Appeasement: Neville Chamberlain's folly with Hitler

Why did Neville Chamberlain, as head of the British State, accept the destruction of that small Eastern European entity and leave it defenseless?

 Chamberlain (left) and Hitler leave the Bad Godesberg meeting on September 23, 1938. (photo credit: BUNDESARCHIV, BILD/WIKIPEDIA)
Chamberlain (left) and Hitler leave the Bad Godesberg meeting on September 23, 1938.
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

The current worrisome international situation has generated a large number of articles for consideration by the general public. Many of these articles speak about appeasement, with the current situation compared to Europe just before World War II, when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler. That agreement effectively “dismembered” Czechoslovakia, and the resulting situation played into Hitler’s hands.

Although categorized as “ appeasement,” that event is a bad model for current events. Unfortunately, any attempt to analyze that particular incident in detail can be dismissed as an attempt to rehabilitate Chamberlain’s reputation. This is wrong.

Jews have good reason to detest Neville Chamberlain. In a letter to one of his sisters, he described Jews as an unlovable people. And he was prime minister in 1939 when his government introduced the White Paper, which denied Jews unrestricted entry to Mandatory Palestine, ultimately leading to many deaths during the Holocaust. But one must also recognize that Chamberlain, while alive, condemned the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews in their jurisdiction.

It is important to remember that antisemitism is an attitude, and therefore, like all attitudes, it will be held with different degrees of intensity by different people. Chamberlain was not alone in his expression of distaste for Jews and prejudice against them, but at the same time categorically rejected physical violence against them. That was a common attribute during the 1930s outside Germany.

But the Munich conference was not about Jews. It was about Czechoslovakia, and the question is: “Why did Neville Chamberlain, as head of the British State, accept the destruction of that small Eastern European entity and leave it defenseless?”

FASCIST SALUTE: ‘Il Duce’ Benito Mussolini with Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler. (credit: Courtesy)FASCIST SALUTE: ‘Il Duce’ Benito Mussolini with Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler. (credit: Courtesy)

It could not have been stupidity. It has long been recognized that it requires a fair degree of intelligence to achieve a high political position. Nor could it have been cowardice. He was never in physical danger and knew it. This leaves fear of failure, which implied failure to achieve a peace agreement. But it seems he wanted a peace agreement at any cost, and that suggests an ulterior motive. A good place to start looking for such a motive is in family dynamics.

Joseph (1836-1914), the Chamberlain family father, was widowed twice and married three times. Harriet, his first wife, died giving birth to Austen (1863-1937), their second child and first son. Florence, Harriet’s cousin and Joseph’s second wife, gave him Neville (1869-1940) and three daughters. Joseph, Austen and Neville all became important members of Parliament. The third wife had no children, but all three wives came from families with a strong interest in politics. Unfortunately, the system at that time restricted women, older and younger, to a supporting role in politics.

Joseph began his political career as a Radical Liberal, but opposed home rule for Ireland, which was why he allied himself with the Conservatives. He founded the Liberal Conservative Party. Austen followed him, but Neville became leader of the Conservatives.

The political credo of all three was similar to Disraeli’s one-nation Toryism. They all had substantial experience in local politics from which the people of Birmingham derived benefit. Sometimes they even donated their own money to a local cause. They all supported legislation that would improve the conditions of the working class, which meant slum clearance, satisfactory drinking water, protection from long working hours, and mandatory holidays. Neville, as health minister, tried to improve the hospital system. Margaret Thatcher would have called them “Wet Tories.”

Hans Eysenck offers a more formal description in a monograph called The Psychology of Politics. He found that the conventional model for the behavior of politicians – that is, a horizontal left-to-right line – is misleading. He found it more accurate to bend that line at its central point and bring the two extremes together. His observations were that the extremes, left or right, shared common personality and behavior patterns. He called the extremes “ tough-minded,” and the people in the middle “tender-minded.” The character of the tough-minded involved rigidity, narrow-mindedness, and, if necessary, violence. The “tender-minded” were more flexible, altruistic and hostile to violence. It would be misleading to argue that the Chamberlain father and two sons were fully “tender-minded,” but there is enough in all their records to indicate a tendency in that direction. This is the wrong type of personality to be dealing with a phenomenon like Hitler. While this is a relevant factor in Chamberlain’s behavior and decisions at Munich, it is only one factor, and not the most important.

Some commentators have said that Joseph initially distanced himself from Austen because Harriet died giving birth to Austen. However, in later years the two became very close and worked together in Parliament to implement Joseph’s political goals. There is no doubt about this close relationship, and if the earlier story of distancing is correct the later closeness may have been evidence of over-compensation on Joseph’s part.

However, that closeness would have stimulated a competitive desire for paternal attention on Neville’s part. The phenomenon of sibling rivalry, or fraternal competition, has been recognized since biblical times. The first such story, Cain and Abel, ended in murder. The second, Jacob and Esau, ended in reconciliation. Competition for paternal, or maternal, attention is an inbuilt natural reaction that aids the survival of small children in primitive conditions, since the human infant can only survive with adequate parental care.

Such basic motivations continue into adult life. They are not the result of mental illness; they are usually harmless, and they can have a positive effect when they help ambitious people to seek approval.

In the case of the half-brothers, Austen and Neville, the results tended to enhance Austen, who, as the older, had an earlier start. Although Neville had done great work to the benefit of the people of Birmingham while mayor, he was not elected to parliament until 1918, when he was 49. By that time Austen was a government minister. But 1925 was probably the most important year in Austen’s political career. As foreign minister, he represented Britain at the Locarno Conference. His colleagues were Aristide Briand, France’s prime minister, and Gustav Stresemann, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic. The three developed an agreement that secured Germany’s western frontier, and it was believed Germany and France could never go to war again. The peace of Europe appeared secure, and the three were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for this. He was also given a knighthood by his grateful country.

Neville was still relatively junior and could not match his half-brother’s international reputation. That was the high point of Austen’s career.

Neville worked hard and efficiently becoming health minister and later chancellor of the exchequer. Initially, he reduced spending on defense, but when he recognized the German threat he increased defense spending again, particularly on developing the RAF.

He supported Baldwin, the premier during Edward VIII’s abdication crisis, and when Baldwin retired in 1937 he became prime minister. Although this was a tremendous achievement, it did not match a Nobel Prize, the most prestigious international award.

Then in 1938, his chance came. If he could “de-fang” Hitler and ensure Europe’s continued peace, surely he too would merit a Nobel. There is a strong probability that this was his thinking before he boarded the plane for Munich and nothing would deter him.

Naturally, these inner thoughts do not appear in official minutes, but his behavior supports this interpretation of events.

He met Hitler on three occasions, and he arranged those meetings. He traveled by air, the first time he had done so, and that indicates his desire for a quick resolution. He produced from his pocket at the third meeting the agreement he had written in advance, probably in his Downing Street study. And his return to Britain was histrionic, consistent with someone who had gained a major achievement.

Psychologists from Freud to Kahneman and Ariely inform us that if one asks an individual who has made a major decision why he/she has done so, the answer will not identify the underlying motivation. A rationalization will be offered. Part of Munich’s tragedy is that the agreement could be rationalized easily.

Brigadier, later Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell described the treaty of Versailles in the following way: “After the war to end war, they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a peace to end peace.”

The motivation was recognized to be France’ s desire for revenge for how Germany had treated her after the Franco-Prussian War and during WWI. Strangely, nobody mentions that Prussia and the other German states might have wanted revenge for how they had been treated by Napoleon’s invading forces in the first years of the 19th century. And Czechoslovakia?

In 1938, Czechoslovakia was only 19. It had been created from the remaining fragments of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire, and like most of the new states created after WWI its borders had been defined badly. It is instructive to observe Czechoslovakia’s history in retrospect from 2022. Czechoslovakia was reconstituted after WWII and became part of the East European bloc under Soviet control until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, its main populations, Czech and Slovak, agreed to separate and create two new states. At the moment that situation seems to be stable.

So Chamberlain’s position appeared, superficially at least, to be reasonable. His failure was his apparent inability to recognize that Hitler was an anomaly. Hitler is best described as a homicidal psychopath with paranoid fantasies. Such people do not usually become heads of state. Although history has an abundance of politicians who would tear up treaties, these treaties would be signed by others, and the time between signing and tearing up would be more than a few weeks. So Hitler was an unknown quantity to any of the conventional politicians he dealt with.

But Hitler too had miscalculated. He had forgotten, if ever he knew, that if one humiliates someone and makes that person look stupid, as he did with Chamberlain, one would make the victim angry, and more inclined to take risks when looking for revenge. So when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, six months after he entered Prague, he did so in the belief, encouraged by Ribbentrop’s advice, that Britain would not take any action. He was unpleasantly surprised when he received the message from Britain that instructed him to get his troops out of Poland within the day, or he would find himself at war with Britain. Chamberlain had declared war on Nazi Germany. Stalin and Roosevelt waited to be attacked.

If one accepts the proposition that Neville Chamberlain was motivated to go to Munich in an effort to equal Austen’s achievement in winning a Nobel Peace Prize, it is reasonable to speculate on what would have happened without that incentive.

Many people who knew Chamberlain described him as a thorough snob, so it was likely, in those circumstances, that he would have considered it beneath his dignity to go to Munich to meet and negotiate with the upstart, lower-class, dictator. Hitler had been lucky during the initial period of his dictatorship in that all his plans had been easily successful. There were elements in the upper ranks of the military elite who hated him and believed him to be dangerous for Germany and would have assassinated him, but were inhibited from action because of the popularity his early successes generated.

But if Germany had to fight its way into Sudetenland, that would have altered the situation and an attempt might have been made. If successful, that would have saved Europe a great deal of suffering.

Lessons can be drawn from that episode. It reminds us that senior politicians are flawed human beings, just like the rest of us. Some of their decisions may be made for personal reasons rather than strict reasons of state. In democracies, we elect representatives – that is, people whose ideas about how to manage the complex affairs of the country in which we live are similar to our own. We pay them to do this as part of our taxes, and if we don’t like the result we can throw them out in the next election.

Ultimately Chamberlain was fired. Hitler committed suicide.  ■

The writer is a retired physician living in Beersheba.