The ardent quest for peace sometimes leads to war. So discovered Neville Chamberlain and his political allies in 1938, following their earnest negotiations to avoid war with Adolf Hitler.
Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, should have known that something was up when propagandist Joseph Goebbels complained to him that British journalists in Berlin weren’t showing the Nazi regime enough love. Halifax, writes historian Faber (Speaking for England, 2005), observed that the correspondents had been there for years and had not changed. “We did not complain in the past because Germany was not rearmed,” said Goebbels. “We complain now because we are strong enough to do so.” Throughout 1938, Hitler and company would indeed bluster and complain, particularly that ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia were being mistreated. Sickened by the bloodletting 20 years earlier, the British electorate seemed inclined to let Hitler take what he wished as long as he kept the peace with them. Certainly Chamberlain seemed desperate to maintain peace at nearly any price, while liberals such as Clement Attlee counseled conciliation. Only Winston Churchill was mistrustful enough of Hitler to reject the notion that the Germans would stop once they added the Sudetenland to their holdings. Faber’s account of the negotiations has its airless moments, mainly because the proceedings themselves had a certain stop-and-start quality to them. Comic relief, such as it is, largely comes in the person of Benito Mussolini, who, Faber makes clear, resented playing second fiddle to the German leader to the north. Hitler was a master at spouting rhetoric that marched to the brink of war and then withdrew to seemingly reasonable demands for “justice”—such as any politician might do, and into which ploy the British played, to their later disappointment.
A thorough study of a parlous episode in European history.