William Rees-Mogg: Does appeasement look so bad, 70 years on?

Roundup: Talking About History

[William Rees-Mogg has had a distinguished career with The Times and The Sunday Times. He was Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times before becoming Editor of The Times in 1967, a position he held until 1981.]

It is 70 years since war broke out in 1939, but historic questions remain. “Appeasement” is still a dirty word, but so is “war-monger”. President Bush repeatedly used the memory of Winston Churchill in 1940 to justify his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Revisionist historians question whether Neville Chamberlain, the architect of the 1930s appeasement policy, had any choice. One witness was Sir Nevile Henderson, who published his account in Failure of a Mission.

Henderson was Neville Chamberlain’s Ambassador to Germany in the period immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War. He arrived in Berlin early in May 1937. As Ambassador he came to know all the leading Nazis, and had several interviews with Hitler himself. He was chosen as the envoy for Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

Before he left for Germany, Henderson had interviews with the outgoing Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and with his successor, Chamberlain. “Both Mr Chamberlain and Mr Baldwin agreed that I should do my utmost to work with Hitler and the Nazi party and the existing Government of Germany ... nobody strove harder for an honourable and just peace than I did. But that all my efforts were condemned to failure was due to the fanatical megalomania and blind self-confidence of a single individual.”

We are all familiar with a collective portrait of the Nazi leaders derived from Hitler’s last days in the bunker and the Nuremberg Trials. Henderson’s book was written in the period immediately after the war had begun, even before the fall of France. May 1937 seen from April 1940 is very different from May 1937 seen from our postwar perspective.

“Hitler had been in power for over four years, and during that period had achieved gigantic progress in the military, industrial and moral reorganisation of Germany. It was patent that she could no longer be coerced except by the actual use of force . . . Germany was being militarised from the cradle to the grave.”

In 1937, Henderson was invited by Hermann Goering to stay at his hunting lodge and shoot a couple of stags. They discussed Anglo-German relations. “His idea of an understanding between Great Britain and Germany was an agreement limited to two clauses. In the first, Germany would recognise the supreme position of Great Britain overseas and undertake to put all her resources at the disposal of the British Empire in case of need. By the second, Great Britain would recognise the predominant continental position of Germany in Europe, and undertake to do nothing to hinder her legitimate expansion.”

Hitler certainly attached importance to the idea of an Anglo-German entente, giving Germany a free hand in Europe. In such an agreement Britain would have inevitably become the junior partner, dependent on Germany and indeed on Hitler.

Henderson recounts the tragic process to war as he observed it; the takeover of Austria in March 1938 accelerated the tempo of the crisis. On March 3, Henderson had an interview with Hitler. “I was received in the old Reich Chancery, and was asked to sit down on a big sofa against the wall facing the window. On my left, on a small stool, was Dr Schmidt taking notes. On his left again, in a semi-circle sat Hitler, and next to him and facing me, Herr von Ribbentrop ... Hitler was in a vile temper, and made no effort to conceal it.”

After Austria came Czechoslovakia and the Munich crisis of late September 1938, in which Henderson believed that Goering led a peace party inside the Nazi leadership. At least according to the propaganda spin, there was a meeting at which Goering attacked Ribbentrop for incitement to war — itself hardly seen as a crime among Nazi leaders. Goering apparently shouted that he knew what war was and did not want to go through it again. If, however, the Führer said “march” he would go himself in the first aeroplane. His one condition would be that Ribbentrop should be in the seat next to him. He also called Ribbentrop a “criminal fool”. Both men ended up in the dock at Nuremberg; Goering committed suicide and Ribbentrop was hanged.

At Munich Germany acquired the Sudetenland; in March 1939, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Step by step, the world was taken to war. On August 23, Germany signs a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union; on September 1, Germany invaded Poland. On September 3 Britain declared war.

On August 25 Hitler gave his last interview to Henderson. This was two days after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and six days before the invasion of Poland. In effect, Hitler repeated the offer that Goering had made two years before. He even attempted to counter the argument that such a deal would put Germany in the dominant position...

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