‘The commonest little dog I have ever seen.’ These were British Prime Minister’s Neville Chamberlain’s snobbish observation after he first met Adolf Hitler in September 1938 in a desperate attempt to avert war in Europe. Chamberlain also described Hitler as ‘entirely undistinguished. You would never notice him in a crowd and would take him for the house painter he once was.’
Chamberlain’s withering words revealed the gulf in social class and status between the two leaders, who were locked in tense negotiations during that fateful September. On the one hand, there was Chamberlain, the suave former businessman who hailed from an esteemed political dynasty, looking almost cartoonishly English with his trademark, tightly-furled umbrella. On the other was Hitler, the once-penniless painter who’d clawed his way up from the streets to unashamed dictator of Germany – as moody and volatile as Chamberlain was tactful and reserved.
But this put Hitler, not Chamberlain, at an advantage. As none other than Mussolini said, ‘Chamberlain is not aware that to present himself to Hitler in the uniform of a bourgeois pacifist and British parliamentarian is the equivalent of giving a wild beast a taste of blood.’
Mussolini’s judgment sums up how Chamberlain is regarded by most people today. In the popular imagination, he is the hapless fool, the naïve appeaser of Hitler, who returned from his final meeting with the Fuhrer on 30 September 1938, proudly promising ‘peace for our time’.
But is such a harsh judgment really fair on poor Neville Chamberlain, who would die from cancer during the darkest days of World War Two, thinking himself an utter failure? Should Chamberlain have known better, or are we today assessing him with the smug authority of hindsight?
Chamberlain’s now-notorious meetings with Hitler took place because the dictator was itching to get his hands on swathes of Czechoslovakia that were largely ethnically German. Hitler argued that these territories, known as the Sudetenland, really belonged to Germany, and so it wouldn’t really be an ‘invasion’ per se. However, France was bound by a treaty to protect Czechoslovakia in the event of such a move by Germany, which meant the situation had the potential to descend into a new Europe-wide war.
Concerned about the mounting crisis, Neville Chamberlain decided to mediate by flying out to have a face-to-face meeting with Hitler. It was a daring move. Chamberlain had never even flown internationally before (and was rather perturbed by the bumpiness of the plane).
He would embark on three such trips to Germany in September 1938, trying to placate a furious and unpredictable Hitler, who was prone to changing his demands and left Chamberlain feeling exhausted and close to a nervous breakdown. Back home, many were incredulous at Hitler’s sheer gall. Chamberlain’s own Foreign Secretary complained that Hitler was ‘dictating terms just as though he had won a war, but without having had the fight’.
It was on the third meeting in Munich, at the end of September, that Hitler’s demands were officially accepted. The Sudetenland was to be his, with the Czechoslovakian government being forced to accept the situation. This is now widely regarded as one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of diplomacy, with ‘Munich’ itself becoming a by-word for appeasing tyrannical regimes.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy was accused of bringing about a new ‘Munich moment’ by negotiating with the Soviets. Later, President Johnson argued that if he didn’t commit American troops to fight in Vietnam, he would be doing ‘exactly what Chamberlain did in World War Two. I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression.’ Much more recently, the word ‘Munich’ was lobbed at Barack Obama for his nuclear deal with Iran.
Yet, it’s important to remember Chamberlain was hailed as a national hero when he clinched that deal with Hitler. The streets were literally crammed with adoring crowds as he made his way back through London after returning from Germany. Chamberlain was even invited to wave to Londoners from the balcony at Buckingham Palace. This is a reflection of just how desperate the people were to avoid conflict.
Memories of the Great War, and the destruction of a whole generation, were still fresh. There was also widespread terror at the prospect of aerial bombardment of civilian targets – a phenomenon that invoked the same kind of apocalyptic dread as the prospect of nuclear conflict would during the Cold War. As far as most were concerned, standing up to Hitler simply wasn’t worth the risk to European peace. Chamberlain himself summed up the exhausted mood during a radio address:
‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.’
According to this argument, Chamberlain made the best of an impossible situation. He couldn’t have known that Hitler was gearing up to be a world-historical villain of genocidal proportions. He couldn’t have predicted that the Fuhrer would swiftly absorb the whole of Czechoslovakia (not just the German-speaking parts) into the Reich. All Chamberlain could do was deal with the situation as it was in September 1938, and he did with brave aplomb. As he said on the eve of the Munich agreement, ‘When I was a little boy I used to repeat: “If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.” That is what I am doing.’
But the counter-argument to this is that plenty of politicians – not just the appalled Winston Churchill – saw Hitler for what he was. Ordinary people held street protests against the shabby treatment of Czechoslovakia, while Chamberlain’s plucky words were parodied as ‘If at first you can’t concede, fly, fly, fly again.’ And it could easily be argued that Hitler had made his intentions very clear, thanks to his hate-filled book Mein Kampf, not to mention the creation of Dachau concentration camp back in 1933.
Ultimately, however you see Chamberlain, there’s little doubt that 30 September 1938 emboldened Hitler. Almost a year later, as he prepared to invade Poland and trigger the worst war in the history of the world, Hitler said: ‘Our enemies are men below average, not men of action, not masters. They are little worms. I saw them at Munich.’