Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940. He is best known for his role in the Munich Agreement of 1938 which ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler and is now the most popular example of the foreign policy known as appeasement.
Chamberlain was born into a political family but entered politics himself late after a career in business. He served as the mayor of Birmingham during World War I and was elected to Parliament in 1918. Chamberlain also served as the chancellor of the exchequer. Representing the Conservative Party, Neville Chamberlain became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1937.
Neville Chamberlain has become for many the face of the policy of “appeasement” adopted by many of the European powers following World War I.
These powers were intent on avoiding another large-scale war in Europe resulting from a dispute over territory that was not seen as vital (such as had happened with Serbia in World War I). In addition, catastrophic wartime losses left Britain and France psychologically, economically, and militarily unprepared for another war in Europe. As a result, many European leaders adopted the policy of appeasement toward aggressive leaders like Hitler. Instead of considering it a form of surrender, diplomats viewed appeasement as a way to prevent war by granting small and relatively painless concessions to satisfy the demands of Hitler while denying him the opportunity to start a war.
Further, the failure of the League of Nations created after World War I left Europe with no powerful international body that could act in any way to halt or punish German aggression. Almost no nation was willing to go to war for what they viewed as trivial issues.
In addition, lingering guilt about the harsh terms imposed on Germany by the Allies caused a reluctance to enforce those terms. Thus, Hitler could ignore the military limitations imposed on him by the Versailles Treaty and reoccupied the Rhineland with little European response.
The policy of appeasement faced its greatest challenge with the Sudeten Crisis in 1938.
The Sudeten Crisis
One of Hitler's primary goals was territorial expansion for the German state. He fully planned to use war as a means to this end.
In 1938, Hitler turned his gaze toward Czechoslovakia, a country newly created by the Versailles Treaty under the concept of national self-determination. This tenet stated that national and ethnic groups had the right to determine their own political destinies. However, it was impossible to ensure that all national borders defined all ethnic groups, and thus a large number of Germans suddenly found themselves in a portion of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Encouraged by the Nazis, nationalist Germans in the Sudetenland clamored for a return to Germany.
Hitler turned the terms of the Versailles Treaty against its authors. He claimed that “3,500,000 Germans were torn away from their compatriots by a company of madmen [Versailles Treaty].” He and his collaborators in Czechoslovakia added that Germans were being oppressed. Hitler, therefore, demanded that the Sudetenland be returned to Germany according to the tenets of national self-determination. He made it clear to Europe that Germany was preparing to attack Czechoslovakia in “defense” of its people.
The Munich Agreement (30 September 1938)
With war seemingly looming on the horizon, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Berlin on September 15, 1938, in an attempt to “secure peace.”
After listening to Hitler's complaints and rants about the Sudeten issue, Chamberlain called his bluff, saying, “If I've understood you correctly then you're determined in any event to proceed against Czechoslovakia…Under these circumstances it's best if I leave straight away. Apparently, it's all pointless.” Thus, Chamberlain took a hard line against Hitler's threats.
Hitler balked and agreed to postpone military action if Chamberlain would discuss a resolution to the crisis. Italian leader Benito Mussolini and Hitler's own entourage likely advised Hitler to avoid war. Chamberlain returned on September 29 with Prime Minister Daladier of France and Mussolini to reach a final settlement. They agreed that the Sudeten territory would be ceded to Germany. Czechoslovakian leaders were neither present nor consulted, but it was made clear that they would receive no support if they declined the terms.
Hitler agreed and Chamberlain, believing he had averted war, proclaimed “Peace for our time” to a crowd upon his arrival in England.
Many Europeans received the Munich Agreement positively, as having prevented a war and saved at least a portion of Czechoslovakia.
For Hitler, ironically, the agreement was a humiliation. He had truly wanted war and instead found himself outmaneuvered into a peaceful resolution. He would not make that mistake again. When he later broke his promise not to demand any more territory and invaded Poland, Hitler also destroyed Neville Chamberlain's career and forever tarnished the concept of appeasement policy. “Everything I have worked for,” Chamberlain told the House of Commons, “has crashed into ruins.”
Chamberlain resigned as prime minister in 1940, yielding to Winston Churchill, though agreeing to serve in his War Cabinet. Chamberlain died in 1940. His legacy has forever been linked to the failure of appeasement.