“The Chamberlain Effect”: When did World War Two really begin?


The 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two this week will pass almost unnoticed in the Czech Republic. The reason is simple. For Czechs and Slovaks the tragedy did not begin with the invasion of Poland, but a full year earlier. With the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Britain, France and Italy gave Hitler the green light to annex huge tracts of Czechoslovakia and less than six months later, Nazi troops marched into what was left of the Czech lands unopposed. So how did Hitler get away with bringing a determined and well-defended democratic country under the sway of the swastika, while Czechoslovakia’s allies stood by? The British historian and politician, David Faber, has tried to answer this question in his book, Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis, which focuses above all on the role of the British political establishment, in particular Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. This is the most detailed account of the events leading up to Munich to be published for several decades, and an American edition is due out this month. I caught up with David Faber in London, and we discussed some of the many aspects of a book that deserves to become a classic.

“I started off looking at the secondary sources, and we’re fortunate in that we have many sets of memoirs of many of the key protagonists of the time from the various different countries. So, we have an absolute wealth of material. Many of the key protagonists kept diaries, wrote their own memoirs subsequently, and it was really a bit like a jigsaw, piecing together all the individual quotes and the individual moments and times when things were happening. Very often I found that having looked at an event that had happened in London and an event that had happened in Prague or in Berlin, or even in Rome, and that these two things had happened at roughly the same time. So I was able to put people’s speech side by side, as to what they’d been thinking in the different capitals of Europe at the time.”

The view of the Munich Crisis from the perspective of the Czech Republic is very much that Britain let down Czechoslovakia, almost as if it were a foregone conclusion. From your book I think you get a rather more nuanced picture of what was going on politically, that it maybe even needn’t have happened that way.

“The ultimate result was that Czechoslovakia was let down. And I think in the end, both in the immediate aftermath of Munich and of course in March the following year in 1939, there was no doubt that Czechoslovakia had been let down by Britain - and also by France of course, in many ways a closer ally of hers at the time. But I agree with you that none of the politicians really set out to do that. This wasn’t a deliberate policy. I think Chamberlain’s weaknesses were that he was a very arrogant and a very vain man, and I think that once he had set himself on a particular course, he decided that he was right and he really wouldn’t brook any confrontation with anyone close to him. And his vanity led him to believe, especially after his meetings with Hitler, that he was in some way getting the better of Hitler, whereas, in fact, the exact opposite was the case.”

And it seems amazing, when you read contemporary sources, that many people in Europe, including in Germany itself, really did think that Chamberlain had got the better of Hitler, didn’t they?

“They did, and of course in the immediate aftermath of the Munich Crisis, albeit only for a few days or weeks, Chamberlain was perceived as a great hero in London, as indeed Daladier the French prime minister was in Paris. They were perceived as having pulled of a great coup, albeit at the expense of the hapless Czechs. But that didn’t last very long.

“I think that there was a twofold sense that things had not gone right. First was that I think the British people woke up to the fact that this was, from a purely selfish point of view, unlikely to postpone war for ever. Of course, one of the most important things to recognize is that, however much he may have been lauded later for postponing war and enabling the Allies to be better prepared for the Second World War, that was not the intention of Chamberlain and the people immediately around him. His intention, as he proudly boasted when he came back from Munich, was to achieve peace for all time, and he firmly believed that he had achieved peace.

“The second thing was that the British people in particular, and I think the French also, did recognize and I think felt a strong sense of guilt on behalf of the Czechs, and there was a great outpouring of support for Czechoslovakia in the months after the Munich crisis. There was a very famous story that the Lord Mayor of London set up a fund to help to send money to Czechoslovakia and to help many of the refugees who’d had to flee the Sudeten areas. Chamberlain was alleged to have told him that he didn’t want this fund to happen – that it would offend the Germans in some way. It’s a really extraordinary thing to look back on now in hindsight. So there was a great outpouring of relief that war had been averted, but I think guilt and shame that the Czechs were being forced to go through what they did.”

Adolf Hitler signing the Munich AgreementAdolf Hitler signing the Munich Agreement I’m very interested in the fact that you have written this book as a person who has his own political background. You were a member of the British parliament for the Conservative Party. In your own family there is also a link with this episode, in that your grandfather was the later British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In what ways have your family experiences and also your experiences as an active politician influenced the ways that you have perceived the episode? It must have given you some insights into the way that politics works, for example.

“It did very much. Taking the family connection first – yes, I was obviously very proud of my grandfather and was very relieved - although I already knew it when I started writing the book - to discover that he had been on the right side of the argument as I perceived it, that he had been a great anti-appeaser in the late 1930s. And obviously, having read his autobiographies and many of his papers, I knew what his views had been at the time. As far as my own political experience goes, I found that absolutely invaluable in writing the book. Anyone who knows about a specific world and knows how it operates, whatever it happens to be, obviously has a slight insight. And so I was particularly fascinated by the ins and outs, the political comings and goings, I could picture the geography of where the meetings took place, where the debates were being held, of where some of the cabinet meetings were being held. So I was able to – if not picture the people – to picture the scene around them and know what they were going through.

Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler (right)Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler (right) “I think there was something that was also very important and a very strong connection to my own, much briefer political career. When I first got into the British House of Commons in 1992, it was at the height of the debate within the Conservative Party over the degree to which the British Conservative Party and the British Government should be at the heart of Europe. This was an iconic issue within the Conservative Party, and the pressure to conform at the time and the pressure to toe the party line and do as one was told by the senior politicians in your own party was enormous. I could absolutely sense, when I was researching the Munich crisis, this same feeling of pressure and almost of bullying pressure being applied from the senior government - from the prime minister down - onto the junior politicians, the backbenchers, as they’re called in the British parliament.”

I’m interested that you mention the question of European integration. I would have thought that one of the messages of Munich would be that democratic countries should try as much as possible to integrate with one another both economically and politically, as this increases the pressure on undemocratic forces not to undermine the democratic nations that are grouped together.

“Well of course you’re quite right to say that and I agree absolutely with that. You mentioned my grandfather, and I come from a very strong pro-European tradition. I studied modern languages at university. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel widely in Europe and I come from a political tradition within the Conservative Party – which there still is, thankfully – of much closer union and strong ties with the rest of Europe. But as we know, throughout generations and throughout different periods of history, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Certainly, in the early 1990s, when I took my own first steps in politics – and there still is today, I hasten to add – there was a very strong body of opinion within the Conservative Party and within some of the other parties as well, which opposed greater European integration. As we speak today, the current leader of the Conservative Party has moved away from the mainstream in the European Parliament to sit with other people. In many ways, you could say that there are items of history that repeat themselves almost relentlessly through the years. But you could say that people never learn the lessons of the past in that respect.”

Signing of the Munich Agreement. Left to right: Neville Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler and Benito MussoliniSigning of the Munich Agreement. Left to right: Neville Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini One of the very interesting issues in connection with the Munich debate is that there is no consensus internationally and there is certainly no consensus in Britain about Neville Chamberlain’s decision to appease Hitler. To this day there is quite a strong body of thought, and there have been books written about it, arguing that Chamberlain was doing the right thing, that he was gaining time, that appeasing Hitler in 1938 made Britain stronger in the run up to the Second World War. In a sense, in writing about Neville Chamberlain’s role in a very negative way, you could be accused by people in your own party of fouling your own nest. He was a Conservative politician and there are still many Conservatives who would sympathise with his decision then.

“Funnily enough, I’m not sure that the issue of support for Chamberlain necessarily divides along party lines. I think that the Conservatives as a party are not particularly enamoured of Neville Chamberlain when they look back. He gets a very bad press by and large from conservative (with a small “c”) writers and observers. But you’re quite right that his reputation has suffered ups and downs over the past 60 or 70 years. In immediate aftermath of the Second World War he was really vilified in Britain. Then in the 1970s a lot of the government papers relating to this period were released and a number of historians at the time took the opportunity to write pro-Chamberlain works along the lines that he was actually quite perspicacious in looking ahead and in appeasing Hitler, and that he did buy us time. For instance, the first Spitfires that fought in the Battle of Britain only rolled out of the factories just in time for the Battle of Britain in 1940, and, had we had to go to war in 1938 over Czechoslovakia, we would have been ill-prepared. I think that nowadays there are fewer historians who are prepared to take that line.

“I have taken a line in my book that Chamberlain was at fault, but I have based that not so much on his political decisions. What I found very difficult to sympathise with, reading his letters and in particular his own contemporary narrative of the period, was that he did believe really much too firmly in his own ability and in his own political credibility. He used to use this expression called “the Chamberlain effect”. He really believed that he had some kind of momentous effect on everyone he met, including Hitler, and he was badly mistaken in that. He ran an extraordinarily undemocratic government, and indeed the decisions at the time of the Munich crisis were taken by a very small group of people, all of whom had signed up to and were utterly committed to his own political line.”

Your book, “Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis”, was published last year, in 2008, and it’s just come out, I believe, in paperback as well.

“It has, and I’m happy to say that it seems to be doing very well. And it’s coming out in America in September 2009, which is very exciting. I think it’s a period of history that the Americans seem to be fascinated by. There was American involvement at the time of Munich. Roosevelt was closely in touch with what was going on, although he was not really in a position to alter events in the end, but there’s no doubt in America that the word “Munich” is a dirty word. It is undoubtedly a word which implies appeasing dictators, and successive American presidents since the Second World War have often used that to justify their foreign policy.”