Churchill, Ripka, Appeasement and the Czech Debacle

Churchill, Ripka, Appeasement and the Czech Debacle

Who was Hubert Rip­ka, and what did he say about Appease­ment? Did Rip­ka prove that Churchill waf­fled over Czech lib­er­ty? No. To be sure, we must look at the com­plete record,

Excerpt­ed from “Did Churchill Waf­fle in 1938?: The Tale of Hubert Rip­ka,” my essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

When Appeasement serves…

Writ­ing in Engels­berg Ideas on Novem­ber 28th, Patrick Porter makes a per­fect­ly legit­i­mate point: “Paint­ing the wartime pre­mier only as an hero­ic anti-appeas­er over­looks the many diplo­mat­ic ploys he used to dis­arm a dan­ger­ous world.” He cor­rect­ly quotes Churchill’s 1950 remark:

Appease­ment from weak­ness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appease­ment from strength is mag­nan­i­mous and noble and might be the surest and per­haps the only path to world peace.

Mr. Porter says Churchill’s wis­dom is not even­ly por­trayed nowa­days, in debates such as the ques­tion over aid to Ukraine. Not all argu­ments, he writes, can be framed in terms of “hero­ic Churchills ver­sus feck­less appeasers, in the face of Adolf Hitlers.” That is true.

But Mr. Porter bol­sters his argu­ment with an anec­dote involv­ing the 1938 Czecho­slo­va­kia cri­sis—a par­tial account which skews our under­stand­ing of Churchill’s views over when to com­pro­mise and when to stand firm.

We deal here only with Hubert Rip­ka and his sto­ry. Read­ers unfa­mil­iar with the Czech and Munich Cri­sis should con­sult good books on the Appease­ment years, or oth­er links pro­vid­ed here.

Ripka and Churchill

Hubert Rip­ka. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Hubert Rip­ka (1895-1958) was a Czech lec­tur­er and jour­nal­ist, own­er of the Prague news­pa­per Lidove Noviny. He was a close friend of Czechoslovakia’s founder Tomáš Masaryk and Pres­i­dent Edvard Beneš. Ear­ly aware of Hitler’s designs on his coun­try, Rip­ka labored to spread the alarm. In 1939-40 he would flee the Nazis in Prague and then Paris, becom­ing Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter of the Czech exile gov­ern­ment in Lon­don. Return­ing home in 1945, he soon had to flee again, from the Com­mu­nists, in 1948.

Rip­ka was intro­duced to the Churchills by Shiela [sic] Grant Duff, a dis­tant cousin of Clementine’s, in the mid-1930s. Grant Duff implored Churchill to stand with the Czechs. “I am con­vinced,” she declared, “that only a stand on our part can over­come it. Czecho­slo­va­kia is, for the moment, almost entire­ly depen­dent on us.”

What Churchill told Ripka

On 13 May 1938, Churchill, Pro­fes­sor Lin­de­mann and Archibald Sin­clair met with the Sude­ten Ger­man leader Kon­rad Hen­lein. Suave and affa­ble, Hen­lein urged Churchill to sup­port the “rea­son­able” demands of the Sude­ten-Deutsch. Hen­lein insist­ed he was a loy­al Czech who sim­ply want­ed Home Rule, such as WSC had helped engi­neer in Ire­land.

A note on this meet­ing, which Churchill for­ward­ed to Prime Min­is­ter Cham­ber­lain, was also sent to Czech Ambas­sador Jan Masaryk, “who pro­fessed him­self con­tent­ed with a set­tle­ment on these lines.” Cham­ber­lain also agreed. Churchill was hope­ful: “I have good rea­son to believe that the kind of plans which Herr Hen­lein described when he was over here would not be unac­cept­able to the Gov­ern­ment of Czechoslovakia.”

But Churchill was mis­led. In fact, Hen­lein had promised Hitler he would “make demands that can­not be sat­is­fied.” If one was accept­ed, he would make anoth­er. And at the end of May, Hitler ordered an inva­sion of Czecho­slo­va­kia to begin no lat­er than Octo­ber 1st.

Mr. Porter would have us believe that Churchill was pro-Appease­ment over Czecho­slo­va­kia, but he does not quote WSC direct­ly, and his evi­dence is scanty. Churchill, he said, “sup­port­ed max­i­mal concessions”….

In June that year, as Hitler and his irre­den­tist prox­ies in the Sude­ten­land agi­tat­ed for reunion with the Reich, Churchill pri­vate­ly told Hubert Rip­ka, con­fi­dant of Czech pres­i­dent Edvard Beneš, that if he were in office, he would like­ly fol­low Chamberlain’s pol­i­cy of seek­ing peace­ful compromise.

This is accu­rate as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Hubert Ripka’s account

The his­to­ri­an David Irv­ing was broad­ly crit­i­cized for his opin­ions on Churchill and Hitler. Irv­ing often quot­ed sin­gu­lar sources, espe­cial­ly in lan­guages oth­er than Eng­lish. (My favorite was always “Mrs. Goer­ing to the author.”) A read­er must judge whether a source is valid. But Porter should have cit­ed Irv­ing, since the fol­low­ing could only have come from him.

On 22 June 1938, Churchill and his col­leagues met with Hubert Rip­ka at the Savoy. Irv­ing pro­duces Ripka’s report from Czech diplo­mat­ic papers—the only Eng­lish-lan­guage source I could find for Porter’s con­clu­sion that Churchill was pro-appeasement:

[Churchill] talked of the good impres­sion Hen­lein had made, and of how he seemed to be keep­ing his engage­ments. Rip­ka choked, and point­ed to Henlein’s less roseate inter­views with senior Daily Mail jour­nal­ist G. Ward Price, and Karl Frank’s con­ver­sa­tions with British reporters in Prague.

At this Churchill lost his com­po­sure: Prague must come to terms with Hen­lein, he said; it would be an error to rely too “care­less­ly” on British aid. “We spoke sharply and threat­en­ing­ly with Hen­lein, because one can­not speak oth­er­wise with a Boche if one wish­es to make an impres­sion; but with you [Czechs] we can speak in anoth­er lan­guage, mean­ing with com­plete open­ness, which you deserve, so that you do not become slaves to an impru­dent trust in Eng­lish assis­tance. Every one of us lead­ing politi­cians,” he lec­tured Rip­ka, “has to ask our­selves whether we have the right, whether we can in all con­science force our coun­try into war—whether we can per­mit Lon­don to be destroyed, and our Empire to be shak­en once more.” He added with rare can­dour, “I can­not say that I would not act sim­i­lar­ly to Mr. Cham­ber­lain, if I had the respon­si­bil­i­ty as head of government.”

Porter’s ref­er­ence ends here. He fails to include the rest of the Rip­ka-Churchill inter­view. In fair­ness to Churchill, it needs to be cited.

The rest of the story

The bal­ance of Ripka’s report under­mines Porter’s argu­ment that Churchill coun­seled appease­ment in the Czech cri­sis. When Rip­ka said the Czechs would defend them­selves against any invasion….

Tears shot into Winston’s eyes. “Masaryk was right,” he cried, refer­ring to Jan’s father Tomáš. “Death is bet­ter than slav­ery.” If war did come, he con­tin­ued, mop­ping his eyes, this time they must wage it against the Boche so thor­ough­ly that he wouldn’t recov­er for gen­er­a­tions. “We’ll smash them to smithereens,” he snarled, “so they don’t trou­ble us for a cen­tu­ry or more.”

After a while he spoke of “Herr Beans,” as he pro­nounced the name of Czechoslovakia’s pres­i­dent, Edvard Beneš. Churchill called him one of the great­est men of our epoch, and praised the res­o­lu­tion of the Czechs to fight for free­dom with such vehe­mence that he began to cry all over again.

“Peace for our time.” Cham­ber­lain arrives from Munich after the Sude­ten agree­ment. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Over the sum­mer, the Sude­ten cri­sis deep­ened. The Czech gov­ern­ment reject­ed auton­o­my; Henlein’s Nazis increased acts of vio­lence; Hitler’s demands became stri­dent. By Sep­tem­ber, aban­doned by the British and French, the Czechs were unwill­ing to fight alone. There was no split of opin­ion in Britain. Return­ing with the Munich agree­ment, Cham­ber­lain was fet­ed as a hero.

Did Churchill waffle?

Porter’s ref­er­ence to what WSC told Rip­ka, though with­out attri­bu­tion, sure­ly comes from Irv­ing. It appears nowhere else among in our 80-mil­lion-word Churchill dig­i­tal canon. Irving’s source, in turn, was Czech diplo­mat­ic papers, which are not in our scans. My col­league Col­in Brown, at the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, ran down the orig­i­nals, find­ing that Irv­ing report­ed Rip­ka accurately.

Is Ripka’s report damn­ing? Evi­dent­ly not.

In June 1938, three months before Hitler’s demands reached cri­sis-lev­el, Churchill was cor­rect­ly warn­ing Rip­ka there was no guar­an­tee Britain and France would fight along­side the Czechs. Hav­ing accept­ed Henlein’s assur­ances, he still hoped for peace­ful com­pro­mise. Hen­lein had been care­ful to adopt a con­cil­ia­to­ry atti­tude when he talked to Churchill. Assum­ing Churchill’s words are what he said—and who knows, since Rip­ka is the only reporter?—they sound more like cau­tion than deser­tion. Churchill was then still try­ing to be sup­port­ive of Cham­ber­lain, hop­ing to buck him up if mat­ters got worse. Which indeed they did.

All oth­er doc­u­ments and ref­er­ences sug­gest that Churchill sup­port­ed Czech inde­pen­dence, even at the risk of war. He spoke out for this view despite warn­ings that France would not fight, and that absent France, Britain wouldn’t either. It is right to observe that in oth­er crises Churchill some­times coun­seled com­pro­mise. But not over Czecho­slo­va­kia in Sep­tem­ber 1938.

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