Wednesday, September 18, 2019

book review

Tim Bouverie, Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War (Duggan)

I saw this on a new book shelf while visiting the library for another purpose, and a quick glance was enough to convince me it was worth reading. I know a lot about this topic, but I figured with such well-written detail I'd learn more. I did.

This is essentially a history of British high politics, as manifested in diplomacy and Parliament, from the rise of urgent concern with the dictatorships in the mid-30s up to the collapse of the final attempt to negotiate with them at the time of the Fall of France. The allies, the adversaries, and their victims all play a part, but the focus is all on the British. For instance, the August 1939 mission to negotiate a treaty with Russia is described in detail, but the announcement that the Russians had drawn up a treaty with the Nazis instead is presented as as big a surprise as it was to the British.

The vagaries of unofficial opinion are also skillfully presented, from the various Anglo-German friendship societies of the earlier period to the determination of much of the populace to defend the Czechs in a way the government declined to do.

Reading of Chamberlain's meetings with Hitler preceding the Munich Agreement - Chamberlain flew to Germany three separate times over a period of a couple of weeks - one feels both his frustration at being unable to pin Hitler down to a solution, and one's own frustration at Chamberlain's repeated attempts to find an accommodation where none could be had, constantly backing up and giving away more and more.

Only one minister, Duff Cooper, resigned over Munich, but many others were dismayed, and Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, quickly separated himself from appeasement as the diplomacy sank into absurdity, and much to Chamberlain's dismay advocated a tougher line. Halifax's reputation has been tainted by his attempt to find a negotiated peace at the Fall of France, but this was only a proposal, not an undercutting of Churchill, and he was much tougher earlier on than he's often given credit for.

Bouverie also quickly disposes of any idea that Munich was a tactical retreat to allow more time for the buildup of British defense. No. Chamberlain was concerned for a lasting peace and only that, and this was his project. In that connection, Bouverie answers a question I've long had. Since the year's delay before war actually broke out did allow the UK some time to build its military, didn't it also allow Germany time for the same thing? And which had the greater relative improvement? The answer is, Germany gained more against the UK than vice versa. It would have been tactically more advisable to have fought Germany over the Czechs than the Poles. True, Britain was in no condition in 1938 to defend against the Battle of Britain, but Germany was in no condition in 1938 to have launched it, so no loss.

One thing I hadn't known that not only surprised me, but suddenly seems searingly relevant. On August 4, 1939, right in the middle of the growing tensions over Poland and the launching of negotiations with Russia, Chamberlain put Parliament on a two-month summer recess. This wasn't a prorogation, but a recess. It had to be voted on. Members were shocked. Churchill said in his speech it would be "disastrous", "pathetic", "shameful" to have Parliament unavailable in this crisis. The opposition parties feared that the government would use the recess to break its pledge to Poland and resume appeasement.

So did the motion lose? No, it won. The whips put the pressure on government MPs. Those who abstained (didn't even vote against) were told they'd be blacklisted, and were threatened with deselection from their seats.

How much does that sound like what has happened recently?

In the end, Parliament was recalled on Aug. 24, after the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, to pass an emergency powers bill, again the next week for further news from the government, and again a few days after that for the final crisis which led to a continuous seven-day sitting. Still ...

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