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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 that Chamberlain “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.

1938 vs. 1940

A key defence of appeasement, and especially the 1938 Munich Agreement, is that it gave Britain and France time to rearm against the Nazi threat. It is actually an ex-post argument: Chamberlain himself sold his policies as a bid for peace, not time. He launched no rearmament effort until March 1939, when Hitler reneged on Munich. The idea has nevertheless achieved a surprising degree of acceptance, especially in Britain. It was worthwhile sacrificing Czechoslovakia in 1938 the better to be able to face Germany militarily in 1939/40, so it goes. Except it wasn’t.

In this post I set out why the Entente partners actually lost time at Munich in as few words as possible. The long argument can be found in The Bell of Treasonor in my International History Review article on the subject. It is touched upon in the rest of the Munich literature, of course, though not with the full data.

The first reason Britain and France were worse off in 1939 than 1938 is that in 1939 they got a far weaker set of allies. In September 1938, they could count on Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. In September 1939, they only had Poland. Czechoslovakia had fully mobilised, possessed a well-equipped army, and could base its defence on a long fortification barrier. Poland was surprised in the middle of mobilization, its army was ill equipped, and – thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 – it was invaded from both sides. The longer explanation, again, is in my book.

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Nuremberg Panzer factory (Ullstein Bild – Photo12 / Collection Bernard Crochet)

The key data is military. France, and with it Britain, lost time because the one to one-and-a-half years between 1938 and 1939/40 helped Germany far more than it helped them. This was partly because the Germans were able to seized the large Czechoslovak stockpiles and factories. A third of the tanks that pierced the French front in May 1940, causing the French collapse, were built in Czechoslovakia. Germany faced dire raw-material and production bottlenecks in 1938, which were relieved through time gained, the Czech annexation, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Meanwhile, German rearmament proper had only begun in 1935 when Hitler had reintroduced conscription. By 1938, Germany had thus been forming new army divisions for three years. By 1939 this was four years and by 1940 almost five: half as long again as by 1938.

I set out the relative army numbers, in simplified form, in the table below. France did not need to re-arm because it was already armed at or close to its full potential. Its accretion in military strength between 1938 and 1939 was limited. Germany’s accrued power was considerable. The difference became even more marked by 1940. This does not count the relative value of the Czechoslovak or Polish armies nor any Soviet contribution. Britain’s expeditionary force only increased from two to five divisions in the interval, so it can be ignored.

Divisions

France 1938 Germany 1938 France 1939

Germany 1939

Infantry – regular

35

36 37

54

Infantry – reserve

21

8 18

35

Motorized / armoured

9

13 10

13

Fortress

15

12 21

12

Cavalry

5

1 5

1

Total

85

70 91

115

After the war started, France was able to put together another twenty divisions, while Germany assembled another forty. So France’s position changed from an advantage of fifteen divisions in 1938, to a disadvantage of twenty-four by 1939, which became forty-five in May 1940. This is a quantitative, not a qualitative overview, but two additional factors are worth mentioning. First, the 1938 German tanks were all Panzer I and II models, fitted with inferior armour and firepower. The mark I Panzer did not even possess a canon, just a machinegun. The tanks that pierced the French front in 1940 were mark III and IV – still at the prototype stage in 1938. Second, the German army was only able to push through Belgium, in 1940, by taking its border fortresses with glider and parachute units. In 1938, these elite units were still being assembled.

Germany lacked the firepower to defeat France in 1938. Indeed, it faced defeat at the hands of a stronger coalition, possibly in short order. It also follows, finally, that it was not in a position to launch an attack on Britain. This goes to the core of the theory that Chamberlain bought time by helping muster the country’s air defences. Actually in 1938 Britain was already producing Spitfires and Hurricanes, and output rhythms were not sped up until the spring of 1939 – and even then still less than to a wartime pace – so that the time gained was close to nil. But the key is that the Luftwaffe, even in 1940, could only launch an assault on Britain from bases in Belgium and northern France. It was not possible to do that from Germany. So until France fell, there could be no Battle of Britain. And if Germany lacked the land forces to defeat France in 1938 or 39…

The Battle of Britain was this incredibly romantic moment, immortalized by Churchill. Seen more coldly, though, it was only one of many turning points in WWII, the first among which were the falls of Poland, then France. The Battle of Britain was not even “the end of the beginning” (that was reserved to El Alamein). I want to close this post with Churchill’s own words, making exactly the point I make in the preceding paragraph.

“The German armies were not capable of defeating the French in 1938 or 1939. The vast tank production with which they broke the French front did not come into existence until 1940, and, in the face of French superiority in the West and an unconquered Poland in the East, they could certainly not have concentrated the whole of their air-power against England as they were able to do when France had been forced to surrender. This takes no account either of the attitude of Russia or of whatever resistance Czechoslovakia might have made. I have thought it right to set out the figures of relative air-power in the period concerned, but they do not in any way alter the conclusions which I have recorded. For all the above reasons, the year’s breathing-space said to be “gained” by Munich left Britain and France in a much worse position compared with Hitler’s Germany than they had been at the Munich crisis.”

(Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War (6 vols, Boston, 1948-53), vol. I, p. 304).