Britain, Europe and The World in 1937: A Moment in History Repeating itself? Part Two

‘Special Operations’, 2022 & April 1937- March 1938:

Just as the so-called Russian ‘Special Operation’ which began on 24th February 2022, did not represent the beginning of War in Ukraine, the invasion of its sovereign territory having commenced in 2014, so too, no single event in 1937 or 1938 represented the beginning of war in Europe or, indeed, the world. However, the year from the spring of 1937 to March 1938 can be taken as a bridging period into the series of ‘Bloodless Conquests’ made by Germany in 1938-39. In 1937, having ‘liberated’ the Saarland and the Rhineland, Hitler turned to the question of creating a Pan-German state by absorbing the German populations of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Like all Pan-Germans, Hitler longed to unite the German peoples of Western and Central Europe into a single state, or Reich. Pro-Nazi organisations existed in Austria and Czechoslovakia among German populations anxious to share in the Nazi revolution. Hitler felt that, by 1937, the international circumstances and Germany’s growing military strength were favourable enough to enable him to force the pace in his foreign policy. In November, he warned his military leadership that a settlement of the Austrian and Czechoslovak questions was next on his agenda when the right moment came:

The aim of German policy was to make secure and to preserve the racial community and to enlarge it.

Adolf Hitler, 5 November 1937.

Meanwhile, while pretending to uphold a policy of non-intervention, Hitler sent his ‘volunteers’ to Spain to help Franco. The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once recognised as the showdown between Left and Right in Europe. November saw active German intervention when Hitler sent the Condor Legion, a unit composed of over twelve thousand ‘volunteers’ and Luftwaffe warplanes, to support his fellow Fascist General Francisco Franco. In Spain, the Legion perfected the carpet-bombing technique, which dropped nearly 2.7 million pounds of bombs and fired more than four million machine-gun bullets. Meanwhile, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy sent forces that eventually numbered seventy-five thousand men. Stalin countered the dictators’ moves by sending men and arms to aid the Republicans, while Britain and France remained ‘neutral’, agreeing not to sell arms to either side. In reality, this policy assisted Franco, receiving more war materiel from Germany and Italy than the Republicans got from Russia.

But the Civil War was, initially, less dangerous to European peace than Mussolini’s conquest of Abyssinia. It was a war about Spain’s fate, fought out by Spaniards to the bitter end. Despite the Spanish government’s legitimacy, the British government fell into the pious posture of ‘Non-Intervention’ once more, as it had done over Abyssinia. Britain and France held a conference in London where they persuaded twenty-six other governments to officially back this principle, though many subsequently breached the embargoes. The conference set up a committee to police the principle in practice. Both Germany and Italy took seats on it, which they kept until June 1937, by which time, as Roberts puts it, the farce could not be played out any longer. But in both cases, Ethiopia and Spain, the cynical policy pursued by the dictators increased their confidence and further embittered their relationships with the democracies. November 1936 also saw Germany and Japan sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, aimed at opposing the USSR’s Third Communist International but also creating what became known as The Axis. For the moment, however, Hitler cranked up his sabre-rattling policy towards his neighbours, particularly those with large German populations contiguous with the borders of the Reich.

When Italian troops moved into Spain on Franco’s side, the Left redoubled its efforts to rally support for the Republicans. Writers, photographers and painters from all over Europe set to work as propagandists. By the spring of 1937, there were thirty thousand Germans and eighty thousand Italians in Spain. The Germans marched and, worse, had fleets of aeroplanes. The Republicans had practically no planes. The deliberate bombing of civilians was still regarded as unimaginable barbarity. So when the Kondor Legion bombed Guernica, the Basque capital, on 27th April, practically wiping it out, the whole world was outraged, and Picasso’s famous picture went on tour all over Europe. The Nazi propaganda machine under Dr Goebbels swung into action to convince everyone that the Basques had blown up their own city to discredit Franco. At a dinner party at Philip Sassoon’s, the diplomat and diarist Harold Nicolson, who had just become an MP for ‘National Labour’, murmured to Anthony Eden that he wanted “the Reds to win.” The destruction of Guernica reinforced his feelings as he wrote to his wife, Vita, that…

only that ass Teenie (Victor Cazalet) goes on sticking up for Franco. I could have boxed his silly ears … I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over earth again and that mankind is going backward.

Non-Intervention to Appeasement, 1935-37:

In public, however, Nicolson firmly supported the government’s policy of Non-Intervention, praising Eden, its glamorous advocate on the world stage. Britain, Harold instructed the House, could no longer indulge in its ‘missionary foreign policy’ of the nineteenth century to impose our views, our judgements, our standard of life and conduct upon other countries. Without even a trace of irony, he fell back on commonplaces, advising the House that the best way forward was to maintain traditional British interests, the ‘preservation of peace’ and the ‘arrangement of the balance of power’. However, he failed to spell out how this was to be accomplished in the then-current climate of European affairs. When the Foreign Affairs Committee met in July to discuss the Spanish situation, Harold, now its vice-chair, was agitated to find ‘an enormous majority’ passionately anti-government and pro-Franco, a setting that allowed much of the younger Tories to ‘blow off steam.’ He told Eden that he opposed granting ‘belligerency rights’ to either side, as this would only serve Franco’s cause. Eden agreed and, in turn, admitted that non-intervention had ‘largely failed.’ This fact could not be disguised with the Italians, Germans, and Russians roaming the Spanish battlefields. But neither was the concomitant, that there was no alternative if an all-out European conflagration was to be avoided.

A. J. P. Taylor wrote in 1969 that it puzzled post-war observers that Churchill was disregarded when dangers and difficulties accumulated for Britain in the mid-thirties. Baldwin and MacDonald were blamed for the sloth and blindness they demonstrated towards the continental threat, and so too was British public opinion. But Taylor also blamed Churchill for losing hold of public opinion through his obsession with empire and intemperate opposition over India. The British people would no longer respond to the romantic call of Imperial glory. He had nothing to say, at least before 1937, about the great economic questions, like unemployment. He remained notably silent during the interminable debates on these in the Commons. R. R. James (1970) wrote of how by 1933, Churchill was widely regarded as…

a failed politician, in whom no real trust could reasonably be placed; by June 1935 these opinions had been fortified further. His habit of exaggerating problems, and in clothing relatively minor questions in brightly coloured language, had the effect that when a really major issue did arise there was no easy way of differentiating it…

Churchill’s campaign for rearmament lacked the essential qualities of a crusade. It was limited; it was personal; it was far from national; and it was closely linked to the political fortunes of its leader. Great speeches in Parliament and stirring public appeals do not constitute a crusade. …

These comments do not contravert Churchill’s record on Defence matters in the years 1932-36. … the central fact that he sensed danger long before most of his contemporaries discerned it. His central theme was unanswerably right. But the failure of his campaign was not entirely the result of the folly of others. A dispassionate assessment of why his reputation remained so low at the end of 1936, after a period in which his warnings had proved to be abundantly justified, must return to the quotation… ‘Every man is the maker of his own fate.’

R. R. James, Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-39. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970.
pp. 121-2, 358-9.

Soon after he became a National Labour MP in 1935, Harold Nicolson admitted to Churchill that he felt ‘terribly hampered’ in deciding ‘about foreign policies’ because he had no conception whatsoever as to our real defensive capabilities. Churchill fed him an (inflated) assessment of Germany’s air strength, which, if augmented by the Italian air force, was a very excellent striking machine. This led Harold to the inescapable conclusion that we are not in a position to go to war without active Russian assistance. Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for dominions (and later for colonies) whose judgement he valued, reiterated that Britain was too weak to gamble on war:

It would mean the the massacre of women and children in the streets of London. No Government could possibly risk a war when our anti-aircraft defences are in so farcical a condition.

The Spanish civil war continued until 1939, but most surviving British International Brigaders returned home in 1937. One in five of them had been killed, and three in four of the survivors were injured. But it had been less like the great confrontation between Good and Evil, won by the latter, and more like the dress rehearsal for something far worse. The Fascists had been more greatly encouraged by their Spanish adventures, leading Hitler and Mussolini to form their Rome-Berlin Axis, beginning a massive build-up of their armed forces. Hitler interpreted Non-Intervention as a green light, but he still needed more time in 1937 to prepare for his campaign of conquest. The growing danger in Europe encouraged the democracies to believe that a policy of ‘appeasement’ was the only way to ensure peace. The great upholder was the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who took office in May 1937, following Stanley Baldwin’s ‘retirement’. For many months, Baldwin had been to retire from political life, but events before and after King Edward’s abdication had kept him in office. As soon as King George VI had been crowned, Baldwin decided to hand over the Premiership to Neville Chamberlain, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on 28th May, the Chamberlains moved into No. 10 Downing Street. Baldwin went into the House of Lords as Earl Baldwin of Bewdley. René Cutforth wrote of him…

that certainly, his chief influence had been anaesthetic… unless circumstances forced him into action, he had preferred to drowse. It may be that to his deep-rooted aversion to confrontation, his genius for keeping antagonisms safely in solution and never allowing them to crystallise out, we may owe the fact that, when finally we had to go to war, we went as one people, an undivided nation.

René Cutforth, pp 115-6.
From Baldwin to Chamberlain & All souls, 1937:

The picture above shows Earl Baldwin at his first public appearance since taking the title, receiving a presentation gift from Neville Chamberlain, his successor as PM. The long ‘Baldwin-MacDonald era’ came to an end, but Chamberlain was to hold the top post for only three years. After that, the Cabinet was reshuffled, but only from the existing pack, with Eden remaining as Foreign Secretary. Many among both contemporaries and historians have characterised Chamberlain as:

a vain man who thought that a personal approach by him to the dictators would succeed where other methods had failed. He believed that friendly relations could be established with Hitler by meeting his demands halfway and thus forcing him to negotiate and not use force. It was a disastrous policy.

Donald Lindsay (1979), Europe and the World, 1870 to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press (‘O’ Level text).

Apart from being another Conservative Midlands industrialist, the new Prime Minister had little in common with the old one. Neville Chamberlain was an upright provincial, nonconformist businessman with an old-fashioned moustache who had once been Lord Mayor of Birmingham and whose qualities of vision and imagination seemed to suit him admirably for such a position. He has been frequently described as autocratic, and the extent to which he relied on his ‘inner cabinet’ of congenial ministers has been often criticised. There is, however, no orthodoxy in these matters, and Chamberlain is neither the first nor the last PM to have been criticised for their strength of will and determination. As Keith Robbins has suggested, whether that quality is admired or condemned depends upon the course of events. A political observer at the time he became PM wrote of him:

This seeming lack of breadth of mind and culture… arouses some misgivings about Mr Chamberlain. Clarity of mind – and he has it in an unusual degree – is not enough if the mind, so to say, sees the field with searching clearness, but not the field as part of the landscape, and that kind of limited vision is not necessarily compensated by courage such as Mr Chamberlain has. The two together could be a positive danger.

Stanley Baldwin had not been fond of first-class minds: Chamberlain’s Cabinet also excluded most of the ablest men so that by 1938, Churchill, Eden, Duff Cooper, Harold Macmillan and Leopold Amery formed a minor Conservative opposition inside the party. The old gang, Lord Halifax, Sir John Simon, and Sir Samuel Hoare, were given the jobs. One Minister, Sir Thomas Inskip, was a man of such natural endowments that when his appointment as Minister of Defence was announced, the House of Commons sat there laughing for several minutes. In that company, Sir Anthony Eden, still at the Foreign Office, though not for long, resembled at age forty-something of a whizz-kid. Baldwin had preferred to leave his Ministers to their own devices, but Chamberlain was an interfering Prime Minister: he liked, he said, to give each of his ministers a policy, and it was in Foreign Policy that the PM interfered most because, though having little experience in that field, he had a policy and it was not the same as Eden’s. That policy was the line that came to be known as ‘appeasement’. There was nothing new in it: it was believed by almost every ‘liberal’ mind in Britain (including Churchill’s) that the Versailles Treaty had been unjustly harsh to the Germans and that some kind of ‘give and take’ policy might have modified the explosive situation in Europe.

By 1937 there was a bitter ideological debate on appeasement, reflected in G. M. Trevelyan’s letter to The Times in which he wrote that dictatorship and democracy must live side by side in peace, or civilisation is doomed. To this, he added that Englishmen would do well to remember that the Nazi form of government is, in large measure, the outcome of Allied and British injustice at Versailles… During the winter and early spring of 1937-38, Harold was invited to participate in a kind of ‘brains trust’ on foreign affairs at All Souls College, Oxford. Its purpose was to set out guidelines that would neutralise the menace of the totalitarian states. It was organised by Sir Arthur Salter, an Oxford ‘don’ and was dubbed ‘Salter’s Soviet’ by Lionel Curtis, one of its more energetic members. It was an assortment of idealogues, with the historian A. L. Rowse, a fierce critic of the government policy rubbing shoulders with some of its most ardent supporters, Lord Allen of Liverpool and Arnold Toynbee. Rowse later (1961) summarised the debate and discussion:

So Baldwin passed from the scene, and Neville Chamberlain reigned in his stead. He may not have had Baldwin’s weakness for fellows of All Souls, but he was even more dependent on two of them. He wanted Simon to to succeed him as Chancellor of the Exchequer; while on his breach with Eden- virtually a dismissal – Halifax came to his rescue and became Foreign Secretary.

Chamberlain’s course was hopeless from the start. It was at one time the fashion to exonerate him and place most of the blame on Baldwin. But where Baldwin’s were sins of omission, Chamberlain’s were sins of deliberate commission. He really meant to come to terms with Hitler, to make concession after concession to the man to the man to buy an agreement. Apart from the immorality of coming to terms with a criminal, it was always sheer nonsense; for no agreement was possible except through submission to Nazi Germany’s domination of Europe and, with her allies and their joint conquests, of the world…

It is no use making concessions to a blackmailer or an aggressor; he will only ask for more. … In fact, we were left without any effective means, with no power whatsoever, in a hopeless minority, with no organs of opinion at our command, to try and do something of what the government should have been doing. We were all too ineffective, condemned to making bricks without straw. …

Chamberlain knew no history … had no conception of the elementary necessity of keeping the balance of power on our side; no conception of the Grand Alliance, or of its being the only way to contain Hitler and keep Europe safe…

The total upshot of (‘the appeasers’) efforts was to aid Nazi Germany to achieve a position of brutal ascendancy, a threat to everybody else’s security or even existence, which only a war could end. … These men had no real conception of Germany’s character or malign record in modern history.

A. L. Rowse, All Souls and Appeasement, Macmillan, 1961, pp. 37-9, 63, 117.

Among others, Harold Macmillan, Basil Liddell Hart, and H. A. L. Fisher were included, while Geoffrey Dawson and Leopold Amery remained on the fringes. Between December 1937 and May 1938, it convened nine times, usually at weekends at All Souls but also at members’ flats in central London. Finally, Lionel Curtis put forward a programme, arguing that twenty years of peace were worth any price:

We offer Germany: (i) Anschluss (union with Austria); (ii) arrangements granting cantonal status to Sudetenland by Czech government; (iii) recognition of Germany’s colonial rights; (iv) admit Germany’s prior economic interests in eastern Europe.

We demand from Germany: (i) assurance that extension of German interests in eastern Europe would not entail any attack upon the autonomy of other countries; (ii) that Germany agree to the limitation of arms under which she would be the strongest power in central Europe but unable to dominate the collective force of other powers, i.e. preponderence but not supremacy; (iii) and that Germany not support Italian aims in the Mediterranean and Africa.

This was too much for Harold Nicolson, who shocked Curtis with his ‘anti-German stance’. He put on record his belief in Germany’s ‘aggressive ambitions’, underscoring the ‘heroic motive’ that inspired German youth and that conditioned them to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of power. Nor would he hear of granting economic privileges in eastern Europe to Germany. This was skirting the main issues, however. Would firmness, taking a stand against the dictators, deter them or provoke them into embarking on ever more reckless adventures? No consensus was reached on this crucial point, the primary purpose of convening the ‘Soviet’ in the first place. As Harold termed it, the split between ‘the realists and the moralists’ was complete and irreconcilable.

Exit Eden; Enter Halifax, 1937-38:

Eden was contemptuous of Italy and was persuing a solid line on non-intervention, insisting that the Germans and the Italians should take their promises not to interfere in the Spanish Civil War more seriously. A Non-Intervention Agreement was supposedly in operation, though that did not serve as a significant obstacle to German, Italian and Soviet activities. However, at the end of August 1937, a torpedo, believed to have been fired from an Italian submarine, was inaccurately fired at a British destroyer. The British and French governments summoned a conference of interested states, but neither Germany nor Italy attended. Britain and France agreed that in future, their warships would attack unidentified submarines in the western Mediterranean. The Italians then decided to join in patrolling, thereby improving the diplomatic atmosphere. Meanwhile, Chamberlain deprecated any tendency among his colleagues to lump Germany and Italy together as ‘fascist powers’. For him, Germany was the problem, and by the end of the year, he had begun to address it directly.

Source: These Tremendous Years, 1919-38, March/April 1938.

Chamberlain thought Eden was being inconsiderate to Italy and set about conciliating Mussolini. This involved accepting Il Duce‘s conquest of Abyssinia. Finally, in a conversation between Grandi, the Italian Ambassador, and Eden and Chamberlain together, the Prime Minister actually argued Grandi’s case for him against Eden. Neville Chamberlain then went forward with his proposed Anglo-Italian agreement, without terms, to ease the bad feeling between Italy and Britain that had started over Abyssinia. Eden remained a firm believer in the League of Nations policy and was convinced that Mussolini should first be required to withdraw Italian troops fighting under Franco’s command in Spain. The Cabinet threatened to split on the issue, but on 20th February, Eden (shown above with his wife Beatrice) resigned. This was, ostensibly at least, because he could not agree to recognise the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, but, as we have already noted, it was also the case that Eden had been growing increasingly angry at the extent to which, after he succeeded to the premiership in May 1937, Neville Chamberlain took a specific interest in the conduct of foreign policy. It was frustration at this state of affairs that Eden could no longer manage. Lord Halifax, who had no objection to letting Chamberlain run the Foreign Office, was made Foreign Secretary in his stead. After his resignation, however, Eden by no means made life difficult for his former colleagues. Professor Keith Robbins wrote (in 1988) that:

He occasionally expressed a mild and judicious dissent but it was certainly not a root-and-branch opposition to all appeasement of the type that the Prime Minister was still engaged. And there was no one simple anti-appeasement front. It was only on the eve of war in 1939 that closer ties existed between Churchill, Eden and their respective followers and something approaching an ‘anti-appeasement’ front was formed.

Keith Robbins, Appeasement, Historical Association Studies (Second edn.) Oxford: Blackwell.

Eden’s successor, Lord Halifax, belonged to the generation ‘above’ him. Both men came from (somewhat different) landed families in the North of England. Already an MP at the outbreak of the Great War, Halifax spent three years of the war in Flanders and was one of a large number of Tory MPs in 1919 who pressed Lloyd George for harsher peace terms to be imposed on Germany. Such actions do not suggest an excessive tendency towards appeasement. However, as Viceroy of India (as Lord Irwin) from 1926, he came into direct conflict with Churchill. The latter – an influential figure in Baldwin’s two governments in the 1920s – continued to assert that Britain had no intention of relinquishing its ‘mission’ in India. It was perhaps somewhat inevitable that the analogies between India and the deteriorating situation in Europe, however absurd they may seem in post-imperial Britain, should suggest themselves to the mind of Halifax, as they had done to those of Simon and Hoare. In India, in his dealings with Gandhi and the Indian political leaders, Irwin had been able to make a ‘pact’ which had ended the Civil Disobedience Campaign (see the photo from 1930 below). He had achieved this, he firmly believed, by a series of face-to-face meetings in which ‘some face’ had to be lost by the British to reach a general settlement. As Lord Privy Seal from 1935, Halifax had taken an increasing interest in foreign affairs, pondering the possible applications of his Indian experiences to the peace of Europe. In reply to a suggestion in July 1936 that there was a certain similarity between the characters of the chief actors in Germany and India – a potent inferiority complex, an idealism, a belief in a divine mission and a difficulty in dealing with unruly lieutenants – Halifax replied:

There is much in common between Germany and India, and part of the trouble during recent years has been that the French have been so anxious to maintain things that evoke Germany’s inferiority complex.’

Andrew Roberts (1991), The Holy Fox: A Biography of Lord Halifax. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

The ability of the English gentlemen at the Foreign Office to discern an ‘inferiority complex’ in others was very well developed. Very different though they were, both Gandhi and Hitler delivered prophetic messages which somehow had to be dealt with. Halifax, it seems, from an early stage in government, was very interested “in getting together with Hitler and squaring him.” However, had Halifax, the Beaverbrook press and the ‘boffins’ at the Foreign Office been as familiar with Gandhiji’s Autobiography (1925) and his History of Satyagraha in South Africa as they were, presumably, with Mein Kampf, they might also have been able to make the comparison and ‘spot the difference’ between an idealism based in shared moral values (with most of India’s British Raj) and nonviolent doctrines, on the one hand, and on the other, one based on concepts of racial superiority and aggressive expansionism. Moreover, most Indian statesmen, including Gandhi himself, had been educated in England and therefore literally spoke the same language to a very advanced level. He was not the first to make this fatal error, nor would he be the last. After an extensive period in the India Office, the young R. A. B. Butler came to the Foreign Office as Under-Foreign Secretary to Halifax in 1938. He felt the problem before him was the same in both cases: dealing with the ‘status’ of a great people, this time Germany – then India.

In any case, Halifax got his face-to-face chance with Herr Hitler in November (17th -21st) 1937. His visit to Berlin and Berchtesgaden came just a month after rioting had begun in the Sudetenland. Eden was not altogether happy about this visit by a Cabinet colleague with no responsibility for foreign affairs; still, Halifax’s experience of dealing with ‘awkward men’ as Viceroy of India ameliorated Eden’s objections, though the Foreign Secretary still gave Halifax firm advice that he should keep the Germans guessing about Britain’s intentions.

The conversation ranged widely, and Hitler appeared to be very upset that Germany no longer had colonies. As a result, it subsequently appeared in London that there might be the possibility of reverting to this question again. However, it was difficult to tell how serious Hitler’s interest really was, as he did not return to it in subsequent negotiations. The two men then got down to specific questions concerning Danzig, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Halifax reiterated that while the status quo was not sacrosanct, the British government felt strongly that any changes could only occur through ‘peaceful evolution.’ Halifax also let Hitler know that German internal policy was distasteful to the British.

Lord Halifax touring Berlin with Göring.

To be fair to Halifax, his own diary entry makes it clear that it was obvious to him during or soon after the meeting that he could no longer pretend (if he ever really had) that Hitler shared the same values or ‘spoke the same language’ that he had been able to use in his face-to-face talks with Gandhi.

That soon became ‘blindingly’ obvious when the Führer suggested to Halifax that Gandhi might usefully be shot. Even so, Halifax (not yet Foreign Secretary) wanted to go on talking in the belief that, sooner or later, some form of understanding might, Micawber-like, ‘turn up.’ Germany’s ‘state of revolution’ would eventually cease, there would be a broader return to order, and peace would prevail. This was now a form of appeasement from weakness rather than from strength. Certainly, Halifax picked up on many contemporary assumptions about Britain’s army and navy, which made him cautious. Still, there was also a pervasive, paradoxical sense that the appeasers played a purposeful and still-determining role in the adjustments of world power that seemed to be taking place.

However, it was hardly the case that the Führer was ‘squared’ on this occasion. We had a different set of values and were speaking a different language, Halifax subsequently confided in his diary. Yet he did not concede that further conversation was pointless and that Britain should prepare for war. Instead, he reported to the Cabinet that, in his view, the Germans had no policy of immediate adventure. Their country was still in a state of revolution.

Nevertheless, they would press their claims in Central Europe, though not in a form to give others a cause or occasion to intervene. From this report of Halifax’s ‘interview’ with Hitler, Chamberlain took the view that an atmosphere had been created in which the ‘practical questions’ involved in a pan-European settlement could be discussed. He began to clear the ground with the French. His ‘realistic’ view of the European future was of its management by the four Great Powers – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – and it was up to Britain and Germany to lay the foundations of this. There was an inherent tension in Chamberlain’s position at this point. Britain was still to play a supporting European role, but the PM remained opposed to the idea of a substantial continental army. Britain could not countenance the continent slipping under German, especially Nazi, domination. Yet it was obvious that German influence over central Europe would be extended, and that should surely be a matter of continuing concern. The covert message was that borders should be adjusted, if not fully revised, albeit by agreement.

One possible source of encouragement in the face of the deteriorating European situation might have been provided by the United States. In October 1937, President Roosevelt made his Chicago ‘Quarantine’ speech which seemed to indicate that the administration was not totally uninterested in the trend of world affairs. The difficulty, however, was to find out precisely what the speech was meant to imply. The suggestion that aggressors might be ‘quarantined’ seemed to be meaningless. The neutrality legislation rendered any dramatic intervention impossible, although various spokesmen and emissaries seemed to be sending confusing messages across the Atlantic. Chamberlain was not impressed, as he did not want his foreign policy initiatives to be frustrated by US intervention, particularly since he did not believe that this would amount to anything but words. On the other hand, Eden believed that the Americans should be ‘educated’ in the hope of securing their support in the future. The Prime Minister took the initiative in sending a cold communiqué in mid-January 1938 to a general letter from Roosevelt suggesting an international conference. Eden took offence, as perhaps the PM had hoped he might. Differences mounted between the two men, particularly, as already noted, on how to handle Italy.

Eventually, in February, Eden resigned. He was no longer prepared to play a subordinate role in executing policy, which Chamberlain supposed he had accepted. His resignation cannot, however, be interpreted as a dramatic dissociation from the appeasement policy. His differences with Chamberlain at this point can still be described as technical, perhaps personal, rather than substantive. Also, it was, and still is, difficult to tell how decisions were being made in Berlin and whether the German Foreign Office really had much say in policy-making. In a sense, Chamberlain was joining a fashion by using special emissaries who were not under the control of the Foreign Office to take soundings and convey messages on his behalf. After Eden’s resignation, Halifax became Foreign Secretary. Nevertheless, the framework of his ideas had not changed in the interval:

… you have got to live with devils whether whether you like them or not …

Roberts, loc. cit. p. 85

He was reflecting on Eden’s ‘natural revulsion’ for dictators. He suggested that the best way to deal with them was to keep them guessing about what you might do in central Europe – a position which also had the advantage of preventing the French from making assumptions about British intentions in this area. It was, however, also the case that the government did not, in fact, know what it would do, as was demonstrated in both the Austrian and Czechoslovak crises later in the year of his appointment. It was only then, in September 1938, when Chamberlain brought back the terms offered by Hitler in Bad Godesberg, that Halifax changed his mind. There is testimony that by this time, Halifax had come to loathe Nazism and had lost all his delusions about Hitler.

Lord Halifax (left) with Hitler and von Ribbentrop.

Halifax was a very tall man (six feet five inches) and referred to Hitler as ‘a nasty little man’, whereas Goebbels was ‘a little man’ whom he liked. Lord Halifax was a personification of Britain, which had to stoop from its imperial ‘heights’ to be conquered. In this, he also personified the policy of appeasement, together with Chamberlain, another tall statesman. Halifax’s career, then, is a reminder that the term ‘appeaser’ is not rigid. Halifax may have ‘stiffened’ in 1938; in some readings, he may have ceased to be an appeaser. However, the War Cabinet debates of late May 1940 are a reminder that Halifax still brought what he saw as a rational calculation of Britain’s interests to the table at that dire juncture. His approach contrasted sharply with the instinctive tone adopted by Churchill. In this sense, Halifax remained an appeaser, if a modified one. His contemporary biographer explained Halifax’s practical motivation in favour of appeasement:

There is no more sincere believer in the League of Nations and all that it stands for, as his early speeches show. But he was quite frankly impatient with the idealism which was ready to sacrifice all hope of real peace in the vain effort to enforce upon the world an ideal which had become impracticable.

He is English in his good-natured hatred of cruelty, and his instinctive revolt against injustice in any form; in the cool, rather stolid courage with which he faces danger, and in the dogged patience and perseverance with which he pursues his aims through apparently insuperable difficulties … and in his cautious reluctance to accept a course of conduct simply because it is logical.

Stuart Hodgson, Lord Halifax (1941), pp. 241, 244.

Playing for Time – British Foreign Policy, 1937-38:

The rise of the aggressive fascist dictatorships in Italy and France, together with the growing success of Franco’s forces in Spain, meant that the rise of Fascism dominated British Foreign Policy in the late 1930s. The British government pursued its policy of Non-Intervention in Spain, alongside the appeasement of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, in the hope of avoiding a general European war. However, Germany and Italy had left the Non-Intervention Committee on 23rd June, and soon after, by July 1937, a second war was already in progress, this time in the Far East between Japan and China.

In an aerial attack on Shanghai on 28th August, sixteen Japanese planes bombed the area around Shanghai South Station, killing two hundred people. The baby in the picture, crying amid the ruins, was filmed by a Chinese cameraman, and it was estimated that a hundred and thirty-six million people worldwide saw the scene in newspapers and newsreels.

In July, Japan marched into China and took Peking without a formal declaration of war. Japan invaded after the Chinese had fired on Japanese soldiers engaged in manoeuvres near the Manchukuo frontier. Britain, although having critical commercial interests in China and Singapore, was not strong enough to take on Japan, but China’s resistance was greater than that expected by the Japanese. Chiang Kai-Shek had become China’s nationalist dictator and built a disciplined, well-equipped army. His wife, Mei-Ling (see the inset photo above), was an American-educated Methodist member of China’s ruling House of Soong. She took over the propaganda organisation, acting as a news censor. She also negotiated, through her influential family, foreign loans.

No clear military or political agreement had been forged between Germany, Italy and Japan. Still, they had become identified by the mid-1930s as revisionist powers who hoped to alter the existing distribution of territory and global influence in their favour. The direct result was to create a widening rift between these dictatorships and Britain and France, which initially, Hitler had not anticipated and did not welcome. Having proclaimed the Rome-Berlin Axis at the end of 1936, Mussolini subsequently joined Germany and Japan in the Anti-Comintern Pact in November 1937. In the spring of 1938, however, a political crisis in Austria provided the opportunity Hitler awaited to force a union between the two German states. As his formal ally, Mussolini no longer stood in the way of Hitler’s long-held plan as he had done in previous years.

Women and children sheltering from Axis bombing in Spain.

From its outset, the Spanish Civil War had absorbed the international community’s attention. It now served as a litmus test for whether democracy would survive or Fascism triumph. The extreme polarisation of political forces inside Spain, together with the active involvement of Italy and Germany on behalf of the insurgents and the Soviet Union supposedly championing the cause of the Left, turned the civil war into the ideological cause célébre of the late 1930s. Writing in 1938, the Duchess of Athol pointed to the risks of continuing the Non-Intervention policy thus far pursued by Britain and France:

Unless, indeed, the Fascist Powers wish a European War here and now, a rapid flow of arms to the Republicans plus the possibility of a Franco-British blockade, might induce the aggressors to withdraw at least part of their armed forces. If the Spaniards were at last left to fight it out, a loyalist victory would be assured, and a heavy blow would have been dealt to aggressive dictators. A new hope of peace would dawn for Europe.

… If Spain be allowed to pass under Fascist control, the dictators will have won the first round of the game, and the succeeding ones will be infinitely harder, and more costly, to, to wrench from their hands.

It is not clear, then, that whatever our next move may be, the first, if we are not to be parties to an appalling tragedy and to a terrible blunder, must be to abandon the so-called Non-Intervention policy and restore to the Spanish Government its right under International Law to buy arms?

The Duchess of Atholl, Searchlight on Spain (1938), pp. 329-30.

Government troops surrender to Nationalist forces on a front in Northern Spain. For foreigners who fought in the Spanish War, the main impact was not so much the battle experience as the bitterness of this family quarrel and the enormous numbers of people executed on both sides.

A further famous incident in the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 was ‘The Panay Incident’, which took place on 12th December, when Japanese planes again swooped down, this time to bomb (‘accidentally’) the US gunboat Panay that was steaming along the Yangtze River with refugees from Nanking, China’s capital. For twenty minutes, Panay seamen fired away with old Lewis guns shown in the picture (below left), but the planes kept in the line of the sun, so blinding the gunners. Within two hours, the Panay sank (pictured above), and fifty-four survivors who had got to the river bank hid in the rushes till the planes, which had machine-gunned them as they abandoned ship, flew off. The picture below (right) shows Quartermaster John Lang receiving emergency care for severe chin and arm wounds. Hirosi Saito, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, offered immediate apologies when he heard the news. He claimed the bombing was “completely accidental… a terrible blunder.” Soon after, the Tokyo government made offers of full compensation and a promise to punish offenders.

Source: These Tremendous Years.

In this ‘global’ context, therefore, it should come as no surprise to us, with the benefit of hindsight, that in late 1937 and early 1938, it looked as though Britain would be able to play no military role in Europe whatsoever. There was certainly nothing which could conceivably have been done by Britain and France, acting without Italy, to prevent the Anschluss of Austria to Germany in March 1938. A year later, the Chiefs of Staff also expressed the opinion that there was nothing that Britain, France and their potential Central European allies could do by sea, on land or in the air to prevent the military defeat of Czechoslovakia. The only thing that could be done at this stage was to declare war on Germany and defeat it in what would undoubtedly be a prolonged struggle. In all likelihood, Italy and Japan would exploit a Central European war for their own ends, making it a pan-European and then a world war. The weight of advice received by the Cabinet was such that it would have been a fearless and perhaps foolhardy PM who ignored it. These practical realities may not explain the development of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in 1938-40, but it does explain why there was no ‘rush to war’ in the spring of 1938. According to some historians, before 1936, the British intelligence community underrated the military potential of Germany; between 1936 and 1938, it overcompensated for its earlier misjudgement and exaggerated the capacity of the German armed forces.

It was, however, and still is, the Prime Minister from May 1937, Neville Chamberlain, who is primarily regarded as the prince of the appeasers. It is his name rather than any other which is inseparably attached to the policy of appeasement in its most ardent phase, though he did not invent the term. The fact that the policy is so firmly linked to one individual is a further reminder, already confirmed in considering foreign secretaries, that appeasement was not a simple formula, put into operation without variation regardless of who happened to be in government at any given time. Each prominent appeaser had his own agenda and brought to the task of shaping policy individual preconceptions, analogies and experiences. So it was with Neville Chamberlain. It was not a sufficient explanation of his failings as PM that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1931 to 1937, he had been so preoccupied with domestic economic matters that he was ignorant of world trends and developments. Almost by definition, especially in the circumstances of the mid-1930s, a Chancellor had to have a broad knowledge of international affairs, and Neville was nothing if not conscientious and thorough in his preparation. The confidence with which he expressed views on international issues of the day may have been exaggerated, but it was not without foundation. Even though he was sixty-eight when he became prime minister, he was fit and vigorous, brisk and efficient.

In short, few recent writers think that Chamberlain became an appeaser because he was stupid or ignorant, though other ministers and previous prime ministers may deserve this verdict. Some have suggested that there was something to be said for the policy; others, as already noted above, see it as a disastrous policy, stemming ultimately from the vanity, touchiness and obstinacy of the PM’s personality. While it is desirable that leading politicians believe in themselves, Chamberlain did so to excess. He came to ‘own’ the policy in a very personal, perhaps undesirable manner. These character defects brought about the tragedy of complete failure in foreign policy and earned him posthumous derision. So when we consider the course of action followed by the National Government throughout 1937 and early ’38 and its persistence in seeking an accommodation with Hitler, even a humiliating one, must lie with Chamberlain himself. In an ‘alternative’ 1937, another Prime Minister or a more flexible Chamberlain could only have represented an improvement in the foreign policy that was actually followed. In his defence, it has long been conceded that Chamberlain’s very real, personal sense of horror at the possibility of a second world war within twenty years of the last did not mean that he pursued ‘peace at any price.’ Duff Cooper, writing in 1953, drew a more sympathetic portrait than most of Chamberlain’s personal motivations:

I had sympathy with Chamberlain’s attitude. He had become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1931 when the country, we were told, was on the verge of bankruptcy. He had brought about a great financial recovery. He was about to welcome the return of prosperity and he hoped to use the money in beneficial measures of social reform. Suddenly he saw his dreams dissolving. The plenty he had laboured so hard to collect was going to be thrown away on re-armament, the least remunerative form of expenditure. But all was not yet lost. There was no certainty of war. …

… He had never moved in the great world of politics or finance, and the continent of Europe was a closed book. He had been a successful Lord Mayor of Birmingham, and for him the Dictators of Germany and Italy were like the Lord Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, who might belong to different political powers and have different interests, but who must desire the welfare of humanity, and be fundamentally reasonable, decent men like himself. This profound misconception lay at the root of his policy and explains his mistakes.

Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget (1953) p. 200.

But whatever the flaws in his approach to the dictators, Chamberlain did rearm the country and did not leave Britain defenceless in 1940. He was not, in his own mind, merely clearing the path for its abject surrender, but neither is it clear that he was simply ‘playing for time.’ He seemed sincere in his publicly stated belief that he was having some success in promoting ‘peaceful change’ or at least that he was only acquiescing in the minimum use of force to allow contentious matters to be resolved in Germany’s favour, so long as the safety or independence of the United Kingdom was not directly threatened. He stuck obstinately to these objectives of 1937 through the occupation of Austria in March 1938 to the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Even then, he refused to accept that the premiss on which he had based so much of his thinking since becoming PM, and even before, now seemed fatally flawed. As Keith Robbins has concluded:

The power of a Prime Minister is formidable and a great deal does indeed hang, for good or ill, on his leadership. But is it persuasive to pin so much on one individual appeaser? There were, naturally, serious military and economic issues which had always to be addressed… underlying structural considerations… but, in so far as the final decisions are always political, we need to return to ‘public opinion’ and the appeasers. A retrospective justification attempted by some appeasers was that the Cabinet did not in fact have much room for manoeuvre. They could only work, in a democracy, within the parameters of what they believed the public would accept. Could Chamberlain have acted differently supposing, for a moment, that he wanted to?

Robbins, loc. cit., p. 46.

One of the more recent historians to reflect on this point, R. A. C. Parker (1993), considered that in 1938 Chamberlain could have secured sufficient support either for the policies he pursued or for an anti-German alliance. It has been implied that ‘public opinion’ was in flux and was simply at the PM’s disposal to channel as he chose. But it is not clear that, early in 1938, this was the case. In the Cabinet and in the Foreign Office, however, the desks were cleared for action. But the self-confidence displayed by the Prime Minister seemed puzzling, even to some of his ‘inner cabinet.’ The initiative in Europe was held by Germany, in association with Italy, and by contrast, France seemed inert and bewildered. How could Britain, which still lacked an army capable of fighting on the continent, stem the tide? The PM seems to have hoped that Hitler’s ambitions were limited. They might only extend to the inclusion in one German state of all the German speakers of central Europe. The readjustment of the frontiers involved might be uncomfortable, but it was difficult to resist in principle. National self-determination, a by-word at Versailles, had become an almost sacred doctrine after the dissolution of the old empires. It might just be possible, therefore, to bring about changes by negotiation and bring about a European settlement underwritten by Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Events were shortly to put the assumption that war could be avoided in this way to the test.

It was only in September 1938, after Munich, that it seemed that the appeasement policy had majority popular support in Britain, albeit accompanied by a profound sense of shame over the surrender of the Sudetenland. After Munich, the same historian wrote, Chamberlain could have ‘given up’ appeasement and based a policy of resistance to Hitler on a restored national consensus. No doubt he could have attempted such a change of course, but, given the efforts which he had personally invested in the appeasement policy as the means of achieving a ‘lasting peace,’ it would have been very difficult for him to have publicly indicated his scepticism in what he had achieved without in turn giving Hitler a propaganda coup. If a decisive shift in public opinion was possible before March 1939, Chamberlain chose not to make it, and neither did he make it even after the occupation of Prague.

There were occasions, however, when Chamberlain did feel that his views were being circumvented by a Foreign Office which did not share them. This led him to seek advice beyond the Foreign Office and rely even more on his own assessments of European political developments. He was willing to be briefed by ambassadors like Sir Neville Henderson, the Ambassador in Berlin, whose interpretations and suggestions corresponded with what the PM wanted to hear. As a result, he became increasingly implicated in what Professor Watt described as Chamberlain’s ‘constitutionally dubious’ practices. In a circle which became vicious, some officials in the Foreign Office were not averse to leaking information to politicians whose views were not shared by the Cabinet. Could such ‘subversion’ of the government be justified? Some historians have gone so far as to believe that Chamberlain deviously exercised a ‘tight control’ over the press during the late thirties, eliminating the Foreign Office News Department as a source of anti-appeasement advice in Whitehall. Downing Street then became the sole distributor of news from Whitehall. The editor of The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, was in close contact with the government and was singled out as the most prominent appeaser in the press. It is therefore argued that no alternative to appeasement was ever consistently argued in the British press or relevant facts and figures ever given in its support. Ironically, Chamberlain himself ultimately suffered from his success in lining up newspaper proprietors. He deluded himself into supposing that what could be read in the press was ‘real’ public opinion. Whether an alternative ‘real’ public opinion ever existed, however, and whether, if so, we can know what he was, raises vast and possibly unanswerable questions.

‘The appeasers’ should not, however, be dismissed as a small coterie of individuals living in a world of their own. They responded to the feelings and concerns evident, to varying degrees, in British society at large in this period, even if they too readily assumed that their response was the correct one. Even so, while the views of individual appeasers are important, they must also be placed in a more general policy context. Only by bringing the personal and the structural together can we understand appeasement in action. On 12th March 1938, German troops marched across the Austrian border, and within days the county’s independence was at an end. For weeks before this development, Austro-German tension had been high, and some such outcome was not altogether unexpected. It may have been only at the last moment that Hitler judged it safe to annex his homeland.

Martin Gilbert wrote (in 1966) that the policy of appeasement, as practised between 1919 and 1929, was wholly in Britain’s interests and was not intended as an altruistic policy. British policy makers reasoned that the basis of European peace was a flourishing economic situation, unhampered by political conflict. Therefore, multi-lateral appeasement would promote mutual understanding by ensuring general European prosperity. Only through the success of this policy could Britain avoid becoming involved again in a war arising out of national ambitions and frustrations: a war which might prove even more destructive than the Great War of 1914-18 had been. As Gilbert concluded, …

… appeasement was never a coward’s creed. It never signified retreat or surrender from formal pledges. … Appeasement was not only an approach to foreign policy, it was a way of life, a method of human contact and progress.

M. Gilbert, The Roots of Appeasement. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966, pp. 96-97, 177.

In the context of 1937, free from hindsight, Gilbert argued that appeasement was a policy of constant concessions based on common sense and strength. However, by the mid-1970s, a flood of evidence became available after the Public Record Act of 1967, and it was this evidence that confirmed Gilbert in his revisionist view of these issues and events:

I had not realised the extent to which Neville Chamberlain’s Cabinet were prepared to deceive Parliament. I had not realised the extent to which they chose to ignore the evidence of Hitler’s intention put before them. … And finally, no one had realised the extent to which, after Munich, far from using the so-called ‘year gained’ to re-arm. Chamberlain had adopted a quite different policy and a quite different attitude, that now the time had come to for a real agreement with Hitler which would make massive rearmament unnecessary, and disarmament a possibility.

Source: Norman Rose (see below).

So ends a full and historic year, Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary on New Year’s Eve, 1937. It had been a happy year, a useful year for him personally, though the gulf in the appeasement debate between the ‘realists’ and the ‘moralists’ was wider than ever. Besides, there was one continuing, frustrating snag for those who clung to an optimistic view: it was clouded by menace on the continent. Between March 1938 and March 1939, Hitler absorbed into his new Reich not only Austria and the Sudetenland, both of which could be claimed to be historically German but, under its new name of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the remainder of the Czech lands as well as the Lithuanian Baltic port of Memel with its surrounding lands. In addition, Hungary obtained parts of southern Slovakia and Ruthenia, which had substantial Hungarian minorities and had belonged to the Crown lands of St Stephen before 1918. Yet, in the spring of 1938, the unknown publishers of These Tremendous Years had this as their last page, which reminds us of the benefits and pitfalls of hindsight in historical judgement:

Source: These Tremendous Years, 1919-38.
Source: Overy.

In the thirty years following ‘Munich’, ‘appeasement’ became very clearly linked to the three meetings between Chamberlain and Hitler, which took place in October 1938. The place and the concept were seen as the twin symbols of British folly. Yet Gilbert argued that they were separable items of vocabulary, not collocations. He saw them as separate policies and argued that ‘Munich’ was a policy in its own right, dictated by fear and weakness, which Chamberlain devised, not as a means of postponing war but, as he personally believed, of making Anglo-German war unnecessary in the future. In the end, this was not a’ realistic’ view, as the map below of German conquests and administration by November 1942 demonstrates.

Left: Hitler with Heinrich Himmler, SS Commandant. Source: Overy

Conclusions – ‘Later Than They Thought’:

There was much in Gilbert’s research to suggest that a distinction needs to be drawn between the Baldwin-Eden appeasement policy followed until May 1938, which had many of the common characteristics of ‘revisionist’ policies pursued since 1922, and that which developed under Chamberlain and Halifax in response to the international crises of 1938, which became closely associated with the ‘Munich Agreement’. Fifty years on from Munich, Keith Robbins (1988) drew several conclusions in respect of the general debate on ‘Appeasement’ at that time. I have selected some of these that agree with my findings, especially on ‘economic appeasement.’

Therefore, there were perfectly plausible reasons for arguing both that Britain could not afford defence expenditure in the later 1930s and that it could not afford not to increase such spending:

“The economic difficulties of Britain in the 1930s do not in themselves explain appeasement, but no explanation can ignore those deep-seated problems.” (p. 87)

“The task of seeking to reconcile Britain’s imperial role with its European position can be seen to have worried all British Foreign Secretaries and their advisers in the first half of the twentieth century.”(p. 87)

“… there is a danger in assuming … that the pattern of British decline was predetermined. At the heart of the argument about appeasement is a debate about inevitability. We can point to the rise of other centres of power and the extreme difficulty of adequately defending so ramshackle a structure as the British Empire, but does that mean that there was so very little scope for manoeuvre in the 1930s?” (88)

“… Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short term. In the longer term, however, it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.” (88)

“That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were flawless. He did not grasp the dynamics of Hitler’s régime and did not display a deep understanding of the aims, beliefs and practices of National Socialism.” (88)

“Even so, it is difficult to assess what difference Chamberlain’s shortcomings in this respect actually made to the conduct of policy. Lloyd George was blessed with much more imagination, but his analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better than Chamberlain’s. Another set of men in power would no doubt have made some, but not a vast, difference to the policies that were followed. Chamberlain, his colleagues and most of British opinion supposed it quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely inconceivable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. As evidence to the contrary mounted, Chamberlain and many of his countrymen looked around the world and were appalled by the ‘horrible barbarities’ they observed. Had ‘such a spectacle of human madness and folly’ ever been seen before?” (Holsti, 1991, pp.234-42). (88-89)

“The policies pursued in various areas – the economy, defence planning, industrial and technological development – may have produced the combination of conditions which enabled Britain to survive in 1940. But those same policies … substantially contributed to the ‘loss’ of Europe … Does this mean that appeasement was a success or failure? Of course, it would be consoling to believe that there could have been a policy in which there was no distinction between British interests and those of non-Nazi Europe as a whole. The inability of British and French governments ever to co-operate effectively is a sufficient commentary on this aspiration.” (89-90)

“A substantial section of British opinion had no wish to accept the priorities which would have been required to achieve the necessary image of strength. The problem of how a peace-loving democracy can be persuaded to prepare for war is an enduring one to which there is no easy answer. … British policy at Munich … was sometimes condemned for its apparent display of weakness by those who liked to regard themselves as exponents of power politics and a show of force. It was equally condemned, however, by many who had been adamantly against any vigorous policy of British rearmament. It was possible for people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another major war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be Britain’s callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia.” (90)

“… we can never be certain what the consequences of alternative policies might have been. Between 1939 and 1941 world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence even in 1938.” (90)

These quotations seem most relevant to the current debate about the parallels with the current crisis in central-eastern Europe, though, as the events and evidence presented above clearly demonstrate, in any distinct era the devil is always in the detail. In many ways, we are already well past the Anschluss, if not already in the midst of a Sudeten crisis, in which case this is our 1938 Moment, with warnings abounding about the readiness of NATO countries to commit troops and military materials to a widening ‘hot war’ in eastern Europe. We may well find ourselves looking back on the 2020s in a similar way to the way Réne Cutforth looked back on the 1930s and drawing the conclusion that it was later than we thought.


Keith Robbins (1988), Appeasement. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Richard Overy (1996), Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Asa Briggs, et al., (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico (Random House).

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War & After, 1914-35. London: George Harrap & Co.

Unknown author/ publisher (1938), These Tremendous Years. Printed in London & Northampton, 1938.

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