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 Neville Chamberlain

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PostSubject: Neville Chamberlain   Sun 11 May 2014, 17:23

For the past year or so in the area of international politics and brinkmanship – whether one is reading news about relations with North Korea, Sino-Japanese tensions in the South China Sea, chemical weapons in Iraq, nuclear technology in Iran, Russian annexation of Crimea, or just good old UKIP animosity to Europe – one name has tended to crop up time and time again: Nevile Chamberlain and appeasement. That is quite a feat for a British PM who died over seventy years ago, and who in old newsreels always comes across as an affable, respected, honest and thoroughly honourable chap, who just wanted to do 'the right thing'. But in the modern setting, Chamberlain and "his" policy of appeasement, are both often identified with weakness, giving in, betrayal, even treachery.
 
But is that fair? Did Chamberlain really have any choice in the matter? He was a democratically elected leader whose party had won a general election on, amongst other policies, one of continuing appeasement. Britain in the late 1930s, was still scarred emotionally by the Great War, and even as another European war loomed closer (in addition to Japanese aggression threatening British interests in the Far East), was really in no position to fight anyone. Anything that delayed the inevitable clash (inevitable of course only with hindsight) therefore gave Britain just a little more time to try and bolster its weakened defences. As Chamberlain himself remarked in 1938, the best Britain could do was to,“hope for the best whilst preparing for the worst”.
 
So is Chamberlain’s name unfairly tarnished by appeasement – did he, and his government, really have any other realistic option?
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PostSubject: Re: Neville Chamberlain   Mon 12 May 2014, 08:09

He always seems to me to be rather hard-done-by but that is because I have pacifist tendencies and think people should try everything to avoid war.  People seem to go to war and then negotiate and I think the opposite way round would be more successful. However his policy didn't seem to work well in the long run. 

But most people are not objecting to America now trying to stay out of wars when wars like Vietnam and Iraq have had such disastrous results for them, and who can blame the ordinary person for not wanting another world war twenty years after the last one? Or their leaders. (Well, lots of people apparently, but I am not one of them.)  Probably holding off did give Britain a bit more time to build its weaponry and train its soldiers and prepare its citizenry than rushing into war early would have done.
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PostSubject: Re: Neville Chamberlain   Mon 12 May 2014, 08:26

Hindsight is a marvellous thing - and it was just as relevant during the Munich talks themselves when all four of the heads of state present approached the meeting in the knowledge that the establishement of a Czechoslovakian state after Versailles which contained substantial German and Hungarian minorities had been a strategic, diplomatic, political and demographic blunder of potentially catastrophic proportions. About the only two governments who expressed concern that the Sudetenland be ceded to German control were the USSR - where Stalin foresaw the invasion as a precursor to similar claims being made on his own country's territories (not to mention screwing up his own ambitions to expand) - and the Czechs themselves who were more aware than anyone that their state of fractured ethnicities and loyalties was hugely vulnerable to meltdown at the slightest provocation, and Hitler's provocation had been anything but slight.

Chamberlain and Daladier, both having to appease a domestic electorate who had mandated them to avoid war at all costs as much as they had to appease National Social expansionism and militarisation, could be said to have had their hands tied at Munich. Of the two perhaps Chamberlain could have ignored that mandate with the least political repercussions at home - the Labour Party and large chunks of the Conservative party would have backed him up (or at least so they said in the aftermath). Daladier, who also returned home to acclaim afterwards, famously remarked "Ah, les cons!" (the fools!) about those who cheered his own announcement of the pact that Hitler had signed. But at least he was spared the absolute vitriol that was unleashed on Chamberlain upon his return by a vocal and significant sector of the political elite, notably Churchill. And this publicly expressed vitriol was hugely significant, not only in terms of posterity as it set the tone for how Chamberlain would be viewed historically from that moment on, but also as it was noticed and interpreted within the Nazi leadership as proof enough that any agreement arrived at with a man for whom they themselves already held little respect was as good as meaningless given what they perceived as his vulnerability at home in the face of a warmongering sect who were nearing an assumption of power with each passing day.

But as I said, hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing. We know now that even as late as 1938 there was an opinion shared by prominent German military and Nazi alike that Germany would do well to avoid provoking Britain and France into an open war-footing, not least because it might drive these countries into a military and political alliance with the USSR. In hindsight therefore "appeasement with threat" might have seemed a more logical diplomatic stance for Chamberlain and Daladier to have taken; concede only that which was obviously wrong with the Versailles Treaty but threaten punitive and pre-emptive action should Germany overstep anything thus agreed or attempt to act unilaterally again. As it was, the agreement arrived at simply started a feeding frenzy at Czechoslavakia's expense (even Poland jumped at the opportunity to "reclaim" Czech land) and provided a dodgy but nonetheless acceptable justification in German eyes for pursuing this frenzy in its own interests.

To the best of my knowledge this was the outcome that Chamberlain either refused or could not bear to contemplate and it is for this failure that he is rightly condemned in hindsight in my view. He had the personal misfortune in proving his detractors so quickly correct, and for that he might be pitied though not excused. In his defence it must also be said that Munich Pact or no pact he also accelerated investment and production in Britain's rearmament from a level before the pact that he had already heightened despite opposition from his own supporters in government - a fact that is not often acknowledged by those who prefer to judge him simplistically as "an appeaser". In short it was not that he chose appeasement which was to prove his political and historical undoing in terms of reputation in my view, but how he'd gone about it that was to so comprehensively stand against his reputation, his character, his success in terms of political achievement and, by extension, his place in history.
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PostSubject: Re: Neville Chamberlain   Mon 12 May 2014, 08:48

It was too late by Munich. The best chance of avoiding a major war had been missed in 1936. If Britain and/or France had made any sort of move to oppose the German army's move into the Rhineland, they were under orders to withdraw.
It is arguable to what extent Britain or France would have been able (militarily and politically) to assist Czech resistance to an invasion - but France could be argued to have suffered most from the agreement - much of the "German" armour in the fall of France was in fact of commandeered Czech origins.
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PostSubject: Re: Neville Chamberlain   Mon 12 May 2014, 09:13

And 1936 I'd say was too early for the British and the French in the game of bluff/counterbluff that Germany initiated. Britain could threaten but would have had serious problems militarily, not only because of their inadequate military capabilities but also because France through the construction of the Maginot Line and having geared its own military policies on a defence footing meant that any meaningful counter attack designed to reclaim the Rhineland would have involved Belgian cooperation and probably even occupation to prosecute. It might have been possible but it would have needed to be a swift response and it was this aspect that the German political leadership knew was unlikely if not impossible. The military command had reservations - hence the withdrawal contingency - but I doubt if Hitler ever really seriously considered the likelihood of its necessity. His reputation for vehemently overriding the advice of his military commanders started at this point, and not without some justification.
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