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How far were the policies of Chamberlain in facing the challenges from Nazi Germany to 1939 ‘Dangerously Negligent’

In October 1938, Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich conference to Britain saying “I believe that it is peace in our time”. The following September, war with Germany started. Many historians believe that it was Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement that helped to cause war with Germany; others argue that Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was a realistic one, which was a sensible way to go at the time. This essay will examine how Chamberlain’s policies affected Anglo German relations, leading up to The First World War, and attempt to reach a conclusion about whether or not he deserves to be remembered as a negligent Prime Minister.Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, succeeding Stanley Baldwin, and taking on the problems of some of the countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Chamberlains’ policy was mainly that of appeasement, which has two meanings-pre 1930’s, and post 1930’s. The pre 1930 meaning of appeasement means ‘To calm or pacify’,1 and the post 1930 meaning is to give in to a bully; this is what many historians see Chamberlain doing in his appeasement of Germany. If this definition is right, then there may be some truth in the allegation that Chamberlain was negligent.There is an ongoing historical debate on Chamberlain’s appeasement, with three main views. The first view is the traditional view, with the writings of the immediate post war historians. These post war years saw a blistering attack on Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Chamberlain was accused of championing appeasement with little chance of success, having raised false hopes of long lasting peace. These writers, for example CATO, portray Chamberlain as an ineffective leader who failed to take into account the moral issues involved in negotiating with an aggressive dictator like Hitler. They claim that Chamberlain failed to confront moral issues and sacrificed a small democracy to an aggressive dictator for Britain’s self interest. This view argues that Chamberlain is negligent.The second view is the revisionist view, which are historians writing after 1967, when the British government, led by Harold Wilson, released Government papers in foreign policy in the 1930’s. With this, the traditional view of Chamberlain’s policy began to be questioned. Chamberlain was now seen as a prisoner of a set of circumstances, which made it impractical to stand up to Hitler. These historians now saw Chamberlain as a realistic, able politician with good reasons for appeasement. This view disputes the allegation that Chamberlain was negligent.The truth lies somewhere between the two schools of thought, but there is little doubt that Chamberlain was high handed and took too long to accept that Hitler was intent on conflict. In this way, he can, to some extent, be accused of being autocratic, but not negligent.When Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937, he faced the task of dealing with many problems. He faced problems from Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Japan. These problems in the other parts of the World were watched closely by Hitler and used to his advantage. When he came into office in 1937, by following a policy of appeasement, he was continuing with the previous policies used by Stanley Baldwin. Appeasement had been successful during the 1920’s, with the Ten-Year Rule and Locarno, so it was probably hoped that it could be continued in the same way during Chamberlain’s time in office.One argument to say that Chamberlain was not dangerously negligent is that public opinion was generally against war; many British men had died in the First World War, and the British economy had just begun to stabilise. Chamberlain knew this when he came into power, and knew that if he had gone to war in 1937, there would not have been public support, which is important when entering into a war. This was illustrated in the Fullham by-election in 1937, when the Conservative candidate, who was defending a majority of more than 14,000 votes, supported rearmament. He was defeated by nearly 5,000 votes by his pacifist Labour opponent. It is also displayed by the reception that Chamberlain received when he arrived from the Munich conference in September 1938. Andrew Boxer tells us that many people in Britain were anxious to avoid war and actively supported the policy of appeasement2.Chamberlain believed that appeasement was only fair in reversing the harsh measures implemented with The Treaty of Versailles. Many people, for example Lloyd George, believed that some of the measures were too harsh. Some argued that until Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was just reversing these measures. Up until this time, Hitler had used excuses about taking back German land, making an army like the other countries had, because no other countries had rearmed, etc. With the invasion of the whole of Czechoslovakia, this started a change in some people’s opinion.It has been argued that Chamberlain was negligent by allowing the union with Austria to happen. However, at the time the Anschluss was not seen as a real threat, and was still seen as reversing the harsh measures imposed in Versailles. As already stated, many people believed that the terms of Versailles were too harsh on the German people, and the Anschluss was just another way of the German-speaking people to be united. Most of the British public would not have supported Chamberlain if he had have gone to war with Germany over the Anschluss. However, even at this stage Chamberlain was still stubborn – Anthony Eden resigned in February 1938 ‘as an example of the manner in which Chamberlain ‘purged’ his government of all opposition to his policies’3.The Munich Conference is the area of Chamberlain’s foreign policy that is seen as negligent by many historians. Here, Chamberlain appeased Hitler, and in doing so theoretically gained an extra year to build up the British military forces. Chamberlain also believed that Munich wasn’t reason enough to fight; in a radio broadcast addressed to the nation on the evening of Tuesday 27 September, Chamberlain spoke of Czechoslovakia:”How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war…”It is clear from this that Chamberlain did not believe that war with Germany over Czechoslovakia would be justified. He did not like the Czechs. Indeed, Henderson wrote from Berlin that ‘the Czechs are a pig-headed race and Ben�s not the least pig-headed among them’. John Wheeler Bennet described the Munich agreement as a ‘case study in the disease of political myopia, which affected the leaders and peoples of Europe in between the wars’4. According to Wheeler-Bennet, the policy of appeasement was championed by an ineffective leader, Chamberlain, who completely failed to confront the moral issues inherent in negotiating with an openly aggressive dictator such as Hitler, and to appreciate that war is often preferable to peace bought at a very high moral cost.Some historians, for example John Charmley, believe that rather than being negligent, Chamberlain was justified in appeasing Hitler in the Munich Conference. Many historians argue that the year that was gained helped Britain build up her army. Chamberlain himself said that he would not contemplate such a guarantee ‘unless we had reasonable prospect of being able to beat her [Germany] to her knees in a reasonable time, and of that I see no sign.’ In other words, Chamberlain did not want to enter into a war with Germany unless they did have a large enough military to do this. David Dilks, one of the leading revisionists, has been at the forefront of the historical revisionism of Chamberlain. According to Dilks, ‘the buying of time remained a strong element in British foreign policy, as it had been for several years…and to accelerate British rearmament, the spending upon which was moving swiftly forward in 1938 and 1939 and which far exceeded any expenditure upon arms ever undertaken in peace time’5.John Charmley also agrees with Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement he tells us that ‘Chamberlain’s foreign policy was an attempt to see if co-existence was possible; that it turned out not to be is no reason for condemning out of hand the only policy which promised any hope of avoiding war’6. According to John Charmley, later in the same article, ‘Men of honour will cavil at trying to appease a dictator, while the more cynical will assert that as Hitler was bound to attack us, we were wrong to try to postpone the evil day…and turkeys are seldom well-advised in pressing for an early Christmas.’ In other words, if Chamberlain had not appeased Hitler in 1938 and gone to war, things could have turned out quite differently; this may not necessarily have been for the better. Indeed, evidence shows that between 1938 and 1939, expenditure on arms was greatly increased in Britain and France7. The total military expenditure in Britain increased from �400.3 million in 1938 to �700.5 million in 1939. This shows that Britain did take advantage of the extra year, and built up their military before the war.It has also been said that the British rearmament was rearmament in depth. That means that they concentrated in setting up factories which could produce war materials while the Germans concentrated on producing as many weapons as possible in as short a time as possible without the thought of replacing losses during wartime. Here, as in 1914, Germany was gambling on a quick victory; the longer a war lasted, the more likely Germany was to lose.Some historians however, believe that Chamberlain’s methods of dealing with Hitler were ‘dangerously negligent’. According to M. Gilbert and R. Gott, ‘Germany, not Britain, gained militarily during the extra year. German forces were strengthened by Czech munitions, western forces weakened by the loss of the Czech Army and Air Force…’8. This is justified by the table in the appendix9, which shows us that in Britain, the Aircraft Production rose from 2,827 in 1938, to 7,940, whereas the Aircraft Production in Germany rose from 5,235 in 1938 to 8,295 in 1939. Here, the German’s aircraft production was higher in 1939 than the British production. This shows that, although the British did take advantage of the extra year that the Munich Conference gained, so did the Germans. A.P. Adamthwaite argues that ‘The feebleness and timidity of British and French foreign policies in the late 1930’s were symptomatic of the short-sighted selfishness of a ruling class set on self-preservation’10. Winston Churchill claimed in his memoirs that appeasement, operating from a position of military weakness, as it had under Chamberlain, was doomed to failure. This was reinforced by Anthony Eden, who claimed in his memoirs that appeasing the dictators was the misguided personal policy of Chamberlain, which was opposed by major figures in the Foreign Office and some leading members of the cabinet.Some historians argue that Chamberlain could have prevented war with Germany over the Polish issue; failure to avert war is viewed as negligence. Many argue that Chamberlain should have entered into an Anglo-Soviet agreement, which may have deterred Hitler from invading Poland, as Germany would have had an enemy on the other side of Poland. In April 1939, the USSR asked Britain and France to form an alliance against Germany. The British made a mess of the negotiations and, on 23rd August 1939, Russia made an alliance with Hitler instead. By allowing the Nazi-Soviet pact to occur, Chamberlain could be accused of being negligent. In June 1938, an opinion poll recorded that 84% of the British public were in favour of a military alliance between Britain, France and the USSR.Chamberlain however, did not want an alliance with Russia; he was ideologically opposed to Communist Russia, and probably had more in common with a dictatorship like Hitler’s. He also did not want a war – the guarantees were designed to bring Hitler to the negotiating table, not to form the basis of a hostile coalition. Chamberlain believed that encircling Germany by an Anglo-Soviet pact may actually provoke rather than deter conflict, and he personally had not given up on appeasement. In June 1939, Sir John Simon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said: “we are not preparing for, we are constructing a peace front.” According to Boxer, ‘the British government regarded the Russians as untrustworthy, and sympathised with the Poles and Romanians when they refused to allow Soviet troops on to their territory’11.Chamberlain’s critics also view the events that followed the Munich conference as negligent. After Munich, Hitler assumed that Germany would easily gain Poland. In October 1938 Ribbentrop asked the Poles to give up Danzig. In return, Poland would receive guarantees of her borders, German friendship and the prospect of more territory in the Ukraine. The Poles refused to accept these proposals. Hitler secretly admitted that he was not simply after Danzig, as the question of lebensraum was at stake. He was prepared to gain Poland, by force if necessary. Over this issue, Hitler hoped for a diplomatic rather than a military triumph. He did not want or expect a general European war.On 31st March, Chamberlain offered a guarantee to Poland: if she were the victim of an unprovoked attack, Britain would come to her aid. The French government offered a similar guarantee to Poland. The Polish guarantee was widely condemned at the time, and has been more widely criticised since. Poland had distanced herself from the League of Nations, had accepted Japanese and Italian expansion, and had won territory from Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. Poland was, even more than Czechoslovakia, a ‘quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’. Even up until June 1939, Chamberlain would have gone on appeasing Hitler. It was Halifax who eventually pushed Chamberlain into declaring war, Chamberlain still wanted to see if there was a way of ending this problem peacefully.Chamberlain could also be accused of negligence for other reasons, as there were other factors that influenced Chamberlain’s foreign policy. One of the main factors influencing Chamberlain was public opinion. Many people did not want a war; they had experienced the First World War, and were scared about entering into another war. However, by 1938, a great number of the public believed that Hitler would not stop at just having Czechoslovakia. In an opinion poll held in October 1938, 93% of people believed that Hitler didn’t have any territorial ambitions in Europe12.The personal attitude of Chamberlain is behind accusations of negligence. He tended to be autocratic, and ignore advice from other members of the cabinet. Chamberlain has also been accused of being na�ve with how he dealt with Hitler. Some historians have argued that Chamberlain was na�ve at the Munich Conference, and his personal feelings about appeasement led him to believe Hitler and tell the country “peace in our time”. However, others, such as John Charmley believe that Chamberlain was not na�ve with how he dealt with Hitler; he knew that Hitler was a dangerous dictator, but felt it better to appease him than go to war with him earlier. Indeed, Chamberlain himself told his private secretary that the Anglo-German Agreement was intended as a test. ‘If he signs and sticks to it, that will be fine, but if he breaks it that will convince the Americans of the kind of man he is.’13In conclusion, Neville Chamberlain was not dangerously negligent in facing the challenges from Nazi Germany, though he is not above strong criticism. Some of his policies can be defended, as he believed that Hitler was just reversing the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. To go to war over the Anschluss would not have been realistic at that time. The public would not have supported Chamberlain for going to war in 1937, as public opinion was generally against war. One main factor that portrays Chamberlain as negligent is how he dealt with Hitler at the Munich conference. Many historians argue that he should have stopped Hitler earlier, and even though Britain gained an extra year to rearm, Hitler also gained this extra year to produce more armaments. I believe that Chamberlain was most negligent by not entering into an Anglo-Soviet alliance. This is where he has come under close criticism; this may have averted Hitler from entering Poland, as he would have had an enemy on the other side.However, we can judge this with the benefit of hindsight. Chamberlain did not have this advantage, and the things that he did; he believed were for the benefit of his country. What he did was with the best intentions, and just because they didn’t work, it doesn’t mean that all his policies were ‘dangerously negligent’. Chamberlain can be criticised for being too lenient, and maybe he did allow Hitler to go too far, but through gaining extra time, Chamberlain also gained public support. By doing this, when Chamberlain entered into war with Germany in 1939, he did so with full public support. So, some of Chamberlain’s policies may have been unwise, and even bordering on foolish, but I believe that overall, his policies to Nazi Germany were used well, and were not really negligent.

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