Correlli Barnett: We have learnt the wrong lessons from Munich

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Correlli Barnett is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and author of The Collapse of British Power (Pan Books).]

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Munich Agreement with Hitler. The word “appeasement” has been a synonym for cowardly surrender to armed threat ever since.

The Agreement marked the denouement of the foreign policy that Neville Chamberlain had pursued with unshakeable self-belief since he became Prime Minister in 1937. To him appeasement meant bringing a stable peace to Europe by replacing the Versailles Treaty of 1919 (imposed by the victors on Germany) with a new settlement based on mutual consent. The memory of the Great War, in which his cousins were killed on the Western Front, inspired him with a profound detestation of force. In his own words, “War wins nothing, cures nothing, ends war, there are no winners, only losers.”

When Chamberlain conceived his vision, Nazi Germany had reoccupied the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland in defiance of the Versailles Treaty and was openly rearming; Britain, too, had begun to rearm. It seemed that Europe was heading inexorably towards another Great War.

Here was motive enough for a man of peace such as Chamberlain. Yet there was something else: a deal with Hitler would also effectively solve Britain's problem of defending a global empire in the face of a triple threat - from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militarist Japan.

But Chamberlain, a decent, honourable English gentleman, did not perceive that by wooing Hitler he was yielding him the upper hand, an advantage Hitler was ruthlessly to exploit when the Czechoslovakian crisis blew up in 1938.

After Hitler had occupied Austria in March and united it with Germany, it was clear that Czechoslovakia, with its minority population of German-speakers in the Sudetenland, would be next. So Chamberlain convinced his Cabinet that Britain must persuade the Germans, French and Czechs that there should be an “amicable” and “orderly” settlement of the Sudeten question.

A day later, the Chiefs of Staff reported on the military implications of German aggression against Czechoslovakia. Totting up a gloomy military balance sheet, they concluded: “We are not yet ready for war.” But it was well known in London that the German military leadership believed the same of Germany. So a declaration by Britain and France that they would fight for Czechoslovakia's territorial integrity might have enabled the German generals to deter Hitler from risking a war.

All that summer Hitler and his Sudeten stooge, Konrad Henlein, stoked the crisis. When Henlein ranted at a rally in Berlin, “We are German national citizens”, even Chamberlain had to acknowledge that this was no longer a domestic dispute between the Sudetens and the Czech Government, but a question of the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia.

Chamberlain's noble aspiration to appease Europe was now supplanted as a motive by simple fear of war. In crucial Cabinet debates, only Duff Cooper and Oliver Stanley showed fighting spirit. Referring to the doubts of the German generals about Germany's readiness for war, Stanley prophesied (rightly) that in a year or so Germany “would be in an immeasurably stronger position for fighting a long war”. So stand firm? Not at all. In Chamberlain's cringe-making words, it was “very very important not to exacerbate feeling in Berlin against us”.

In September the crisis deepened. Reservists were called up, violent riots broke out all over the Sudetenland, and Hitler declared to the Nuremberg rally on September 12 that “the Germans in Czechoslovakia are neither defenceless nor are they deserted”. Next day there was an armed rising in the Sudetenland, which the Czechs easily crushed, and Henlein fled to Germany.

It seemed inevitable that the German Army would soon invade. Both France and the Soviet Union were bound to Czechoslovakia by treaties of alliance. Britain could hardly leave France to its fate, so a general European conflict seemed desperately near. This prospect broke the fragile nerve of the French Government, which pleaded with Chamberlain that a German invasion must be averted at all costs. This was exactly what Chamberlain needed as the justification for what he called his Plan Z - a personal mission to Hitler “with a view to finding a peaceful solution”.

On September 15 he flew to Munich and the two leaders sat down for a three-hour discussion at Hitler's mountain retreat. It was as if a clergyman was joining a professional card-sharp in a poker game. Chamberlain was to report later that he believed that Hitler's objectives “were strictly limited”, and that he had favourably impressed the man. In fact, Hitler had sized him up as a sucker to be easily conned.

Hitler coupled the threat of imminent war with ever-increasing demands. Even a Czech agreement to cede the Sudetenland, wrung out of President Benes by a disgraceful Anglo-French ultimatum to agree or be abandoned, was no longer enough. Now the Sudetenland must be handed over to Germany by October 1 or the German Army would march.

The deeply split British Cabinet reluctantly agreed with the Prime Minister that there was no alternative but to give in. Only Duff Cooper resigned in protest.

On September 29, Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, the French Prime Minister, Hitler and Mussolini met in Munich. Next day the now infamous Agreement handing over the Sudetenland and Czech frontier fortifications to Germany was signed. It left Czechoslovakia defenceless and decisively swung the balance of military strength in Europe away from the democracies.

From an upstairs window of 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain told a shamefully cheering crowd that he had brought back “peace with honour. I believe it is peace in our time.” It was the climactic scene in the tragedy of a deeply moral man corrupted by a cunning adversary - and by his own vanity.

The word “appeasement” haunts us to this day.It confuses our political leaders who believe that not to stand up to any aggressor anywhere at any time is to be an “appeaser”. This was the argument advanced in 1994 to justify intervening in the Yugoslav civil war. No appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic! Tony Blair said the same in 1999 to justify the Nato-led attack on Serbia in the cause of the Muslim Albanian inhabitants of the historic Serbian province of Kosovo. And recently, both David Miliband and David Cameron rushed to Tbilisi to promise that the West will stand by Georgia in its dispute with Russia. No appeasement of Putin and Medvedev!..

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