Why was Winston Churchill infamous in history?

A peace with fatal consequences : The grim legacy of the British appeasement policy

The politics of appeasement in the 1930s is a dark spot in British history. Why did it not succeed in putting the increasingly aggressive dictator Hitler in his place when there was still time and opportunity? Worse still, why was British politics actively involved in fulfilling his foreign policy demands?

Much has been written about it; in this respect, the fuss made in England about “Appeasing Hitler”, the book by the young historian Tim Bouverie, was exaggerated. It is now available in German under the title “Talking to Hitler”.

Naturally, when dealing with the politics of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his followers, there is always a reference to the present. When should foreign policy not resist the threat of appeasement - think of North Korea, Iran or Putin's Russia?

When Chamberlain returned from Bavaria on September 30, 1938 and ennobled the notorious Munich Agreement with the words "Peace for our time", he thought the danger of another war - only 20 years after the previous one - had been averted. Others should be right, above all Winston Churchill, who, as a war premier, became Hitler's decisive opponent.

But Churchill, who Bouverie always has at hand when it comes to denouncing the appeaser's good faith, was a second-tier figure before 1939, a relic of British imperialism. Even his election as prime minister in May 1940 came to the grumbling of large sections of the Conservatives, his own party.

Conservative sympathy for National Socialism

Bouverie rummaged in the archives to draw a moral picture of the English upper class in the era of their fading splendor from letters and diaries. He clearly shows their sympathy for National Socialism, nourished by numerous trips to Germany, on which a motley crowd of emissaries, informers and hobby diplomats liked to be dazzled. Their common denominator was deeply ingrained anti-communism.

The author, best known in England as a journalist, likes to loosen up the description of diplomatic activities by depicting social life with balls, hunting and horse racing. The means of suggestive detail are often used, as in Chamberlain's description. He appears "wrapped in a gray coat, with a starched collar and an umbrella under his arm".

[Tim Bouverie: Talk to Hitler. The path from appeasement to World War II. Translated from the English by Karin Hielscher. Rowohlt, Hamburg 2021. 704 pp., 28 €]

The argument of the appeasement proponents that Chamberlain's delaying tactics gave the country the necessary respite to prepare for war does not find favor with Bouverie - this is not new either.

With every further waiting, the power of the Wehrmacht improved. After all, the British government had nothing more to oppose to Hitler's demands and appeased itself with the resolution - in the words of the ambassador in Berlin, Nevile Henderson - "not to slide into a world war because of Danzig".

Can we learn from history? Can an aggressor be stopped or even eliminated? Maybe. But then a government has to be ready to risk the war. A war that Chamberlain wanted to avoid at all costs. In view of the horrors that began in 1939, in retrospect it is both easy and cheap to go to court with him.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page