Neville Chamberlain was lucky to have died when he did. Had he lived beyond 1940, the man with the umbrella would hardly have survived his critics. E. H. Carr has reprimanded him, A.J.P. Taylor has roasted him, and J.F.K. '40 has stuck him with pins. Now, as if all this weren't enough, two young British historians have kicked his living daylights out.
According to their book jacket, Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott let "the facts tell the bitter and damnable truth" about the British appeasement of Hitler before World War II. The facts are the same old ones, but the authors dress them up more shockingly than ever. Their story is a disgusting one, a history of miscalculation and misdirection. But if the saga of Chamberlain and his cohorts is frightening, so is the shoddy reasoning and judgment of the authors.
To Gilbert and Gott, appeasement was the "sympathy of men in a slow, sluggish society for the dynamism of autocracy." The appeasers had one goal in mind--friendship with Germany--and they relentlessly pursued that goal despite all of Hitler's aggression. When Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937, he ignored the opponents of appeasement and sought the advice of its supporters. He surrounded himself with men like Sir Horace Wilson, "whose temporising, formula-evolving mind reinforced and emphasized the weakness of the Prime Minister."
The authors' case against the appeasers is most devastating at its most intimate. They reveal the furious maneuvers of Chamberlain to avoid war before Munich and the cowardly attempts to coerce the Poles in August 1939. During negotiations, "the appeasers never remained firm for long. The essence of their craft was weakness, vacillation and uncertainty." Their worst crime, according to the authors, was that they "saw only what they wished to see."
This one sweeping condemnation contains all that is wrong with this book. The appeasers saw a good deal more than they are given credit for but they were limited in choosing from what they saw. Although Chamberlain and his advisers were obviously as "soft" toward Germany as Gilbert and Gott maintain, they also were a good deal more aware of Britain's situation than the authors.
Chamberlain and Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer before the War, are especially castigated for their economic appeasement of Germany; Simon constantly negotiated for expansion of trade with the Germans from 1937 on. Gilbert and Gott cite this as an insidious and unnecessary aid to Hitler.
On the contrary, trade with any country, including Germany, was absolutely necessary to England. As an island which relies heavily on the importation of raw materials, Britain has always depended on an extensive international trade. After the Depression of 1932-3, inflation constantly threatened to wreck her balance of payments and thereby to hamper her economic recovery severely. The government was forced to keep all trade channels open at any cost. Britain had a heavy trade surplus with Germany and efforts to seek further trade with the Germans were unavoidable.
Gilbert and Gott find Britain's political advances to Hitler much more annoying than her economic connections. At the time, however, these approaches seemed somewhat understandable. Chamberlain had been a careful student of pre-World War I diplomacy, and he hoped to avoid the basic mistake made by both the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente--both systems were so inflexible that war could not be avoided once the first shot had been fired. Chamberlain wanted to preserve to the last minute the flexibility that Loyd George had lacked. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister went too far, as the authors so carefully point out, and Germany was not countered until the Battle of Britain.
The worst thing about The Appeasers is that it fails to discuss the most important issue of England's appeasement. If Great Britain had restricted Hitler at any point along his path of conquest, would he have stopped? Taylor insists that he would have, but Alan Bullock is not sure. Gilbert and Gott don't venture an opinion.
The Appeasers is like a biography which discusses its subject as if he were the only man alive. The authors have a great time tracing the movements of the appeasers, but they don't pause to consider the medium through which their subjects move. Von Ribbentrop appears as a soft piece of putty shaped by English hands. One does not hear of his constant efforts to soothe Hitler, his competition with the German ambassador in Moscow, or his fear of admitting defeat in his own policies. All were important in determining the scene upon which Chamberlain played the fool.
Like many shallow histories, The Appeasers is fun to read. The style is fluid and clear and the book is often funny. The condition of the Royal Air Force was so pathetic at the start of the war, for instance, that four small bombers failed miserably in dropping leaflets over Germany--two crashed and two returned home with their crews either frozen or incoherent. Unfortunately the style is also vicious and one-sided. On page after page, the authors repeat that there "was no substitute for singleminded action and efficient planning," that Britain was ruled by a group of "decayed serving men," or that the appeasers lived in "treachery and dishonor."
One reviewer of The Appeasers thought it interesting that two such young historians, without personal experience in the '30's should be so "devastating" in their attacks. It is not very interesting if such "devastating" history must also be so simple-minded and irrelevant in discussing a subject--especially when the subject itself is interesting.