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Did people agree with Churchill's stand on appeasement?

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at the German Singing Federation Festival in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), 3 August 1937. (Photo by Haynes Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

At the end of the First World War Germany lay defeated and was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty put various limitations on Germany’s armed forces, took away German territories and forced Germany to pay reparations for the damage caused in the war. Debate still continues today about whether or not the Treaty was fair or reasonable, or whether the Treaty was a direct cause of the Second World War. What is not debated is that the Treaty was bitterly unpopular in Germany because it was seen as unfair. Another indisputable fact is that the radical Nazi party and its charismatic leader Adolf Hitler used the resentment against the Treaty to gather support for the Party.

When Hitler became Chancellor in Germany in 1933 he already had plans to, as he saw it, restore Germany’s greatness. In 1935 he broke the Treaty by rearming Germany, expanding its armed forces dramatically. In 1936 he moved German forces into the Rhineland area of Germany which bordered France – which was forbidden by the Treaty. Hitler’s policies caused concern among Germany’s neighbours, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union was also unnerved. At this time the US had withdrawn from involvement in European affairs and so the main role of preserving stability in Europe was in the hands of Britain and France.

In the face of Hitler’s aggression, most politicians in Britain and France were uncertain as to the best course of action. Documents from the British Foreign Office suggest that they didn’t believe Hitler was serious about his talk of racial plans and wars of conquest. Some politicians had sympathy for Germany, believing that it had been treated harshly at Versailles and that some of Hitler’s demands were reasonable. Above all, there was a very strong desire to avoid another war – the memory of the disastrous losses in the First World War was still strong.

However, not all politicians were uncertain. Winston Churchill warned of the dangers that Hitler’s Germany posed. In the Churchill Archive you can see many examples of Churchill’s warnings about Hitler. For example, you can look at a pamphlet Churchill wrote in 1935 called ‘The Truth About Hitler’. The Archive also contains examples of his criticisms of appeasement, such as this speech he made on American radio in October 1938 where he talks about ‘The defence of freedom and peace’.

Churchill's broadcast to the United States, 16 October 1938

At the start of the speech Churchill says that it may not be possible to broadcast to the US in future because ‘The stations are closing down; the lights are going out ... Let me then speak in truth and earnestness while time remains’. See the full speech (CHAR 9/132/61-78) in the Churchill Archive here.

But to understand the whole story we must look beyond what Churchill was saying about Hitler and appeasement and look at Churchill’s position in Britain in the 1930s. He’d been a prominent figure in British politics since the early 1900s, but by the 1930s Churchill was a figure on the margins of British politics. He was known for raising concerns about a wide range of issues and some of his ideas were considered extreme. In the early 1930s he advocated changes to the voting system which included a return to voting being dependent on owning property. He was a prominent critic of the campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Gandhi and made many controversial statements about India and the independence movement generally.

Churchill was also a very prominent figure in the newspapers. He was such a good writer that newspapers paid him well for his opinions on a wide range of issues. For example, in 1935 the Daily Chronicle asked him to give his thoughts on US President Roosevelt’s economic policies in the US and his attempts to overcome the economic depression there (see the article here).

So Churchill was out of office but he wasn’t out of the public eye and ear. He’d fallen out with Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin over Indian independence, leading campaign groups which criticised Baldwin’s policies, and also over speeches he made which were seen as critical of Baldwin as a political leader. All of this increased the sense among many politicians, especially in the ruling Conservative Party, that Churchill was a discontented and dangerous politician whose main aim was to stir up trouble and win himself attention and prominence.

This may explain why politicians weren’t keen to listen to Churchill’s concerns about Hitler. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that they shared Churchill’s concerns but disagreed with Churchill’s views that Hitler should be opposed by force.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed that he could negotiate a settlement with Hitler and that Hitler could be trusted to honour that agreement. In 1938 Chamberlain and his French allies allowed Hitler to join Austria to Germany.

Hitler accepts the ovation of the Reichstag after announcing the "peaceful" acquisition of Austria. It set the stage to annex the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, largely inhabited by a German-speaking population. Berlin, March 1938. A historic photograph from the Records of the U.S. Office of War Information, 19261951; Series: Photographs of Allied and Axis Personalities and Activities, 19421945.

Later in 1938 Hitler demanded leadership of the Sudetenland region (which contained a large proportion of German speakers) of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia refused and hoped for the support of Britain and France against Germany. However, at a conference in Munich at the end of September 1938 Chamberlain effectively handed the Sudetenland to Germany.

Hitler’s troops marched into the Sudetenland on 1 October 1938. A few months later, in March 1939 he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and in September 1939 he invaded Poland, leading to the start of the Second World War.
Debate has raged about appeasement ever since. Was it a wrong-headed and naïve policy? Was it a cynical policy which bought time for Britain to rearm but at the cost of Czechoslovakia and Poland? Was appeasement the result of Chamberlain’s personal views and his misreading of Hitler? All of these arguments have been put forward.

Another important area of debate has been over public opinion in Britain, the British Empire and the US about appeasement. Did the policy have support in those areas? And what role did the press play in the policy? The leading press baron Max Beaverbrook certainly supported appeasement and so did many politicians including Lord Halifax the Foreign Secretary.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waves to spectators from an open-top car on the way to meet Adolf Hitler in Munich, September 1938. (Photo by Hugo Jaeger/Timepix/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Investigation page

The sources

Notes for teachers

Find out more

➜ Churchill: The Gathering Storm
➜ Appeasement: The Gathering Storm
National Archives Cabinet Papers
Appeasement (Spartacus Educational)
British Pathe: a collection of filmclips - The Build up to WW2: Appeasement