Inside the disastrous decisions that could have lost us the war

Saul David

There's no shortage of books on the Western powers’ shameful and ultimately hopeless attempt to prevent war in the 1930s by buying off the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini with ever greater political and territorial concessions (a process known as appeasement). But never before has the story been told in a single narrative sweep — from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the invasion of France, and Churchill’s rise to the premiership in the spring of 1940 — nor with such verve, colour and variety of primary sources.

The main parts of the story are well known. The French and British had suffered immense losses in the First World War and were determined to avoid another conflict by making what they considered to be “reasonable” concessions to German and Italian grievances. In recent years the reputation of the arch-appeaser, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation as some historians have argued that his cause was a “noble” one, rooted in “Christianity, courage and common sense”.

By reassessing the sequence of events in forensic detail, however, Tim Bouverie leaves us in no doubt that appeasement was both dishonourable and counter-productive, and that a firmer stand earlier might have brought about a war that was easier to win. Yet he also makes the important point that many of Britain’s social-political elite were more fearful of the Bolsheviks than the Nazis and that, moreover, they sympathised with German attempts to regain territory lost in the Versailles peace settlement of 1919.

"Bouverie leaves us in no doubt that a firmer stand earlier might have brought about a war that was easier to win."

Saul David

Not everyone was hoodwinked as to the true nature of Hitler’s regime. Winston Churchill made repeated warnings from the backbenches, as is well known. But so too did people such as Bob Boothby, the MP for Aberdeen, who returned from a visit to Germany in October 1933 convinced that the country was preparing for war. Other notable anti-appeasers included Major Ronald Cartland MP, brother of the novelist Barbara, who was killed during the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.

As Germany began to flout the terms of the Versailles Treaty by rapidly rearming in the early to mid-1930s, Churchill in particular demanded that Britain do the same. His unlikely ally, says Bouverie, was none other than Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s government, who had “decided that the dangers arising from deficiencies in defence were now at least equal to the economic hazards”. It was Chamberlain, moreover, who overruled the defence chiefs and allotted the lion’s share of the increased defence budget not to the Army but to the RAF, a decision that almost certainly saved Britain’s bacon in 1940.

Yet it was Chamberlain’s conviction that war could only be avoided by appeasing the dictators that was to prove so disastrous, particularly after he became prime minister in 1937.

Not that France comes well out of the story either. As Italy and Germany’s actions and demands became ever more calculated to destroy the balance of power in Europe — particularly in central Europe — the two Western powers refused to take a firm stand until it was almost too late. The list of provocations is scarcely credible: Italy invaded Abyssinia while Germany remilitarised the Rhineland, bullied Austria into accepting a political union (the “Anchluss”), insisted on the annexation of the ethnic German-dominated slice of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland, and then occupied the rest of the country.

Having insisted all along that Hitler was a man of his word who did not want war, Chamberlain was forced to accept that the opposite was true. Hence his guarantee to Poland that resulted, six months later, in dragging Britain and France into the Second World War. This delay gave Britain an extra year to re-arm the RAF and so repulse a German invasion in 1940, say Chamberlain’s apologists. Not so, according to Bouverie. “The Germans,” he writes, “were not ready for a major war in 1938 and would have been placed in an extremely difficult, perhaps impossible position if Britain, France and the Soviet Union had joined forces in defence of Czechoslovakia.” A year later, Germany was much the stronger.

So assured is Bouverie’s writing, and so sound his judgments, that it is hard to believe that Appeasing Hitler is his first book. It is a wonderful debut that marks the arrival of a young historian to watch.

Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie​ (Bodley Head, £20)