Illuminating study of the complex political calculus underlying Britain’s effort to avoid armed conflict with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
Most of the conservative leadership in Britain was aware from the start, if only dimly, that Hitler and his Nazis posed an existential threat to world order. Yet, after the bloodletting of World War I, writes Bouverie in this accomplished debut, there was no appetite for war, so that “the idea of a ‘preventive war’ to halt German rearmament was...beyond the realm even of discussion.” Even though most members of the political class found official Nazi anti-Semitism appalling, “there was a tendency amongst some to find excuses for it.” As a result, Britain stood by, acceding to German demands up to and including the annexation of a portion of Czechoslovakia with a large ethnic German population. As the author notes, that act of aggression was greeted enthusiastically by some Sudeten Germans but certainly not by the leftists, Jews, and members of other ethnic minorities who lived there. Hitler promised Britain’s prime minister that if his government met Germany’s “ ‘limited’ colonial demands,” there would be no further friction, but then came the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II. Examining a trove of unexplored documents, Bouverie turns a gimlet eye on excuses proffered in the aftermath, such as the thought that the year of peace bought by the appeasement of 1938 gave Britain time to prepare for war; as he notes, it also bought Germany an extra year to build up its forces against the numerically superior French and British armies. The author faults Chamberlain, too, for having “treated the United States with frigid disdain” when a stronger alliance might have averted some of Hitler’s mischief, though he does not doubt the purity of Chamberlain’s intentions to preserve the British Empire and keep the peace.
A story with many moving parts and players that's expertly told, one that sheds new light on the first glimmerings of total war.