Tim Bouverie's new book provides insight on Neville Chamberlain and the road to World War IIHistorians in the News
tags: World War II, book review, Neville Chamberlain
Three months after Hitler came to power in Germany, the British ambassador in Berlin dispatched a prescient 5,000-word report to London. Having just read “Mein Kampf,” Sir Horace Rumboldcorrectly saw the book as Hitler’s master plan for the conquest of Europe. To his superiors, Rumbold outlined how the German leader planned to pick off countries one by one, all the while promising that his latest victim would be his last.
In “Appeasement,” Tim Bouverie notes that Rumbold’s April 1933 dispatch caused a momentary stir in the Foreign Office. But the ambassador’s warning, like later admonitions from Winston Churchill and others, made no dent in the British government’s unflagging commitment to come to terms with Hitler, no matter the consequences.
Bouverie, a former British television journalist, offers few fresh details or insights into Britain’s disastrous appeasement policy — a subject that has been exhaustively mined in a plethora of previous books. Nonetheless, living as we do in an era with uncomfortable parallels to the political turmoil of the 1930s, “Appeasement” is valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom, whether at home or abroad. Particularly timely is the book’s examination of Neville Chamberlain. It highlights the dangers to a democracy of a leader who comes to power knowing little or nothing about foreign policy, yet imagines himself an expert and bypasses the other branches of government to further his aims.
Throughout his minutely detailed survey, Bouverie rightly rejects the arguments of revisionist historians who claim that Britain’s lack of military preparedness, as well as the strength of pacifist public opinion, justified its determination to offer repeated concessions to Hitler. In fact, from the early 1930s, British leaders, fearful of further damaging their Depression-afflicted economy, fought to keep military spending to a minimum. They then used the country’s military deficiencies as an excuse to turn a blind eye to Germany’s increasing aggression and explosive rearmament, a flagrant violation of the 1919 Versailles Treaty.
When German troops breached the treaty again by occupying the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, Britain refused to join France, whose territory bordered the Rhineland, in demanding Germany’s withdrawal. The British government seemed to share the mind-boggling rationale offered by one prominent journalist that “Germany will be less of a danger to peace when her neighbors are less obviously stronger than she is.” Soon after the Rhineland incursion, British leaders sent a plaintive letter to Hitler asking which treaties he would be willing to respect. They never received an answer.
Although Britain’s appeasement toward Germany began before Chamberlain became prime minister in 1937, he was its high priest throughout. As chancellor of the Exchequer for most of the 1930s, he oversaw the government’s strict budgetary limits on rearmament. According to one associate, Chamberlain, a former businessman who had spent two years as mayor of Birmingham, thought of Europe as simply “a bigger Birmingham.” He convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, he could convince the Führer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.
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