On 30 September 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came back from a meeting with Adolf Hitler waving a piece of paper which promised "peace for our time". One year later the nation was plunged into the worst war in the history of the world, and we've been mocking Chamberlain ever since.
And he IS easy to mock, isn't he? Neville Chamberlain: the prim, prissy, penguin-like gentleman, complete with starched collar and brolly by his side, trying to appease the swaggering Fuhrer and his Nazi thugs. As Robert Self, author of Neville Chamberlain: A Biography, tells us: "Chamberlain remains misunderstood and underrated, to be written off as a vain, self-opinionated and deluded mediocrity."
It's totally unfair. And to understand why, we need to ask: what was Chamberlain's now-notorious "appeasement" policy all about?
Consider the context. Throughout the 1930s, Hitler had been re-arming Germany with a vengeance. He had a powerful ally in the Italian fascist leader Mussolini. And he had his sights set on the Sudetenland - a largely German section of Czechoslovakia. Hitler was adamant that the citizens of the Sudetenland be allowed to "determine their own fate" and become a part of Germany.
Now, from our vantage point today, it may seem obvious that Hitler had to be stopped at all costs. But back then, people in Britain were largely baffled by the crisis over a strip of Czechoslovakia, and unwilling to risk going to war over it. Chamberlain famously described it as "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing". And, as a man who bitterly remembered the carnage of the Great War, he was determined to do ANYTHING to preserve the peace.
Even negotiate with Hitler? Yes. Because this wasn't the Hitler of demonic myth. He was simply the right-wing leader of Germany, and a man who could apparently be dealt with in a civilised way. In fact, many even sympathised with Hitler's grievances over how Germany was punished after World War One.
On top of that, Britain was simply not ready for any major military confrontation. That very year, Chamberlain was warned that Germany's air force could ravage the nation with bombing offensives, and that our troops weren't ready to deal with such a menace.
As historian Robert Self says,
Chamberlain faced a brutally simple choice at Munich. Was Britain prepared to threaten Germany with war on behalf of a state which it certainly could not save?
Of course we would do no such thing. Britain was low on arms, low on military allies and low on enthusiasm. And so Chamberlain made the deal with Hitler, believing that by granting him a piece of Czechoslovakia, the dictator's lust for a greater Germany would be satisfied. The vast majority of Britons agreed. In fact, Chamberlain was greeted like a celebrity when he returned home, mobbed by relieved crowds who cheered and sang all around him.
David Dutton, author of Reputations: Neville Chamberlain, says: "Chamberlain made mistakes in the 1930s. He overestimated his ability to reach a settlement with the dictators. But it is doubtful if anyone else could have done much better." Dutton then asks the key question: "Yes he failed, but could anyone have succeeded?"
Caught in an impossible, tragic moment in history, Chamberlain was right to do everything in his power to avert catastrophe. He should be honoured for trying, not condemned for failing.
The usual argument made in favour of Chamberlain's disastrous appeasement policy is that he didn't know any better. He didn't have the benefit of hindsight. He couldn't have predicted Hitler's bloodlust.
One word: nonsense. Plenty of other people knew exactly what was going on, mainly because Hitler himself was spectacularly unsubtle about his intentions. He'd been kind enough to write a book, Mein Kampf, which clearly outlined his megalomaniac ambitions and genocidal racism. The notorious concentration camps were already operational when Chamberlain met Hitler to treat him like a civilised world leader.
Chamberlain allowed himself to be flattered and then played. During one meeting with Hitler, he was greeted by a German band playing the British national anthem - yet just minutes later he was being bullied and cajoled by Hitler, whose mind games included having Nazi officials burst in on them to deliver "bad news".
Santi Corvaja, author of Hitler & Mussolini: The Secret Meetings, says that, during negotiations with Chamberlain, "upon a prearranged signal, one of Hitler's aides would enter the room bringing fresh messages of 'bloody' events where 'Germans were being killed in Czechoslovakia'." It's alleged that Hitler even yelled "Czechs must be destroyed!" during the talks.
How naïve could Chamberlain have been? How weak? It's not just historians who have lambasted his appeasement policy. Even in 1938, prominent Brits were horrified at what they could see unfolding. Scholar and critic FL Lucas wrote a scathing letter which demolished Chamberlain's triumphant "peace for our time" victory speech:
I appreciate the Prime Minister's love of peace," Lucas wrote. "But when he returns from saving our skins from a blackmailer at the price of other people's flesh, and waves, laughing with glee, a piece of paper with Herr Hitler's name on it, if it were not ghastly it would be grotesque.
And then there was Winston Churchill, who perhaps said it best of all. "We have sustained a defeat without a war... we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged."
He and Lucas didn't have crystal balls. They didn't have the benefit of hindsight. They saw what Hitler was up to, and how appeasement would only embolden the dictator. Later, when Hitler inspected the Czech defences, he told Goebbels that "we would have shed a lot of blood" if Britain hadn't forced Czechoslovakia to give up without a fight. That was the cost of Chamberlain's appeasement.
What do you think? Was Chamberlain being sensible by the standards of his time, or was he hopelessly duped by Hitler?