Heiling Hitler

Geoffrey Best

  • The ‘Times’ and Appeasement: The Journals of A.L. Kennedy 1932-39 edited by Gordon Martel
    Cambridge, 312 pp, £40.00, March 2001, ISBN 0 521 79354 8
  • Churchill and Appeasement by R.A.C. Parker
    Papermac, 290 pp, £12.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 333 67584 3

Britain’s policy towards Hitler in the later 1930s is one of those historical topics that are dead but won’t lie down. The supply of relevant facts has virtually dried up. But what to make of them – including as facts, the mentalities, opinions and purposes of those involved – and how to interpret the various words and deeds, remains a minefield of protected positions and sensitive tripwires. The argument began as early as 1940, when Chamberlain and the arch-appeasers were branded ‘the guilty men’ by a young Michael Foot and two other socialist polemicists. They overstated what was an arguable case, that the executors of appeasement’s closing phase had been arrogant, ignorant and insensitive; which naturally bred a counter-argument to the effect that they had been well-intentioned, responsible and just very unlucky. The debate, which goes back to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, continues still.

That treaty was a model of how not to do it. Its European makers were in the grip of principles and pressures they couldn’t resist. Two principles came with Woodrow Wilson: national self-determination, in its unqualified form the source of much difficulty then and plenty since; and ‘open diplomacy’, a contradiction in terms credible only to the inexperienced but music to the ears of the demagogic. The most damaging pressure came from the political consensus in France and Britain (where it set the tone for the general election in December 1918), which demanded that Germany be humiliated and punished: a demand partially satisfied by a ‘war-guilt’ article in the Treaty and its reparations clauses. In a chapter of The Aftermath significantly titled ‘Demos’, Churchill later recalled how difficult it was for him and the other ministers to avoid being pushed further than they knew they ought to go. ‘It was not from the majesty of the battlefield nor the solemnity of the council chamber, but from the scrimmage of the hustings, that the British Plenipotentiaries proceeded to the Peace Conference.’ As for the economic clauses of the Treaty, Churchill simply said of them that they were ‘malignant and silly to an extent that made them obviously futile’.

Appeasement materialised as a British policy pari passu with Germany’s reappearance as a power on the European stage, its sensible core being a recognition that a populous and dynamic Germany could not be kept indefinitely in the position of a second-class state. This seemed a lot more sensible on the British side of the Channel than on the French. Whether as a measure of justice or of prudence or a bit of both, the restoration of Germany to equality of status (preferably in connection with a general pacification of Europe’s trouble-spots) was to begin with a worthy cause. But as to how far it should go, and under what degree of control and precaution (and reassurance to France), there was room for much difference of opinion. Churchill, famous later as anti-appeaser-in-chief, was himself an appeaser of sorts up to 1935. But there was a more questionable policy of appeasement that came into its own after Chamberlain became Prime Minister, in mid-1937; and of this most controversial last stage of the policy the Times was the proud and mighty proponent.

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