16 Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands gave birth to Beatrix Wilhelmina Armgaard.
25 The First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff wrote that the imperial fleet was so weak that the Navy would be unable to deal simultaneously with threats from Japan in the Far East, even in conjunction with the United States, and with aggressor nations in Europe.
18 The The Midland Daily Telegraph reported significant overcrowding of the Coventry’s schools, carrying a major report, entitled, ‘Coventry as the Nation’s School’, claiming that in the previous twelve months children of school age from the Special Areas had been moving into the city at the rate of a hundred per month,
20 Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden resigned from the Cabinet over Mussolini’s role in the Spanish Civil War.
25 Lord Halifax became Foreign Secretary
6 Sinking of the rebel ship Baleares by torpedo off the coast of Cartagena, Spain; five hundred of the crew burnt to death, two hundred were rescued by British vessels & rebel ships.
11 Resignation of Austria’s Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, under pressure from Hitler for Nazification of Austria.
12 German troops crossed the Austrian border without a shot being fired: Hitler annexed Austria.
14 Hitler arrived in Vienna, Vast crowds lined the streets to welcome him with cries of ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer‘: Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons, regretting what had happened.
16 The minutes of the Oxford Branch of the National Union of Vehicle Builders recorded details of a ‘stormy meeting’ at the Nelson Arms in Cowley about the ‘alleged poaching’ of NUVB members by the TGWU, in the trim shop of the Pressed Steel works.
24 Chamberlain told the Commons that Britain had no vital interests in Czechoslovakia.
28 Hitler gives full instructions to Henlein, the Sudeten German leader, on how to build up tension over their demands.
20 The Listener publishes a report, ‘Exiled in London’ by Miles Davies into the London Welsh, a transcript of his radio broadcast.
25 Agreement signed between Britain and Ireland (Eire).
3-9 Hitler & Mussolini met in Rome.
13 Konrad Henlein attended a tea party as guest of honour of Harold Nicholson MP, and four other Conservative MPs.
30 In another secret directive, Hitler decides ‘to smash Czechoslovakia by military action in the near future’.
20 The Coventry Labour Party was accused of ‘dirty tactics’ in quoting a Conservative candidate in the local elections as claiming that Labour’s rise in the polls was due to ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ coming to Coventry.
12 German mobilisation.
7 The Times published an article arguing that the Czechoslovak government should cede the Sudetenland to Germany. It is badly received in Prague (see documents below).
12 Hitler’s speech at Nuremberg demanding self-determination for Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia.
15 Chamberlain meets Hitler at Berchtesgaden.
18 Meeting between Chamberlain and the French Foreign Minister in London. The British government expressed its readiness to participate in a general European guarantee for Czechoslovakia, along with other powers.
19 Anglo-French proposals for the transfer of the Sudetenland presented to the Czechoslovak Government (see documents below).
21 Crowds gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Police estimated 200,000 on the streets, protesting against Anglo-French initiative. Runciman sends his letter to the PM (see documents below) supporting Sudeten German demands to join the Reich.
22 Chamberlain met Hitler at Godesberg. Hitler demands the immediate transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany and the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims on Czechoslovak territory.
23 The Godesberg talks broke down. The chiefs of Staff presented the Cabinet with a paper that stated that to take offensive action against Germany before placing their forces on a war footing would be ‘to place ourselves in the position of a man who attacks a tiger before he has loaded his gun.’
25 Czechoslovak government called up all men under 40
27 Chamberlain broadcast to the nation, stressing: 1) The fate of the Empire could not be decided by the plight of a small nation; 2) his deep personal commitment to peace, and 3) his conviction that any nation seeking to dominate through fear of its strength had to be resisted.
28 British fleet mobilised. Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons on the crisis and the negotiations with Germany. Towards the end of his speech, he received a message from Hitler agreeing to Chamberlain’s request for further talks with him and Mussolini.
29-30 Chamberlain met Hitler at Munich: Four-power Agreement between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, providing for German occupation of the Sudetenland by 10th October 1938.
30 Chamberlain returned to Heston Airport and reads the bi-lateral agreement between himself and Hitler signed that morning. The news was greeted by cheering crowds as he made his way to Buckingham Palace, where he later appeared on the balcony with the King and Queen.
The third Report of the Special Commissioner for the Special Areas, for the year ended 30th September 1938, was published. By September, seventy-two firms had been assisted to settle in the ‘Special Areas’, including fifty-one at Treforest, south Wales.
1 German troops entered the Sudetenland. Harold Nicolson attacked the Munich Agreement in a speech in Manchester.
2 Poland occupied Teschen, a rich industrial region, which it claimed as part of the Munich Agreement, and Hungary annexed a broad strip of southern Slovakia and Ruthenia.
3-5 House of Commons debated the Munich Agreement. Nicolson spoke on 5th.
18 The management at the Pressed Steel works in Cowley near Oxford, estimated that there were up to 3,000 members of the 5/60 TGWU branch, founded in 1934, at the works, and about 800 members of unions for skilled workers.
3 Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded details of victimisation of the TGWU shop stewards at the Pressed Steel works, leading to a strike,
15 The International Brigades were formally withdrawn from Spain late in 1938 as part of Prime Minister Juan Negrín’s attempt to win British and French support for his government. The last battle in which they participated was that of the Ebro. A farewell parade was held for the volunteers in Barcelona, Spain, on November 15, 1938.
1 Oxford Trades Council minutes recorded the failure of the strike at Pressed Steel, and further cases of victimisation.
Christmas: Jewish refugee boys from Germany and Austria arrive in London, from their base camp at Dovercourt, to spend the holiday with foster-parents. The continental clothes made them conspicuous among the London crowds.
Also in the year:
First British National Register introduced.
Queen Elizabeth, the liner, launched
Nylon first produced in Britain
Picture Post first published: These Tremendous Years, 1919-38 published (by the Daily Express?)
400,000 Anderson shelters manufactured for civilian use
Women’s Voluntary Service & Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Force founded
BBC began foreign broadcasts
Empire Exhibition in Glasgow
Holidays with Pay Act passed
England made record cricket score of 903 for 7 v. Australia
Among the plays of the year was Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green. Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other films included The Prisoner of Zenda with Ronald Colman, The Lady Vanishes directed by Alfred Hitchcock and The Citadel directed by King Vidor and starring Robert Donat (see chapter two). Ironically, both the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Orchestra visited Britain. Popular songs were ‘Blue Skies are round the Corner’, ‘The Lambeth Walk’ and ‘Whistle While You Work’.
Chapter One: ‘And Now What? – What Will He Grow up to?’
The picture post style publication, These Tremendous Years, 1919-38, published in 1938, concluded its chronicle with pictures of the panzer divisions that had raced through the night to reach Vienna a week earlier. “The first job of the new Chancellor”, the Nazi leader Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the journal reported, “was to ask the German army to help him keep order”. Hitler “received a tumultuous reception”, it concluded. On the next and final page, it featured a picture of a young British boy, about eight years old, and asked the question “AND NOW, WHAT – WHAT WILL HE GROW UP TO?” This publication clearly did not have the benefit of hindsight, and although uncertain of what the future might hold for the young Briton, there was no tone of ‘inevitability’ that he, like the whole of the European population, was well down the road to war. Indeed, had publication of the journal been delayed until the new year of 1939, the question might have been turned into a more certain and confident statement, following the events of the autumn of 1938.
Lionel Curtis, one of the leading lights behind ‘Chatham House’, the British Institute of International Affairs in 1920, when Harold Nicolson had first heard him speak, told Nicolson in the Spring of 1938 that the programme he was sponsoring for Germany would bring ‘twenty years of peace’ which ‘were worth any price’. Besides the Anschluss, ‘the package deal’ he proposed contained the provision of ‘cantonal status’ (autonomy) for the Sudetenland by the Czechoslovak government, recognition of Germany’s colonial rights, and of its economic interests in eastern Europe. It also conceded that Germany should be free to develop its armed forces to the extent that it would become the strongest power in central Europe. This was too much for Nicholson, whose ‘anti-German stance’ shocked Curtis. Harold emphasised his belief that Germany harboured ‘aggressive ambitions’ and would not support its economic designs on eastern Europe. He opposed the attempt of Curtis and others to appease ‘the strong’. However, he accepted that his views and talents as a new MP were not widely respected in the House. “1938 will decide” he concluded. However, as the international crisis deepened, his opportunity presented itself sooner than he had expected. On 15th February news reached London that, at Berchtesgaden, the Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg had effectively handed over control of Austrian affairs to Germany.
Hitler took the Nazification of the German army and foreign policy a step further, “Adventurism is now in the ascendancy in Germany,” Nicolson declared to the Foreign Affairs Committee, advising his audience “to keep a stiff upper lip, not throw sops or slops around, wait, and, above all, rearm”. Privately, he suggested two days later that if Britain could play for time and “gain two years of peace, then we are almost home”. However, he added the caveat that “there is no doubt that Germany is out for Weltmacht and will carry that through with grim determination”. Three days after this statement, Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary.
Though Neville Chamberlain had little experience in foreign policy, he quite quickly established that his policy was not the same as Eden’s. His policy was what came to be known as ‘appeasement’. There was nothing new in it, of course, since every liberal-minded British politician and political commentator believed that the Versailles Treaty had been unjustly harsh on Germany and that more ‘give and take’ was required to to dampen the explosive situation on the continent. Eden was contemptuous of Italy and was pursuing a strong line on non-intervention, insisting that the Germans and Italians should take their promises not to interfere in the Spanish Civil War seriously. Chamberlain thought Eden was being inconsiderate towards Italy and set about conciliating Mussolini, including accepting Il Duce’s conquest of Abyssinia. In a meeting between the two of them and Grandi, the Italian Ambassador, he even took Grandi’s corner against his own minister. When Eden resigned, Chamberlain appointed Lord Halifax to replace him, since the latter had no objection to Chamberlain’s running the Foreign Office.
Eden’s resignation affected Harold Nicolson deeply, and he told the House that Eden had resigned over a matter of ‘great principle’. He lashed into Italy, “a country which has consistently, deliberately and without apology, violated every engagement into which she has ever entered”. His speech was well-received by Lloyd George and Churchill. Nicolson had little doubt that the PM was blindly leading the country into a diplomatic minefield. When Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss from the balcony of Linz Town Hall, Nicolson commented that it was an act, not of union, but of “complete absorption”. Depressed by the British Cabinet’s response, he emerged from the government benches as its leading critic. Chamberlain seemed less affronted by this deliberate breach of the Treaty of Versailles than by how it was accomplished, without diplomatic activity of any kind, a simple snatch. Harold characterised Chamberlain as an unintelligent “ironmonger” who would “allow Germany to become so powerful that she will begin to dictate to us”.
However, for the time being, the argument was lost. Chamberlain, as Nicolson himself well knew, had to play for time. The PM’s long years in government had developed his eye for detail, and he knew how unprepared Britain was for war. It had been estimated by expert advisers that, on the outbreak of war, the Luftwaffe would be able to deliver six hundred tons of high explosive over Britain every day, and that each ton was capable of killing sixteen people. That would mean that, in the first month of hostilities, 300,000 civilians would die in air raids. In the event, this estimate proved to be wildly wrong, since even with bases in France, the Germans were never able to approach this weight of bombardment, and the death rate per ton turned out to be one person per ton. However, people feared the unknown effect of bombing and gas attacks. By comparison, they cared little about the Anschluss. Austria was barely viable as a country after its separation from Hungary and their joint Empire, and the Austrians, after all, were German-speakers. If they wanted to join the Reich, that was their right. For diplomats and politicians, Austro-German relations were not a matter for those countries alone, as Chamberlain himself acknowledged to the House of Commons. He deplored the use of force, but what more could be said or done? Reports suggested that, on the whole, German troops had been well received and that Hitler was popular in his homeland. How could Britain come to the aid of a country that did not want to be saved, or to survive as a separate state. Besides which, he had had no troops to deploy to stop the invasion, although he could not admit this openly. Only a few days before, however, debating the Army Estimates, the Commons itself had come to a general consensus that Britain did not need a large continental army. Some MPs had even been puzzled as to why Hitler thought he needed one, but now they had a very clear answer to their somewhat naive question.
Nevertheless, Spain remained an issue, and Nicolson chose to speak out forcefully against Franco’s renewed offensive, challenging the House to imagine Gibraltar falling to him, and its straits coming under Mussolini’s control. However, all he could suggest to an exasperated Chamberlain was the occupation of Minorca. This revived fears of a Mediterranean War between Britain and France on the one hand, and Italy and Nationalist Spain on the other. The Spanish war gave Germany cover for its ambitions in central and eastern Europe and the ideological issues involved divided popular opinion in both Britain and France. Soviet intervention, through the supply of arms to the loyalists, sowed the seeds of mistrust towards Soviet intentions in the east and had a direct bearing on the Sudeten crisis, since President Benes feared the danger of civil war breaking out in Czechoslovakia. In addition, as A J P Taylor wrote later, the Spanish Civil War “did much to prevent national unity in Great Britain and France” and “drove a further wedge between Soviet Russia and the Western Powers”. Moreover, the psychological effects of the civil war were breaking down the resistance to the idea of another war, creating the feeling that Europe was already on the brink of another general conflict. Soon after his exchange with Chamberlain in the House, Nicholson was forced to resign as vice-chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the second half of April, he went to the Balkans with the British Council, to assure the people of central Europe that Britain would stand firm against any attempt by Germany to take over Mitteleuropa. He now believed, with sound justification, that should Germany strike again in central or south-east Europe, Britain would not stand by these countries, but would rather stand aside while Hitler took them into his Reich.
We now know that Hitler had confirmed his intention to take control of Czechoslovakia, first in the Hossbach Memorandum of 5th November 1937. There is no need to make exaggerated claims for the importance of this document, but it does confirm Hitler’s long-term intentions, originally set out in Mein Kampf, to take control of both Austria and most of Czechoslovakia, without war if possible, but through force if favourable circumstances arose, as he thought they might in the early Spring of 1938. Throughout the winter of 1937-8, Hitler had not been talking timetables, but had been thinking tactics out loud. However, this did not mean that he had committed himself to securing Lebensraum by force. This determination did not come until at least a year later, following his directive to his staff to be ready to attack Poland after 1st September 1939, issued on 3rd April of that year.
Neither did the Sudeten crisis suddenly arrive on the agenda of western diplomats following The Anschluss. If anything, Hitler had intended to try his will, and theirs, over the Sudeten question before his takeover of Austria, which he believed would happen at some point without much effort on his part, perhaps later rather than sooner. He was prepared to wait for an opportune moment, which, in the event, came sooner rather than later. The Sudeten question needed more careful nurturing, however. Czechoslovakia was a creature of three of the Paris Peace Treaties of Versailles, St Germain and Trianon, It was very much an experimental, multinational state, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been, except that it was also supposedly democratic. It was in border disputes with all its neighbours and was divided internally along ethnic and religious lines. Many British diplomats were concerned about the Prague government’s treatment of minorities, especially the Sudetens, which received a good deal of sympathetic treatment in the British press.
The Sudetenland, an area of eleven thousand square miles in northern Bohemia, lies to the east of a mountain range which forms not only a natural and strategic barrier between Germany and Czechoslovakia, but also a vital link in the encirclement of Germany after the Paris ‘Settlement’. As such, it was especially important to the French, with a very strong line of fortified defensive positions holding the ring with their western defences along the Maginot line. It had recently been fortified, and Benes was often criticised as being a tool of French foreign policy. It was populated by almost three million ethnic Germans who, before 1919, had been part of the German Confederation. This ‘fringe’ of mountain territory had been given to Czechoslovakia to form a defensive barrier at its western end, in defiance of the principle of self-determination. From the beginning of their incorporation, the Sudetens had complained that the Prague government discriminated against them on religious and cultural grounds. This discrimination worsened during the economic depression of the thirties, so that Nicolson realised that although the independence and integrity of Czechoslovakia was in Britain’s interest, this aim could only be secured if the Czech government could be persuaded to address the Sudeten grievances. This could then be “coupled with assurances that if they do we will protect their future”.
One reason for the acceptance of Sudeten German claims by British diplomats and politicians, such as Nicolson, was the personality of Konrad Henlein, their leader. A few days after the Anschluss Hitler, his financier, had told him to raise his demands to a degree unacceptable to the Czech government, which he did in a speech at Karlsbad on 24th April, demanding full equality of status between Germans and Czechs, full autonomy for the Sudetenland, including the right of Sudeten Germans to to support the domestic and foreign policies of the German Reich, and the complete revision of Czech foreign policy. However, he claimed only to want justice and a measure of autonomy when he visited London in May 1938, and even Churchill was taken in by his performance. At Nicholson’s tea party for Henlein and four other Conservative MPs , the Sudeten leader told his hosts, in German, that he sought no more, but no less, than cantonal autonomy for his people, so that finance, foreign affairs and defence in the hands of the Prague government. The only alternative he could see would be war between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Nicholson made it clear that Henlein should not return home with the impression that “not a single British soldier would fight for the Czechs” , but rather that “on his shoulders rested the grave responsibility for avoiding a second European War”. Little did Nicholson know that the day before this tea party Henlein had been in Berlin, receiving further instructions on how best to dupe the British.
Hitler did not need to prepare for a second general European war because he believed he had already developed an alternative military strategy to the war of attrition which the first had been. This was characterised by Blitzkrieg; short, limited, intensive wars to bring about a speedy victory, first against Czechoslovakia in 1938, and then against Poland a year later. Finally, he would then be ready to take on Soviet Russia. The key to understanding Hitler’s policy was that for him, war was not an alternative to diplomacy, but an extension of it. Conversely, if he could gain territory by diplomacy, so much the better for the conversation of military resources for when he would have to fight. From the autumn, if not the spring and summer of 1938, Hitler was waging an undeclared war in which all means – diplomatic, economic and military – were deployed to achieve his stated aims.
By August, the ‘screaming’ for justice of the Sudeten Germans had reached such a fever pitch that Chamberlain sent Walter Runciman to investigate the situation. The Czechs resented this, feeling that it placed a question mark against their entitlement to the Sudetenland, but Chamberlain made it a condition of Britain’s continuing support for them that Runciman be allowed to finish his investigation. He stayed until September, by which time the demands of the Sudeten Germans, prompted by Hitler, had been stepped up to such an extent that only a “transfer of territory” as The Times put it, would satisfy them. So, the stage was set for Chamberlain’s dramatic gesture. He became convinced that if he did not act there would be a rising in the Sudetenland, and Hitler would declare that he could not simply stand aside. So, on 13th September, he wrote a brief personal note to Hitler, soliciting a swift invitation. Both the Cabinet and the country were startled, since, at that time, British PMs did not usually fly off suddenly on diplomatic missions. That, calculated Chamberlain, was why Hitler would be impressed. The journalist René Cutforth painted a contemporary’s retrospective picture of this:
So began the most macabre of all the Thirties spectaculars: the spectacle of Mr Chamberlain, with his umbrella and his winged collar and his thin smile, flying about through the skies of Europe like some great black stork of ill-omen, smoothing Hitler’s path, and all with the best of motives.
Harold Nicolson followed the unfolding drama with mounting concern but also, at times, with sighs of relief. He knew that Chamberlain had “no conception of world politics”, and was quite unsuited to conclude a successful negotiation. Yet such was the general fear of war that when Chamberlain set out on 15th September for Berchtesgaden to confront Hitler, the first of his three flights to Germany, Nicholson felt “enormous relief”, tinged by shades of “disquiet”. “I shall be one of his most fervent admirers if he brings back something which does not constitute a Hitler triumph”, Harold wrote. When he arrived at Berchtesgarden, Chamberlain was met, among others in Hitler’s entourage, by the young German General Keitel, no doubt calculating how many panzer divisions he would need to penetrate the Czech defence system along their equivalent of the Maginot line. Mr Chamberlain was there to give them a safe pass through that line, so that they would no longer need to fight their way through difficult terrain. The gentler hills and plains of Bohemia beyond would then be exposed, and his divisions could be in Prague within days from their new border.
In his first conversation with Hitler, therefore, Chamberlain made no serious attempt to keep the Sudetenland inside Czechoslovakia. Stressing his opposition to the use of force, the PM confined himself to the question of how the transfer would take place. So Hitler agreed not to act precipitately, allowing Chamberlain to return home and consult his Cabinet as well as the French. He was acclaimed in London and allowed himself to be portrayed as having headed off an invasion. In his report to the Cabinet, he stated that while yielding on the principle of self-determination, he had not gone beyond this point. He made the same point in his meeting with the visiting French minister on 18th. He suggested that Britain would stand ready to guarantee the borders of the rump Czechoslovak state which would survive.
Harold Nicolson’s sense of relief had been short-lived. It was clear to him now that Chamberlain “didn’t care two hoots whether the Sudetens were in the Reich or out of it” and that he had brought back the bones of an agreement which were bare indeed, ceding to Germany the Sudeten German areas, provided the cession be achieved peacefully. Anglo-French pressure mounted on the Czechs to accept the ceding arrangement. The Times concluded that ‘the terms submitted to the Czechoslovak Government could not. in the nature of things, be expected to make a strong primae facie appeal to them’.
The only obstacle to an agreement, Chamberlain now calculated, would be if Hitler advocated the claims of the other minorities, including the Hungarians, for to concede to these would make the survival of Czechoslovakia impossible. When the PM arrived in Bad Godesberg on 22nd September, he was therefore disappointed to find that this was exactly the issue which the Fűhrer now raised. Moreover, Chamberlain could not understand why Hitler seemed so anxious to occupy the Sudetenland immediately. Added to this, Hitler showed him the map he had had drawn up showing the areas to be ceded, which included areas with Czech majorities. Angered by these tactics, Chamberlain broke off the negotiations and returned to London. He knew he would have difficulty in gaining Cabinet support for Hitler’s more intransigent terms, but was even more convinced that not to do so would result in a general European war, given the strident tone with which they had been put forward.
There was also a shift in tone in Britain, at least among the political élites, when Chamberlain returned empty-handed. The novelty of his flights was beginning to wear off and his stance was increasingly seen as one of ubiquitous obsequiousness. However, both his party and public opinion remained firmly behind his peace efforts. The hard-liners now grouped around Churchill, including Harold Nicholson, knew they had an uphill struggle to persuade the country to change course diplomatically, so they decided that they should “rally behind” Chamberlain while pressing for the formation of a Coalition Government to prepare the British people, the Admiralty and the Fleet and for war. In Green Park, outside Churchill’s apartment, trenches were, in any case, already being dug. In his radio broadcast later that evening, Chamberlain commented, “How terrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying out gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.
As Chamberlain entered the House of Commons on 28th September to brief it about the negotiations, he met with two very different reactions. Many of his own supporters rose to their feet and waved their order papers. The opposition remained silent and seated, as did Churchill’s group. Hitler had convinced him, said Chamberlain, that he was willing to risk a world war for the sake of the Sudeten Germans. At this, Nicholson reported, “a shudder of horror passed through the House of Commons”. At 4.12 p.m., Sir John Simon tugged at the PM’s coat, passing him a note from the Foreign Office. Chamberlain’s sombre discourse came to an abrupt halt as he read, and then announced triumphantly that Hitler had just agreed to postpone his mobilisation for twenty-four hours and to meet with him, Mussolini and Deladier in Munich. The House erupted in a great roar of cheers, the whole performance reminding Nicholson of “a Welsh Revivalist meeting”. In the Foreign Office itself, there was a ditty circulating, mocking the PM’s servile and senile shuttle diplomacy: “If at first you can’t concede, fly, fly again!”
However, it was Chamberlain’s naivety rather than Foreign Office cynicism which matched more exactly the mood of the country as he flew to Germany for a third time. Britain was suffering from a mild panic in the summer of 1938. The air-raid precautions, the sandbagged buildings, the trenches in the royal parks, soldiers suddenly visibly in uniform and in authority everywhere, officials of new quasi-governmental organisations ordering people about, so that they seemed like ‘little Hitlers’: all these visible and audible signs of war were seen as sinister. The Press and the newsreels showed pictures which exaggerated the effects of air-raids, so that it was widely believed that half a million people would be killed on the first day of the war. The precautions reassured no-one, but rather confirmed their worst fears.
When Chamberlain flew to Munich on the 29th of September, he was given a tremendous sen-off. Sixteen ministers were at the airport to wish him well, together with the High Commissioners of Canada, Australia and Eire. As he climbed into the aircraft, there was a great cheer. Meanwhile, there was a story going around the Continent that Haile Selassie of Abyssinia had written to the Czechoslovak President, Benes: “I hear you are receiving the support of the British. You have my profound sympathy.”
At Munich that evening, the French and British did not resist any of the German territorial claims, except to ask for plebiscites in doubtful areas. They even agreed that the Germans could take control of some fortified areas immediately, so that the Czechs lost not only their defensive system, but also most of its heavy equipment. They were excluded from the conference and were simply informed of its results afterwards. One of their ‘observers’ was reported as telling a French delegate: “When your time comes, you will ask, ‘where are those two million Czechs who might have been fighting with us?’ They couldn’t even destroy their own military installations along the northern frontier; they simply had to hand these over to the Germans. In its annexe, the agreement called for the settlement of Polish and Hungarian claims, in addition to guaranteeing the new borders of Czechoslovakia. This ‘guarantee’ was never ratified by any of the powers.
Hitler and Chamberlain each signed a separate document declaring that their countries would never go to war with each other. Later, Hitler was reported as saying: “Well, Chamberlain seemed such a nice old gentleman, I thought I would give him my autograph as a souvenir”. Waved by Chamberlain on his return, this document procured so ecstatic a reception that one disenchanted observer said, “I thought they were going to grovel on the ground in front of him”. He had, as he put it, quoting Shakespeare, plucked the flower safely from the nettle danger. In the euphoria of the moment, it seems that he believed this. The strain on him personally had been immense and he had shown remarkable resilience for a man of his age. Chamberlain’s own account of his rapturous return reads:
“Even the descriptions in the papers give no idea of the scenes in the streets as I drove from Heston to the Palace. They were lined from one end to the other with people of every class, shouting themselves hoarse, leaping on the running board, banging on the windows and thrusting their hands into the car to be shaken. The scenes culminated in Downing Street when I spoke to the multitude below from the same window, I believe, as that from which Dizzy (Benjamin Disraeli) announced peace with honour sixty years ago.”
Whether or not he really believed that he had really achieved a long-term ‘peace with honour’, Chamberlain did not stop, or slow down his government’s rearmament programme. Despite the apparent euphoria which greeted his ‘triumphant return’, just a few days after Munich a poll revealed that very few people believed that Hitler would keep his promise. It was no longer a realistic question if war would break out, simply when it would come. For the next few months, Britain was in a kind of dream-like state in which people did what they had always done, mesmerised by fatalism. But, at least, the year was allowed to end without further diplomatic ado. There were signs that he was looking to the future and playing for time. As a Midland industrialist, he knew that the shadow factories being built on the outskirts of Coventry and other cities would need time to attract sufficient labour to swing into full production. Housing had to be found for these workers. As Minister for Health and Local Government a decade previously he had developed a detailed knowledge of every locality in the country, and could now put that to good use in planning the war effort. He had persuaded Hitler to put his name to a document in which he had at least agreed to consult before taking any further action. His word was on trial. He had staked his premiership on achieving the Munich Agreement. He may well have hoped that it would last and bring about lasting peace in Europe, but, if not, at least Britain would be readier in September 1939 or 1940 than it was in 1938.
Sir Robert Vansittart advised Harold Nicolson to forget the past and concentrate on bringing people together to meet the next danger. Nevertheless, Nicolson voted against a resolution of the National Labour Executive pledging support for the PM. Unfriendly letters began appearing in the Leicester newspapers attacking him for his disloyalty. Despite this, he remained uncompromising in his criticism of the government’s foreign policy after the Munich Agreement. In the Parliamentary debate which followed, he spoke with great authority, for in 1919 he had served on the committee that had laid down the Sudetenland frontier. Hitler, he stated, had three objectives: to swallow the Sudeten Germans, to destroy Czechoslovakia, and to dominate Europe. “We have given him all these three things”, he asserted. He would have met the first of these demands, though with ‘unutterable sadness’, for the Sudetenland ‘was not worth a war’, but Chamberlain’s total capitulation on this point had set off a chain reaction that would lead to total surrender on the other two. “The essential thing”, he put forward, “the thing which we ought to have resisted, the thing which we still should resist; the thing which I am afraid it is now too late to resist is the domination of Europe by Germany.” He spoke of “this humiliating defeat, this terrible Munich retreat” as “one of the most disastrous episodes that has ever occurred in our history”. He characterised Chamberlain’s ‘bit of paper’ supposedly bringing ‘peace with honour’ as ‘a little after-dinner extravaganza’. The so-called ‘guarantee’ of Czechoslovakia’s new borders was ‘the most farcical diplomatic hypocrisy that was ever perpetrated’. Nicholson’s speech was followed by other powerful speeches by Churchill and Duff Cooper, who had resigned from the Cabinet, but the government was given a huge majority, declaring its confidence in the appeasement policy by 366 to 144. The opposition case was weakened by its lack of new ideas to pose as realistic alternatives. In November, the Nazis instigated their pogrom against the Jews, Kristallnacht. It was harshly criticised by enlightened British opinion. Harold feared what the New Year might bring and labelled it ‘This Year of Destiny’. His faith in Chamberlain’s judgement was at an all-time low. ‘What would you have done if you had been in Chamberlain’s place at Munich?’ he was asked. He retorted:
I should never have allowed myself to be manoeuvred into so impossible a position. I should not have acclaimed myself as having brought peace with honour. I should have got out of that aeroplane, slowly and sadly, and I should have said, ‘we have avoided war, but at the price of honour. There is no cause for rejoicing’.
Historian Keith Robbins has written, “Munich has always been seen as the apotheosis of appeasement in action”, pointing out that it was Chamberlain’s behaviour over the whole three weeks of the Sudetenland Crisis which gave the entire strategy of appeasement a bad name. Although he may have had the best of intentions, his zeal was humiliating for Britain. He was outplayed by Hitler on almost every point. That has been the verdict of posterity, with the benefit of considerable hindsight. At the time, however, as Vanttisart had pointed out, the question of the policy’s justification depended on what happened next.
Daily Express (?), (1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war.
René Cutforth (1976), Later than we thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Open University (1973), Between Two Wars: A Third Level Course, War and Society, Block VII Units 19-20 (The Origins of World War II). Bletchley: OUP.
Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (second edition). Oxford: Blackwell.
Appendix To Chapter One: Documents & Discussions
The Duchess of Atholl, Searchlight on Spain (1938):
British Naval Strength, much greater relatively to Germany’s than in 1914, should be able to prevent the passage of any more arms from Hamburg or other German ports to Spain. A combined British and French fleet in the Mediterranean should be able to prevent many Italian reinforcements from reaching General Franco…
Unless, indeed, the Fascist Powers wish a European war here and now, a rapid flow of arms to the Republicans plus the possibility of a Franco-British blockade, might induce the aggressors to withdraw at least part of their armed forces. If the Spaniards were at last left to fight it out, a loyalist victory would be assured, and a heavy blow would have been dealt to aggressive dictators. A new hope of peace would dawn for Europe.
….If Spain be allowed to pass under Fascist control, the dictators will have won the first round of the game, and the succeeding ones will be infinitely hard, and more costly, to wrench from their hands.
Is it not clear, then, that whatever our next move may be, the first, if we are not to be parties to an appalling tragedy and to a terrible blunder, must be to abandon the so-called Non-Intervention policy and restore to the Spanish Government its right under international law to buy arms?
A correspondent for The Times living in Prague in 1938 gave this account of the reaction in Prague to The Times article of the 7th September:
Everywhere I went in Prague during the next few days I was pounced upon by officials, diplomats and journalists. I could shake very few of them out of their treasured opinion that ‘The Times’ was the direct voice of the British Government….Given the standing and great influence of ‘The Times’ in those years… I knew the damage would be at least as great as if the article had been inspired directly by the Government…. The article was a signal that Chamberlain had allies…
Geoffrey Dawson (the editor) was of course in sympathy with Chamberlain and Halifax… His deputy editor… was carried forward by a burning mission to save the world from another war… Like Halifax, he told me more than once that Germany was ordained to the exert influence over central and eastern Europe…
(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976).
Newsreel, September 1938:
The Gaumont-British newsreel, transcript, reporting on the scene at Heston Airport, 15th September 1938:
The hour of need has found the man, Mr Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Since he took office Mr Chamberlain has never wavered in his determination to establish peace in Europe. At the hour when the dark clouds of war hung most menacingly above the world of men, the Prime Minister took a wise and bold decision. Well may we call him Chamberlain the Peacemaker. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, was at Heston to see the Primier off on this epic-making flight to Germany, the first flight he has ever made. We know that no man could do more than he, but since we also know that it lies not in the power of mortals to command success, we say with all our hearts, ‘May God go with him! Three cheers for Chamberlain!…
The Anglo-French proposals were presented to the Czechoslovak Government on 19th September 1938:
The representatives of the French and British Governments have been in consultation today on the general situation, and have considered the British Prime Minister’s report of his conversation with Herr Hitler. … We are both convinced that, after recent events, the point has been reached where the further maintenance within the boundaries of the Czechoslovak State of the districts mainly inhabited by Sudeten Deutsch cannot, in fact, continue any longer without imperilling the interest of Czechoslovakia herself and of European peace… both Governments have been compelled to the conclusion that the maintenance of peace and the safety of Czechoslovakia’s vital interests cannot effectively be assured unless these areas are now transferred to the Reich…
(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous 7, (1938) pp 8-9).
Lord Runciman had been asked to report on the German Sudetenland question for Chanberlain. He did so by letter on 21st September:
My dear Prime Minister,… The problem of political, social and economic relations between Teuton and Slav races in the area which is now called Czechoslovakia is one which has existed for many centuries… I have much sympathy, however, with the Sudeten case. It is a hard thing to be ruled by an alien race; and I have been left with the impression that Czechoslovak rule in the Sudeten area for the last twenty years, while not actively oppressive and certainly not ‘terroristic’, has been marked by tactlessness, lack of understanding, petty intolerance and discrimination, to a point where the resentment of the German population was inevitably moving in the direction of revolt…
Local irritations were added to these major grievances. Czech officials and Czech police, speaking little or no German, were appointed in large numbers to purely German districts; Czech agricultural colonists were encouraged to settle on land transferred under the Land Reform in the middle of German populations; for the children of these… invaders Czech schools were built on a large scale; there is a very general belief that Czech firms were favoured as against German firms in the allocation of State contracts and that the State provided work and relief for Czechs more regularly than Germans. I believe these complaints to be in the main justified… the feeling of the Sudeten Germans until three or four years ago was one of hopelessness. But the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope. I regard their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in these circumstances.
(Correspondence Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 7 (1938), pp. 3-5)
The Times correspondent in Prague described the atmosphere of crisis as it developed around Wenceslas Square on the 21st September:
… the people of Prague decided… to take a direct hand in events. Very quickly crowds began to gather… At first they stood about in threes and fours, reading the papers and arguing. Some larger groups were mainly young men and girls, shabbily dressed. Soon men and women came in hundreds, then thousands, filling the square. They began by seeming wholly bewildered. Many were weeping. ‘What fools we were to spend such money on frontier defences’, I heard one man say, but few followed that line. ‘We don’t need any more guarantees,’ said another, ‘we want aeroplanes.’ A well-dressed woman stopped, guessing that I was British. ‘Each night,’ she said in a cultured voice, ‘I pray that Heaven may punish France for her treachery and Britain for her blindness,’…
Still without anyone giving orders the crowds began moving out of the bottom of the square, shouting and singing the national anthem… In front of the Hradcany Palace the people called again for General Syrovy, the highly popularInspector General of the Forces, to take over and for all concessions to be stopped. Then the shouting changed. It took on a deeper meaning that caught one’s breath. ‘Tell us the truth. We want the truth.’ It was a sovereign demand…
(I McDonald, A Man of the Times, Hamish Hamilton, 1976)
The second demonstration was on the 25th September, following the announcement of the call-up of all men under forty:
It was announced at 10.20 p.m. … In ten minutes the whole of the broad boulevard, which had been as bright as Piccadilly with moving cars, became dark, as a mass of men, walking shoulder to shoulder the whole width of the thoroughfare, passed on to the station. In place of the noise of trains and cars all one heard was the heavy swish and slur of hundreds of shoes. Some women walked with the men, the older ones tearful, the younger ones proudly holding on to the arms of their fathers and husbands. ‘Well, it had to come. We won’t let those German brutes through.’…
The Terms of the Munich Agreement, 29th September, 1938:
Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy… have agreed on the following terms and conditions… governing the said cession:
1. The evacuation will begin on 1st October
2. ….the evacuation… shall be completed by 10th October, without any existing installations having been destroyed…
4. The occupation by stages of the predominantly German territory by German troops will begin on 1st October… The remaining territory of predominantly German character will be ascertained by… international commission forthwith and be occupied by German troops by 10th October.
5. The international commission will… determine the territories in which a plebiscite is to be held…
6. The final determination of the frontiers will be carried out by the international commission…
7. There will be a right of option into and out of the transferred territories… A German-Czechoslovak commission shall… consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population…
(Documents Respecting Czechoslovakia, Miscellaneous No. 8 (1938), pp. 3-4)
Newsreel, October 1938:
The Sudetenland Crisis was the first major crisis covered by the newsreels: British newsreel companies co-operated with the German Ministry of Propaganda to provide massive coverage of Chamberlain’s three visits to Germany, providing the cinema audience with a diet of mounting excitement. The now famous newsreel of Chamberlain’s return from Munich on the 30th September is both the climax of the media campaign and historical evidence of its result. Here is the transcript:
(on-screen caption: PEACE INSTEAD OF WAR)
(On-screen caption: ONE MAN SAVED US FROM THE GREATEST WAR OF ALL, fading into film of Chamberlain at Heston Airport)
… So our Prime Minister has come back from his third and greatest journey and he said that “the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. (cheers)
“This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name on it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains, but I would just like to read it to you: (cheers)
” ‘We, the German Führer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognising that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with each other again.’ ” (cheers)
There was no sign of British reserve as the crowds fought to get near the Premier’s car. As we travelled back with Mr Chamberlain from Heston we drove through serried masses of people, happy in the knowledge that there was no war with Germany. (cheers)
The Premier drove straight to Buckingham Palace; here he was received by the King while London waited. And history was made again when their majesties came out on to that famous balcony with the Prime Minister. (‘Land of Hope and Glory’)
Posterity will thank God, as we do now, that in time of desperate need our safety was guarded by such a man: Neville Chamberlain.
(Gaumont-British, October 1938)
Meanwhile, there was a third demonstration in Prague, as the news from Munich filtered through on the 30th September:
It is something any westerner would wish he had not seen. Munich had happened. Threatened with immediate war with Germany, and told by Britain and France that Czechoslovakia would be left to founder alone unless she submitted, Dr Benes and his ministers surrendered. Long sleeplessness and hours of browbeating from friends and allies had brought them… to a state when they were long past coherent thought. So Czechoslovakia was to be broken up. The people came onto the streets, again in their thousands, but this time weeping with grief, rage, shame and exhaustion.
Spontaneous demonstrations continued over the next days:
One morning I saw a large number of men and women in the Old Square around the statue of Jan Hus, burnt for his faith in 1415: they had been drawn there by a common impulse yet they could say nothing, only sit there, their eyes streaming, and their faces working.
Under the title, Two Incompatible Worlds, Professor Arnold Toynbee, who himself visited Hitler, described the mental gap between the dictators and western statesmen:
An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany… and the outbreak of war… had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey … that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.
(Survey of International Affairs, 1938, Volume II: The Crisis over Czechoslovakia, ed. R G D Laffan, with an introduction by Arnold J Toynbee, Oxford University Press, 1951)
On 17th March, 1939, Chamberlain made a speech in his home town of Birmingham, looking back on his decision to negotiate with Hitler:
… When I decided to go to Germany I never expected that I was going to escape criticism. Indeed, I did not go there to get popularity. I went there first and foremost because, in what appeared to be an almost desperate situation, that seemed to me to offer the only chance of averting a European war… the first and the most immediate object of my visit was achieved. The peace of Europe was saved;… Nothing that we could have done… could possibly have saved Czechoslovakia from invasion and destruction. Even if we had subsequently gone to war and… been victorious in the end, never could we have reconstructed Czechoslovakia as she was formed by the Treaty of Versailles.
But I had another purpose, too, in going to Munich. That was to further the policy which I have been pursuing ever since I had been in my present position – a policy which is sometimes called European appeasement… If that policy were to succeed, it was essential that no Power should seek to obtain a general domination of Europe; but that each one should be contented to obtain reasonable facilities for developing its own resources, securing its own share of international trade, and improving the conditions of its own people… it should be possible to resolve all differences by discussion and without armed conflict. I had hoped in going to Munich to find out by personal contact what was in Herr Hitler’s mind…
When I came back after my second visit I told the House of Commons of a conversation I had had with Herr Hitler, of which I said that… he had repeated what he had already said at Berchtesgaden – namely, that this was the last of his territorial ambitions in Europe, and that he had no wish to include in the Reich people of other races than German…
… And lastly, in that declaration which he and I signed together at Munich, we declared that any other question which might concern our two countries should be dealt with by the method of consultation…
(Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations, Miscellaneous No. 9, 1939)
In 1953, Duff Cooper, a critic at the time of Munich, wrote about Neville Chamberlain in the following terms:
… He had never moved in the great world of politics or finance, and the continent of Europe was a closed book. He had been a successful Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and for him the Dictators of Germany and Italy were like the Lord Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, who might belong to different political parties and have different interests, but who must desire the welfare of humanity, and be fundamentally reasonable, decent men like himself. This profound misconception lay at the root of his policy and explains his mistakes.
(Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, 1953)
Questions for Discussion & Debate:
Use the chronicle, narrative, photographs in the text, the documents in the appendix, and the gallery of photographs below to discuss and debate the following:
1. What impact did the Spanish Civil War have on the course of international relations?
2. How did the newsreel of the return of Chamberlain from Munich support his peacemaking efforts?
3. ‘A piece of film is not some unadulterated reflection of historical truth captured by the camera which does not require the interposition of the historian’ (J A S Grenville). Discuss, with direct reference to both of the Gaumont-British newsreels transcribed above.
4. Why was The Times article (7th Sept 1938) published, and why was its effect so considerable in Prague?
5. According to McDonald, how did the people of Prague react to the Sudetenland Crisis from 21st to 25th September?
6. What does McDonald’s eye-witness account add to the narrative account of the Sudetenland Crisis and the Munich Agreement?
7. How justifiable was Churchill’s statement (made to the Commons on 5th October) that ‘we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat’?
8. With reference to the narrative, and all the sources above, examine the view that appeasement was a noble and virtuous policy unsuited to dealing with a power like Nazi Germany.
9. Attempt a defence of Chamberlain’s foreign policy in 1938. In your defence, refer to the evidence from those opposed to the policy at the time.
10. In January 1938, the Chief of Naval Staff had written that the Royal Navy would not be able to deal simultaneously with hostilities from Japan and Germany. To what extent was appeasement a response to Britain’s wider problems of imperial responsibility, in which Europe took second place?