Guilty Men?

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A cursory search of what has been said about appeasement in the last eighty years will leave one with a rather negative impression. “I seem to smell the stench of appeasement in the air” Margaret Thatcher once snapped, while in 1940 Churchill grunted: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last.” Appeasement has become a by-word for cowardice, but that is not fair on the pragmatists of the 1930s.

Our tale begins in Fulham in 1933, with a little-known event which barely has a Wikipedia page attributed to it. Yet this seemingly trivial incident would prove to be a monumental bellwether for Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. On 25 October, Conservative circles were greeted with what the Glasgow Herald called an “unpleasant surprise”. The former Conservative MP for Fulham East, Kenyon Vaughan–Morgan, having been elected with a majority of 14,000, had died. As a result, a by-election was held. The new candidate, William James Waldron justifiably had a “confidence that he would at least win through.” Yet it was not to be. Instead, Labour stole the seat from the Conservatives with a comfortable majority of 4,800.

The bemused journalist then went on to explain the reasons for this most bizarre event. The main cause identified was war; Waldron had campaigned on the need to rearm, which had proven uniquely unpopular. The lesson Baldwin drew from this was that: “There was probably a stronger pacifist feeling running through the country than at any time since the War.”

Politically, re-armament was an untenable policy. The trenches of World War I were still dug deep in the minds of the British people. The arms race between Germany and Britain was seen as a key cause of the last conflict, and nobody wanted to risk a repeat of the bloodshed of the First World War. Baldwin admitted remorsefully in 1936 that, had he campaigned for rearmament, the loss of the 1935 election would have been “certain”.

Rearmament was also economically difficult. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression was hitting hard; in 1932 unemployment was at 3.5 million. The previous year, the government had introduced the highly unpopular means test, which involved officials visiting families to judge whether they were entitled to receive state support. Spending more on arms would have meant deep cuts in public spending, never a popular policy. 

The Munich Agreement, when Chamberlain handed the Sudetenland to Hitler, is a blackmarked date, the most infamous example of appeasement. Today, we recognise Hitler was the once-in-a-millennium monstrosity he was, and clearly see the crescendo his demands were building to. At the time, however, he was careful to exploit guilt in Western Europe. In the early stages, Hitler couched his demands in the language of self-determination, posturing as the protector of German minorities. The public and politicians saw Versailles as too harsh on Germany, and hardly had an appetite to fight for Czechoslovakia. Almost all of Britain’s Dominions were unwilling to go to war, as was much of the Empire.

Chamberlain’s pursuit of peace was admirable: after all, as Edwin Starr points out, “war, what is it good for?” When he proclaimed “peace for our time” on a windy September’s day in 1938 at Heston Airport, the population collectively let out a sigh of relief. Men and women lined the streets to cheer him, as they did in Paris to greet Daladier. 

As it turns out, this peace would be short-lived. Yet it made sense at the time. In December 1937, the Chiefs of Staff told the cabinet of the dire military situation: “Our naval, military and air forces in their present stages of development are still far from sufficient to meet our defence commitments.” But they also suggested a course of action: “We must stress the importance of any political or international action to reduce the number of our possible enemies.” The early stages of the Second World War showed that Britain was unable to fight effectively on three fronts alone, and that attempting to appease potential enemies was a rational strategic sacrifice. 

We also must remember that Britain had no allies at this time. The Russians were communist and the Conservatives had made their hatred of this system clear. Churchill described it as a “foul baboonery” that ought to have been “strangled at birth”. There seemed little chance of an alliance when there was no immediate threat to the safety of either country. Relations were not helped by the fact Britain had attempted to depose Lenin during the Russian Civil War of 1917. The USA was isolationist, so they wouldn’t help. France was petrified of war; World War I had devastated France, whose generals were now hesitant about any action that would make a war more likely. Without any sort of international backing, Britain was unnable to contend directly with the Third Reich.

Up to this point, there had been good reason not to rearm. It was economically unfeasible and politically untenable. Although Churchill may have been campaigning on the need to rearm, we must remember his word was far from gospel. Churchill was not trusted within the Conservative Party after he crossed the floor to the Liberals in 1904. His judgement was also questionable; a cursory look at the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, masterminded by him, or his dreadful time as Chancellor explains why. Baldwin once said of him: “When Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts – imagination, eloquence, industry, ability – and then came a fairy who said ‘No one person has a right to so many gifts,’ picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgment and wisdom.”

Leaving the policy of appeasement aside for one moment, Chamberlain himself is a woefully misunderstood character – hardly deserving of the adjective “guilty”. Most see Chamberlain as the weak man who couldn’t see past Hitler’s bluff and, through his inaction, unwittingly led us towards armageddon. Tony Blair was right when he wrote in his autobiography that to be compared to Chamberlain has become “one of the worst British political insults.” But our perception of him is an oversimplification of the most grievous kind; even the damning pamphlet “Guilty Men” recognised that Chamberlain “was not and is not either vain or foolish.”

Chamberlain was under few illusions about Hitler’s character. He described in his diaries how the Führer would be calm at one moment and then descend into apoplexy. Yet it is hard for one to conceive that they are dealing with the figure who would eventually become the world’s preferred personification of evil. Chamberlain made many misjudgements. Yet his actions came not from stupidity or vanity, but from a love of peace, a desire to obey the popular will, the military reality, the economic climate and his country’s considerations. In normal times these would be rational factors leading to a rational response, yet these were not normal times.

Hindsight is deceptive. While we can always look back and mock the politicians of old for their decisions, appeasement seemed to be sensible way forward at the time.

Fellows, N., and Wells, M., 2015. Britain 1930 – 1997. Hodder Education.

Shirer, W., 1991. The Rise and Fall of Third Reich. Arrow