Did Chamberlain smile?

Perhaps the most notorious scene in the prelude to World War II is Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler at the German town of Bad Godesberg. September 1938. Europe is on the brink of war. It is the British premier’s second summit with the dictator, the first having taken place at the dictator’s Berchtesgaden villa a week before. Hitler has demanded that Czechoslovakia cede him a vast chunk of territory, having the effect of making that country defenceless. Chamberlain has come to announce that he can deliver exactly that.

The episode was a milestone on the road to World War II. The two men met, in the company of aides, in a hotel conference room. Chamberlain spoke first. He recapitulated Hitler’s demand: the annexation of Czechoslovakia’s borderlands by Germany. He had obtained what the German chancellor wanted, he explained. It took some arm-twisting, but the Czechoslovaks had given in. The French, Czechoslovakia’s allies, had swallowed the pill and reneged on their friends. No more than the details remained to be worked out. Peace had been secured. Chamberlain sat back and smiled. Or did he?

William Shirer writes that he smiled, and several historians after him. Shirer, who was a CBS journalist before he took to writing history, was actually in Godesberg at the time, but he was not in the meeting room. We nevertheless have two eyewitness accounts, and they are good sources. The memoirs of Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter, are not perfect but they cross-check, on the meeting in question, with the official German minutes. Our second account comes from the other side of the table: British embassy secretary Ivone Kirkpatrick. Unfortunately, neither source writes that Chamberlain actually smiled.

When I wrote up the scene in The Bell of Treason, I agonised over that smile. All Schmidt tells us is this: “Chamberlain leant back after this exposition with an expression of satisfaction, as much as to say: ‘Haven’t I worked splendidly during these five days?’”The more drily factual Kirkpatrick is silent on the matter. Was it OK to write about a smile if we didn’t have proof that there had been one? What if Shirer, whom I admire, said so?

Chamberlain’s frame of mind at that precise moment matters hugely. The British premier was being swindled. Hitler had no intention of accepting whatever he had to propose and only intended to ask for more. “I am terribly sorry,” Hitler replied, “but this plan is no longer of any use.” What was Chamberlain’s understanding of his situation? If he went into these discussions with open eyes, his policy of appeasement can be shown to have been built on rational calculation. If not, he was merely on a fool’s errand.

In the end I decided only to write thatChamberlain “paused and leant back, looking up either in satisfaction or to confer added gravitas to his report”. The point, though, was not that Chamberlain knew what he was doing. On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that he did not, and there was simply no need for a smile in that scene.

It is astonishing that some people continue to portray Chamberlain’s surrender as Realpolitik. The novelist Robert Harris, for example. What Realpolitik? I have discussed elsewhere the strategic logic of abandoning Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 – basically it was disastrous. But the point is that Chamberlain did not proceed from strategic logic. The British premier’s basis was that the Nazis wanted peace, not conquest. The whole scene makes it clear. There is no indication whatever that he understood he was being confronted with bait-and-switch tactics. Faced with Hitler’s inexplicable rejection, Chamberlain only complained of a lack of generosity to someone who had “risked his whole political career” on his proposal, and who “on leaving England that morning actually had been booed”. The next day, he “bid a hearty farewell to the Führer”, feeling that “a relationship of confidence had grown between himself and the Führer”.

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Chamberlain at Heston airport (Gettyimages)

Chamberlain’s letters to his intimates make it clear he was hoping for a durable peace, not to gain time for rearmament. In cabinet meetings, he boasted of his relationship of trust with Hitler. At one point, an exasperated colleague read a list of all the instances when the German dictator had broken his word, but this made no impression. Chamberlain also brushed aside warnings and objections by his French counterparts and of course by the Czechoslovaks. Far from Realpolitik, Chamberlain’s was the pursuit of an ideal: peace at any price. I leave aside all moral judgements here – as Churchill himself eulogised at his rival’s funeral, there is always something noble about the pursuit of peace, even if in this case it was badly mistaken in its assumptions.

After another week, Hitler obtained what he wanted: Czechoslovakia was sacrificed, at the end of that month, at the Munich Conference. On his return, Chamberlain waived a piece of paper by which Hitler had supposedly committed himself never to go war with Britain again. “I’ve got it!” Chamberlain exclaimed to an aide. The picture does not show him smiling, but perhaps he did break into a grin just before or after it was taken. Now that, too, would have been telling.

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