Journalist Leo McKinstry’s Churchill and Attlee is a deft analysis of a political odd couple who led Britain’s Second World War coalition government. Now, eighty years since the death of Neville Chamberlain, he has published an excellent appraisal in The Spectator. Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Chamberlain negotiated the 1938 Munich agreement. “Peace for our time,” he famously referred to it. In the end, he bought the world peace for a time.
Mr. McKinstry is right to regret that Chamberlain has been roughly handled by history. “The reality is that in the late 1930s Chamberlain’s approach was a rational one,” he writes. It was “dictated by military strength and the mood of the nation. It is impossible to imagine him making such an expensive hash of the [Covid] testing regime as the present government has done.”
Covid testing is a bit outside my area of expertise. But Mr. McKinstry is right to insist on fair play for Chamberlain. It seems, however, that Churchill’s Munich prescriptions have been somewhat overlooked in the process. Accordingly I republish a 2014 piece that may shed light on that subject.
Berlin, September 1938
A motorized division rolled through the city’s street just at dusk… The hour was undoubtedly chosen to catch the hundreds of thousands of Berliners pouring out of their offices at the end of the day’s work. But they ducked into the subways, refused to look on, and the handful that did stood at the curb in utter silence…. The Führer was on his balcony reviewing the troops…and there weren’t 200 people. Hitler looked grim, then angry, and soon went inside…. What I’ve seen tonight almost rekindles a little faith in the German people. They are dead set against war.” —William L. Shirer
Chamberlain met Hitler two days later in Munich. Churchill was certain that now was the time to resist. Yet we are regularly told that the Munich agreement was necessary and wise. Obviously, it gave Britain more time to arm. But it also gave Germany more time to arm—and to neutralize a potential enemy in the Soviet Union. Hitler also reaped a military bonanza in Czechoslovakia. In the 1940 invasion of France, three of the ten Panzer divisions were of Czech manufacture.
Obviously, goes the refrain, Britain and France could not have defended landlocked Czechoslovakia. There was more to its defense than that, Churchill wrote: “It surely did not take much thought…that the British Navy and the French Army could not be deployed on the Bohemian mountain front.” 
If resisting Hitler in 1938 was a faulty concept, why was it preferable to fight him in 1939-40? That sawa the eradication of Poland in three weeks, the Low Countries in sixteen days, France in six weeks.
If not then, when?
Churchill, in his memoirs had only the scholarship of 1948: Nuremberg testimony, recovered Nazi documents, private contacts, some from inside Germany. From Munich onward, he argued that the time to take on Hitler had been 1938. Was he wrong? How has his theory stood the test of time and modern scholarship? The answer is: no so badly. Reading the literature, it is arguable, that Chamberlain indeed “missed the bus” at Munich.
This is no attempt to pillory Neville Chamberlain, an easy target for generations of second-guessers. Without his rearmament programs and support of his successor, Churchill could not have successfully fought the Battle of Britain. Chamberlain was wrong about Hitler, but he had as Churchill said the “benevolent instincts of the human heart…even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour,” striving “to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle.” 
Williamson Murray analyzed the strategic issues affecting the Czech crisis in The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939. (See especially chapters 6, 7, and 8.) He closely compares the balance of military forces and political circumstances between 1938 and 1939. Some of his revelations were new and startling; some were common sense. Michael McMenamin (“Regime Change 1938“) has written cogently on the plot against Hitler. This was real and credible, he says, but it stopped cold after Hitler’s Munich triumph. Murray’s and McMenamin’s arguments are summarized in Finest Hour 162, Spring 2014.
Point and counterpoint
Remember, though, that history is a constant process of revision. Contrary arguments exist, and qualified counter-arguments must be considered. Take for example, the case for inertia, which drove Chamberlain. This was nicely defined by the late Churchill scholar Paul Courtenay:
Whatever the relative strengths between UK/France and Nazi Germany in 1938, World War I was so recent in the national memories that public opinion (and Parliament) would never have been in favour of any pre-emptive ultimatum or strike at Hitler. It took two more Nazi outrages—the absorption of Czechoslovakia and the attack on Poland—to persuade everyone that enough was enough.
This insightful observation has been made before. But again, we rarely hear the parallel: that the Germans too had had a bellyful of war and its disastrous aftermath. Rapturous crowds, believing he brought peace, greeted Chamberlain in Germany. Berliners, watching as Hitler reviewed a motorized column in September, were sparse and sullen. William Shirer said it was “the most striking demonstration against war I’ve ever seen.” Hitler turned away in disgust, remarking to Goebbels, “I can’t lead a war with such people.” 
British wishes as he saw them registered with Chamberlain at Munich, as they had with his predecessor. In 1936, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin restrained the French after Hitler occupied the Rhineland. When French Foreign Minister Pierre Flandin appealed for Britain to mobilize, Baldwin replied that he knew the British people, and they wanted peace. Flandin knew that France would not act without Britain. Now he was told that Britain would do nothing. 
The path of duty
Churchill snorted at Baldwin’s interpretation of his duty. The responsibility of a leader is to lead, he insisted. The leader’s primary concern is the safety of the nation—whatever the consequences:
I would endure with patience the roar of exultation that would go up when I was proved wrong, because it would lift a load off my heart and off the hearts of many Members. What does it matter who gets exposed or discomfited? If the country is safe, who cares for individual politicians, in or out of office? 
Churchill made that ringing declaration in 1936. Two years later Hitler absorbed Austria, an almost catastrophic display of German military bungling. Heedless of that, he was now after Czechoslovakia. Self-evidently, the British were by then less pacifist. Many were outraged. Lord Halifax, so often portrayed as an abject appeaser, led a “cabinet revolt,” saying Hitler could never be trusted. He telegraphed Chamberlain: “Great mass of public opinion seems to be hardening in sense of feeling that we have gone to the limit of concession.” 
Churchill’s reply to the notion that Britons would not fight was given in an interview three months after Munich:
In this country at any rate the people can readily be convinced that it is necessary to make sacrifices, and they will willingly undertake them if the situation is put clearly and fairly before them. No one can doubt that it was within the power of the National Government at any time within the last seven years to rearm the country at any pace required without resistance from the mass of the people. The difficulty was that the leaders failed to appreciate the need and to warn the people, or were afraid to do their duty, not that the democratic system formed an impediment. 
“Thus far and no farther”
There are of course incalculables. We cannot know the military outcome or the result of the coup attempt. How would the British public have reacted if the Anglo-French had resisted? In 1939, Britons largely supported declaring war over Poland, which was much less defensible than Czechoslovakia. Properly alerted to the realities, would the people have backed resistance in 1938? Churchill believed so:
The pace is set by the potential aggressor, and, failing collective action by the rest of the world to resist him, the alternatives are an arms race or surrender. War is very terrible, but stirs a proud people. There have been periods in our history when we have given way for a long time, but a new and formidable mood arises. 
Churchill’s interviewer interrupted: “A bellicose mood?” No, said Churchill:
A mood of “Thus far, and no farther.” It is only by the spirit of resistance that man has learnt to stand upright, and instead of walking on all fours to assume an erect posture. War is horrible, but slavery is worse, and you may be sure that the British people would rather go down fighting than live in servitude. 
By derivation Churchill would also say, as indeed his whole life proved, that if a leader can’t carry the people, then he goes: “…who cares for individual politicians, in or out of office?”
Munich in retrospect
Thanks to Messrs. Murray and McMenamin, we know much about Munich that was previously obscure. There were choices. Of course we were not there in 1938. We don’t know the mood of the people, or the politicians. Churchill never met the formidable Führer face to face. We will never know the outcome as Chamberlain described it, of “a quarrel in a far-away country between a people of whom we know nothing.” 
But we do know what happened in September 1939, and in May-June 1940. And we are obliged to consider Churchill’s position—which was, characteristically, far from baseless:
Nothing is more dangerous in wartime than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature. I see that a speaker at the week-end said that this was a time when leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture. 
 Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), 214.
 Churchill, House of Commons, 12 November 1940, quoted in Richard M. Langworth, Churchill in His Own Words, hereinafter CIHOW (London: Ebury Press, 2012), 331.
 William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002, reprint), 142-43. Hjalmar Schacht, Account Settled (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1949), 124.
 Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 154
 Churchill, House of Commons, 20 July 1936, CIHOW, 493.
 Andrew Roberts, The Holy Fox (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991) 112-22; John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 347. Roberts did add that by “great mass of public opinion,” Halifax “really meant his own opinion, together with that of whichever friends he had spoken to and newspapers he had read.”
 Winston S. Churchill, interview by Kingsley Martin, editor, The New Statesman, 7 January 1939, republished 7 January 2014.
 Neville Chamberlain, broadcast of 27 September 1938, in Anthony Eden, Facing the Dictators (London: Cassell, 1962), 8.
 Churchill, House of Commons, 30 September 1941, CIHOW, 492.
Richard M. Langworth, “Last Chance at Munich,” Chapter 5 in Winston Churchill and the Avoidable War: Could World War II have been Prevented?, 2015.
Justin D. Lyons, Review of Winston Churchill and the Avoidable War, Hillsdale College Churchill Project, December 2015.
Richard M. Langworth, “Robert Harris on Air Power, Munich, and Chamberlain’s ‘Finest Hour,'” Hillsdale College Churchill Project, October 2017.