03 The Appeasers: Delaying War

One of the most heated controversies about the pre-war years hinges on whether the later phase of appeasement (1938 and 1939) was justified. In the Foreword to The Appeasers, Gilbert and Gott state the appeasers’ argument.

Those who supported appeasement after October, 1938, did so for two reasons. Munich “bought” a year of peace, in which to rearm. It brought a “united nation” into the war, by showing Hitler’s wickedness beyond all doubt.

Gilbert and Gott disagree with that assessment.

Both these reasons were put forward by the Government, and accepted by many who could not check them. Both were false. If a year had been gained in which Chamberlain could have strengthened Britain’s defences and equipped the country for an offensive war, there should be evidence of growing strength, growing effort, and growing Cabinet unity.... Germany, not Britain, gained militarily during the extra year. German forces were strengthened by Czech munitions. Western forces weakened by the loss of the Czech Army and Air Force..... Chamberlain and his advisers did not go to Munich because they needed an extra year before they could fight. They did not use the year to arouse national enthusiasm for a just war. The aim of appeasement was to avoid war, not to enter war united.

They go on to argue that Chamberlain and others put their hope, not in a strong and united Britain able to defend itself and its allies against Germany aggression, but in establishing an Anglo-German alliance before public outrage at the Nazi occupation of country after country made any such agreement impossible. It’s a much more pessimistic assessment of the moral character of Britain’s leadership than anything else that I’ve read. Most important of all, it’s based on an actual reading British foreign policy documents that have managed to slip into public view despite the nation’s traditional 50-year embargo on the release of such documents. Gilbert and Gott also based much of what they say on other sources, including memoirs and private papers.

Having read their book. I find myself agreeing with them. To the extent that Chamberlain and others appeared to be standing up to Hitler in the year before the war, it was mere posturing for the public. Behind the scenes what they were saying was negated by private remarks to German officials. Hitler had good reason to believe that, no matter what he did, Britain would not fight. The one factor he wasn’t including in his calculations was Churchill as a replacement for Chamberlain.

My opinion about that last year of appeasement is a bit more ambiguous than theirs. I suspect that in one specific area and almost in spite of themselves, Chamberlain’s efforts at appeasement bought much needed time. That area was the development of Chain Home, a crude but effective radar-driven air defense system. It enabled Britain to make the best possible use of what fighter aircraft it had. That in turn enabled them to win the Battle of Britain and maintain sufficient air strength that Hitler never attempted an invasion.

It also meant that the blitz did not break British morale because the British people knew that they were giving as much as they were taking. Would their morale have broken if Britain had not been able to mount any effective defense? I don’t know. It is possible that Britain might have gone into an armaments death spiral in which German bombing would have weakened their defenses faster than their factories could rebuild them.

Of course the effectiveness of that depends on two other factors. Germany never developed the sort of heavy bomber that would be needed for that sort of campaign. It had prepared for land wars in Europe, not an air battle over Britain. Germany had also devoted too much of its limited resources to prestigious naval projects such as the Bismarck and the Graf Spree, both of which proved to be of limited value in the war. If that same effort had been devoted to having a powerful, long-range U-Boat fleet available at the start of the war, Britain might not have been able to hold out until other factors (Pearl Harbor) brought the US into the fighting. Even then, the Battle of the Atlantic was very close.

But this sort of speculation is ultimately fruitless. In the end, the only history we can know is the history that actually happened and not these might-have-beens.