Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rehabilitating Neville Chamberlain's reputation

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 evidence was so overwhelming," [historian David Dutton] 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. ... Time was on Britain’s side, [Colonel Hastings] 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. ...

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. ... 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. ...

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. ...

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. ... 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.
--Nick Baumann, Slate, on a defense of Neville Chamberlain