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Eighty Years On, Chamberlain's Appeasement Policy is Still Debated

Eighty years ago this month Neville Chamberlain resigned after serving for three years as Britain’s Prime Minister (1937-1940). 

The debate over his appeasement policy still lingers. Was his policy designed to postpone war or avoid it altogether? Was Chamberlain willing to accept Germany’s demands in order to delay war until Britain was better prepared, or did he believe that an acceptable solution to the overall conflict with Germany was possible without recourse to war?  

The answers are important because appeasement remains to this day a by-word for surrender to dictators. The experiences of the 1930s have shaped, to a large extent, the way decision-makers in parliamentary democracies have perceived international reality, from the Cold War to the First and Second Gulf Wars, from the Suez Crisis to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and Iran. 

Before Chamberlain’s premiership, Britain had conducted a passive policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany since 1933, accepting reluctantly whatever Germany did. Once Chamberlain became prime minister, however, he pursued an active policy of appeasement aimed at meeting German demands. 

Chamberlain designed the policy and conducted it as a one-man show. His diplomacy was as personal in nature as it was pro-active in manner.  It was spectacular in effect – both in success and in failure. 

Based on the evidence available, Chamberlain did not seek to postpone war. He attempted to avoid it altogether. He believed that the conflict with Nazi Germany – and, indeed, with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan – could be settled to the parties’ satisfaction without war. He began with the premise that Germany’s aim was to rectify the wrongs of the Versailles settlement at the end of the previous world war. The prime minister believed the objectives of Germany could be accommodated by active conciliation. Indeed, he argued that he was the only person who could do it. His lack of modesty matched his ambitious goals. The problem, as it turned out, were not his goals, but rather the premise behind them. 

After his first meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden (they would meet on three different occasions) on the 15th and 16th of September, 1938, Chamberlain described Hitler to his sister as “a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” 

Following the Munich Agreement of the 30th of September, 1938, which had brought to an end the Sudetenland Crisis, Chamberlain suggested to Hitler to sign a piece of paper in which both leaders would pledge that their respective countries  would settle all future conflicts by peaceful means, promising never to go to war with each other.

Chamberlain proudly waved that piece of paper in front of all the journalists who were waiting for him at the airport upon his return from Germany. 

He announced to the British people that he had brought “peace in our time,” hardly the statement of someone who wished to lower expectations, wishing merely to postpone war.

On the same day the Munich Agreement was signed, Chamberlain declared that “the settlement of the Czechoslovak problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only a prelude to a larger settlement in which all of Europe may find peace.”

This is not exactly the mode of conduct and the rhetoric of a leader who sought to postpone war. Rather, it confirms that Chamberlain’s objective was to attain an overall resolution of the conflict with Germany – and with Italy. The solution of the Sudetenland Crisis was only a step towards that goal. 

Indeed, on the 31st of October, 1938, Chamberlain told his Cabinet that his policy remained “appeasement”, the chief aim of which was “establishing relations with the Dictator Powers which will lead to a settlement in Europe and to a sense of stability.”

Moreover, Chamberlain argued that by agreeing to give the Sudetenland to Germany, he had not sacrificed Czechoslovakia, the only parliamentary democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In an October 3 speech to the House of Commons, he explained that the Munich Agreement “may perhaps enable her [Czechoslovakia] to enjoy in the future and develop a national existence under a neutrality and security comparable to that which we see in Switzerland today.” 

As an experienced politician, Chamberlain must have known that his words would come to haunt him if the aim of his policy was merely to postpone war. In the wake of the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia resembled anything but Switzerland. Indeed, within a few months it would cease to exist as a separate country following the German invasion of March, 1939. 

When Britain eventually declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, Chamberlain’s speech was broadcast by the BBC. Chamberlain candidly said “You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.” There was no need to refer to his “struggle to win peace” had he been intent on postponing rather than avoiding war. After all, if his aim was merely to postpone war, notwithstanding the sorrow for the war just declared, Chamberlain might have been relieved that, at least, he had managed to gain some precious time before war broke out.

Chamberlain’s closest adviser, Sir Horace Wilson, confirmed many years later that the Policy of Appeasement “was never designed just to postpone war, or unable us to enter war more united. The aim of our appeasement was to avoid war altogether.”  With the benefit of hindsight, Wilson could have tried to protect Chamberlain’s reputation by contending that the prime minister’s objective was more short-term, pragmatic in nature, and less naïve in hindsight. He didn’t. Perhaps Sir Horace knew that the evidence available would not allow him to argue otherwise.

To be sure, Chamberlain might have had good reasons to try to postpone war as some historians claim. However, that by itself is hardly proof that Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was designed to achieve that goal. He acted and spoke, both in public and in private, on the assumption that an overall settlement of the conflict with Germany was possible, that war was preventable, and that German demands could be accommodated. The evidence in that regard, as we have seen, is clear.