Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain makes a broadcast speech in Arras, France on 15 December 1939
© IWM (O 2170)

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain makes a broadcast speech prior to his departure from Arras, France, after visiting the British Expeditionary Force on 15 December 1939. 

Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland. The guarantees given to Poland by Britain and France marked the end of the policy of appeasement.

Instituted in the hope of avoiding war, appeasement was the name given to Britain’s policy in the 1930s of allowing Hitler to expand German territory unchecked. Most closely associated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, it is now widely discredited as a policy of weakness. Yet at the time, it was a popular and seemingly pragmatic policy.

Hitler’s expansionist aims became clear in 1936 when his forces entered the Rhineland. Two years later, in March 1938, he annexed Austria. At the Munich Conference that September, Neville Chamberlain seemed to have averted war by agreeing that Germany could occupy the Sudetenland, the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia - this became known as the Munich Agreement.

In Britain, the Munich Agreement was greeted with jubilation. However, Winston Churchill, then estranged from government and one of the few to oppose appeasement of Hitler, described it as ‘an unmitigated disaster’.

Appeasement was popular for several reasons. Chamberlain - and the British people - were desperate to avoid the slaughter of another world war. Britain was overstretched policing its empire and could not afford major rearmament. Its main ally, France, was seriously weakened and, unlike in the First World War, Commonwealth support was not a certainty. Many Britons also sympathised with Germany, which they felt had been treated unfairly following its defeat in 1918.

But, despite his promise of ‘no more territorial demands in Europe’, Hitler was undeterred by appeasement. In March 1939, he violated the Munich Agreement by occupying the rest of Czechoslovakia. Six months later, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Britain was at war.

Was Chamberlain wrong to appease Hitler?

Europe’s leaders were desperate to avoid war. But were attempts to appease Hitler the right thing to do? 


Voice over: "Around 15 years after the end of the First World War, the fragile peace holding a damaged Europe together was under threat."

Kate Clements, IWM Curator: "The Nazi party came to power in 1933 and Hitler had soon crushed all political opposition and made himself dictator."

Voice over: "Europe’s leaders were desperate to avoid war. But were attempts to placate Hitler the right thing to do? The Versailles Treaty of 1919 had left Germany in a state of economic collapse. By early 1933, more than a third of Germany’s working population were unemployed. This dire situation was instrumental in Hitler’s rise to power."

Kate Clements: "He had gained support by denouncing the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and the harsh terms it inflicted on Germany after the First World War."

Voice over: "One of the Treaty’s terms had been to prohibit Germany from re-arming, but Hitler had other ideas."

Kate Clements: "He removed Germany from the League of Nations and withdrew from discussions about European disarmament, and in early 1935 he announced a German rearmament programme which broke the Versailles terms. Hitler gradually built up Germany’s military capabilities and in March 1936, he sent German troops to remilitarise the Rhineland, in western Germany. He also embarked on a process of annexing territory that he saw as rightfully part of the German state. This included the annexation of neighbouring Austria, known as the ‘Anschluss’, in March 1938."

Voice over: "Despite Hitler’s aggressive rearmament, western powers remained largely inactive. Instead, they pursued a strategy known as ‘Appeasement’ - the policy of acceding to the demands of a potentially hostile nation in the hope of maintaining peace."

Kate Clements: "People struggled to understand the new threats of extreme nationalism in Germany, Japan and Italy. Their governments also had domestic priorities to address, which provided a distraction from foreign affairs. In Britain, MPs paid attention to public opinion. They were convinced that the British public would not support any moves towards war. It should also be remembered that a significant number of the British aristocracy were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler. Anti Semitism existed in Britain at the time. Many of the major newspapers wrote favourably about Hitler in the 1930s. Finally, many people didn’t see Hitler as a real threat to peace until it was too late.

Yet his war aims were all laid out clearly in his 1925 book, Mein Kampf. Very few senior politicians in Britain or France bothered to read it, but if they had, they would have seen his extremist political ideology, his violent antisemitism, his belief in a German master race in need of “living space”, and his future plans for Germany, which included unification and expansion.

Chamberlain, who became Prime Minister in May 1937, favoured what he called a ‘grand strategy’. This was based on pursuing diplomatic means. He and many others thought that offering concessions to Germany was the best way to keep the peace in Europe."

Voice over: "Chamberlain had read Hitler’s book but dismissed it. In contrast, Churchill began voicing his concerns about the dictator."

Kate Clements: "Churchill had visited Germany in 1932 and seen the growing Nazi threat, he began making a series of impassioned speeches in parliament condemning the regime. As part of this, he made frequent and ever-louder calls for British rearmament throughout the 1930s. Two of his contacts in government were passing him secret intelligence about German rearmament levels. This helped him to lobby both Stanley Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlains’ governments to significantly step up British military preparations.

There were those who saw Churchill's warning calls about Nazism as simply a means to raise his profile. Others thought he was being a warmonger. There isn’t evidence to support either of those points of view. Churchill saw the threat that Hitler posed and was alert to Britain’s unpreparedness to meet it."

Voice over: "Despite Churchill’s efforts, Chamberlain persevered with appeasement."

Kate Clements: "Chamberlain had a somewhat stubborn nature and a firm belief in his own ability to befriend the dictators. He doggedly stuck to appeasement, even after it was clear it couldn’t work against Hitler.

In October 1935, Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, decided to invade Ethiopia, which was then known as Abyssinia. Britain didn’t take any steps to stop him. The League of Nations also failed to take any real action other than imposing some minor sanctions on Italy. In October 1935, Britain and France both allowed Italy to conquer Ethiopia. Watching all of this play out was Hitler and what he saw greatly encouraged him."

Voice over: "By 1938, the situation had reached a crisis point."

Kate Clements: "It looked increasingly likely that Germany would march into the territory, the Sudetenland, and take it by force. France was committed to protect Czechoslovakia from aggression, but neither France nor Britain felt ready to fight a war with Germany. British policy was to place pressure on Czechoslovakia to concede to Hitler’s demands and give up the Sudetenland, in order to avoid war. After protracted diplomatic activity during 1938, Chamberlain flew to meet Hitler in Germany on three occasions in September to try and reach agreement over the Czech crisis.

His last visit was to attend the Munich Conference. This was held between the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, who collectively reached and signed an agreement. The Czech leaders were not invited to attend the Munich Conference, at Hitler’s insistence."

Voice over: "He refused to tolerate their attendance. This led to riots in Czechoslovakia."

Kate Clements: "In this, Britain and France forced Czechoslovakia to hand Germany the border areas which were home to its German-speaking minority. This averted war, but gained what many suspected was only a temporary ‘peace without honour’.

After signing the Munich Agreement, Chamberlain visited Hitler at his private apartment and persuaded him to sign an Anglo-German Declaration. When Chamberlain returned to Britain and held aloft this piece of paper, he was met with cheers and celebration."

Archive clip of Neville Chamberlain speaking: “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. 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 one another again."

Voice over: "Behind closed doors, however, Hitler dismissed the document as insignificant."

Kate Clements: "We have on display here at the Churchill Museum, that declaration next to a photograph of Chamberlain after he arrived back in Britain. In the lead up to the agreement, war fears had swept the country. Children had been evacuated, there were queues for gas masks and preparations were made for air raid shelters and home defenses. Now that it seemed Chamberlain’s visit to Munich had avoided war, there was widespread joy and Chamberlain was hailed as a hero. People sent him gifts and fan mail. He was even offered a home in France in gratitude.

Not everyone was pleased, however. Churchill denounced Munich as a ‘total and unmitigated defeat’. Czechoslovakia had lost 11,000 square miles of territory, and more than three million of its population. Its leaders were utterly dejected and felt they had been betrayed by their friends. The British held out hope that Hitler could be dissuaded from war in Europe by returning to Germany its former colonies in Africa. But Hitler’s main ambitions were in Europe and he rejected these proposals. It became increasingly difficult for British and French politicians to deal with him or to trust his word."

Voice over: "Europe was heading for war. Appeasing Hitler had failed. Had Britain and France’s reluctance to plan for war put them on the back foot? Just a few months later, Hitler broke the Munich agreement and sent troops to take all of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was a failure, Hitler had turned his back on the agreement almost instantly."

Kate Clements: "Munich came to be seen as a British and French failure and also betrayal. But it can also be said that because of Munich, Hitler was forced to abandon his planned war of conquest as he saw that he couldn’t risk fighting against Britain and France at that point.

Appeasement also bought Britain and France time to rearm, as neither country was ready for war in the 1930s. Chamberlain and his fellow appeasers seemed to follow the philosophy, ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’. And he continued to hold out hope for the success of appeasement well after it was clear that it couldn’t deliver what he wanted. The appeasers also didn’t effectively prepare for the worst. Although British and French rearmament was stepped up in the late 1930s, it can be argued that they weren’t as militarily prepared for the conflict that broke out in 1939 as they could have been.

One thing the British did do, that turned out to be very beneficial, was to put large resource into the development of RADAR."

Voice over: "Perhaps unfairly, Chamberlain has become the face of appeasement. But he was, in fact, not alone."

Kate Clements: "Chamberlain is the main name attached to appeasement, but in fact he was continuing the line taken by his predecessors. Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister when Hitler came to power, and he adopted a position of appeasement towards the Nazi regime, and this was continued by his successor Stanley Baldwin.

Appeasement’s famous opponent, Churchill, in fact favoured the use of diplomacy and talks instead of launching straight into war. For example, after his experience of working with Stalin in the Second World War, he advocated international summits as a means to solve the growing tensions of the Cold War. He wasn’t the warmonger he was accused of being. He just saw that Hitler was not someone who could be persuaded or bought off with concessions.

He could also react furiously to various proposals, ranting and raving and crushing any hopes of reaching agreement. British and French attempts to find common ground or make concessions made little headway for that reason. Another element in the failure of appeasement is the fact that it isn’t possible to reason with someone who is unreasonable.

It’s also worth noting that we never got to hear Chamberlain’s side of the story, or his defense for pursuing appeasement, as he sadly died of cancer in November 1940, six months after resigning as Prime Minister. Whereas Churchill wrote his hugely popular history of the Second World War, in which he defended his actions and criticised appeasement, we don’t have Chamberlain’s defense of his decisions.

Appeasement has come to be a byword for weakness and its failure to avoid war in the 1930s has been invoked as a reason to avoid resorting to it since then. Each concession to German demands gradually built up in Hitler’s mind a belief that Britain and France were not a serious threat to his ambitions, and encouraged him to take further steps to war. So, instead of avoiding conflict, appeasement made it ever more possible."

Voice over: "Chamberlain’s aim to appease the dictators was a noble one, and one worth trying. He didn’t want to push Britain and its empire into a risky war that might cost it its security, and would entail huge loss of life."

Kate Clements: "He had an extremely difficult task as British Prime Minister in the 1930s, and adopted a course which he believed was worth pursuing to preserve peace."

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