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Jan 2008 Journal

next article:A fond farewell

‘Peace for our time’ rides again

Michael Connarty, MP, Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, distinguished himself recently by saying that Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s attitude to the new European Treaty reminded him of Neville Chamberlain’s declaration that the Munich Agreement of September 1938 had brought ‘peace for our time’. Prime Minister Chamberlain’s ill-fated words have become synonymous with his policy of appeasement, which was intended to preserve peace for Britain by buying Hitler off with concessions, in particular territorial ones, at the expense of other, smaller nations.

Accusing a politician of part-Jewish origin of modelling his strategy on the appeasement of the Nazis showed a crass degree of insensitivity. Connarty’s remarks also demonstrated a sadly defective grasp of history. For the lesson of the appeasement period, which reached its height in 1938 and ended definitively only when Britain refused to surrender in May/June 1940 as France fell, is not the simplistic Eurosceptic lesson that Connarty seems to draw from it - that negotiating with Europeans is always likely to end by making concessions and thus betraying the national interest.

In reality, the policy of appeasement itself was largely rooted in a distinctly Eurosceptic policy towards events in Europe, a sad tale of drift and neglect of our European alliances that led Britain to the catastrophic situation confronting her in 1940. Faced with the threat from Germany before 1914, British politicians had reacted with statesmanship, winding up their colonial quarrels with France and Russia so as to build an alliance with those countries solid enough to withstand German aggression. But after 1933, faced with a renewed threat from the same quarter, the National Government, under Ramsay MacDonald and then Stanley Baldwin, opted for inaction and a hands-off attitude to events in Europe.

When Chamberlain became prime minister in 1937, Britain faced superior German military power in Europe, as well as having to commit considerable forces to the defence of her imperial possessions overseas. Chamberlain decided that the only strategy possible in this situation was to make concessions to Hitler, in the hope of buying time for rearmament - the strategy of appeasement. It was, of course, a fundamental error to treat Hitler as if he were an old-fashioned nationalist who could be bought off with limited territorial gains. But underlying that failure of judgment was another serious error: the failure to promote alliances with European countries that might have formed a common front against Hitler while Germany was still weak.

Instead of standing foursquare with France, the British government repeatedly failed to back its principal potential ally against Hitler when the latter began his campaign of expansion. When he sent forces into the demilitarised Rhineland in 1936, the British made it clear to the French that they would not support military action against Germany, even though the German forces in the Rhineland were too weak to offer effective resistance. When Hitler marched into Austria in March 1938, the British government reacted with supine passivity. And when Hitler began to put pressure on Czechoslovakia later that year, Chamberlain flew to Germany for negotiations, which ended with the betrayal of the Czechs at Munich and the surrender of the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia to Germany.

Why, after all, should Britain become embroiled in European matters? Why, asked Chamberlain, should we risk war for ‘a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’? Chamberlain here prefigured the Eurosceptic rhetoric that decries any alignment of British policy with those of European nations whose languages one cannot understand, whose capitals one cannot spell, and whose history and culture one knows nothing about.

Chamberlain’s refusal to engage positively with other European democracies, like France and Czechoslovakia, ended in world war. His successor, Churchill, took a very different line. Churchill was a convinced Francophile; in June 1940 his government made the remarkable proposal of an indissoluble union between the British and French states, in the hope of keeping France in the war. Any prime minister who did anything remotely similar today would be branded a traitor by the Eurosceptic press.

The historic debates in the War Cabinet in late May 1940, resulting in the decision to fight on against Hitler, have been analysed in John Lukacs’s gripping study Five Days in May and in Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941. Using present-day terms, one might say that the arguments of Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, who advocated negotiations with Hitler using Mussolini as intermediary, were essentially Eurosceptic: to achieve tolerable peace terms, Halifax was prepared to disengage Britain from Europe, conceding German dominance over the Continent, and to concentrate on Britain’s role as a non-European power, by preserving her overseas empire.

Churchill, by contrast, refused to abandon the European role. He made London the headquarters of the democratic forces fighting to liberate Europe and the seat of European governments in exile, the Free French, Poles, Czechs, Dutch and others, a coalition of the free peoples of Europe. AJR members in particular have cause to be thankful that it was Churchill, not the champions of appeasement and disengagement from Europe, who held power in the summer of 1940.

Anthony Grenville

next article:A fond farewell