Resurrecting the Ghost of Neville Chamberlain (Again)

Recently, on a Facebook discussion thread on Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un, the ghost of Neville Chamberlain made another one of his frequent appearances. One of the participants likened Trump to Chamberlain and Kim to Hitler. To me, comparisons like this are highly problematic. The circumstances and personalities surrounding the problem of a nuclear armed North Korea in 2018 are worlds apart from those dealing with an expansionist Nazi Germany in 1938. But from the onset of the Cold War to present-day, Chamberlain and the idea of “appeasement” have been used repeatedly as a kind of boogie man to close off the possibility of examining various post-World War II political situations on their own merits and particular historical backgrounds. Since the ghost of Chamberlain is almost certainly guaranteed to rise again in the future, why don’t we take a closer look at the historical figure and clear away some of the myths surrounding him in light of the most recent historical evidence.

In the 1980s, using the British equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, Clive Ponting, a former senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defense turned historian wrote, 1940: Myth and Reality. Chamberlain and the issue of appeasement figure prominently in Ponting’s book but there are also a lot of factors usually left out of analyses of Britain’s conduct in the pre-war period. One of these was the financial drain the British Empire was having on the mother country, which bore the primary responsibility for defending its far-flung colonies. Closely related to this was British war planning, which by the early 1930s was already taking into account the possibility the empire might one day have to fight Germany, Italy and Japan, all at the same time. Britain’s leadership felt that the country would not be fully prepared for such a war or even more limited variations until 1939 at the earliest.

Often overlooked, the issue of war finance was also of paramount concern. During the first world war Britain and France borrowed heavily from U.S. banks in order to continue their massive purchases of weapons and other war materiel. By 1917, they had overextended themselves so badly that both were facing bankruptcy, the inability to continue the war and the attendant ruin of their American creditors. In a nick of time, the U.S. declared war on the German Empire and extended federal loan guarantees to the British and French. Socialist historian Sidney Lens (1912–1986) saw this as a key underlying factor in the U.S. decision to go to war (see Lens’s The Forging of the American Empire.).

Once again, in the late 30s, Britain was confronted by the reality that it had extremely limited financial resources to both maintain the empire and fight another world war. This made the timing of the war critical. It couldn’t go on for too long unless the titanic resources of the United States were once more brought to bear — a possibility that was by no means guaranteed.

All of these factors were on Chamberlain’s mind as he confronted the Czechoslovakian crisis that became forever tied to his name. Was it worth it to go to war over Czechoslovakia? Though a small country, it was the only bona fide democracy left in Eastern Europe by that time, had a well-equipped and trained army, the massive Skoda Armaments works inherited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a ring of strong fortifications in the mountainous Sudetenland region, bordering Nazi Germany.

Annexation of the Sudetenland was, of course, Hitler’s initial objective in Czechoslovakia; the argument being that this was ethnic German territory, which deserved to be united with his Third Reich and that the Sudetenlanders were being mistreated by the Czechs to boot. Hadn’t it been American President Woodrow Wilson who articulated the right to “national self-determination?”

It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if war had broken out in September 1938, instead of one year later. But neither the British or French thought they were ready. Yes, Chamberlain, along with his French counterpart Edouard Daladier and Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, sacrificed the Czechs to appease Hitler and perhaps avoid a repeat of the carnage of World War I. But Chamberlain had also bought time to build more Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes and to conduct the war, when and if it came, on a timetable more advantageous for Britain.

It’s also interesting to note that the event which brought about Chamberlain’s political downfall, the badly botched British/French invasion of Norway in April 1940, was strongly advocated by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Churchill hoped that a successful Allied occupation of Norway would have facilitated aid to the Finns, who were under attack from Stalin’s Soviet Union. This might very well have resulted in Britain having to fight Russia as well as Germany, Italy and Japan. Subsequently, Chamberlain, the “appeaser,” became a key player in the war cabinet, often chairing meetings during Churchill’s many absences. As he still remained leader of the Conservative Party (Churchill had been appointed by the king, not elected) Chamberlain marshaled support for the new prime minister, who was seen by many as a dangerous maverick. When Germany broached the subject of a negotiated peace with Britain after the fall of France in June 1940, Chamberlain was instrumental in helping to persuade the Cabinet to reject negotiations. He succumbed to terminal cancer a few months later on November 9, 1940. Before he died, Churchill offered to make Chamberlain a Knight of the Garter, the highest order of British chivalry. Chamberlain refused, saying he would “prefer to die plain Mr. Chamberlain, like my father before me, unadorned by any title.”

Oh, the ironies of history!

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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