Few people in history have been as reviled by history as the man born this week (March 18) in 1869. Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister from 1937 until 1940, symbolizes the failed policy of “appeasement,” which, more than any other policy, allowed Adolf Hitler to plunge Europe and the world into war. Under appeasement, Chamberlain proposed to acquiesce to Hitler’s ever-increasing territorial demands rather than stand up to him and risk war. The irony of course was that as Hitler gained more territory — as he took back the Rhineland, co-opted Austria, gained the Czech Sudetenland and then the rest of Czechoslovakia — he became more powerful, making him more confident that he could start, and win, a war. That made war more likely, not less.
But in Chamberlain’s defense, appeasement was a widely shared belief both in Britain and Europe in the 1930s because Europeans remembered what the last war — WWI — had cost them, and they were determined not to repeat it. Further, at least in Britain, appeasing Hitler looked better than fighting him because Britain’s armed forces had been badly neglected in the 1930s, while Hitler was arming Germany to the teeth. Finally, there was a feeling in Europe that the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, had been too harsh on Germany and that Hitler’s demands for the return of territories taken from Germany under that treaty were reasonable.
Those excuses aside, however, the case against appeasement is far more convincing, if only because Chamberlain stuck to this policy long after it made any sense. By the time Hitler had bullied Chamberlain (and the French) into selling out the Czechs by forcing them to transfer their Sudetenland territory to Germany, many Europeans realized that Hitler’s claim to merely want to right the wrongs of the Versailles Treaty was a lie — a lie proved just months later when Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, breaking his promise not to.
Even then, Chamberlain resisted changing course, clinging to appeasement while critics such as Winston Churchill warned that war could only be avoided by a massive re-armament program and a diplomacy that united the rest of Europe in a show of force against Germany. When that proved to be too little, too late, war came. And Chamberlain resigned in disgrace.
Ever since, Chamberlain has been depicted as a weak, vacillating leader, which is not true. Actually, he was worse. He was a very strong leader — he bent his Cabinet to his will, removing anyone who disagreed with him — who stubbornly clung to a tragically misguided policy and never saw the need to change it.
Fortunately, having every quality that he lacked was the man who succeeded him as British PM—the aforementioned Winston Churchill.