Chamberlain's Folly

Had Chamberlain stood firm on Czechoslovakia, as he was forced to stand firm on Poland, perhaps events would have evolved differently.

Seventy years ago this Tuesday, the German army invaded Poland. Two days later, on September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

The sad voice of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, announcing on the radio that his country was at war, still resonates. His acknowledgment that all his efforts to avert hostilities had been unsuccessful reflected the posture of a candid politician, which Chamberlain certainly was, and of a humble man, which Chamberlain clearly was not.

His policy of appeasement was conducted almost as a solo show. Chamberlain truly believed he was uniquely endowed with the ability to achieve "peace in our time." He said as much to his sisters, who were his confidants.

Chamberlain carried out his plan of appeasement from 10 Downing Street, relying on only a few personal advisers, without much regard for the Foreign Office, especially officials critical of his policies. He thought he knew best, and any advice questioning his program was dismissed out of hand.

His cabinet was mostly behind him, due to both conviction and to Chamberlain's strong personality. He was, after all, an experienced and respected politician when he assumed the prime ministership in 1937. No one doubted his political abilities, even if he lacked experience in foreign affairs.

In his desire to prevent war, Chamberlain made three unprecedented trips to meet German leader Adolf Hitler in September 1938. He was also willing to go almost all the way to meet Hitler's demands. Thus, Chamberlain was ready to impose on Czechoslovakia a settlement forcing it out of the Sudetenland, a vital strategic area inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans.

Chamberlain was genuine in his desire for peace, but wrong in his assessment of Hitler's intentions. Two schools of thought on the subject have evolved since the war's end. According to the first, Chamberlain truly believed it was possible to appease Germany. This school holds that he was morally wrong in forcing the Czechs to surrender the Sudetenland, and was naive in believing that this would satisfy Hitler.

The second maintains that Chamberlain was acutely aware that Britain was not yet ready for war, and thus had no choice but to postpone it until the country was better prepared both militarily and economically. Proponents of this perspective point to the fact that Chamberlain took advantage of the respite afforded by appeasement to undertake a speedy rearmament.

There are two problems with the latter argument. For one, even after Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, in March 1939, Chamberlain still needed to be pressured by both his political colleagues and public opinion to change the country's policy, accelerating the rearmament and extending guarantees to Poland. Second, it contradicts what a seemingly broken Chamberlain himself said when he finally declared war, candidly lamenting that all his efforts to maintain peace had failed.

Following the trauma of World War I, and in light of the fear of the utter devastation that a new war would wreak, many in Britain were ready to support almost any diplomatic move aimed at preventing war. That's why Chamberlain was welcomed back from the September 1938 Munich summit - where the Sudetenland was ceded - as a hero. Even most members of Parliament believed he had averted war.

Up to that point, Hitler's demands had been based on the right of self-determination and the redress of the wrongs perpetrated by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I. Many decision makers thought that the re-militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the annexation of Austria in 1937 and the occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938 were based on legitimate German grievances. Only German territory or German-speaking inhabitants had been involved.

But when Hitler invaded deeper into Czechoslovakia, even the most credulous observer could see his ambitions stretched beyond that. In a way, it could be argued that World War II broke out not with the invasion of Poland, but the moment German forces crossed into the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. This act destroyed the conceptual rationale for appeasement. When the fate of Czechoslovakia was cast, so was the fate of Europe.

Chamberlain called Czechoslovakia a far-away country about whose inhabitants the British knew little - and he acted accordingly, sacrificing the only parliamentary democracy in central and Eastern Europe for the sake of what he thought would be peace.

Had Chamberlain stood firm on Czechoslovakia, as he was forced to stand firm on Poland, perhaps events would have evolved differently. After all, the Czech army was a powerful, well-trained fighting force that could have turned any German attack into a nightmare for Hitler. Even if Germany had won, it would have been badly injured.

As it turned out, it was Chamberlain's standing in history that was badly injured, however much one may try to understand his motives and take into account his difficult conditions.

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer in the diplomacy program at Tel Aviv University.