This article is an edited transcript of Appeasing Hitler with Tim Bouverie on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 7 July 2019. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The most famous and iconic moments of the appeasement story were Chamberlain’s three flying visits to Hitler.
The first meeting
The first one, where Hitler and Chamberlain met in Berchtesgaden, was where Chamberlain agreed that the Sudetens should be allowed to join with the Reich should they wish to. He suggested that there should be either a plebiscite or a referendum.
He then returned to Britain and persuaded the French to abandon the Czechs, their former allies. He persuaded them that they must give in, that they must cede the Sudetenland to Hitler. And the French do this.
The French pretended to be highly affronted to be asked to abandon their ally, but privately they had already decided that they couldn’t fight for them anyway. They just wanted to pin the blame on the British.
The second meeting
Chamberlain, very pleased with himself, returned to Germany a week later, and this time he met Hitler on the banks of the Rhine at Bad Godesberg. This is around 24 September 1938.
And he said, “Isn’t it marvellous? I’ve got you exactly what you want. The French have agreed to abandon the Czechs, and both the British and the French have told the Czechs that if you don’t surrender this territory, then we will abandon you and you will have your most assured destruction.”
And Hitler, because he wanted a little war and wanted to keep upping the ante, said,
“That’s great, but I’m afraid it’s not good enough. It’s got to happen much faster than you’re saying, and we have to consider other minorities, like the Polish minority and the Hungarian minority.”
At that point, Chamberlain was still prepared to give in to Hitler’s demands even though it was very clear Hitler had no interest in a peaceful solution. But the British Cabinet, led by Halifax most interestingly, started to resist continued appeasement.
At this point, the British Cabinet revolted and rejected Hitler’s terms. For one brief week, it looked as if Britain was going to go to war over Czechoslovakia.
People dug trenches in Hyde Park, they tried on gas masks, the Territorial Army was called up, the Royal Navy was being mobilized.
At the absolute last moment, when Chamberlain was in the midst of a speech in the House of Commons talking about preparations for war, the telephone in the Foreign Office rang. It was Hitler.
Not in person. It was the British ambassador in Germany saying that Hitler was inviting the great powers (Britain, France, Italy, and Germany) for a conference at Munich to find a peaceful solution.
Munich: the third meeting
That lead to the Munich Agreement, which is actually far less exciting than the previous summits. By the time the British and French prime ministers boarded their airplanes, it’s a done deal. The Sudetenland was going to be surrendered, and it’s a face-saving exercise.
Hitler’s decided against war; they’ve decided to give in. It’s just an agreement.
But Hitler did not stop there. It’s important also to realise that dissatisfaction with the Munich Agreement began a long time before he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia.
There was huge euphoria after the Munich Agreement, but that was relief. Within a couple of weeks, most people in Britain were beginning to realise that the only way that war was to be avoided was by giving into this bully’s demands and that they’re probably not going to be his last demands.
Tearing up the agreement
Then there was the enormous shock in 1938 with Kristallnacht and the huge wave of anti-Jewish violence that spreads across Germany. And then in March 1939, Hitler teared up the Munich Agreement and annexed the whole of Czechoslovakia, which humiliated Chamberlain.
In doing so Hitler rendered all of Chamberlain’s claims for peace with honour and peace for our time null and void.
Hitler’s rejection and violation of the Munich Agreement in March 1939 is the decisive moment of the appeasement policy. This is when Hitler, beyond any doubt, proves that he is an untrustworthy man who is not merely seeking to incorporate Germans into his Reich, but is after territorial aggrandisement on a Napoleonic scale.
This was something which Churchill and others had been claiming. And the tearing up of the Munich Agreement is, I think, the watershed moment.