European foreign policy of the Neville Chamberlain government
The European foreign policy of the Neville Chamberlain government (1937-40) was based on a commitment to "peace for our time", pursuing a policy of appeasement and containment towards Nazi Germany while increasing the strength of Britain's armed forces, until in September 1939 he delivered an ultimatum over the invasion of Poland followed by a declaration of war against Germany.
- 1 Commitment to peace
- 2 Rearmament
- 3 Diplomatic efforts
- 4 1938: Early negotiations
- 5 1938: The Anschluss and the Sudetenland crisis
- 6 1938: Appeasement and its alternatives
- 7 Autumn 1938: Attitudes towards Italy and Germany
- 8 1939: The "Dutch War Scare" and the German coup of Czecho-Slovakia
- 9 1939: The "guarantee" of Poland
- 10 1939: The containment policy
- 11 Summer 1939: The Tientsin Incident
- 12 Summer 1939: Last attempts at peace
- 13 Outbreak of war
- 14 War premiership
- 15 Fall and resignation
- 16 See also
- 17 Notes
- 18 Further reading
- 19 External links
Commitment to peace
As with many in Europe who had witnessed the horrors of the First World War and its aftermath, Chamberlain was committed to peace. The theory was that dictatorships arose where peoples had grievances, and that by removing the source of these grievances, the dictatorship would become less aggressive. It was a popular belief that the Treaty of Versailles was the underlying cause of Adolf Hitler's grievances. Chamberlain, as even his political detractors admitted, was an honourable man, raised in the old school of European politics. His attempts to deal with Nazi Germany through diplomatic channels and to quell any sign of dissent from within, particularly from Churchill, were called by Chamberlain "The general policy of appeasement" (30 June 1934).
A major structural problem that Chamberlain confronted at the beginning of his premiership, and which was a major factor in development of his foreign policy was the problem of worldwide defence commitments coupled with an insufficient economic-financial basis to sustain those commitments. A report by the British Chiefs of Staff in 1937 that had much influence on Chamberlain read:
"Even today we could face without apprehension an emergency either in the Far East or the Mediterranean, provided that we were free...to concentrate sufficient strength in one or other of these areas...But the outstanding feature of the present situation is the increasing probability that a war started in any one of these three areas [the third being Western Europe] may extend to one or both of the other two...we cannot foresee the time when our defense forces will be strong enough to safeguard our territory, trade, and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously. We cannot, therefore, exaggerate the importance, from the point of view of Imperial defense, of any political or international action that can be taken to reduce the numbers of our potential enemies or to gain the support of potential allies".
Chamberlain himself expressed his concerns about the possibility of a three-front war with insufficient resources in October 1937 when he told the Cabinet: “If this country were to become involved [in a war with Japan] in the Far East the temptation to the dictator states to take action whether in Eastern Europe or in Spain would be irresistible".
Moreover, the economic capability to provide for a sufficient military force to meet all these worldwide defence commitments did not exist, which meant a greater reliance on diplomacy would be needed to reduce potential enemies. Chamberlain had two, not mutually exclusive, options: 1) reduce potential enemies by appeasing their grievances (as long as these grievances were understood to be limited in nature and justified) and 2) augment Britain's strength by forming alliances with other states. In 1937–38, a greater emphasis was placed upon the former and in 1939–40 upon the latter. A necessary adjunct to this strategy was rearmament, which was intended to ensure that Britain could negotiate from a position of strength, deter a potential enemy from choosing war as an option, and finally for the worst-case scenario of war breaking out, to ensure that Britain was prepared. In particular, Chamberlain put great emphasis upon the RAF. In October 1936, as Chancellor of the Exchequer Chamberlain had told the Cabinet "Air power was the most formidable deterrent to war that could be devised". As both Chancellor and Prime Minister, Chamberlain greatly expanded the R.A.F's budget. The importance of the R.A.F. to Chamberlain can be seen when we consider that its budget rose from £16.78 million in 1933 to £105.702 million in 1939, surpassing the Army's budget in 1937 and the Royal Navy's in 1938. By the 1930s, a long economic decline accelerated by the Great Slump had led to the British economy contracting to such a point that there were simply not enough factories, machine tools, skilled workers and money to build up simultaneously a larger R.A.F., a Royal Navy of such size to fight two wars in two oceans at once, and an Army capable of fighting a major European power, which led to Chamberlain favouring the R.A.F at the expense of both the Royal Navy, and even more so the Army. In 1937, Chamberlain introduced the strategic doctrine of "limited liability", in which Britain would avoid the supposed mistakes of the First World War by limiting her efforts to war on the sea and the air, rather than a large commitment of ground forces to France.
Under the "limited liability" doctrine, the Army suffered massive cuts while the Navy, and above all the RAF experienced a massive expansion. Rearmament entailed major problems for the British economy. The huge increase in military spending in the late 1930s threatened the balance of payments, reserves of American dollars and gold, inflation, and ultimately the government's creditworthiness. Because of a lack of indigenous sources, much of the steel, instruments, aircraft, and machine tools needed for rearmament had to be purchased abroad while at the same time, increased military production reduced the number of factories devoted to exports, leading to a serious balance of payments problem. Moreover, the increased taxes to pay for rearmament hampered economic growth, while heavy borrowing to pay for rearmament damaged perceptions of British credit, leading to strong pressure being put on the pound sterling. By 1939 Chamberlain's government was devoting well over half of its revenues to defence. Chamberlain's policy of rearmament faced much domestic opposition from the Labour Party, which favoured a policy of disarmament and until late 1938 always voted against increases in the defence budget (afterwards Labour merely switched towards a policy of abstention on defence votes). Labour repeatedly condemned Chamberlain for engaging in an arms race with Germany, and instead urged that Britain simply be disarmed out of the expectation that this example would inspire all of the other powers to do likewise. Throughout the 1930s, Labour frequently disparaged Chamberlain as a crazed war-monger who preferred high levels of military spending to high levels of social spending.
A major problem for Chamberlain was that Britain lacked the industrial infrastructure and financial strength to win an arms race with Germany, Italy and Japan at once. Chamberlain hoped to detach Italy from Germany, or Germany from Italy (he was indifferent as to which, but Japan was considered to be hopelessly intransigent) so that Britain could win the arms race with the remaining members of the Axis. In a letter written in June 1937, Chamberlain summed up his views when he wrote: "If only we could get on terms with the Germans I wouldn't care a rap for Musso [Benito Mussolini]". Later, Chamberlain was to write in his diary in January 1938: "From the first I have been trying to improve relations with the two storm centres Berlin & Rome. It seemed to me that we were drifting into worse & worse positions with both with the prospect of having ultimately to face 2 enemies at once".
Chamberlain’s initial emphasis on trying to win over potential enemies was partly due to a pessimistic assessment of potential allies. Britain's top military experts consistently advised that the Soviet Red Army was of dubious fighting value. The Neutrality Acts passed by the American Congress in the mid-1930s convinced him that no help could be expected from the United States in the event of a war. As part of an effort to engage the United States into world politics, in October 1937, Chamberlain instructed the British delegation being sent to Washington to negotiate an Anglo-American free trade agreement, that for “political" reasons, it was critical to reach an agreement with the Americans no matter what. Even before the talks began, he had ordered the British delegation to accept the pre-conditions which the Americans deemed "essentials". France was downgraded as a potential ally because of the highly negative assessment in the dispatches of the British Ambassador Sir Eric Phipps.
A major goal of Chamberlain's early foreign policy was to seek a "general settlement" which would win German acceptance and guarantee the peace of Europe by settling all the grievances which he considered justified. In May 1937, during the talks with Reichsbank President Dr. Hjalmar Schacht during his visit to London the British drew up a paper listing their demands as a German return to the League of Nations, a non-aggression pact for Western Europe, a treaty limiting armaments, and "Measures by Germany, in treaty form or otherwise, which will satisfy the governments of Central and Eastern Europe with regard...to respect the territorial integrity and sovereign independence of all Central and Eastern European states". Most importantly, the general settlement was to be negotiated from position of strength, and thus for Chamberlain, it was preferable to complete British rearmament before undertaking such talks. The emphasis was put on Germany because the Defense Requirements Committee (DRC) report of 28 February 1934 (which Chamberlain had helped to write as Chancellor of the Exchequer) called Germany "the ultimate potential enemy against whom our `long-range' defense policy must be directed". The emphasis upon Germany was due to an assessment of German power and had nothing to do with friendly feelings towards Germany on Chamberlain's part; Chamberlain's feelings towards Germans were well summarised in a letter he wrote to one of his sisters in 1930 where he stated ""On the whole I hate Germans".
As part of his policy of reducing potential enemies, Chamberlain laid great stress in using the Anglo-Italian Gentlemen’s Agreement of January 1937 as the basis of winning Italy back to the Western fold. Chamberlain believed that Italy and Germany were tied together by the Spanish Civil War, and that if Benito Mussolini could be persuaded to withdraw his troops from Spain, then Italy would orbit back to the policy of the Stresa Front. In the summer of 1937 Chamberlain started to use Sir Joseph Ball of the Conservative Party Research Department, and the Maltese lawyer Adrian Dingli to contact the Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, circumventing the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was less enthusiastic about the prospects of winning Italy away. The prospect of Anglo-Italian talks was interrupted in August 1937 by Italian submarine attacks on neutral ships carrying supplies for the Spanish Republic. Following strong pressure from Eden, the Nyon Conference was called in September 1937 where the British and French navies agree to patrol the Mediterranean to suppress "piracy" as the Italian attacks were called. The Anglo-French patrols put an end to the "pirate" (in reality, Italian) submarine attacks on ships bound for Republican Spain, and even included the Italian Navy which was permitted to save face by patrolling the Tyrrhenian Sea against its own attacks.
The first foreign policy crisis of Chamberlain's government occurred in December 1937 when the Japanese attacked and damaged a British gunboat, HMS Ladybird, on the Yangtze river in China, and injured Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, British Ambassador to China, by strafing his car. Japanese planes had also sunk an American gunboat, the USS Panay, on the Yangtze. Chamberlain hoped to use the Panay incident to bring the United States out of isolationism, and instructed the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to inform the Americans that Britain was prepared to send 8 or 9 capital ships to the naval base at Singapore, if the Americans were to do likewise, to threaten Japan with a blockade should she refuse to make amends for her attacks. The American refusal of Chamberlain’s offer, and the decision to accept the Japanese apology for sinking the Panay instead did much to disillusion him concerning the prospects of American support if a major war were to occur. In a letter to one of his sisters, Chamberlain expressed the view:
"I am trying to jolly them [the Americans] along with a view to making some sort of joint (or at least "parallel") naval action. They are incredibly slow and have missed innumerable busses...I do wish the Japs would beat up an American or two! But of course, the little d—v--ls are too cunning for that, & we may eventually have to act alone & hope the Yanks will follow before it's too late."
The most that Franklin D. Roosevelt was prepared to agree to was the opening of secret Anglo-American naval talks in London in January 1938 as a contingency measure should another "incident" occur in the Far East.
1938: Early negotiations
Because of the very noisy agitation of the Reichskolonialbund (Reich Colonial League) for the return of the former German colonies in Africa, Chamberlain had concluded by 1937 that the colonial issue was Germany's most important grievance. In January 1938 Chamberlain informed the Foreign Policy Committee that he intended to place the colonial issue "in the forefront", though he noted that "the examination of the colonial question could only be undertaken as a part and parcel of a general settlement". Chamberlain proposed an international regime of all the leading European powers to administer a vast area of central Africa. In return for participating in the proposed African administration, Hitler was to promise never to use violence to change the frontiers of Germany. The plan foundered on 3 March 1938 when Sir Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador in Berlin, presented Chamberlain's proposal to Hitler. The Führer rejected the idea on the grounds that Germany should not have to negotiate at all for any piece of Africa, and announced that he was prepared to wait ten years or longer for a unilateral return of the former colonies. Hitler's rejection of Chamberlain's African scheme, which had been intended as the first step towards achieving a "general settlement" of Germany's grievances, largely threw the his scheme for orderly talks off the rails.
In March 1938 Anglo-Italian talks about withdrawal of the Italian forces from Spain were resumed. On 16 April 1938 the Anglo-Italian Easter Agreement was signed in Rome, which appeared to settle all of the outstanding Anglo-Italian disputes. However, the prospect of the Easter Agreement coming into force was hampered when Mussolini, despite his promises, sent more troops to Spain. As part of the policy of trying to win Italy away from Germany by reducing that country's involvement in Spain, Chamberlain's cabinet slowly dismantled the powers of the Non-Intervention Committee for the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and was silent in relation to the gradual ostracism of leftist Juan Negrín's government from the organisation.
1938: The Anschluss and the Sudetenland crisis
The first European crisis of Chamberlain's premiership was over the German annexation of Austria. The Nazi regime had already been behind the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in 1934, and was now pressuring Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. Informed of Germany's objectives, Chamberlain's government decided it was unable to stop events, and acquiesced to what later became known as the Anschluss of March 1938.
The second crisis came over the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, which was home to a large ethnic German minority. Under the guise of seeking self-determination for the Sudeten Germans, Hitler planned to launch a war of aggression under the codename of Fall Grün (Case Green) on 1 October 1938. Though Chamberlain would have preferred to avoid a war over the Sudeten issue, and Britain had no defence obligations to Czechoslovakia beyond the Covenant of the League of Nations, the Franco-Czechoslovak alliance of 1924 meant that any German attack on Czechoslovakia would automatically become a Franco-German war, and since it was an unacceptable change in the balance of power to have France defeated by Germany, Britain would have no other choice, but to intervene to avoid a French defeat. In addition, the vague British statement of 19 March 1936 issued following the Rhineland remilitarisation linking British and French security created a strong moral case for France to demand British intervention should a Franco-German war begin.
In an effort to defuse the looming crisis, Chamberlain followed a strategy of pressuring Prague to make concessions to the ethnic Germans, while warning Berlin about the dangers of war. The problems of the tight wire act were well summarised by the Chancellor the Exchequer Sir John Simon in a diary entry during the May Crisis of 1938: "We are endeavoring at one & the same time, to restrain Germany by warning her that she must not assume we could remain neutral if she crossed the frontier; to stimulate Prague to make concessions; and to make sure that France will not take some rash action such as mobilization (when has mobilization been anything but a prelude to war?), under the delusion that we would join her in defense of Czechoslovakia. We won't and can't-but an open declaration to this effect would only give encouragement to Germany's intransigence" (emphasis in the original). In a letter to his sister, Chamberlain wrote that he would contact Hitler to tell him “The best thing you [Hitler] can do is tell us exactly what you want for your Sudeten Germans. If it is reasonable we will urge the Czechs to accept and if they do, you must give assurances that you will let them alone in the future".
In July 1938, another crisis occurred when the Anglo-American free trade talks threatened to break down following further American demands for British concessions. Chamberlain ordered the British delegation to do nothing that might scuttle the talks, and make the necessary concessions. Chamberlain told the Cabinet "that the practical results of the agreement might not be very great, but that the psychological effect on the world was of great importance. The more the impression could be created in Europe that the United Kingdom and the United States were getting together, the less would have to be spent on armaments".
Preparations for war
As part of the preparations for a possible, if undesired war over the Sudetenland conflict, Chamberlain ordered RAF Bomber Command to start drawing up a list of possible targets in Germany, and a two-division force was to start preparing for a possible deployment to France. Chamberlain's conduct of the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938 was influenced by highly exaggerated fears, both promoted and endorsed by military experts, of the effects of German bombing on British cities. In early 1938, the Committee of Imperial Defence (C.I.D) informed Chamberlain that could be reasonably expected that a German strategic bombing offensive against Britain would result in half-million civilian deaths within the first three weeks. For the first week alone, the CID's estimated death rate from bombing was 150,000 dead (in fact, the 150,000 dead were close to the entire British dead from bombing during all of World War II). In 1938, General Sir Edmund Ironside wrote in his diary of a government whose chief fear was, "of a war being finished in an few weeks by the annihilation of Great Britain. They can see no other kind of danger than air attack." Ironside himself shared these fears as he noted in diary in September 1938 that "We have not the means of defending ourselves and he [Chamberlain] knows it...We cannot expose ourselves to a German attack. We simply commit suicide if we do" (emphasis in the original). At the same time, General Sir Hastings Ismay of the C.I.D. informed the government in September 1938 that more time to rearm would leave Britain better prepared to fight a possible war with Germany: "From the military point of view, time is in our favour...if war with Germany has to come, it would be better to fight her in say 6–12 months' time than to accept the present challenge".
The attitude of the Dominions towards war in Europe
Another factor that influenced Chamberlain's policy during the Czechoslovak crisis was the attitude of the Dominions. Ever since the Chanak Crisis of 1922, it had been understood in London that Britain could not count on the automatic support of the Dominions, and it was quite possible for a situation to occur where the Dominions might declare neutrality rather than fight for Britain. With the partial exception of New Zealand, all of the Dominions, particularly Canada and South Africa, were entirely in favour of concessions to avert a war in Central Europe that they felt did not concern them, and were quietly critical of Chamberlain for running what they regarded as unacceptable risks of war. The Dominion attitudes had great influence with Chamberlain, as he believed that Britain could not fight, let alone win a war without the support of the entire Commonwealth. The editor of The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, later recalled that: "No one who sat in this place, as I did during the autumn of '38, with almost daily visitations from eminent Canadians and Australians, could fail to realize that war with Germany at that time would have been misunderstood and resented from end to end of the Empire. Even in this country there would have been no unity behind it".
German opposition plans for a putsch
During the summer of 1938, the British government received several messages from members of the anti-Nazi opposition in Germany, such as Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, seeking to use the Czechoslovak crisis as the pretext for a putsch. Chamberlain was generally indifferent to these proposals, and refused British support. The American historian Gerhard Weinberg, has argued that the three visits to London in the summer of 1938 by three different messengers from the opposition - each bearing the same message that if only a firm British stand was made in favour of Czechoslovakia, then a putsch would remove the Nazi regime, and each ignorant of the other messengers' existence presented a picture of a group of people apparently not very well organised - and that it is unreasonable for historians to expect Chamberlain to have staked the crucial question of war and peace on the uncorroborated words of such a badly disorganised group.
Starting in August 1938, information reached London that Germany was beginning to mobilise reservists, together with information leaked by anti-war elements in the German military that the war against Czechoslovakia was scheduled for sometime in September. Finally, as a result of intense French, and especially British, diplomatic pressure, President Edvard Beneš unveiled on 5 September 1938, the "Fourth Plan" for constitutional reorganisation of his country, which granted most of the demands for Sudeten autonomy made by Konrad Henlein in his Karlsbad speech of April 1938, and threatened to deprive the Germans of their pretext for aggression. Henlein’s supporters promptly responded to the offer of “Fourth Plan” by having a series of violent clashes with the Czechoslovak police, culminating in the declaration of martial law in certain Sudeten districts after major clashes in mid-September. In response to the threatening situation, in late August, Chamberlain had conceived of Plan Z, namely to fly to Germany, meet Hitler, and then work out an agreement that could end the crisis. The prospect of the Prime Minister, who had never flown before, flying on a dramatic peace mission to Germany was seen as highly bold and daring gesture. Plan Z was a great public relations success, though it deprived the British delegation of expert advice and advance preparation.
The instigator of Plan Z has recently[when?] been identified as Chamberlain's political advisor and Spin Doctor Sir Joseph Ball who as Director of the Conservative Research Department was, in conjunction with Horace Wilson, a chief proponent of appeasement. As early as 1935, Ball had advised Chamberlain on Plan X in relation to government policy. Chamberlain advised his inner circle consisting of Halifax, Wilson, Simon, and Cadogan of his intention to fly to Germany on 8 September 1938.
What finally led to Chamberlain making his offer to fly to Germany on 13 September 1938 was erroneous information, supplied by the German opposition, that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was due to start anytime after 18 September. Though Adolf Hitler was not happy with Chamberlain's offer, he agreed to see the British Prime Minister, most probably because to refuse Chamberlain's offer would give the lie to his repeated claims that he was a man of peace driven reluctantly to war by Beneš's intractability.
In a summit at the Berghof at Berchtesgaden, Chamberlain promised to pressure Prague into agreeing to Hitler's publicly stated demands about allowing the Sudetenland to join Germany, in return for a reluctant promise by Hitler to postpone any military action until Chamberlain had been given the chance to fulfill his promise. Under very heavy Anglo-French pressure, Beneš agreed to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. Hitler had agreed to the postponement expecting that Prague would refuse Chamberlain’s request to transfer the Sudetenland, and was by all accounts, most disappointed when Franco-British pressure secured just that. Most damaging to Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain had implicitly agreed to Hitler’s demand that all districts with a 50% or more ethnic German population should be transferred, as opposed to the 80% ethnic German bar the British had previously been willing to consider, thus considerably widening the area to be transferred to Germany. The talks between Chamberlain and Hitler in September 1938 were made difficult by their innate differing concepts of what Europe should look like, with Hitler aiming to use the Sudeten issue as a pretext for war and Chamberlain genuinely striving for a peaceful solution.
Bad Godesberg negotiation
Upon his return to London after his Berchtesgaden summit, Chamberlain told his Cabinet though Hitler's aims were "strictly limited" to the Sudetenland, he felt it was quite possible to avoid war provided everyone played their part. When Chamberlain returned to present his plan for the transfer of the Sudetenland at a summit with Hitler at Bad Godesberg on 22 September 1938, the British delegation were most unpleasantly surprised to have Hitler reject the terms which he himself had presented at Berchtesgaden as now unacceptable. To put an end to Chamberlain’s peace-making efforts once and for all, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany no later than 28 September 1938 with no negotiations between Prague and Berlin and no international commission to oversee the transfer; no plebiscites to be held in the transferred districts until after the transfer; and for good measure, that Germany would not forsake war as an option until all the claims against Czechoslovakia by Poland and Hungary had been satisfied. The difference of views between the two leaders was best symbolised when Chamberlain was presented with Hitler’s new demands, which became known as the Godesberg Memorandum, and protested at being presented with an ultimatum, leading Hitler in his turn to state that because the document stating his new demands was entitled "Memorandum", it could not possibly be an ultimatum.
Though Chamberlain was inclined to give the most hopeful impressions on the post Bad Godesberg situation, the majority of the Cabinet led by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who was himself influenced in his Damascene Road conversion by the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, were for rejecting the Bad Godesberg ultimatum as unacceptable. Germany's increased demands were formally rejected on 25 September 1938. To further underline the point, Sir Horace Wilson, the British government's Chief Industrial Advisor, and a close associate of Chamberlain was dispatched to Berlin to inform Hitler that if the Germans attacked Czechoslovakia, then France would honour her commitments under the Franco-Czechoslovak treaty of 1924 and "then England would feel honour bound, to offer France assistance.". Thus, as Chamberlain himself noted after 25 September 1938 the world was about to be plunged into war over the question of the timing of the change-over of the frontier posts. Hitler insisted in his Bad Godesberg ultimatum that the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany no later then 1 October 1938 whereas the Anglo-French plan Chamberlain had presented, and Hitler had rejected called for the ceding of the Sudetenland within the next six months. In reference to question of the timing of the turnover of the Sudetenland and trenches being dug in a London central park, Chamberlain infamously declared in a radio broadcast on 27 September 1938:
"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.... I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul".
The Munich Agreement
While he was initially determined to continue with Fall Grün (the attack against Czechoslovakia planned for 1 October 1938), sometime between 27 and 28 September Hitler changed his mind, and asked to take up a suggestion of Mussolini for a conference to be held in Munich on 30 September to be attended by himself, Chamberlain, Mussolini, and the French Premier Edouard Daladier to discuss the Czechoslovak situation. Since London had already agreed to the idea of a transfer of the disputed territory, the Munich Conference mostly comprised discussions in one day of talks on technical questions about how the transfer of the Sudetenland would take place, and featured the relatively minor concessions from Hitler that the transfer would take place over a ten-day period in October overseen by an international commission and Germany could wait until Hungarian and Polish claims were settled. At the end of the conference, Chamberlain had Hitler sign a declaration of Anglo-German friendship, to which Chamberlain attached great importance and Hitler none at all.
The Munich Agreement, engineered by the French and British governments, effectively allowed Hitler to annexe the country's defensive frontier, leaving its industrial and economic core within a day's reach of the Wehrmacht. Chamberlain flew to Munich to negotiate the agreement, and received an ecstatic reception upon his return to Britain on 30 September 1938. At Heston Aerodrome, west of London, he made the now famous "Peace for our time" speech and waved the Anglo-German Declaration to a delighted crowd. When Hitler invaded and seized the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Chamberlain felt betrayed by the breaking of the Munich Agreement and decided to take a much harder line against the Nazis, declaring war against Germany upon their invasion of Poland.
1938: Appeasement and its alternatives
The repeated failures of the Baldwin government to deal with rising Nazi power are often laid, historically, on the doorstep of Chamberlain, since he presided over the final collapse of peace. However, it is also true that by the time of his premiership, dealing with the Nazi Party in Germany was an order of magnitude more difficult. Germany had begun general conscription previously, and had already amassed an air arm. Chamberlain, caught between the bleak finances of the depression era, his own abhorrence of war, and Hitler who would not be denied a war, gave ground and entered history as a political scapegoat for what was a more general failure of political will and vision which had begun with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
The policy of keeping the peace had broad support; had the Commons wanted a more aggressive prime minister, Winston Churchill would have been the obvious choice. Even after the outbreak of war, it was not clear that the invasion of Poland need lead to a general conflict. What convicted Chamberlain in the eyes of many commentators and historians was not the policy itself, but his manner of carrying it out and the failure to hedge his bets. Many of his contemporaries viewed him as stubborn and unwilling to accept criticism, an opinion backed up by his dismissal of cabinet ministers who disagreed with him on foreign policy. If accurate, this assessment of his personality would explain why Chamberlain strove to remain on friendly terms with the Third Reich long after many of his colleagues became convinced that Hitler could not be restrained.
Chamberlain believed passionately in peace for many reasons (most of which are discussed in the article Appeasement), thinking it his job as Britain's leader to maintain stability in Europe; like many people in Britain and elsewhere, he thought that the best way to deal with Germany's belligerence was to treat it with kindness and meet its demands. He also believed that the leaders of people are essentially rational beings, and that Hitler must necessarily be rational as well. Most historians believe that Chamberlain, in holding to these views, pursued the policy of appeasement far longer than was justifiable, but it is not exactly clear whether any course could have averted war, and whether the outcome would have been any better had armed hostilities begun earlier, given that France, as well, was unwilling to commit its forces, and there were no other effective allies: Italy had joined the Pact of Steel, the USSR had signed a non-aggression pact, and the United States was still officially isolationist.
Autumn 1938: Attitudes towards Italy and Germany
On 2 November 1938, Chamberlain made another effort to win Italy away from Germany by announcing that his government would soon bring the Easter Agreement into effect, following the news that Italy were pulling 10,000 troops out of Spain. On 16 November, the Easter Agreement was declared to be in effect, and Britain recognised King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy as Emperor of Ethiopia. Shortly there afterwards on 30 November 1938 the Italians laid claim to parts of France, causing an acute Franco-Italian crisis which nearly scuttled Chamberlain's planned trip to Rome
During the winter of 1938–39, Chamberlain's attitude to Germany noticeably hardened. In part this was due to the violent anti-British propaganda campaign Hitler launched in November 1938, and in part due to information supplied by anti-Nazis such as Carl Friedrich Goerdeler that German armament priorities were being shifted towards preparing for a war with Britain. In particular, Chamberlain was concerned with information that Hitler regarded the Munich Agreement as a personal defeat, together with hints from Berlin in December 1938 that the Germans were planning to renounce the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, regarded in London as the "barometer" of Anglo-German relations in the near-future. An additional factor that influenced Chamberlain was the reports relayed by the German opposition of Hitler’s secret speech of 10 November 1938 to a group of German journalists complaining that his peace propaganda of the previous five years had been too successful with the German people, and what was required was a new phrase of propaganda intended to promote hatred of other countries, and Britain in particular. In response to the worsening relations with Berlin, Chamberlain decided that it was now too dangerous for Britain to accept the Balkans as an exclusive German economic zone, and ordered a British "economic offensive" in the winter of 1938–39 to subsidise the purchase of Balkan products that would otherwise be bought by the Germans. One comic aspect was that, after considerable debate within Whitehall, Chamberlain ruled that for the sake of keeping Greece out of the German economic sphere of influence British smokers would have to endure Greek tobacco, regarded as inferior in Britain. Another major economic event in November 1938 was the signing of the Anglo-American trade agreement. The signing of the Anglo-American trade agreement was the start of increasing economic co-operation between Washington and London, intended to lead to political co-operation later.
Late in 1938, Britain made a series of loans to China-which as the British historian Victor Rothwell noted Britain "could ill afford"-which were intended to keep China fighting against Japan. By this time, it was accepted in Whitehall that it was better to keep China fighting-even at the risk of antagonizing Japan-for as long as Japan was embroiled in the war with China, it was less likely that Japan might attack Britain's Asian colonies, which thereby freed up British forces for Europe. The British Foreign Office was strongly pro-Chinese and as Rothwell noted, Sir Robert Craigie, the British Ambassador in Tokyo was "...slapped down when in late 1938 he advocated what, in effect, would have been a Far Eastern equivalent of Munich". The pro-Chinese sympathies of the Foreign Office were reflected in the greater respect given to the Sinophile Ambassador to China Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, despite the strait-laced Japanophile Craigie being a far more traditional British diplomat than the flamboyant, hard-drinking and very actively bisexual Clark Kerr. Britain could not risk a war with Japan as that would divert British military force to the Far East, which would thereby encourage Germany and Italy to engage in aggressive actions, but at the same time, the British government would not accept a Japanese conquest of China, hence the financial support of China. In late 1937, Chiang Kai-shek lost Shanghai, the business capital of China from which 85% of Chinese tax revenue came, to the Japanese. After the fall of Shanghai, Chiang was hard pressed to find the money to continue the war with Japan. The Chamberlain government had its version of the "domino theory" where if Japan conquered China, then inevitably Japan would extend its ambitions to Britain's Asian colonies and to the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand. Chamberlain and the rest of his cabinet would never accept a Japanese conquest of Australia, New Zealand, India and the rest of the British colonies in the Far East, and were resolved to fight to uphold Britain's position in the Asia-Pacific region if worse came to worse, and the Japanese made unacceptable demands. When Japan confiscated British-owned railroads in China or seized British-owned ships in Chinese waters without compensation, the British government presented only notes of protest as war with Japan was regarded only as a worst-case scenario. During the same time frame, money was still committed to the Singapore naval base and to fortifying Hong Kong to deter Japan from further aggression. The Chamberlain government would have liked to have enlisted the United States to present an Anglo-American front intended to stop the Japanese war against China, but the unwillingness of the Roosevelt administration to take such a step precluded a more active British policy in the Far East.
A trivial incident that reflected the deteriorating state of Anglo-German relations occurred in December 1938 when Chamberlain addressed the correspondents of the German News Agency at a formal dinner in London, and warned of the "futility of ambition, if ambition leads to the desire for domination". The implied rebuke to Hitler led to Herbert von Dirksen, German Ambassador to the Court of St. James, walking out of the dinner in protest. Moreover, reports from the Chiefs of Staff (COS) in late 1938 that within a year's time, British air defences would be strong enough due to increased fighter production and the completion of the Home Link radar chain to resist and repel any German attempt at a "knock-out blow" from the air, the fear of which was a major factor in British policy in 1938. The assurances provided by the COS that Britain could repel and survive a German attempt at "knock out blow" in 1939 played a more significant role in the change in emphasis in Chamberlain's foreign policy that year. At the same time, in late 1938 the Chancellor the Exchequer Sir John Simon reported to the Cabinet that the increased military spending Chamberlain had brought through in 1937–38 was leading to inflation, high interest rates, a balance of payments crisis, and the danger that British financial reserves (the so-called "fourth arm of the defense") would be used up, leading to a situation where "we should have lost the means of carrying on a long struggle altogether". At same time, Simon expressed concern to Chamberlain about the international repercussions of where "...defense plans should be openly seen to have been frustrated by the financial and economic situation".
1939: The "Dutch War Scare" and the German coup of Czecho-Slovakia
In late January 1939, alongside the concerns caused by the anti-British propaganda campaign unleashed by Hitler in November 1938 and reports from intelligence sources of the huge increase in Kriegsmarine construction caused by the Plan Z, the British government was thrown into a state of panic by the so-called "Dutch War Scare". The Chief of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris planted false information that the Germans were planning to invade the Netherlands in February 1939 with the aim of using Dutch airfields to launch a strategic bombing offensive intended to achieve a "knock-out blow" against Britain by razing British cities to the ground. Since France was the only country capable of stopping a German offensive from over-running the Netherlands, and the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, who may have been attempting to achieve a Franco-German understanding, had indicated that France would do nothing to stop such an offensive unless Britain made a major step for his country, Chamberlain was reluctantly forced to make the "continental commitment" (i.e. commit to sending a large expeditionary force to Europe). Chamberlain's response to the "Dutch war scare" was to order full Staff talks with France, issuing a public declaration that any German move into the Low Countries would be regarded as grounds for an immediate declaration of war, and ordering a major expansion to the size of the Army with the idea of peace-time conscription being seriously considered for the first time. On 6 February 1939 Chamberlain informed the House of Commons that any German attack on France would automatically be regarded as an attack on Britain. Besides this guarantee of France, between 26 January and 20 February 1939, Chamberlain also issued guarantees of Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, believing through such diplomatic devices he could block Hitler from waging aggression in Western Europe. In February 1939, Chamberlain announced that the British Army's size was to be massively increased, the Territorial Army (reserve army) was increased in size from 13 to 26 divisions, and in April 1939, peacetime conscription was ordered for the first time in British history with the first conscripts to be called up in the summer. Chamberlain's reluctant embrace of the "continental commitment" in February 1939 meant the end of the "limited liability" doctrine, and massively increased the economic problems of British rearmament.
The German coup of 15 March 1939 that saw the destruction of the rump state of Czecho-Slovakia led in part to a change of emphasis on Chamberlain's part, and led to the "containment" strategy being adopted. On 17 March 1939 Chamberlain gave a speech in Birmingham where he stated Britain would oppose any German effort to dominate the world, by war if necessary. Speaking before the Cabinet on 18 March 1939, the minutes record that:
"The Prime Minister said that up till a week ago we had proceeded on the assumption that we should be able to continue with our policy of getting on to better terms with the Dictator Powers, and that although those powers had aims, those aims were limited...He had now come definitely to the conclusion that Herr Hitler's attitude made it impossible to continue on the old basis...No reliance could be placed on any of the assurances given by the Nazi leaders...he regarded his speech [in Birmingham of March 17] as a challenge to Germany on the issue whether or not Germany intended to dominate Europe by force. It followed that if Germany took another step in the direction of dominating Europe, she would be accepting the challenge".
1939: The "guarantee" of Poland
In mid-March 1939, Chamberlain's government was rocked by the so-called "Romanian War Scare" (also known as the "Tilea Affair"). The Romanian minister in London, Viorel Tilea, reported falsely to the British government that his country was at imminent risk of German attack, which led to a U-turn on British policy of resisting commitments in Eastern Europe. In fact, there was no German attack planned on Romania in March 1939, but major delays within the German synthetic oil program had vastly increased the importance of Romanian oil, and the German delegation from Hermann Göring's Four Year Plan organisation conducting talks in Bucharest was applying strong pressure on the Romanians to turn over control of the Romanian oil industry to Germany. It is still unclear whether Tilea was deliberately exaggerating the German threat to Romania to gain British support against German demands for control of their oil industry as claimed by the British historian D.C. Watt, or if the Romanians genuinely believed that their country was under the verge of a Hungarian-German invasion (troops from Romania's arch-enemy Hungary concentrating on the border) in March 1939 as claimed by the American historian Gerhard Weinberg.
From Chamberlain's point of view, it was desirable to keep Romania and its oil out of German hands; since Germany had hardly any natural supplies of oil, the Royal Navy's ability to impose a blockade was a British trump card to deter, and if necessary win, a war. Chamberlain's "guarantee" of Polish independence on 31 March 1939 was intended both to tie Poland to the West (the Polish Foreign Minister Colonel Józef Beck was widely, if mistakenly, believed to be pro-German), and of ensuring a pro quid quo thereby Poland would commit itself to protecting Romania and its oil from a German attack. The Polish “guarantee” was the first time that a British government had made a direct security commitment in Eastern Europe, regarded since 1919 as too unstable, and likely to involve Britain in unwanted wars (in 1925, Chamberlain’s half-brother, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain had famously stated in public that the Polish Corridor was "not worth the bones of a single British grenadier").
Historic views of appeasement and the guarantee of Poland
A major historiographical debate about Chamberlain's foreign policy was triggered in 1976 by the American historian Simon K. Newman's book March 1939. Newman denied there was ever a policy of appeasement as popularly understood. Newman maintained that British foreign policy under Chamberlain aimed at denying Germany a "free hand" anywhere in Europe, and to the extent that concessions were offered they were due to military weaknesses, compounded by the economic problems of rearmament. Most controversially, Newman contended that the British guarantee to Poland in March 1939 was motivated by the desire to have Poland as a potential anti-German ally, thereby blocking the chance for a German-Polish settlement of the Danzig (modern Gdańsk, Poland) question by encouraging what Newman claimed was Polish obstinacy over the Danzig issue, and thus causing World War II. Newman argued that German-Polish talks on the question of returning Danzig had been going well until Chamberlain's guarantee, and that it was Chamberlain's intention to sabotage the talks as a way of causing an Anglo-German war. In Newman's opinion, the guarantee of Poland was meant by Chamberlain as a "deliberate challenge" to start a war with Germany in 1939. In this way, Newman argued that World War II, far from being a case of German aggression was really just an Anglo-German struggle for power. Newman wrote that World War II was not "Hitler's unique responsibility..." and rather contended that "Instead of a German war of aggrandizement, the war become one of Anglo-German rivalry for power and influence, the culmination of the struggle for the right to determine the future configuration of Europe". The "Newman controversy" caused much historical debate about what were Chamberlain's reasons for the "guarantee" of Poland in March 1939, with some reviewers arguing that Newman had failed to support his case with sufficient evidence, whilst the Polish historian Anna Cienciala described Newman's views as wrong, and argued the British and French wanted to avoid war by pressuring the Poles to make concessions. Recently, Newman’s book was cited by the American journalist Patrick Buchanan in his 2008 book Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War" to lend support to his assertion that the British guarantee of Poland in March 1939 was an act of folly that caused an "unnecessary war" with Germany.
Other historians expressed differing views on the reasons for the "guarantee" of Poland. The British historians Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott asserted in their 1963 book The Appeasers that the guarantee was given only in response to domestic objections to appeasement following the German destruction of Czecho-Slovakia on 15 March 1939. Wesley Wark has maintained that the guarantee was an intermediate stage between the commitments Chamberlain made to defend Western Europe in early 1939 for reasons of British national security and the moral crusade to destroy National Socialism that began with the outbreak of war in September 1939. The American historian Anna M. Cienciala contended the guarantee was merely another form of appeasement, arguing that Chamberlain's motive in making the guarantee was to apply pressure on the Poles to consent to return of the Free City of Danzig to the Reich. D.C. Watt, Andrew Roberts and Anita J. Prazmowska maintained that the guarantee was only an ineffectual and ill-thought out deterrent meant to discourage Hitler from aggression. Maurice Cowling made a Primat der Innenpolitik ("primacy of domestic politics") argument by claiming the guarantee reflected domestic British party manoeuvring between the Conservatives and Labour parties, and had nothing to do with the foreign policy considerations
Additional reasons for the guarantee were suggested by the Canadian historian Bruce Strang. Strang argued that Chamberlain was increasing convinced by March 1939 that, much as he disliked the prospect, a war with Germany was appearing increasing inevitable, which meant that Britain would need at minimum massive American economic support. Hints from the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested that he would only consider revising American neutrality laws if Britain were seen be carrying out a more confrontational foreign policy. Simultaneously, the French, especially the Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, skilfully gave the impression of a country whose morale was rapidly collapsing and needed a firmer British commitment to restore it, while at the same time the British were attempting to persuade the French to make concessions to Italy to move Mussolini away from Hitler. A major crisis in Franco-Italian relations had started on 30 November 1938 when Benito Mussolini ordered the deputies in the Italian Chamber of Deputies to stage "spontaneous" demonstrations demanding that France cede Nice, Corsica, Tunisia and French Somaliland. To remove a potential enemy from the Axis camp, Chamberlain had generally urged the French to give in to the Italian demands, and met much opposition from the French Premier Édouard Daladier on this point. For Chamberlain, the Polish guarantee tied the French towards opposing Germany and allowed freedom to continue pressure on the French to make concessions to the Italians. In addition, Strang argued that widespread rumours in March 1939 of an imminent German move somewhere in Eastern Europe led to the need for some sort of dynamic British counter-move to forestall another German coup like those of 15 March against Czecho-Slovakia and 23 March that saw a German ultimatum to Lithuania to return the Memelland at once. Finally, Strang noted that the most important reasons for the Polish guarantee were the exaggerated reports of German plans for an invasion of Romania spread by Tilea, which led to fears that the seizure of oil-rich Romania would uncut any British blockade of Germany, and that a Poland tied to both Britain and Romania would deter a German move into the Balkans. Chamberlain was much influenced by advice from the British military experts that Poland had the strongest army in Eastern Europe, and could pose a major block on German expansionism.
1939: The containment policy
Confirming Chamberlain on his "containment" policy of Germany in 1939 was information supplied by Carl Friedrich Goerdeler to the effect that the German economy was on the verge of collapse under the weight of heavy military spending. In addition, Goerdeler reported that Hitler could be deterred from war by a forceful British diplomatic stand in favour of Poland, and that his regime would then collapse on its own accord when the German economy disintegrated. Goerdeler's arguments had much influence on Chamberlain when dealing with Hitler in 1939. In the so-called "X documents" (Goerdeler's codename was "X") detailing the German economic situation, Goerdeler painted a dire picture. In a typical report, Goerdeler told his contact with British intelligence, the industrialist A.P. Young, that: "Economic and financial situation gravely critical. Inner situation desperate. Economic conditions getting worse". In February 1939, Goerdeler's assessment of the German economic situation was contradicted by Frank Ashton-Gwatkin, the Foreign Office's economic expert, who reported to the Cabinet after visiting Germany that through Germany was suffering from serious economic problems, the situation was nowhere near as desperate as portrayed by Goerdeler in the "X documents". As the British historian Richard Overy observed, Chamberlain much preferred Goerdeler's assessment of German economic problems over Ashton-Gwatkin's, whose views were ignored by the Prime Minister in 1939. The accuracy of Goerdeler's information has been the subject of much historical debate, with some historians arguing that Goerdeler exaggerated the extent of German economic problems while other historians have maintained that Goerdeler's information was correct, and that it was Soviet economic support together with plundering occupied countries that saved the German economy from collapse in 1939–41.
The "containment" strategy comprised building a "peace front" of alliances linking Western and Eastern European states to serve as a "tripwire" to deter German aggression. The anchors of the proposed "peace front" meant to contain the Reich were supposed to be Britain, France, Poland, the Soviet Union and Turkey. The essence of the "containment" strategy was a policy of deterrence, which comprised firm warnings against aggression, and an attempt to form interlocking network of alliances that would block German aggression in any direction. Beginning with a proposal by Chamberlain in March 1939 following advice from the Chiefs of Staff for talks between Britain, the Soviet Union, Poland and France to offer support for any state that felt its independence threatened by Hitler, at French suggestion, the proposal was stiffened to include action. Poland was invited into the proposed Four Power Pact as the state best placed to aid Romania, and the East European state from which Romania was most likely to accept aid. Poland was at first conceived as merely one part of the anti-German East European bloc, but rumours presented by the newspaperman Ian Colvin, most likely planted by anti-Nazi elements within the Abwehr, of an impending German attack against Poland in late March led to the specific unilateral guarantee of Poland. Pointedly, the guarantee was of Polish independence, not frontiers, leaving open the possibility of territorial revision in Germany's favour. Though it was not practical for Britain to offer any aid to Poland in the event of a German attack, the principal motive was to deter a German attack against Poland, and if such an attack should come, as a means of tying down German troops. Though Chamberlain envisioned the return of Danzig as the part of the ultimate solution to the German-Polish dispute, he also made very clear that the survival of a Polish state, albeit within truncated borders, was seen as part of the solution. A further factor encouraging Britain to risk a war over Poland was statements from the various Dominion governments in the summer of 1939 (with the exception of the Irish Free State) that unlike in 1938, they would go to war with Britain. Another factor was the state of the British economy and the financial problems of paying the colossal costs of rearmament. By May 1939, Simon was warning the Cabinet that under the economic strain of rearmament that "We shall find ourselves in a position, when we should be unable to wage any war other than a brief one". Given the economic strains caused by rearmament, Chamberlain very much wanted an end to the endless crises gripping Europe before the arms race bankrupted Britain.
Summer 1939: The Tientsin Incident
A major crisis which preoccupied Chamberlain in the summer of 1939 was the Tientsin Incident. Following the British refusal to hand over to the Japanese four Chinese nationalists accused of murdering a Japanese collaborator, the British concession in Tianjin, China was blockaded by the Japanese Army on 14 June 1939. In particular, reports in the British press of the maltreatment by the Japanese of British subjects wishing to leave or enter the concession, especially the strip-searching in public of British women at bayonet-point by Japanese soldiers enraged British public opinion, and led to much pressure on the government to take action against Japan. Chamberlain considered the crisis to be so important that he ordered the Royal Navy to give greater attention to a possible war with Japan than to a war with Germany. On 26 June 1939 the Royal Navy reported that the only way of ending the blockade was to send the main British battle fleet to the Far East, and that given the current crisis in Europe with Germany threatening Poland that this was militarily inadvisable. In addition, Chamberlain faced strong pressure from the French not to weaken British naval strength in the Mediterranean, given the danger that Benito Mussolini might honour the Pact of Steel should war break out in Europe. Following an unsuccessful effort to obtain a promise of American support (the United States informed Britain that she would not risk a war with Japan for purely British interests), Chamberlain ordered Sir Robert Craigie, the British Ambassador in, to find any way of ending the crisis without too much loss of British prestige. The crisis ended with the British handing over the Chinese suspects to be executed by the Japanese in August 1939, though Craigie did succeeded in persuading the Japanese to drop their more extreme demands such as the British turning over all Chinese silver in British banks to the Japanese.
Summer 1939: Last attempts at peace
By the summer of 1939, if Chamberlain did not welcome the prospect of war, there was a feeling that it was the best time to force Hitler into a settlement, and if that was impossible then it was the best time to wage war because of the economic problems associated with British rearmament. The Board of Trade's Oliver Stanley advised his Cabinet colleagues in July 1939 that "There would, therefore, come a moment which, on a balance of our financial strength and strength in armaments, was the best time for war to break out". Though Chamberlain was firmly determined to resist aggression, he had not abandoned the prospect of appeasement and peaceful revision; in the talks in London between the British Government's Chief Industrial Advisor, Sir Horace Wilson (who was a close friend and associate of Chamberlain) and Helmut Wohlat of the Four Year Plan Office in July 1939, Wilson made clear that provided Hitler abandoned his aggressive course against Poland, London would be willing to discuss the peaceful return of Danzig and the Polish Corridor, colonial restoration, economic concessions, disarmament and an Anglo-German commitment to refrain from war against one another, all of which was of absolutely no significance to Hitler. In the summer of 1939, there were desperate attempts to avert a war by various amateur diplomats such as Göring's deputy Wohltat, Sir Horace Wilson, the newspaper proprietor Lord Kemsley, together with would-be peace-makers like the Swedish businessmen Axel Wenner-Gren and Birger Dahlerus, who served as couriers between Hermann Göring (who had some private doubts about the wisdom of Hitler's policies, and was anxious to see a compromise solution) and various British officials. All efforts at a compromise solution were doomed because Chamberlain demanded as the precondition that Hitler abandon war against Poland as an option, and Hitler was absolutely determined to have a war with Poland. For Chamberlain, war remained the worst-case outcome to the Polish crisis, but he was determined to make a forceful British stand in favour of Poland, leading hopefully to a negotiated settlement of the Danzig crisis, which would result in a British diplomatic victory that would hopefully deter Hitler from a policy of force.
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At the same time as Chamberlain attempted to broker a German-Polish compromise, he also stuck to his deterrence strategy of repeatedly warning Hitler that Britain would declare war on Germany if he attacked Poland. On 27 August 1939, Chamberlain sent the following letter to Hitler intended to counter-act reports Chamberlain had heard from intelligence sources in Berlin that the German Foreign Joachim von Ribbentrop had convinced Hitler that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would ensure that Britain would abandon Poland. In his letter to Hitler, Chamberlain wrote:
“Whatever may prove to be the nature of the German-Soviet Agreement, it cannot alter Great Britain’s obligation to Poland which His Majesty’s Government have stated in public repeatedly and plainly and which they are determined to fulfill.
It has been alleged that, if His Majesty’s Government had made their position more clear in 1914, the great catastrophe would have been avoided. Whether or not there is any force in that allegation, His Majesty’s Government are resolved that on this occasion there shall be no such tragic misunderstanding.If the case should arise, they are resolved, and prepared, to employ without delay all the forces at their command, and it is impossible to foresee the end of hostilities once engaged. It would be a dangerous illusion to think that, if war once starts, it will come to an early end even if a success on any one of the several fronts on which it will be engaged should have been secured”
Chamberlain, who was nicknamed "Monsieur J'aime Berlin" (French for "Mr. I love Berlin") just before the outbreak of hostilities, remained hopeful up until Germany's invasion of the Low Countries that the war could be ended without serious fighting. He hoped that the British blockade would cause the collapse of the German economy and the Nazi regime. Once a new government was installed in Germany, it would be possible to make peace over issues "that we don't really care about". This policy was widely criticised both at the time and since; but given that the French General Staff was determined not to attack Germany but to remain on the strategic defensive, it is not clear what alternatives Chamberlain could have pursued. It is true that he used the months of the Phoney War to complete development of the Spitfire and Hurricane, and to strengthen the RDF or Radar defence grid in Britain. Both of these priorities would pay crucial dividends in the Battle of Britain.
Outbreak of war
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Once it become clear that it was an invasion, and not the outbreak of border fighting (as it was by the middle of 1 September), Chamberlain wished to declare war on Germany at once. For the sake of Allied concord, Chamberlain wanted the British declaration of war to be linked to a French one. The outbreak of war caused a serious crisis within the French Cabinet: a ferocious power struggle broke out between those in the French Cabinet led by the Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, who were opposed to going to war with Germany, versus those led by Premier Édouard Daladier who were in favour. France's intentions were unclear at that point as the Bonnet-Daladier power struggle played out, and the government could only give Germany an ultimatum: if Hitler withdrew his troops within two days, Britain would help to open talks between Germany and Poland. When Chamberlain announced this in the House on 2 September, there was a massive outcry. The prominent Conservative former minister Leo Amery, believing that Chamberlain had failed in his responsibilities, famously called on the acting Leader of the Opposition Arthur Greenwood to "Speak for England, Arthur!". Chief Whip David Margesson told Chamberlain that he believed the government would fall if war was not declared. After bringing further pressure on the French, who agreed to parallel the British action, Britain declared war on 3 September 1939.
In Chamberlain's radio broadcast to the nation, he said:
Neville Chamberlain's speech (broadcast over the wireless) declaring war on Germany.
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|“||I am speaking to you from the cabinet room of 10 Downing St. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more, or anything different, that I could have done, and that would have been more successful. Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland. But Hitler would not have it; he had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened. And although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement. The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us. And though they were announced in the German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier the next morning.
His action shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force, and we and France are today in fulfillment of our obligations going to the aid of Poland who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack upon her people. We have a clear conscience, we have done all that any country could do to establish peace, but a situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be trusted, and no people or country could feel itself safe, had become intolerable. And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will all play your parts with calmness and courage.
In Parliament on the same day Chamberlain (not a man to show his emotions) appeared devastated:
"This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than for me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I hoped for, everything I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins." (Hansard, 5th series, Vol CCCLI, p. 292)
As part of the preparations for conflict, Chamberlain asked all his ministers to "place their offices in his hands" so that he could carry out a full-scale reconstruction of the government, forming the Chamberlain war ministry. The most notable new recruits were Winston Churchill and the former Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey, now Baron Hankey. Much of the press had campaigned for Churchill's return to government for several months, and taking him aboard looked like a good way to strengthen the government, especially as both the Labour Party and Liberal Party declined to join.
Initially, Chamberlain intended to make Churchill a minister without portfolio (possibly with the sinecure office of Lord Privy Seal) and include him in a War Cabinet of just six members, with the service ministers outside it. However, he was advised that it would be unwise not to give Churchill a department, so Churchill instead became First Lord of the Admiralty. Chamberlain's inclusion of all three service ministers in the War Cabinet drew criticism from those who argued that a smaller cabinet of non-departmental ministers could take decisions more efficiently.
The first eight months of the war are often described as the "Phoney War", for the relative lack of action. Throughout this period, the main conflicts took place at sea, raising Churchill's stature; however, many conflicts arose behind the scenes.
The Soviet invasion of Poland and the subsequent Soviet-Finnish War (the "Winter War") led a call for military action against the Soviets, but Chamberlain believed that such action would only be possible if the war with Germany were concluded peacefully, a course of action he refused to countenance. The Moscow Peace Treaty in March 1940 brought no consequences in Britain, though the French government led by Édouard Daladier fell after a rebellion in the Chamber of Deputies. It was a worrying precedent for an allied prime minister.
Problems grew at the War Office as the Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, became an ever more controversial figure. Hore-Belisha's high public profile and reputation as a radical reformer who was turning the army into a modern fighting force made him attractive to many, but he and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lord Gort, soon lost confidence in each other in strategic matters. Hore-Belisha had also proved a difficult member of the War Cabinet, and Chamberlain realised that a change was needed; the Minister of Information, Lord Macmillan, had also proved ineffective, and Chamberlain considered moving Hore-Belisha to that post. Senior colleagues raised the objection that a Jewish Minister of Information would not benefit relations with neutral countries, and Chamberlain offered Hore-Belisha the post of President of the Board of Trade instead. The latter refused and resigned from the government altogether; since the true nature of the disagreement could not be revealed to the public, it seemed that Chamberlain had folded under pressure from traditionalist, inefficient generals who disapproved of Hore-Belisha's changes.
When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, an expeditionary force was sent to counter them, but the campaign proved difficult, and the force had to be withdrawn. The naval aspect of the campaign in particular proved controversial and was to have repercussions in Westminster.
Chamberlain's war policy was the subject of impassioned debate, to such an extent that he is one of the very few Prime ministers to have appeared in popular songs. The 1940 song "God Bless you Mr Chamberlain" expresses support : God bless you, Mr Chamberlain, we are all mighty proud of you. You look swell holding your umbrella, all the world loves a wonderful fellow...
Fall and resignation
Following the debacle of the British expedition to Norway, Chamberlain found himself under siege in the House of Commons. During the Norway Debate of 7 May, Leo Amery – who had been one of Chamberlain's personal friends – delivered a devastating indictment of Chamberlain's conduct of the war. In concluding his speech, he quoted the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Rump Parliament:
|“||You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.||”|
When the vote came the next day, over 40 government backbenchers voted against the government and many more abstained. Although the government won the vote, it became clear that Chamberlain would have to meet the charges brought against him. He initially tried to bolster his government by offering to appoint some prominent Conservative rebels and sacrifice some unpopular ministers, but demands for an all-party coalition government grew louder. Chamberlain set about investigating whether or not he could persuade the Labour Party to serve under him and, if not, then who should succeed him.
Two obvious successors soon emerged: Lord Halifax, then Foreign Minister, and Winston Churchill. Halifax would have proved acceptable to almost everyone, but he was deeply reluctant to accept, arguing that it was impossible for a member of the House of Lords to lead an effective government. Over the next 24 hours, Chamberlain explored the situation further. That afternoon he met with Halifax, Churchill and Margesson, who determined that if Labour should decline to serve under Chamberlain then Churchill would have to try to form a government. Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood were unable to commit their party and agreed to put two questions to the next day's meeting of the National Executive Committee: Would they join an all-party government under Chamberlain? If not, would they join an all-party government under "someone else"?
The next day, Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France. At first, Chamberlain believed it was best for him to remain in office for the duration of the crisis, but opposition to his continued premiership was such that, at a meeting of the War Cabinet, Lord Privy Seal Sir Kingsley Wood told him clearly that it was time to form an all-party government. Soon afterwards, a response came from the Labour National Executive – they would not serve with Chamberlain, but they would with someone else. On the evening of 10 May 1940, Chamberlain tendered his resignation to the King and formally recommended Churchill as his successor.
- Causes of World War II
- Diplomatic history of World War II
- Invasion of Poland
- International relations (1919-1939)
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