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Feature essay

Proponents and critics of appeasement

Defining appeasement

The term ‘appeasement’ has been used by historians, as it was by many contemporaries, to describe the broad thrust of British foreign policy throughout the inter-war years—an attempt to adjust the balance between the victorious and vanquished powers of the peace settlement of 1919 by concessions based on the widely held feeling that the terms of that peace had been unacceptably harsh. More broadly, the term has also been put forward as an accurate representation of the usual course of British foreign policy since the middle of the nineteenth century: the instinctive preference of a country that had achieved most of its ambitions in the world arena, whose dependence on uninterrupted trade provided a trenchant argument against recourse to disruptive war and whose growing democracy increasingly clamoured for policies which preserved peace, stability, and social progress.

More usually, however, appeasement is used to describe the response of British foreign policy makers in the 1930s to the rise of the dictator powers, especially Nazi Germany. In this sense it is seen as a policy of making one-sided concessions, often at the expense of third parties and with nothing offered in return except promises of better behaviour in the future, in a vain attempt to satisfy the aspirations of the aggressor states. Because the policy ultimately failed so spectacularly in its primary purpose of avoiding war, its practitioners—the appeasers—have been the subject of much obloquy and derision. They are seen to have set an example to be for ever avoided by those with responsibility for directing the diplomacy of Britain or any other democratic country. By contrast, its opponents—the minority of anti-appeasers—have assumed the status of national heroes, voices in the wilderness whose wise counsels were largely ignored, with almost catastrophic consequences for the nation in 1939–40. Though not devoid of value, this simple distinction between the supporters and opponents of appeasement is misleading, implying a clarity of differentiation which often did not exist. Few appeasers were really prepared to seek peace at any price; few, if any, anti-appeasers were prepared for Britain to make a stand against aggression whatever the circumstances and wherever the location in which it occurred.

The appeasers, 1931–40

  (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) by Bassano, 1936 (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) by Bassano, 1936
The most famous, or perhaps notorious, of the appeasers was inevitably Neville Chamberlain. It was during his premiership (1937–40) that appeasement reached its climax with the Munich settlement of September 1938, by which Britain sought to avoid war over Czechoslovakia by agreeing to Nazi demands for the annexation of the German-speaking parts of that state, known as the Sudetenland. It was also during Chamberlain's time in 10 Downing Street that the policy was significantly modified following the German invasion of Prague in March 1939, and finally abandoned with the coming of war that September. But Chamberlain was also a prominent cabinet minister throughout the lifetime of the National Government (1931–40) and, particularly in hindsight, that government appeared to have practised appeasement—in the sense of giving in to aggression—from its very beginning. Moreover, as chancellor of the exchequer (1931–7), Chamberlain was the key figure in determining the inadequate level of British rearmament which, it has been argued, made the policy of appeasement inevitable.

But an excessive focus on Chamberlain can be misleading. Appeasement was accepted by the vast majority of those charged with responsibility for British foreign policy throughout the decade and was in no sense invented by one man. It was supported too by leading journalists, academics, and even members of the royal family, such as Edward VIII and his successor, George VI. In short, appeasement was the preferred policy of the establishment of the day. Indeed, it was once popular to suggest that the policy was devised at weekend parties hosted at Cliveden on the Thames by Waldorf Astor, Viscount Astor, and his wife, Nancy Astor. Among those often cited as members of the Cliveden set were J. L. Garvin, editor of The Observer, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, Philip Kerr, marquess of Lothian, future ambassador to Washington, the banker Robert Brand, and the historian and imperialist Lionel Curtis.

  John Allsebrook Simon (1873–1954) by Bassano, 1931 John Allsebrook Simon (1873–1954) by Bassano, 1931
Among politicians it fell to Sir John Simon, foreign secretary in the National Government from November 1931 to June 1935, to respond to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria within weeks of the government's formation. Simon judged that the rights and wrongs of the Sino-Japanese dispute were finely balanced; that no meaningful support would be forthcoming from the United States; and that in any case the state of Britain's armed forces ruled out effective intervention in this far-flung province of the Chinese empire, where Britain had few national interests at stake. With hindsight, this amounted to appeasement, and a pattern of surrender to aggression had been set which would be repeated throughout the decade. Much of this reflected continuity with what had gone before, but increasingly appeasement was determined by negative motives, relative weakness rather than the magnanimity of relative strength. Moreover, as the danger came closer to home, there was added to the determinants a mounting fear of what modern warfare would entail. To the mass slaughter of the battlefields of the First World War would now be added horrendous civilian casualties at the hands of the bomber aircraft.

It was Simon and the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald (1929–35), who faced the unenviable task of responding to the emergence of the Nazi regime in Germany, at a time before the full horror of Hitler's ambition and ideological motivation had been revealed. The quest for a settlement with Germany, many of whose grievances remained legitimate, even if voiced by a distasteful regime, seemed the logical course to pursue. Simon sought unsuccessfully to keep Germany engaged in the world disarmament conference at Geneva and was powerless to react when, in March 1935, Hitler announced that, in defiance of the treaty of Versailles, Germany had acquired an airforce. Hitler had simply taken that which Simon had hoped to use as a bargaining counter.

By the time that Simon left the Foreign Office, Britain faced a new challenge as a result of Italian ambitions in the African kingdom of Abyssinia. The new foreign secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, given a relatively free hand by the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, judged that this corrupt and primitive state, which still practised slavery, was not one for which to make a stand. It was merely unfortunate that Abyssinia had been granted membership of the League of Nations and therefore enjoyed the theoretical protection from aggression afforded by that organization. Hoare negotiated a secret agreement—later renounced in the face of popular dismay—with his French opposite number, Pierre Laval, designed to satisfy Italian ambitions and thus keep Italian friendship, increasingly important in view of the mounting threat from Germany. The Hoare–Laval pact illustrates the difficulty of drawing a clear distinction between appeasers and anti-appeasers. The moving force behind it was Sir Robert Vansittart, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, 1930–38, who is generally listed among the select ranks of the anti-appeasers. But Vansittart, wisely focusing on the German menace, was anxious to appease ‘dictator minor’ (Mussolini) the better to resist ‘dictator major’ (Hitler).

By May 1937, when Neville Chamberlain became prime minister, Britain faced the possible nightmare scenario of a combined three-front challenge—from Germany in Europe, Italy in Africa and the Mediterranean, and Japan in the Far East—less in the sense of a concerted alliance than the likelihood that such enemies would simply take advantage of Britain's preoccupation in one part of the globe to strike elsewhere. This represented a combination of powers against which Britain could not have expected to prevail even at the height of the pax britannica in the mid-nineteenth century, let alone as a diminished and over-extended power in the late 1930s. In such a situation a continuation of the policy of appeasement seemed to be the only option. In December 1937 the chiefs of staff warned of the dangers inherent in Britain's position:
We cannot foresee the time when our defence forces will be strong enough to safeguard our trade, territory and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan at the same time … We cannot exaggerate the importance from the point of view of Imperial Defence of any political or international action which could be taken to reduce the number of our potential enemies and to gain the support of potential allies. (M. Howard, The Continental Commitment, 1972, 120–21)
To this day, there has been no more eloquent statement of the strategic case for appeasement.
  Edward Frederick Lindley Wood (1881–1959) by Sir Oswald Birley, 1932 Edward Frederick Lindley Wood (1881–1959) by Sir Oswald Birley, 1932
In the pursuit of this policy Chamberlain proved single-minded, determined, and at times wilful. But this is not to say that he was on his own. As Samuel Hoare later argued, Chamberlain ‘was not an autocrat who imposed his views upon doubting or hostile colleagues. Appeasement was not his personal policy. Not only was it supported by his colleagues; it expressed the general desire of the British people’ (Viscount Templewood, Nine Troubled Years, 1954, 375). In particular, appeasement was also the policy of Chamberlain's successive foreign secretaries, Anthony Eden and Lord Halifax [see Wood, Edward Frederick Lindley]. It is true that by his resignation from the government in February 1938 Eden did much to establish his credentials as an anti-appeaser. But his record in government hardly sustains this. Eden had few problems with Chamberlain's policy towards Germany before February 1938. Indeed, as Baldwin's foreign secretary in March 1936 he had not been prepared to make a stand when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland—a moment which came to be seen by many as the decisive missed opportunity when appeasement should have been abandoned and Hitler stopped in his tracks. Eden's quarrel with Chamberlain owed more to a clash of personalities and a feeling that the prime minister was encroaching too much upon his departmental responsibilities. Policy differences centred on the relatively narrow point of the timing of renewed negotiations with Italy. By contrast, Chamberlain and Halifax co-operated well together and the foreign secretary had no qualms about the general direction of the prime minister's foreign policy, though he did lead cabinet opposition to the deal negotiated by Chamberlain with Hitler at Godesberg in September 1938. Appeasement was also supported by the vast majority of senior civil servants, in particular Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office from January 1938, and Sir Horace Wilson, nominally the government's chief industrial adviser, but also a close confidant of Chamberlain.

Critics of appeasement

Sir  Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874–1965) by Walter Sickert, 1927Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874–1965) by Walter Sickert, 1927
Among anti-appeasers the name of Winston Churchill inevitably takes first place. Not least in the account given in the first volume of his own war memoirs, The Gathering Storm (1948), Churchill stands as the isolated prophet who consistently warned the government of the dangers posed by Nazi Germany and of the disaster to which the policy of appeasement would inevitably lead. The Churchillian argument suggested that faster British rearmament could have deterred the German dictator and that a readiness to make a stand at crucial moments could have halted Hitler's rake's progress before it was too late. But even Churchill's record as an uncomplicated anti-appeaser cannot go unchallenged. His contemporary criticism of totalitarian regimes other than Hitler's Germany was at best muted, and it was not until May 1938 that he began consistently to withhold his support from the National Government's conduct of foreign policy in the division lobbies of the House of Commons. Even then, Churchill seems to have been convinced by the Sudeten German leader, Henlein, in the spring of 1938, that a satisfactory settlement could be reached if Britain managed to persuade the Czech government to make concessions to the German minority.

Somewhat ironically Neville Chamberlain's half-brother Austen Chamberlain merits a place of distinction among the opponents of appeasement. Almost as soon as Hitler came to power the elder Chamberlain drew attention to the connection between the nature of the Nazi regime and the foreign policy which it was likely to pursue. He was thus one of the few British politicians to appreciate that the policy of appeasement, whatever the rational justifications behind it, could not, in the context of Nazi ideology, lead to a lasting settlement of Anglo-German relations. Austen Chamberlain's death in March 1937 means that his record is incomplete and his possible reaction to the foreign policy of his half-brother's premiership cannot be determined.

Sir  Harold George Nicolson (1886–1968) by Howard Coster, 1935Sir Harold George Nicolson (1886–1968) by Howard Coster, 1935
Alfred Duff Cooper's name must also be noted, for he was the only cabinet minister to resign from his post (first lord of the Admiralty) in protest at the Munich settlement. By that time both Churchill and Eden had attracted groups of supporters in varying degrees of opposition to the government's policy. Churchill's followers included Robert Boothby, Brendan Bracken, Harold Macmillan, and Duncan Sandys. The more numerous, but less trenchant, critics in the Eden group—contemptuously described as the glamour boys by the Conservatives' whips office—included Viscount Cranborne [see Cecil, Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-], Ronald Tree (1897–1976), Harold Nicolson, and Ronald Cartland (1907–1940). This group became more forceful and vociferous in its opposition once Eden himself returned to government in September 1939, when leadership passed to Leopold Amery. The latter's anti-appeasement was long-standing but highly individualistic. Amery believed that Britain should isolate itself from the affairs of continental Europe and focus on its imperial destiny. Qualified opposition also came from the Labour Party under Clement Attlee (his front-bench colleague Hugh Dalton was more unequivocal) and the Liberals led by Archibald Sinclair, both of which preached collective security through the League of Nations. But in the case of the former, in particular, a reluctance to place armaments in the hands of the despised National Government inevitably militated against the development of a viable alternative policy.

Creating the ‘guilty men’

For all that, the totality of anti-appeasers was never more than a small minority within the political class of the 1930s. By the time that appeasement was perceived to have failed—September 1939 or more obviously May 1940—popular opinion was turning violently against the policy and almost everyone scrambled on to the anti-appeasement bandwagon. The appeasers now became objects of scorn. The subtleties of their understanding disappeared; the shaded margins of differentiation between supporters and opponents of appeasement were lost from view. Instead, appeasement was portrayed in stark terms as the unequivocally mistaken policy of a group of second-rate politicians, blind to the evidence which stared them in the face as they conducted the country to the very edge of disaster. In short, the appeasers became the guilty men, the title of a remarkably influential polemical tract published in 1940 by three left-wing journalists (Michael Foot, Peter Howard, and Frank Owen) working for Beaverbrook newspapers. This school of writing was reinforced by later authors such as A. L. Rowse and Margaret George, and it was not until the late 1960s that revisionist historians began to redress the balance and restore a more nuanced interpretation.

D. J. Dutton

Likenesses  

W. Sickert, oils, 1927, NPG; Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill [see illus.] · H. Coster, photograph, 1930–39, NPG; Sir Harold George Nicolson [see illus.] · Bassano, photograph, 1931, NPG; John Allsebrook Simon, first Viscount Simon [see illus.] · O. Birley, oils, 1932, priv. coll.; Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, first earl of Halifax [see illus.] · Bassano, photograph, 1936, NPG; (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain [see illus.]