happened in 1940, control over the Channel and North Sea would enable invasion of UK, while rule over the richest parts of Europe would make Germany a formidable power and potential challenger to the British Empire.

Historiographies and counterfactuals again

  • Research into German archives from early 1960s onwards has uncovered documentary evidence of Hitler’s ambition for world domination. Narrowness of Taylor’s sources. It really does seem true that the British misunderstood Hitler’s intentions. But did they really have any choice?
  • Did Churchill sacrifice the British Empire in a needless European war? Most historians would now agree that the hostility of the US – already the leading superpower in the 1930s – and the growing nationalist discontent in the colonies were the key factors in the collapse of the British Empire.
  • Was it a mistake to go to war? Had Stalin won, Communism would have taken over Germany as well as East-Central Europe, possibly Italy as well, and threatened Western Europe. Had Hitler won, his control over Europe and its resources would have been the prelude to growing pressure on the UK and a gradual or sudden takeover. Mosley and the BUF would have gained enormous prestige and mass support. Antisemitic measures would have been introduced. Pressure to dismember British Empire, starting with return of former German colonies, would have been irresistible.