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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”.


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.

tank factory

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.


France 1938 Germany 1938 France 1939

Germany 1939

Infantry – regular


36 37


Infantry – reserve


8 18


Motorized / armoured


13 10




12 21




1 5




70 91


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).

Who are the appeasers?

Last year, Donald Trump used Twitter to accuse South Korea of “appeasement” in its confrontation with the north over nuclear armaments. If President Trump, who makes no claim to being an intellectual, uses the term “appeasement”, and of all places on Twitter, surely that term has entered the mainstream. But how did it get there? What is “appeasement” supposed to mean anyway? Are the words “appeasement” and “appeaser” at all related anymore to their historical basis?

The 1930s

Appeasement as policy originated in the dramatic events that led to WWII. It peaked on 30 September 1938, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich Conference to proclaim “peace for our time”. Britain and France had given in to Hitler’s peremptory demands to carve up Czechoslovakia, a friendly nation and a key military asset. As Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, his French counterpart, would soon discover, they had made a bad bargain. Far from having bought peace, they had fed Nazi appetites. Hitler had sworn this was the end of his territorial ambitions, as a token leaving standing a rump Czechoslovak state. Reneging on this six months later, he ordered his troops to march into Prague.

Winston Churchill, who was out of government at the time, commented after Munich : “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war.” The Munich Agreement was the final and most dramatic milestone in appeasement, but the policy of bowing to the dictators had begun earlier. In 1935, Benito Mussolini launched an invasion of Abyssinia – now Ethiopia – from the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia. It was a brutal, unprovoked attack. The Italians used tanks, aircraft, and poison gas against the heroic but helpless Africans. The French and British, for their part, were anxious not to push Mussolini into Hitler’s arms: all they imposed on Italy were limited trade sanctions, and even these were quickly withdrawn. In a secret bid to pacify the Italian dictator, they attempted to bribe him by recognising the annexation of the greater part of Abyssinia – the Hoare-Laval Pact, only aborted due to untimely press exposure.

In 1935, Hitler had reintroduced conscription in Germany. In 1936 he remilitarised the Rhineland, a buffer region declared armaments-free under the Versailles and Locarno treaties. That Nazi Germany was a violent country where innocents were sent to concentration camps and that Hitler harboured ambitions to change the European map were both public knowledge. Neither the French nor the British attempted to stop Germany’s remilitarization. In 1937, a German air-force squadron known as the Condor Legion bombed the Spanish town of Guernica, massacring its defenceless civilians. The very existence of the Condor Legion contravened international non-intervention agreements into the Spanish Civil War, whose terms the Italians were violating on an even greater scale. Rather than confront the offenders, France and Britain chose to believe the fiction that their troops were “volunteers”. In March 1938 – six months still before Munich – the German army marched into Austria, which was annexed in an action known as the Anschluss. This was the last straw, the French and British premiers announced. Hitler was warned: if he thought he could do the same to Czechoslovakia…

Obersalzberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung

Hitler welcomes Chamberlain in Berchtesgaden (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H12478 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It was only in March 1939, when Hitler violated the terms of the Munich Agreement itself, that appeasement was publicly unmasked as a failed policy. The French and British premiers were forced to acknowledge their error. To prevent any further losses, they guaranteed the borders of Poland, Greece, and Romania. In September, WWII began. Germany, of course, had by then amassed more than a hundred army divisions. It had taken its pick from the massive Czechoslovak armament factories and stockpiles, helping equip an unstoppable panzer corps. And it faced no eastern front, the Soviet Union having given up on the pusillanimous Western powers.

1930s appeasement contained a few basic features for noting by political scientists in future decades. First, the appeasers were compelled to deal with events in their own backyard, not on some distant shore upon which it was optional to busy themselves. Second, they faced an existential threat: Germany was a first-rank power with the potential to destroy them, at least after it had been allowed to rearm. Third, the situation they faced involved fundamental moral choices alongside strategic calculations: the pressure to surrender helpless populations to the Nazis had to be gauged against the associated military gains or losses. Incidentally, it is this combination of hard moral and strategic choices that accounts for appeasement’s endless fascination both among champions of Idealand Realpolitik, among foreign policy realists and their idealist opponents.

Drawing the lessons

None of this was much considered, however, by politicians supposedly drawing the lessons from appeasement after 1945. Appeasement’s strange post-war career underwent three broad phases. The first began in an immediate and complete condemnation: appeasement was the failed work of a few guilty men, in the words of a book published anonymously as early as 1940. This classic formulation would endure for a generation. It would also provide an excellent basis for making exactly the opposite mistakes.

In 1956, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had recently taken power in Egypt, nationalised the Suez Canal. He was already at odds with Britain, Egypt’s former coloniser, and with France, who believed him to be covertly supporting Algerian independence fighters. The British and French premiers, Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet, concocted a plan. Israel, similarly concerned and secretly brought in, would invade the Sinai and advance as far as Port Said. This would provide an opening for Franco-British forces to intervene as “peacekeepers”, by the same token taking physical control of the canal. The plotters sounded out neither the US nor the Soviet Union.

The thinking behind this harebrained scheme, beside being emblematic of two declining colonial powers, was heavily influenced by the desire to draw the “lessons from Munich”. Eden and Mollet saw Nasser as a new Hitler, bent on regional domination according to a step-by-step plan. They were petrified of looking weak if they sat down to negotiate. Both premiers personally remembered the 1930s. Eden had been Foreign Secretary between 1935 and 1938. He had a hawk’s reputation because he had resigned, a few months before Munich, for being at odds with Chamberlain, but he had actually been a participant in appeasement before that. Mollet’s experience was different: too unimportant to be in office in the 1930s, he had fought as a resister during the war. Many of the politicians around Mollet and Eden, meanwhile, had cheered the Munich Conference from the backbenches. They were not guilty men so much as men with a guilty conscience. The result was disaster. The Suez operation went ahead and was a military success initially, but it had to be aborted when the Soviet Union threatened a nuclear war. The US disowned its duplicitous French and British allies, abandoning them to a humiliating climbdown. Nasser was not Hitler. Victorious Egyptian troops were not about to march down the Champs Elysées, and Port Said bore little resemblance to Munich. This was the not last time, though, that the wrong analogies would be made.

1960s domino theory – the notion that one country after the next would fall to communism if its progression was left unchecked – owed something to the negative example of appeasement. Other factors, though – they lie beyond the scope of this blog – were at work behind that theory and its main outcome: the Vietnam War. By then, first-hand memory of Munich was beginning to fade. The next stage in appeasement’s afterlife accordingly belonged to the historian’s sphere.

Immediately after WWII, the opening of the German archives had confirmed that the appeasers had from the beginning been played by Hitler. Several writers had produced excellent accounts of Munich, including a worthy tome by Telford Taylor, a former prosecutor at Nuremberg. By the 1960s, though, the time was ripe for revisionism. Beginning with the telegenic A.J.P. Taylor on the origins of WWII, a group of historians began to rehabilitate Chamberlain. Since painting the Nazis as good guys after all was not an option, this necessarily focused on the realist aspects of appeasement. The appeasers had been sincere men facing hard choices, said Taylor. They had enjoyed a wide following at the time. The key argument, though, became that appeasement had bought time for the democracies to rearm. As many have since then countered this was bogus, but the notion caught on and has achieved a degree of public recognition, especially in Britain. Peak revisionism was probably reached with a daring and original book by the diplomatic historian John Charmley: obeying a hard-headed logic, this argued that it had never been in Britain’s interest to confront Hitler, and that even fighting WWII had been a bad idea.

Charmley’s book came out in 1989. Ironically this was just before a major international crisis arose that would actually recall the 1930s – a crisis in which the British and French cabinets would choose most studiously to ignore the perceived “lessons” of appeasement, to an equally lamentable outcome.

In 1992, the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic attacked neighbouring Bosnia. Like Hitler, Milosevic used local irredentists as a tool for conquest, in this case a ragtag body of paramilitaries with a government based in the provincial town of Banja Luka. Milosevic’s proxies ran concentration camps where they performed mass torture, rape, and murder. The assault was racially based and motivated, as evidenced by campaigns of terror and eviction or “ethnic cleansing”. It was designed as a prelude for creating a greater Serbia to encompass all or part of Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. There was even a parallel with the Spanish Civil War in that the international community, Britain and France in the lead, imposed an arms embargo that Serbia consistently violated and that left the legitimate Bosnian government desperately short of weapons. The main difference with the 1930s was that Serbia was of course too weak to pose any direct threat to the Western powers, and there was no prospect of a world war. This did not stop the governments of John Major and Jacques Chirac from proclaiming that Serbia could not and should not be confronted. The Bosnian war dragged on, leaving 100,000 dead and many more displaced.

Margaret Thatcher, who was now out of office and became utterly exasperated, berated the foreign secretary Douglas Hurd: “Douglas, Douglas, you would make Neville Chamberlain look like a warmonger.”After much wavering, the US under Bill Clinton decided to intervene. At a UN meeting to halt the bloodbath, Madeleine Albright snapped at a delegate who quibbled with the latest resolution: “Where do you think you are, Munich?”

Appeasement now

If the Bosnian moral case was unimpeachable, the proverbial cat was nevertheless out of the bag. The Americans had been proven right, and the crypto-appeaser Hurd shown to be at fault. Among historians, as the twenty-first century dawned, the revisionist phase was ending and appeasement becoming unfashionable again. Among politicians, the use of the word was about to become ubiquitous, with a corresponding, final loss of meaning.

“Appeaser” as a term of abuse reached a peak it has never left in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the US led a coalition to topple Saddam Hussein and remove weapons of mass destruction (“WMDs”) that were never there. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence, proclaimed himself a new Churchill. The French and the Germans, who opposed the war, were “appeasers” of the cheese-eating variety, like anyone who thought the inspectors might be right when they doubted the presence of WMDs. Tony Blair sided with Bush-Rumsfeld in their crusade against “appeasement”, prompting The Guardian to ask historians for their opinions and reaping a choice set of quotes on the misuse of the term. Saddam Hussein was, again, not Hitler. Nor was Iraq about to invade the US or Britain, or even plausibly any neighbouring state. As one of these historians responded: “Blair would do well to reflect on the lessons of Suez. Politicians, like everyone else, are free to repeat the mistakes of the past, but it is not mandatory to do so.” It was in vain. Appeasement had reached its terminal status as a bland and blameable catchall, a status from which the historian was unlikely to rescue it.

Munich probably does teach us a few lessons, though historians are rightly reluctant to admit so. One is that arrogance and the ignorance of all contradictory viewpoints – in my opinion Chamberlainite hallmarks – do not make for good diplomacy. Another is that the pursuit of détente should take into account the other party’s track record in sticking to their word. (In a key cabinet meeting days before Munich, Lord Hailsham produced a press cutting listing the many occasions when Hitler had broken his word: this failed to impress the British premier.) A third is that it is dangerous to hand over large armament stockpiles to an enemy. A fourth might be that self-determination is no panacea: Hitler invoked it to great effect in asking for populations to be delivered to him, but among them were many opponents and non-Germans who stood to suffer the worst depredations. None of these lessons, however, is that a warlike inflexibility should always be preferred to diplomacy and a preparedness to negotiate, and herein lies the problem.

From one false analogy to another or to one that was only partly good, “appeasement” has been drained of its historical meaning. From the description of someone leading a morally questionable and cowardly policy – itself a historically contingent description – the term “appeaser” has become a mere term of abuse, applicable to anyone who, in a given situation, is prepared to suggest diplomacy might work. In this light, all hawks are Churchill and all doves are Chamberlain. The appeasers are everyone and anyone, as long as they object to the use of violence to pre-empt some real or imagined act of aggression. This even explains why, like the South Korean president in Trump’s tweets, one can be an appeaser one day and a hero the next.