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False Hopes Churchill Was (of course) Right

Tim Bouverie, Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, Tim Duggan Books, 2019, 496 pages, £14.90/$30.00. ISBN 978–0451499844

Tim Bouverie will be speaking at the National Churchill Library and Center at the George Washington University at 6:00 PM on September 23.  For more information and to reserve a ticket, please contact Erin Minnaugh at eminnaugh@winstonchurchill.org

Review by W. MARK HAMILTON

It is impossible to overstate the devastating impact the First World War had on the British nation and people. The loss of lives and treasure was immense, with 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme. This enduring impact is front and center in Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War. King George V, whose reign spanned the Great War, once shouted late in his life, “I will not have another war. I will not!” It is against this backdrop that journalist and historian Bouverie provides a fascinating political narrative history of the policy of appeasement and its ultimate ramifications in 1939 for Great Britain, Europe, and the world.

The scope of the book runs from when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. In their dealings with a revitalized Germany under Nazi control, both Britain and France pursued appeasement—a foreign policy of making concessions to avoid armed conflict—believing that Germany had been unfairly punished by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Underscoring Britain’s deep reluctance to fight another war, the Oxford Union approved in early 1933 the motion: “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” In response, Winston Churchill, who was emerging with a small group of supporters as the archenemy of the appeasement policy, called the Oxford Union motion a “disquieting and disgusting symptom” of the times. Bouverie notes that because of Churchill’s aristocratic connections and high social standing, he had access throughout the 1930s to classified information about German motives that was not available to the general public. As a result, Churchill never doubted Germany’s aim to dominate Europe.

The key personality in Bouverie’s book, however, is Neville Chamberlain, prime minister from 1937–1940. Chamberlain had strong allies in the Cabinet, Foreign Office, and press, as well as much of the ruling class. Strongest among all these supporters was the religious and fox-hunting foreign secretary, Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax. Bouverie paints Chamberlain as an arrogant politician who is painfully naïve about Germany and Hitler, personally vain, and anti-American. This view is borne out in the book’s excerpts of Chamberlain’s private letters to his sisters. Contrary to the stark reality, the Prime Minister remained eternally optimistic. His pre-political experiences in the business world may well have led him to believe he could negotiate an agreeable solution with Germany. Anti-appeaser Alfred Duff Cooper, however, saw little hope for success in this recalling, “It was like little Lord Fauntleroy negotiating with Al Capone.”

The first major test for Anglo-French resistance came in 1936 when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, violating the Treaty of Versailles. The democratic powers failed to resist. Anthony Eden, a young and rising diplomatic star, was told by his London taxi driver, “I suppose Jerry can do what he likes in his own back garden.” But Churchill noted darkly, “The red lights flash through the gloom. Let peaceful folk beware.” German archives opened after the clearly show that Hitler would not have challenged a strong Anglo-French military resistance. Bouverie cites this failure of Britain and France to respond to Nazi aggression as just the beginning of Anglo-French concessions to Hitler, which led one observer to describe 1933–1935 as “the years that the locust hath eaten.” Any latent impulse to protest German aggression subsided in 1936, when the British public became consumed by the abdication crisis of King Edward VIII.

An important theme in the book is the support the British aristocracy gave to the policy of appeasement. A special target of Bouverie’s is Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry, a member of the cabinet and a man of low intellect. Churchill, a distant cousin of the marquess, once called him a “half-wit.” After meeting with Hitler, Londonderry described the chancellor as “a kindly man, with a receding chin and impressive face.”

The Munich Conference was a watershed event for the policy of appeasement because it led to Anglo-French approval of Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. For Chamberlain, who claimed that the Munich Agreement achieved “peace with honour,” it was the high point of his personal popularity. Germany’s betrayal of the agreement the following year, however, resulted in the road to war. Hitler later observed, “Chamberlain shook with fear when I uttered the word war….Our enemies are small worms. I saw them in Munich.”

Despite Churchill’s strong enmity for Chamberlain’s political views, he empathized with the challenges facing Chamberlain, commenting before Munich, “Never has any man inherited a more ghastly situation than Neville Chamberlain.” The British position only weakened until Germany crossed the red line of Poland in 1939 after which Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Appeasement has been rightfully acclaimed as a major narrative political history of the 1930s. Bouverie’s detailed descriptions of events and personalities are unique, even for a much-written-about subject. His extensive research and superb writing style make the book a real page-turner even when we already know the outcome. Though Chamberlain may have been well-meaning, he was blind to reality, and Bouverie depicts him and the appeasers in a harsh light, unsparingly recounting the grim consequences of appeasement.

“His policy critically misunderstood the nature of the man with whom he was treating and neglected those contingencies which might have contained him or defeated him more quickly,” Bouverie writes of Chamberlain. “It was in every sense, a tragedy.”

W. Mark Hamilton is author of The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).

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