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.
The media have gone through so many revolutions since then that it is difficult to understand that in the 1930s the Times was on a high plateau of international fame and influence. These qualities rested on a curious ambiguity that strikes one again and again in the journals of Leo Kennedy, writer of many of its leading articles on European matters from early 1932 to mid-July 1939. Was the Times explaining the mind of the British Government to the world and the British people, or was it explaining the mind of the British people to the British Government and the world? The editor, Geoffrey Dawson, played it whichever way he chose: now covertly carrying messages from the Foreign Office or the PM, now appearing to send messages to them; and neither the British public nor the world at large could tell the difference. Dawson and his staff were high-mindedly conscious of the power they exercised and took enormous pains to do what they – but principally Dawson – thought right. The question historians still argue about is, did they instead do wrong?
The son of a diplomat and socially accredited by his education at Harrow and Oxford, Kennedy started to work for the Times in 1910 and returned to it in 1919 after ‘a good war’. Comfortable in the company of politicians and officials at home and abroad, and fluent in at least French and German, he became one of that cosmopolitan set of well-dressed journalists, socialites, lobbyists and secret agents forever circulating in the antechambers and corridors of power and in the clubs, country houses and grand hotels where the influential were to be found.
Gordon Martel’s selection from his journals (90 per cent of the original material for the period) begins with Kennedy going in 1932 to Geneva to report on the League of Nations World Disarmament Conference. This may have seemed like an opportunity to remedy some major errors – or, if you chose like Kennedy so to call them, the injustices – of Versailles. Great things were hoped for, and Kennedy’s own country was playing the leading role – how amazing now to recall that Britain played the leading role in European affairs for long after the First World War and through the crucial quinquennium following the Second. Britons stood high in the League, too. Its Secretary-General was Sir Eric Drummond; the President of the Conference was Arthur Henderson. Kennedy’s special concern was to see how Germany could be restored to a safe level of defensive military capability within the framework of the universal disarmament that Versailles had promised. In those early months, ignorance about Hitler and the sheer inability to imagine what he might have in mind were all but universal, but it gradually became clear that Kennedy and his kind were not as acute or suspicious as they might have been about the Nazi movement and what it was up to. Kennedy long cherished the notion that Hitler was a more moderate National Socialist than Goebbels or Göring, even attending seriously to a body of opinion which held that he was an amiable and well-meaning man being used by others of stronger will and nastier character.
When did individual appeasers rumble Hitler and to what extent did they consequently adjust their pursuit of appeasement? It’s a question worth asking. Kennedy was sharp enough to have found grounds for worry quite early. He made no objection to the ‘unlawful’ beginnings of rearmament on the grounds that Germany ought not to be denied the ability to defend itself. When the penny dropped that German rearmament was more than defensive, his reaction was to blame the French for having obstructed earlier efforts to seal a disarmament agreement, and the British for not having prevailed on them to give way. By April 1935, he was writing leaders swallowing every promise that Hitler was making and chiding the Foreign Office for not being more responsive to them. The FO was cross, he complacently recorded, because ‘they admittedly have no policy, and we outlined one; and this is interpreted by foreigners as the policy of the country.’ So bucked was he by the approving letters that poured in, he stuck into his journal a particularly appreciative one that likened him to Castlereagh. Only a few weeks later he was instructing the Council of the League that it was futile to condemn German rearmament (by now going strong and openly) since in Germany the League ‘has always been regarded as an instrument of the victorious powers … Hitlerism,’ he concluded, ‘is largely a revolt against Versailles; and until this fundamental truth is taken fully into account there will be no real peace in Europe.’
1935 was the last year in which this segment of the truth about Hitler could comfortably be taken for the whole. Kennedy himself was cleansed of illusions by a sick-leave visit to Germany through the first half of 1936. Adapting effortlessly to the diplomatic microclimate of the place, he had talks with Ribbentrop, Himmler, Schacht, Blomberg, all the ambassadors and lots of German officials, and as a special treat was fixed up by Ribbentrop with a seat in the plane taking Hitler to Breslau and back, noting that Hitler made ‘a favourable impression by his simplicity’. Sir Eric Phipps, the stoutly non-appeasing British Ambassador, wouldn’t go to hear Hitler at the Reichstag on 7 March but Kennedy went. ‘I was embarrassed, being between two Germans in the gallery, who were perpetually (with everyone else) jumping up, holding forth their right arm, and “Heiling Hitler” … I did it towards the end, not wishing to attract too much attention, but refused to budge when Locarno was denounced and when the “Horst Wessel” song was sung.’
It is instructive to learn what Kennedy recorded as the good and bad sides of the regime. There was some naivety, similar, in its right-wing way, to that of leftists who at the same time were goggling admiringly at show-places in the Soviet Union. He was impressed by the ‘labour camps’, their classlessness (‘a new thing in Germany’) and ‘great community feeling, I was told’. The SS barracks were ‘wonderfully efficient’. There were ‘perfect microphone arrangements’ for Goebbels at the Olympic Stadium, where, moreover, ‘everybody seemed happy to stay’ – although admittedly, with Brownshirts at every door, they couldn’t have left even if they’d wanted to. At the same time, he saw, heard and intuited enough to persuade him that Hitler’s Germany had suddenly become an unprecedented political and diplomatic phenomenon. No longer was it possible to see in the Führer the moderate front man of a sinister cabal. He was unmistakably sui generis, and the people of Germany were responsive to his teaching that das deutsche Volk was bound by no law but its own. ‘The Nazis can’t stand internationalism in any shape or form.’ Hitler might profess admiration for Britain and its Empire and enjoy The Lives of a Bengal Lancer above all other films, but he had to be judged dangerous from a diplomatic point of view because he was unpredictable and untrustworthy.
In other aspects the regime seems not to have bothered Kennedy. He had no objection to the way it handled Communists and socialists. He made several observations on what it was doing to Jews but recorded without cavil the explanations offered by Ribbentrop and Co. Taking his official friends, the Stahmers, to lunch:
The chauffeur intervened to say that the restaurant was run by a Jew. This settled the matter for Stahmer … Mrs Stahmer indicated to me that she thought the whole thing was absurd, but Basil Newton, with whom I spent the evening, said the chauffeur could have denounced Stahmer if we’d gone there, and might have, if he’d got anything against him.
Kennedy returned to London in June 1936 to resume work and early in the following year to add his contribution, Britain Faces Germany, to the flood of books by journalists and travellers about this new Europe of the dictators: 1936 was a boom year for these last and a bad year for the powers that needed to get their act together if they were not to be mugged, one by one. Britain, France and Belgium to the west of Germany, France’s ‘Little Entente’ allies and the enigmatic Soviet Union to the east nourished so many fears and suspicions about each other that only a bold and decisive lead could have brought them together; and that was something neither the British nor the French Government could make up its mind to give. The line between hard-core appeasers – those who concluded that the interests of the powers to the west would be best served if Germany were allowed to incorporate the German-speakers of Austria and Czechoslovakia and to set up a co-prosperity sphere in Central and South-East Europe – and the rest began to be clear.
So far as Kennedy’s journal allows one to judge, he came home ready for the hard-core line and was gratified to find Chamberlain increasingly opting for it. Chamberlain’s critics, Churchill at their head, held that his Government should have set about strengthening relations with France, actively sought an alliance with the Soviet Union notwithstanding the objections of its Little Entente neighbours, and worked to overcome the Dominions’ misgivings about another involvement of the Empire in a European war so soon after the first. There were obstacles in the way of each of these policies and they might well have turned out badly had they been followed, but they couldn’t have been any worse than the Government’s back-pedalling between March and August 1939, after the humiliating failure of its earlier appeasement.
Kennedy was well to the fore in the Times’s endeavours to support Chamberlain. The sacrifice of Czechoslovakia seems not to have bothered him in the slightest. He seconded Dawson’s turning of the paper into an organ of the Prime Minister and his henchmen. With Dawson’s backing he wrote the leader of 1 April 1939 that prepared a way for pulling the rug out from under the guarantee just given to Poland, just as the rug had earlier been pulled out from under Czechoslovakia. None of this fancy footwork was of any avail. Hitler continued the cleverer; and unappeasable. Kennedy didn’t change his mind. The penultimate entry, written six weeks after the war began, finds him and Dawson concurring in the astounding opinion: ‘There was no statesmanship in our foreign policy between the two Chamberlains – Austen and Neville.’
Churchill’s critique of appeasement in the opening chapters of The Gathering Storm reads so well that one may come away from it wondering how on earth Baldwin, Chamberlain and Lord Halifax could have got away with it. To such enthusiasm, R.A.C. Parker’s cool book is a convincing corrective. For all his praiseworthy pressing of the need for rearmament and his justified distrust of Hitler, Churchill was on the whole happy enough to go along with Chamberlain’s policy until the Munich crisis, believing that the Sudeten German question could be settled on terms tolerable to all parties. All three of Churchill’s major assumptions are seriously open to question: Roosevelt’s offer of his good offices was not likely to have delivered much in the way of a settlement; the Soviet Union’s offers of a defensive alliance may have had more catches in them than Churchill supposed; and his confidence that the German generals were ready to launch a coup against Hitler has to be judged too optimistic.
Granting the force of those criticisms, however, it is possible to argue that the war which started in 1939 could, if it had to be started at all, have been started in 1938 instead and might have turned out less terribly. Which is a shaky answer to the question – ‘Could Churchill have prevented the Second World War?’ – posed by the publicity material for Parker’s book. A precious moment came in the middle of the ‘Munich’ negotiations, when ‘Western’ public opinion (no thanks to the Times) became indignant about Hitler’s bullying of the Czechs, the Czechs were ready to defend themselves, the Soviet Union was seemingly ready to assist them (exactly how was admittedly not yet clear) and Churchill was ready to join the Government as every rational politician, including Chamberlain, knew he would have to if the country went to war. That scenario, picturing Churchill doing for national and imperial morale in 1938 what he was to do in 1940, and establishing the same relationship with Roosevelt that he was to establish in 1939, is not without encouraging aspects. But it is difficult to believe in, given Churchill’s unpopularity within the Conservative Party, Chamberlain’s jealous pride in his superior position and his antipathy to the idea of an all-Party government. And in any case, that moment went as quickly as it came. Chamberlain swallowed Hitler’s last-minute bait, and came home waving his meaningless piece of paper. Churchill’s sombre judgment had one bright spot in it. Apropos of the appeasers’ complacency about Hitler’s ‘having been made to retract’, Churchill said it was pointless to argue about the differences between the positions taken at Berchtesgaden, Godesberg and Munich; all that had happened was this: ‘£1 was demanded at the pistol’s point. When it was refused, £2 was demanded at the pistol’s point. Finally, the dictator consented to take £1.17s.6d and the rest in promises of good will for the future.’