I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week – I do not grudge them the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defences; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies:
And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
Winston Churchill, conclusion of speech condemning the Munich Agreement, October 5, 1938
Well, well, well, appeasement is back in fashion judging from a stunningly wrongheaded article at Slate by Nick Baumann defending the Munich agreement of 1938, on its 75th anniversary, by which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sold Czechoslovakia into Nazi slavery for a worthless promise from Hitler of “peace in our time”. “Our time” turned out to be very short with the Nazis commencing World War II with the invasion of Poland less than a year later in September 1939. Go here to read the article.
Baumann defends Chamberlain on the following grounds. I will respond to each in turn.
1. Britain Militarily Unready–First, a look at the military situation. Most historians agree that the British army was not ready for war with Germany in September 1938. If war had broken out over the Czechoslovak crisis, Britain would only have been able to send two divisions to the continent—and ill-equipped divisions, at that. Between 1919 and March 1932, Britain had based its military planning on a “10-year rule,” which assumed Britain would face no major war in the next decade. Rearmament only began in 1934—and only on a limited basis. The British army, as it existed in September 1938, was simply not intended for continental warfare. Nor was the rearmament of the Navy or the Royal Air Force complete. British naval rearmament had recommenced in 1936 as part of a five-year program. And although Hitler’s Luftwaffe had repeatedly doubled in size in the late 1930s, it wasn’t until April 1938 that the British government decided that its air force could purchase as many aircraft as could be produced.
Response: Britain was certainly in a sorry state for war in September 1938. Churchill had been sounding the tocsin that Britain was militarily unprepared throughout most of the decade. The dominant faction in his own party, the Conservatives, bitterly fought his calls for rearmament in the face of the rising Nazi threat, and preferred to engage in wishful thinking that the Nazis were bluffing and that deals to preserve the peace could be cut with Hitler. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy arose out of a desire to avoid the cost of rearmament and an inexcusable misreading of what Hitler was all about, inexcusable since Hitler had made his ambitions for conquest quite clear in Mein Kampf.
Selling out Czechoslovakia made Great Britain much more militarily weak when war came. It deprived the Allies of the well trained and equipped Czechoslovakian army, allowed Hitler to strengthen his forces with Czech armaments, especially their superb light 35(t) tanks, and gave him control of the huge Skoda armament factories which were a mainstay of German arms production throughout the War. Militarily the Munich agreement was a disaster for the Allies.
2. Lack of support from the Dominions: 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.
Response: Rubbish. The Dominions instantly declared war after Great Britain declared war on Germany. If the Dominions were willing to fight for Poland in September 1939, they would have fought for Czechoslovakia in October 1938.
3. Lack of Popular Support-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. The Somme and Passchendaele had left scars that still stung, and few, if any, British leaders were prepared to ask their people to fight those battles again. Many people saw the work of the Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War and feared that aerial bombardment would ensure that a second war would be more devastating that the first. Any strategy that claimed to offer an alternative to sending large armies to Europe therefore found supporters on every level of British society. “There was a feeling that any sensible politician would explore every avenue to avoid war before accepting war was inevitable,” Dutton says.
Response: The British public had been living in a pacifist dreamland, fed lies by politicians like Chamberlain who pooh-poohed the obvious threat posed by Nazi Germany. To defend Chamberlain for the Munich agreement because the British public bought his line of malarkey is perverse. A statesman has a duty to his people to speak the truth, especially in time of peril. Chamberlain was no statesman. In any case the support would have been there, as was the case with Poland, once the Nazis launched a war of conquest against Czechoslovakia.
So much for Mr. Baumann’s attempt to defend a policy that brought both shame and ultimately war on Great Britain. Left unaddressed by Mr. Baumann is the moral question. By 1938 every leader in Europe knew what a tyrant Hitler was. Chamberlain was complicit in selling the peoples of Czechoslovakia into a nightmare of slavery. If the Brits didn’t want to fight for Czechoslovakia, that is one thing. But to join with Hitler in browbeating a free nation into going under the fascist yoke was beneath contempt. As Churchill said in reference to Neville Chamberlain after Munich: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”