Posts Tagged ‘Neville Chamberlain’

Neville Chamberlain

October 14, 2013
Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain (Photo credit: Irregular Shed)

 

If I mention the name Neville Chamberlain, chances are you will immediately form an image of a man holding aloft a piece of paper and proclaiming, “peace in our time” while Hitler was preparing for war. Chamberlain is generally regarded today as a dupe who foolishly believed that Hitler would keep his word and as a man who advocated appeasing an aggressor in order to keep the peace. I think this impression is just a little unfair. It is easy for us to condemn his actions. We know what happened next. Chamberlain did not have the advantage of our hindsight. A review of his career shows Chamberlain to be a capable politician and leader. He was not brilliant in the way his contemporary Churchill was, but he rose steadily and swiftly to Prime Minister.

 

Neville Chamberlain was born on March 18, 1869 in Birmingham. His father, Joseph Chamberlain, was a successful businessman and politician. Neville followed his father’s footsteps enter the worlds of business and politics. His party was the Liberal Unionist Party and then a Conservative when the parties merged. He was elected to the Birmingham city council in 1911 and became Lord Mayor in 1915. World War I had broken out and in 1916, Chamberlain was made the Director of National Service, which, among other duties, placed him in charge of conscription.

 

Neville Chamberlain then ran for Parliament and easily won election. He was a dutiful Member of Parliament, rarely missing debates or votes. He served terms as Minister of Health and Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Conservatives held a majority. In general, he was competent and was able to advance bills to reform the relief of the poor and help Britain pay off its war debts from World War I. As Exchequer, he cut the budget ruthlessly and by 1934 Britain had a surplus. His cuts included cuts in Britain’s defense, but Chamberlain was not clueless about the threat from Nazi Germany, and as Hitler began to rearm, Chamberlain increased defense spending again.

 

On May 28, 1937, Neville Chamberlain was named Prime Minister after the resignation of his predecessor. He became Prime Minister largely because he was next in line and it was his turn. He was not a very popular or inspiring figure in the Conservative Party and no one expected him to be anything but caretaker who hold the job until the next election. He was competent and might have been remembered as a good Prime Minister in more peaceful times. These  were  not peaceful times and Chamberlain was somehow not quite up to the task of managing the crises caused by Hitler’s increasing belligerence.

 

In March 1938, Hitler invaded and annexed Austria. Chamberlain denounced this violation of the Treaty of Versailles in Parliament, but there was nothing he could do about it. Judging from the cheering crowds that met the Wehrmacht as it marched into Vienna and from the results of the subsequent referendum, this seemed to be what most Austrians wanted. One could argue that since the Germans and Austrians were basically the same nationality, this union or Anschluss was simply an expression of Hitler’s nationalism. It didn’t mean, necessarily, that he wanted to conquer other nationalities. Next, Hitler demanded the sections of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland on the grounds that the German minorities in those regions were being persecuted. The fact that the Sudetenland happened to be a center of Czechoslovakian industry and an easily defensible border might have had something to do with Hitler’s demands. The Czechoslovakian government, knowing that without the Sudetenland their country would have little defense against Germany, resisted Hitler’s demands. Hitler threatened war.

 

So it was that in September, Chamberlain flew to Germany for a series of meetings with Hitler in order to resolve the crisis. Chamberlain may not have been as naive in these meetings as is generally supposed. He was not really impressed by his meetings with Hitler and was shocked by Hitler’s displays of temper. Still, Chamberlain was determined to keep the peace and at the last of these meetings, in Munich, he came to an agreement with Hitler to sacrifice the Sudetenland. The Czechoslovakian government was not consulted. Chamberlain flew back to London with that famous piece of paper. Hitler invaded the remainder of Czechoslovakia the following March. 

 

It is easy to condemn Neville Chamberlain, in hindsight, but again, he could not know what the future held. He knew that Britain was not ready for war and he did not know that Germany wasn’t really prepared either, despite what Nazi propaganda asserted. One could even argue that Chamberlain’s actions bought valuable time for the allies. If so, Germany made better use of the time. Hitler made a formal alliance with Italy in May 1939, and negotiated a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in August. The agreement took the rest of the world by surprise since Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had been implacably hostile to one another. Stalin, however, had seen that the British and the French were interested only in appeasing Hitler, perhaps with the hope that Hitler’s attentions would be directed eastward against him. Stalin, therefore, was very receptive to the overtures made by Hitler. For his part, Hitler believed that by coming to such an agreement with Stalin, he would be able to avoid a two front war and would have a free hand against the west. The non-aggression pact also made it impossible for Britain and France to live up to their guarantees to protect the Poles from invasion. So, when the war came, Hitler was in a better position than he had been the year before.

 

I think that Chamberlain’s mistake was not that he was gullible or a fool. He knew Hitler was not very trustworthy. I think that Chamberlain’s mistake was in not realizing that Hitler was not playing by the same rules. He must have thought Hitler a German nationalist who wanted to expand Germany’s power, if it could be done without war. In other words, Hitler could be reasoned with. The idea that Hitler actually wanted war, that he glorified the struggle, may not have occurred to Chamberlain. He knew the contents of Hitler’s speeches, but perhaps he thought Hitler was only rallying his supporters.He didn’t really mean it, did he? He might have believed that Hitler might try to get around any treaty he signed, but surely he wouldn’t just openly violate an agreement he signed in less than a year, would he? Chamberlain was not the only one who underestimated Hitler. There were a good many German politicians who thought that once Hitler was brought into the government, he could be tamed. They couldn’t quite believe that he would overthrow the Weimar Republic as soon as he was made Chancellor and actually kill his opponents.

Perhaps the lesson of Munich is not that appeasement never works but that you should not take it for granted that your opponent is playing by the same rules or wants the same thing that you do. When dealing with countries like Iran or North Korea, it might be dangerous to assume that they are either crazy or rational in the same way we are. The leader of countries like these are not crazy and their behavior might be entirely rational, from their point of view. In any case, maybe it’s time to give Neville Chamberlain a break.

 

 

 

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Pat Buchannan is an Idiot

September 6, 2011

Actually, I could think of worse things to call him, but since this is a family friendly blog, I will refrain. I say that he is an idiot because of this column in which he discusses, approvingly a new book called 1939: Countdown to War by a British historian named Richard Overy. The premise of Overy’s book and Buchannan’s column is that Europe and Britain would have been better off not fighting Hitler. They both contend that World War II was unnecessary and could have been avoided, except for Britain’s stubbornness.

“Few historians now accept that Hitler had any plan or blueprint for world conquest. … (R)ecent research has suggested that there were almost no plans for what to do with a conquered Poland and that the vision of a new German empire … had to be improvised almost from scratch.”

But if Hitler had no “plan or blueprint for world conquest,” this raises perhaps the great question of the 20th century.

What was Britain’s stake in a Polish-German territorial quarrel to justify a war from which the British nation and empire might never recover?

How the war came about is the subject of Overy’s book.

By August 1939, Hitler had come to believe that Polish intransigence over the city of Danzig meant Germany would have to resolve the issue by force. But he desperately did not want a war with Britain like the one in which he had fought from 1914-18.

To prevent a German-Polish clash from bringing on a European war, however, Hitler had to sever the British-Polish alliance formed the previous spring.

To split that alliance, Hitler negotiated his own pact with Stalin, a coup that meant any British declaration of war to save Poland would be an utterly futile gesture. But when the Hitler-Stalin pact was announced, spelling Poland’s doom, Britain publicly reaffirmed her commitment to Poland.

Hitler instantly called off an invasion set for Aug. 26.

In the last analysis, says Overy, British “honour,” Chamberlain’s honoring of his war guarantee to the Poles, caused Britain to go to war.

When and why was this commitment given?

On March 31, 1939, Chamberlain, humiliated by the collapse of his Munich agreement and Hitler’s occupation of Prague, handed, unsolicited, a war guarantee to a Poland then led by a junta of colonels.

To understand the rashness, the sheer irrationality of this decision, one must understand the issue involved and Britain’s situation in 1939.

First, the issue: The Polish-German quarrel was over a city, Danzig, most British leaders believed had been unjustly taken from Germany at the end of World War I and ought to be returned.

The German claim to Danzig was regarded as among the most just claims Germany had from what most agreed by then had been an unjust and vindictive Treaty of Versailles.

What did the people of Danzig themselves want? Writes Overy:

“In May 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Danzig’s National Socialist Party won 38 out of the city’s 72 assembly seats and formed the city government. … By 1936 there was a virtual one-party system. … The strongly nationalist German population agitated in 1939 to come … back home to Germany.”

In short, the Germans wanted their city back, and the Danzigers wanted to go home to Germany. And most British had no objection.

Yet Britain backed up Poland’s refusal even to negotiate, and when that led to war, Britain declared war on Poland’s behalf.

This has been an idea of Pat Buchannan’s since he wrote his book The Unnecessary War.

I think it might be helpful to put things in context by making out a timeline of the events leading up to the declaration of war.

January 30, 1933-Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany

March 23, 1933-after the Reichstag fire, the Enabling Act is passed making Hitler dictator

January 26, 1934-Germany and Poland sign non-aggression pact. Germany violates it six years later

July 24, 1934-Austrian anti-Nazi dictator Engelbert Dolfuss assassinated by Austrian Nazis

August 2,1934 Hitler named Fuhrer of Germany

March 16, 1935 Germany begins to rearm in violation of the Versailles Treaty

March 7, 1936 Germany occupies the Rheinland in violation of the Versailles Treaty

Now, one could argue that certain provisions of the Versailles Treaty were unjust but that is not the point here. The point is that Hitler did not feel himself bound by any agreement made either by himself or any previous German ruler. He also did not feel obliged to follow any law or constitution in effect before or during his rule. To continue;

September 1938 Hitler demands that the Sudetenland be given to Germany, secretly prepares for war with Czechoslovokia

September 30, 1938 Munich Agreement signed, Germany occupies the Sudetenland

March 15, 1939 Germany invades Czechoslovakia

March 21, 1939 Hitler demands the city of Danzig be returned to Germany

April 3, 1939 Hitler begins planning the invasion of Poland for the autumn of 1939

August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union signed.

September 1, 1939 Germany invades Poland, beginning World War II

Going over this timeline, one fact emerges. By the summer of 1939 it had become obvious that Adolf Hitler could not be trusted to keep his word under any circumstances. He broke nearly every agreement  he had ever signed. Neither Neville Chamberlain nor the leaders of France could believe anything he promised.

Suppose that Chamberlain had flown to Berlin to appease Hitler once again by offering to allow Germany to occupy Danizig, do Buchannan or Overy seriously believe the war would have been averted? Hitler would simply have come up with another excuse to invade Poland.

It may be true that Hitler had no serious plans to rule the entire world, but he did plan to conquer the Soviet Union to provide “lebensraum” for the German people. After conquering Poland, he probably would have gone ahead with his plans to invade Russia. Since Hitler was not foolish enough to want to fight a two-front war, and he could not guarantee that Britain and France would not attack his rear while he was involved in Russia, he likely would have decided to neutralize them first. In other words, by the summer of 1939, war was inevitable. Hitler had made it clear that he could not be trusted and could not be appeased. He wanted the war.

I don’t really know why this strange revisionist history appeals to Pat Buchannan. I don’t want to think that he is a Nazi, although he has been suspected of being an anti-semite. I think that he has considered the aftermath of World War II, especially the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and has decided that matters would have been better of Hitler had remained in power. Since Stalin was every bit as evil and vicious as Hitler, maybe he has a point. It couldn’t have made much difference to the hapless people of Poland or Hungary which dictator ruled over them.

But, this is hindsight. No one in 1939 could possibly have known how things would turn out. No could would have guessed that the Soviets would end up occupying half of Europe. Given that Stalin had just finished killing half the officers in the Red Army, any observer in 1939 would have concluded that a war between Germany and the Soviet Union could only end with a swift German victory. To Britain and France, the greatest threat seemed to be a Germany made invincible by the conquest of Russia.

This site has a number of very strange articles. If you think that Pat Buchanna and Noam Chomsky are on opposite sides take a look. They seem to have a lot more in  common than you might think, besides the fact that both are idiots.


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