A total and unmitigated defeat
A Total and Unmitigated Defeat was a speech by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons at Westminster on Wednesday, 5 October 1938, the third day of the Munich Agreement debate. Signed five days earlier by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the agreement met the demands of Nazi Germany in respect of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland.
Churchill spoke for 45 minutes to criticise the government for signing the agreement and, in general, for its policy of appeasement. The speech officially ended Churchill's support for the government's appeasement policy. While Churchill had hoped for a reasonable settlement of the Sudetenland issue, he was adamant that Britain must fight for the continued independence of Czechoslovakia. Among his criticisms of the government, Churchill said that the Soviet Union should have been invited to take part in the negotiations with Hitler. Although this was one of Churchill's most famous speeches, he was in the minority as the Commons voted 366 to 144 in favour of the government.
Churchill in 1938
In 1938, Winston Churchill was a backbench MP who had been out of government office since 1929; he was the Conservative member for Epping. From the mid-1930s, alarmed by developments in Germany, he had consistently emphasised the necessity of rearmament and the buildup of national defences, especially of the Royal Air Force. Churchill strongly opposed the appeasement of Hitler, a policy by which the British government under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain hoped to maintain peace in Europe.
Czechoslovakia and the Sudetenland
The First Czechoslovak Republic (Czechoslovakia) was created in 1918 as an amalgam of territories that had belonged to the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among its citizens were some three million ethnic Germans, accounting for 22.95% of the total population. They mostly resided in a region they called the Sudetenland which bordered Germany and Austria. Sudetenland was the most industrialised area of Czechoslovakia and relied heavily on exports for regional prosperity. The economy of the region was badly hit by the Great Depression after the Wall Street Crash in October 1929. Unemployment escalated among Sudeten Germans and in 1933, inspired by Hitler's rise to power in Germany, Konrad Henlein founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP), which sought the union of Sudetenland with Germany.
Soon after the Anschluß, Germany's annexation of Austria in March 1938, Henlein met Hitler in Berlin and was instructed to present the so-called Karlsbader Programm to the Czechoslovak government of President Edvard Beneš. This document amounted to a series of demands that Czechoslovakia could not meet, principally autonomy for all Germans living in the country. Hitler and Goebbels launched a propaganda campaign in support of the SdP. As Hitler intended, tensions rose until by September the outbreak of war seemed immininent.
Czechoslovakia needed the support of the other European powers, especially Britain and France. Writing in the Evening Standard on 18 March, Churchill called upon Chamberlain to declare with France that the two countries would aid Czechoslovakia if subject to an unprovoked attack. Chamberlain, however, had other ideas. He sympathised with the Sudeten Germans and, commenting on the French declaration, believed some arrangement should be made which "would prove more acceptable to Germany".
Escalation of the crisis
Germany mobilised on 2 September and the crisis came to a head on the 12th when Hitler made a speech at Nuremberg in which he condemned the Czechoslovak government, accusing them of atrocities and of denying rights of self-determination to the Sudeten Germans. On the 13th, Chamberlain decided to act and he requested a meeting with Hitler to try and avert the possibility of war. Chamberlain met Hitler at Berchtesgaden on the 15th but there was no conclusion although, having demanded that the Sudetenland be ceded to Germany, Hitler did say he had no designs on the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain met French Premier Édouard Daladier in London next day. They agreed that Czechoslovakia should cede to Germany all territories in which over 50% of the population were ethnic Germans; in exchange, Britain and France would guarantee the independence of Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovaks rejected the proposal and, same day, issued a warrant for Henlein's arrest.
Chamberlain met Hitler again, 22–24 September, in Bad Godesberg. Hitler increased his demands and Chamberlain objected. Hitler stated that Germany would occupy the Sudetenland on 1 October, but that had been planned as early as May when Fall Grün was drafted. The French and Czechoslovaks rejected Hitler's demands at Bad Godesberg and Chamberlain, now anticipating the outbreak of war, said on radio: "How 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".
On 28 September, Chamberlain sent a further appeal to Hitler and then began a speech in the Commons to try and explain the seriousness of the crisis. During this speech, he was handed a message from Hitler which invited him to Munich with Daladier and Mussolini. On the 29th, Mussolini officially proposed what became the Munich Agreement. The Czechoslovak representatives were excluded from the conference on Hitler's insistence and had to rely on Chamberlain and Daladier for information. The four leaders reached agreement on the 29th and signed the treaty at 01:30 on Friday the 30th. Czechoslovakia reluctantly accepted the agreement as a fait accompli which ceded the Sudetenland to Germany on 10 October. Hitler agreed to take no action against the rest of the country.
Later on the 30th, Hitler met Chamberlain privately and they signed a paper headed "Anglo-German Agreement" which included a statement that the two nations considered the Munich Agreement "symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again". Hitler afterwards dismissed this paper as insignificant but Chamberlain made political capital out of it and returned to England declaring that it was "peace for our time".
"Lost the courage"
A debate on Munich began in the House of Commons on Monday, 3 October. On the same day, Conservative minister Duff Cooper resigned in protest from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty. In his resignation speech on 3 October, Cooper said that Britain had "lost the courage to see things as they are" and that the country had been "drifting, day by day, nearer into war with Germany, and we have never said, until the last moment, and then in most uncertain terms, that we were prepared to fight".
On 4 October, the Manchester Guardian printed a letter from F. L. Lucas, a professor of literature at the University of Cambridge who had been a wounded veteran of World War I. Lucas later worked at Bletchley Park in World War II. His letter was headed "The Funeral of British Honour":
The flowers piled before 10, Downing Street are very fitting for the funeral of British honour and, it may be, of the British Empire. I appreciate the Prime Minister’s love of peace. I know the horrors of war – a great deal better than he can. But when he returns from saving our skins from a blackmailer at the price of other people’s flesh, and waves a piece of paper with Herr Hitler’s name on it, if it were not ghastly, it would be grotesque. No doubt he has never read Mein Kampf in German. But to forget, so utterly, the Reichstag fire, and the occupation of the Rhineland, and 30 June 1934 (the Night of the Long Knives), and the fall of Austria! We have lost the courage to see things as they are. And yet Herr Hitler has kindly put down for us in black and white that programme he is so faithfully carrying out.
When the debate recommenced on Wednesday, 5 October, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon raised the motion: "That this House approves the policy of His Majesty's Government by which war was averted in the recent crisis and supports their efforts to secure a lasting peace". A vote in favour of the motion would confirm Parliament's approval of the Munich Agreement which ceded the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany. In broader terms, support for Simon's motion would signal parliamentary approval of the government's policy of appeasement in its dealings with Hitler.
After Simon's opening address, Labour's deputy leader Arthur Greenwood replied for the Opposition. He pointed out that "the eleventh hour concessions made at Munich went far beyond the Anglo-French Memorandum and represented a further retreat by Britain and France from the admittedly outrageous demands already made upon Czechoslovakia". Greenwood challenged the right of the "Four-Power Pact" operating at Munich to make binding decisions on world affairs within which, he reminded the Commons, the Soviet Union and the United States were powerful factors. Greenwood completed his speech and was followed by Churchill.
I will, therefore, begin by saying the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing. I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and that France has suffered even more than we have.
The utmost he has been able to gain for Czechoslovakia and in the matters which were in dispute has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.
£1 was demanded at the pistol's point. When it was given, £2 were demanded at the pistol's point. Finally, the dictator consented to take £1 17s. 6d and the rest in promises of goodwill for the future.
Churchill then argued that the Czech government, left to themselves and knowing they would get no help from the Western Powers, would have made better terms. Later in the speech, Churchill predicted, accurately, that Czechoslovakia would be "engulfed in the Nazi regime". He went on to say that, in his view, "the maintenance of peace depends upon the accumulation of deterrents against the aggressor, coupled with a sincere effort to redress grievances". He argued that this course had not been taken because Britain and France did not involve "other powers" who could have guaranteed the security of Czechoslovakia while the Sudetenland issue was being examined by an international body. The other power he had in mind was the Soviet Union and Churchill soon remonstrated that close contact with Russia should have been made through the summer months while the crisis enfolded. Churchill maintained that Hitler would not have followed his course if the Soviet Union had been involved in the summit meetings.
Churchill indicted the British government for the neglect of its responsibilities in the past five years (since Hitler came to power): "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting". He compared the Chamberlain regime with the court of Ethelred the Unready, reminding the Commons of how England, having held a position of real strength under Alfred the Great, then "fell very swiftly into chaos".
And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
Although the speech is regarded as one of Churchill's finest, it was spoken when he was still a minority politician and, as Jenkins says, unable to win many friends on the Conservative benches. On the 6th, the Commons concluded the debate and voted 366 to 144 in support of Simon's motion to approve Chamberlain's signing of the Munich Agreement.
Churchill's speech had little immediate effect on British public opinion. He himself faced retribution from Conservatives in his constituency and needed a vote of confidence to retain his seat at a meeting of his constituents on 4 November. He won with 100 votes to 44, largely thanks to the support of Sir James Hawkey, who was the chairman of the Epping Conservative Association.
The majority of people clung to the hope of a lasting peace as promised by Chamberlain. It was not until the Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish violence of 9–10 November, that they began to think otherwise. It became increasingly difficult for Chamberlain to portray Hitler as a partner in peace. His government then embarked on a programme of rearmament that was unprecedented in peacetime. The French did likewise.
On 15 March 1939, Germany and Hungary overran the rest of Czechoslovakia, as Churchill had predicted five months earlier. The Slovak part of the country became nominally independent as the First Slovak Republic but it was nothing more than a client state of Germany. The Czech lands were incorporated into Greater Germany as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
After Chamberlain declared war against Germany on 3 September 1939, one of his first actions was to restore Churchill to government office. He was reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the office he held in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. On 10 May 1940, Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister.
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- Lucas, F. L. (4 October 1938). "The Funeral of British Honour". Manchester Guardian. p. 7.
- "Policy of His Majesty's Government – Simon". Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 339, col. 337. 5 October 1938. Retrieved 25 March 2021.
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- Churchill, Winston (1938). "The Munich Agreement". Washington, DC: International Churchill Society. This page provides the full text of Churchill's speech as recorded in Hansard.
- Faber, David (2008). Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis. New York City: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-18-47390-06-6.
- Gilbert, Martin (1991). Churchill: A Life. London: Heinemann. ISBN 978-04-34291-83-0.
- Jenkins, Roy (2001). Churchill. London: Macmillan Press. ISBN 978-03-30488-05-1.
- Marr, Andrew (2009). The Making of Modern Britain. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-03-30510-99-8.
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