A complex tale of the political rivalry that underlay a key episode in 20th-century world events.
Although the efforts of Neville Chamberlain to preserve the peace in Europe by accommodating Hitler’s demands for territory have long been viewed as an act of moral cowardice, British historian Phillips (The King Who Had To Go: Edward VIII, Mrs. Simpson and the Hidden Politics of the Abdication Crisis, 2017, etc.) notes that it had a certain logic, since going to war with Germany might put the entire British Empire at risk. That empire, he writes, “had been built in the days when France was its only challenger, but now Germany, Japan, and the United States had the resources to put its standing to the severest of tests.” The behind-the-scenes architect of appeasement was Chamberlain’s adviser Horace Wilson; arrayed against them was Winston Churchill, who insisted on a vigorous policy of containment. Chamberlain was willing to go to unusual measures to placate Hitler, including giving in to his demands that African colonies seized by Britain after World War I be returned to Germany—at the risk, the British understood, that the colonized peoples might become ardent Nazis and new enemies. (In any event, notes the author, those peoples were never consulted about whether they wanted to be ruled by a foreign power in the first place.) Chamberlain and Wilson calculated wrongly that the economic costs of rearmament would help keep Hitler in check, and they also took the curious position that Churchill and his allies in government proved a greater danger to the peace than the fascist dictators then in power. In the end, it became clear that Britain would not be able to avoid war, and Churchill accordingly rose to serve as prime minister in Chamberlain’s stead. Churchill, though vain and capable of exercising questionable judgment, was ordinarily a hard fighter who bore no grudges, but Phillips writes that he seems to have taken pleasure in stripping Wilson of his positions and making his life otherwise difficult after Chamberlain’s fall.
A fresh interpretation of the question of appeasement that will interest students of 20th-century history.