Munich Reflections: Peace for “a” Time & the Case for Resistance

Munich Reflections: Peace for “a” Time & the Case for Resistance

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

(Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.” [1]

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.” [2]

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.” [3]

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. [4]

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? [5]

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.” [6]

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. [7]

“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. [8]

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. [9]

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.” [10]

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. [11]


[1] Win­ston S. Churchill, The Gath­er­ing Storm (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1948), 214.

[2] Churchill, House of Com­mons, 12 Novem­ber 1940, quot­ed in Richard M. Lang­worth, Churchill in His Own Words, here­inafter CIHOW (Lon­don: Ebury Press, 2012), 331.

[3] 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.

[4]  Churchill, The Gath­er­ing Storm, 154

[5] Churchill, House of Com­mons, 20 July 1936, CIHOW, 493.

[6] 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.”

[7] Win­ston S. Churchill, inter­view by Kings­ley Mar­tin, edi­tor, The New States­man, 7 Jan­u­ary 1939, repub­lished 7 Jan­u­ary 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Neville Cham­ber­lain, broad­cast of 27 Sep­tem­ber 1938, in Antho­ny Eden, Fac­ing the Dic­ta­tors (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1962), 8.

[11] Churchill, House of Com­mons, 30 Sep­tem­ber 1941, CIHOW, 492.

Further reading

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.

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