BOOK OF THE WEEK
by Tim Bouverie (Bodley Head £ 20, 512 pages)
Can you imagine a nation being split in the middle of a great political riddle that would determine the course of its history?
A rancid, rancid dispute between people and politicians, in which each side abused the other as fools and villains, idiots and traitors? Where friendships were broken and even families divided into rival camps? A Tory party in the civil war?
No, not Brexit. The topic we are talking about here was appeasement – what to do about the threat from Germany under Hitler? whether you face him head-on and risk war or try to compromise with him to keep peace.
Tim Bouverie examines the rift in Britain at the height of Hitler's power when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (pictured after Munich) waved a piece of paper signed by Germany that promises peace
When I moved through Tim Bouverie's impressive and very readable report on the war or peace debacle between 1933 and 1939, I was violently impressed with the similarities of this episode to the situation we are now in, although he never mentions Brexit .
Not the characters involved. It would be a cheap shot to occupy Theresa May as the vain, dogged, but also vacillating Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Boris Johnson as Winston Churchill (although some Leavers may be tempted to do so, especially Boris himself!). And to equate the EU with the Third Reich despite all its mistakes would be absurd.
However, what the two situations have in common – apart from the size of the political decision to be made – was the deep divisions in the country, the toxicity of the exchange and the fact that each side was blindly secure / is its own correctness.
Both beliefs had strong, plausible, and moral arguments. Appeasers, marked by the horrors of the trenches of World War I, were determined to avoid another bloody conflict at all costs and decided to make all the concessions necessary for peacekeeping.
They were also firmly convinced (and rightly so) that the emasculation of Germany by the greedy victors of 1918 after the war had been unfair and needed to be corrected.
For reasons of conscience, they did not resist Hitler's creeping expansionism and did nothing when every red line – Germany that re-armed Rhineland, annexed Austria and absorbed a piece of Czechoslovakia – was broken. They believed too optimistically that his promises would stop. Others who sought agreement with Berlin also argued with some validity that Nazi Germany was an essential cushion against the greater threat posed by the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union.
The other side, the war party, which Churchill led the loudest, also insisted that Hitler was the more immediate concern that his goal was not only to eradicate Germany's injustice, but to overrun Europe, its totalitarian and anti-Semitic The regime was cruel and immoral, and sooner or later it was inevitable to oppose it.
Anti-appeasers saw every nod of consent to the dictator as a nail in our own coffin.
Neville Chamberlain (pictured with Hitler on the left) was heavily accused when Hitler's forces marched through France in 1940 and threatened the Chanel
The events have confirmed Churchill and Co, the complainants wrong. When Hitler's forces marched through France in 1940 and threatened the canal, Chamberlain, the man who made the wrong call, was held responsible. He has been (and still is often) disparaged as a weak person whose actions (or rather inaction) have betrayed the country.
As for the politics he had pursued so resolutely, appeasement became a dirty word. Guilty Men, a bestseller published after Dunkirk in 1940, named Chamberlain as the chief among the guilty. It set the tone not only in the minds of contemporaries, writes Bouverie, but also for large parts of posterity. It became the wisdom received.
But how quickly Chamberlain's critics forgot that he hadn't been hailed as a hero long before. When he came back from his famous meeting with Hitler in Munich in September 1938 and waved a piece of paper signed by Germany with the promise "Peace for our time", he was greeted not with skepticism that the Czechs had sold out, but with mass worship.
This pretty quirky-looking Englishman with a wing collar, rolled umbrella, and his passion for fly fishing was treated as if he were a returning Horatio Nelson. Ecstatic crowds cheered him as he stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the king and queen.
Choirs sounded from "Because he's a funny good guy", while another Tory MP described him in the house as "the greatest European statesman of this or any other time".
Shortly before Hitler's forces marched through France, Neville (pictured with Hitler on the left) had been praised for his attempts to maintain peace
Bouverie tells how "Chamberlain dolls" flew off the shelves of toy stores and how Downing Street was flooded with gifts from cigars, champagne, pipes, tippers, salmon flies, watches and self-knitted socks.
His face was stamped on plaques. The grateful French wanted to buy him a house in France with a trout stream.
Those who opposed his deal – such as Duff Cooper, who resigned from the cabinet in protest and described the Munich Agreement as "peace with terrible, unprecedented shame" – were devastated. A cohort of 30 anti-appeaser Tory MPs faced a vote in their outraged constituencies.
Novelist Barbara Cartland, sister of an anti-appeaser from Tory, recalled how "people who were normally calm and apolitical lost their temper, were angry with those who disagreed with them, were rude and insulting at the slightest provocation ”.
Churchill and Cooper were denounced as "traitors who should be shot", and Cooper grabbed a pro-appeasement MP by the neck.
In the meantime, anti-appeaser Harold Macmillan showed the intensity of his feelings by cheerfully burning a portrait of Chamberlain on his Guy Fawkes campfire on November 5.
When Neville (pictured on the left with Hitler) agreed to an attack, war was inevitable and Hitler was unstoppable
And then suddenly the mood in this generally soothing country changed. Hitler's initiation of the Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews in the same November shocked even Chamberlain, who was now beginning to understand that, as he said darkly to his sister Ida in a letter, "Nazi hatred sticks to nothing".
Four months later, Hitler's military takeover of the part of Czechoslovakia that he had not yet occupied was proof that the appeasement brought no more than letting the dictator go his way. Chamberlain finally intervened, making every attack on Poland his ultimate red line, but until then Hitler was unstoppable and war was inevitable.
In July 1939, an opinion poll showed 76 percent for the war when Poland was attacked – a remarkable turn for a nation that had recently put its trust in peace.
In retrospect, it seemed so obvious that appeasement would not work. How could Chamberlain and his followers have been misled into believing it? However, what Bouverie's excellent and well-researched book clearly shows is that nothing was obvious at the time – although both sides of the argument thought it was.
Only one side could be right, and that was decided not by the passion of the debate, but by events, by the future that no one could see for sure, but only guess at.
APPEASING HITLER by Tim Bouverie (Bodley Head £ 20, 512 pages)
The same applies to our current Brexit situation. It'll be over a day either way. There will be winners and losers. And like in Chamberlain's case, heroes who became zeros – while in Churchill's case the wheel turned him the other way round.
It is useful to remember – a safety valve for our mental health in these crazy times – that future generations may be left behind on the angry debate about vacation and wondering what the fuss was about. You will ask why it was so difficult to solve, so angry and so dogma-dominated. I'm sure you will say it was obvious.
If only it were. The right thing to pursue, whether brave or cautious, was no clearer in the great debate of the 1930s than it was for us now in our dilemma.
Tim Bouverie will perform at the Chalke Valley History Festival on June 29th. Tickets can be found at cvhf.org.uk.
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