Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement

Nick Smart scrutinises Chamberlain's foreign policy and the historiography of appeasement.

Chamberlain’s Centrality

Appeasement - the word can be found in any dictionary. It is a noun form of the verb to appease, which means to placate or pacify, and is a perfectly good word for the not ignoble, and certainly not un- Christian, desire to avoid conflict through resolving grievances. To appease is to seek peaceful solutions to problems, whether arising among individuals or in relations between states. In diplomatic terms, blessed, we might think, is the appeaser.

There was a time in Britain, over the winter of 1938-39, when appeasement was not merely the name ascribed to a particular approach to foreign policy but one which a sycophantic press deemed so successful as to be truly blessed. The ideal and the actual appeared, momentarily, to blend. Images of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, hailed as the peacemaker, flickered across cinema screens the world over. His dramatic and heroic intervention at the end of September 1938 had, it was said at the time, averted European war over that ‘faraway country’, Czechoslovakia. He had travelled to Munich and in acceding to Hitler’s demands there had reached what he thought was an allimportant agreement based on ‘the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again’. The saga of his peace-seeking mission attested not merely to his stamina but also, apparently, to the soundness of his policy. That ‘general European settlement’ Chamberlain had been aiming at seemed within his grasp: the product of his patient non-provocative appeasement. In the months that followed he continued to believe, whatever the doubts of others, that with Hitler’s appetite satiated he could be trusted to make no further territorial demands in Europe. Accordingly he proclaimed ‘peace for our time’, won a massive confidence vote in the House of Commons, thought about a general election, and got cabinet ministers up to deliver speeches full of references to a future golden age. 

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