Garden-variety Coward

David Faber rejects the portraits of Neville Chamberlain as a tragic statesman, in a history of the Munich accords that is full of juicy anecdotes: "Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis" by David Faber, Simon & Schuster, 350 pages, $19.80

The sun was shining on September 30, 1938, as thousands gathered at the small airport in Heston, near London. They had come to welcome British prime minister Neville Chamberlain back from the summit in Munich, where he had met with Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and French premier Edouard Daladier. According to local newspaper reports, it was Chamberlain who had just saved the world from a war that was even crueler, deadlier and more destructive than the one that had erupted in 1914, and was traumatizing every household in Europe.

The days leading up to this historic homecoming had been tense and frightening throughout the Continent. The Fuhrer was making ever-greater demands and threatening to rain fire down upon his neighbors and the world. Most Britons did not understand why they should risk their lives for far-away Czechoslovakians or stubborn Poles. The prime minister told them there was nothing morally wrong with feeling that way: Indeed, the citizens were right to yearn for tranquillity. But, he urged, maybe there is a point to what Hitler was saying. After all, maybe everything we forced upon the Germans at Versailles in 1918 was not justified and correct. The German chancellor is a crude, unpleasant man, but he, too, will calm down after "getting what he deserves." After all, there was some merit to Hitler's claim that he was only coming to the defense of his German brothers in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, which had been annexed to the newly formed country after Germany's defeat in the Great War. Self-determination and freedom for Poland were all well and good, but when things got complicated, it was all right to ask the Poles, the Czechs and everyone belonging to the family of nations to make do with a little bit less.

The British were grateful to their aging leader, who had taken his first plane ride only a month beforehand and now, in his devoted pursuit of world peace, and was willing to risk his life again on this ultra-sophisticated mode of transportation, to swallow his pride and to go to Hitler.

During the brief speech he gave at the airport, Chamberlain pulled from his pocket the agreement he had just signed in Munich and promised the crowds at the airport, and others watching the newsreels at movie theaters that he was bringing his country and the world "peace for our time," "a peace with honor." In response, thousands of people mailed letters of thanks and congratulations to 10 Downing Street; housewives sent homemade pastries; and many even sent the prime minister black umbrellas, for the conservative British leader never left home without one.

The umbrella would later, however, become a symbol of dangerous appeasement. The promise of "peace for our time" was short-lived: Within a year or two, Chamberlain became a symbol of groveling submission. A handful of supporters and politicians who opposed him were at a loss to understand how their cool, experienced, clever leader had fallen into the trap of the con-man from Berlin.

Modern-day biographers and historians can cite more than one bit of evidence suggesting that Chamberlain truly believed the German dictator, was convinced that he had influenced Hitler - and believed that now, after meeting face-to-face and forging ties of friendship, the Fuhrer would not easily break his word as a gentleman.

Those who wish to portray Neville Chamberlain as the epitome of criminal naivete quote the premier's frequent correspondence with his unmarried sisters. In letters to these two elderly ladies, Chamberlain describes his meetings at the summit, mocks his opponents and brags about the historic role he played.

In recent years, as more and more documents have come to light, scholars have increasingly claimed that Chamberlain never believed Hitler and, like his detractors, knew full well that the world was marching toward a horrific conflict. All he wanted to do at Munich and in previous efforts to appease the German leader was to delay the war.

Chamberlain, according to this line of thinking, had no illusions about the military abilities of Britain and its allies to stop the armies of Hitler and the Axis powers. Indeed, it was Chamberlain, not Winston Churchill, who embarked on the energetic reconstruction of the British arms industry on which Churchill would rely later as he led his country to victory. If not for Chamberlain, Britain at its darkest hour would not have had the Spitfires and tanks it needed to fight the Nazi troops. And yet Chamberlain knew without a doubt that Britain of 1938 was still ill-equipped for war. He read all of the reports that were made on the subject and learned from them that much of the British populace was terrified; he knew that, if the country indeed went to war, the support of Britain's youths and students was far from certain. He did not have any romantic delusions concerning the British people's ability to stand firm with the enemy at the gates, nor did he believe for a minute that the French - his allies on the Continent - would meet all of their commitments when the time came.

According to this version of the story, Chamberlain is a tragic figure, not a myopic fool. His embarrassing confidences to his sisters are interpreted not as the bragging of a man bent on appeasement at any cost and willing to debase himself and his country in order to keep the peace. Rather, the figure that emerges is a clear-eyed statesman who exploits every last minute to fortify his country and brace himself, as much as possible, for the onslaught.

In this account of 1938, Chamberlain plays the noble role of a man who knew his actions and decisions would cause him to go down in history as weak and incompetent, and yet he still chose to give Britain another year or so to arm and prepare itself. Even when he left office in May 1940, making way for the popular hero Winston Churchill, Chamberlain continued to exert his influence behind the scenes. But he was a weak, broken man, who died in the middle of the war, the very embodiment of submissive appeasement.

Fun in the details

In his highly readable "Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis," which tells the story of that year and the events leading up to World War II, David Faber rejects these interpretations. His Neville Chamberlain and the bureaucrats, politicians and aides surrounding him, were a group of cowards who ignored danger when they caught a glimpse of it in all of its ugliness and horror. Chamberlain had a chance to save the world from Hitler's murderous expansion scheme, but he failed to use it. He was characterized by a combination of political myopia, personal vanity and garden-variety cowardice.

The book's broad canvas and many details are the source of its charm. Indeed, Faber's work is packed with the small stories that accompany the great one. He read all of the significant research on the subject and the biographies of Hitler; he studied the importance of domestic developments in Germany in early February 1938 - after the loyal war minister, the field marshal Werner von Blomberg and the long-time general, Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, both resigned, and Hitler took his place at the top of the military leadership. The consequences of that move are clearly spelled out in any book about World War II, with respect to how Hitler influenced his army's decisions at every stage of the game. Von Blomberg was accused of marrying a much-younger woman who had been a hooker and a pornographic model; Von Fritsch was charged with consorting with a male prostitute. Faber is not one to pass on such juicy stories carelessly: He devotes a substantial chapter to them, and the scandal that is seen as consequential by all historians is given the status of a formative event in this book.

Another example of the author's gift for putting juicy anecdotes to use: At one point in the negotiations in Munich, when the agreement was about to be signed, Hitler invited his British guest to his private apartment in the city. At the end of this dramatic meeting, the two men had their picture taken sitting on Hitler's sofa, for posterity's sake. Faber discovered that when Hitler's lover Eva Braun saw the picture, she commented that if the world had known a bit more about the history of that sofa, it would have attributed more significance to the photograph.

Perhaps because this readable book has such clear and simple - even simplistic - messages, the reader occasionally stops to wonder what the right way is to deal with bullies who try to paralyze and impose their will on their enemies. In this story, Faber says, the protagonists fell into two groups: those who wielded a fist, who made demands, who insisted on forcing their own rules of the jungle on the rest of the world; and those who sought peace at all costs and, to ease their own conscience, were able to find some merit, albeit partial, in the demands of the menacing figures opposing them.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and editor of Am Oved's Ofakim series.