On 30 September 1938 the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain climbed out of an aeroplane at Heston aerodrome in London. Waiting for him on the tarmac were journalists and photographers. Chamberlain had just returned from a summit with Adolf Hitler in Munich, and his mood was one of triumph. The prime minister believed he had pulled off a diplomatic coup that would prevent a devastating European war. He brandished a piece of paper bearing Hitler’s signature, an image captured by the photographers and destined to become one of the iconic visual records of the century. Later, in Downing Street, Chamberlain boasted that the settlement he negotiated represented nothing less than “peace for our time”.
September sees the 80th anniversary of the infamous Munich agreement. It was reached in response to Nazi Germany’s demand to annex those border regions of neighbouring Czechoslovakia home to 3 million ethnic Germans. Hitler threatened to simply march his forces across the frontier and seize the disputed territory, the Sudetenland. It seemed likely that Britain, France and the Soviet Union would all be dragged in should conflict erupt.
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Throughout September, Chamberlain engaged in frantic diplomacy, travelling to Germany three times to broker a peaceful solution. At Munich on 29 September he agreed to the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Reich while securing Hitler’s recognition of the independence of the rest of the Czech state. The prime minister hoped this would mark the dawn of a new era of European stability.
Yet Munich rapidly became symbolic of the dangers of appeasing aggressive governments. The agreement unravelled and Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, a crucial stage on the road to the Second World War. Nowadays Munich occupies a place in the popular imagination as the moment when a chance to marshal resistance to Hitler was lost, and an example of the folly of trusting the unscrupulous.
People demonstrating against British concessions to Hitler, Whitehall, 22 September 1938. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
What is perhaps less familiar is the deep political crisis in Britain provoked by Hitler’s designs on the Sudetenland. Chamberlain’s diplomacy sparked a revolt in the ruling Conservative party – and even inside his own cabinet. Westminster was gripped by intrigue, and there seemed a real possibility that the prime minister could fall. Despite the likelihood of a European war, politicians still usually perceived matters through the lens of their own interests and prospects. And this political struggle had an important effect on British diplomacy, as well.
At the heart of the crisis was the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax. At first sight this seems strange. Halifax was just as responsible as Chamberlain for the direction of British foreign policy, and a longstanding advocate of accommodating German ambitions through concession. Yet, by September 1938, Halifax was a worried man. He sensed that public opinion was tiring of ineffective conciliation abroad. Allowing Britain to appear weak in the face of Hitler’s behaviour could prove politically disastrous at the general election due to take place within the next two years. The government lost several parliamentary seats at byelections earlier in the year, while the opposition Labour party and growing numbers of newspapers were quick to draw attention to its difficulties abroad. This was compounded by critics on the Conservative backbenches in the House of Commons, most notably Winston Churchill. As if that was not bad enough, Chamberlain himself came across as pompous and sarcastic.
Halifax feared that the government had “lost touch with the floating vote”. He resolved it was politically essential to correct the popular perception of flaccidity in foreign policy. When it became apparent on 7 September that a German invasion of Czechoslovakia was imminent, Halifax seized the opportunity to distance himself from Chamberlain – and the policies of which he himself had been an architect. He likened himself to “groping in the dark like a blind man trying to find his way across a bog”. Indicating a new willingness to resist Germany, the foreign secretary pressed Chamberlain to dispatch a message to Hitler threatening war over Czechoslovakia. The prime minister was angry and believed that Halifax was “going off his head”, but could not afford to be isolated by a rift with his closest ally.
Chamberlain was also conscious that “many others”, including Churchill, were lining up to exploit the crisis. Still, he was determined that he alone would make British policy. So he devised an idea that, he said, “took Halifax’s breath away”: he would fly to Germany to meet Hitler face-to-face. Chamberlain returned to London on 16 September with Hitler’s agreement to hold plebiscites in the Sudetenland in order to verify that the inhabitants wished to join the Reich.
Chamberlain admitted that he “didn’t care two hoots” where the Sudeten Germans lived; he simply aimed to avoid war. Several members of the cabinet were unhappy that Britain was involved in carving up a democratic state, and expressed a desire for a “different” policy. Yet when Chamberlain coldly demanded “and what policy is that?”, they had no answer.
Problems arose when Chamberlain returned to Germany on 22 September. Encouraged by the prime minister’s willingness to accede to his demands, Hitler changed his mind and insisted on the immediate absorption of the Sudetenland. Panicking, Chamberlain asked the führer to be reasonable: he had “taken his political life in his hands” in pursuit of a deal, and public opinion would turn against him. Hitler was unmoved by Chamberlain’s pleas.
“We thank our leader,” declares a German propaganda postcard celebrating Nazi victory in the Sudetenland, December 1938. (Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Over in London, meanwhile, Halifax’s doubts continued to gnaw at him. A protest march on 22 September drew thousands of people onto the streets of Westminster. There were demands that “Chamberlain must go”. The newspapers were hostile, while both the Labour party and Conservative rebels were in full cry in warning against a “shameful surrender”. MP Harold Nicolson raged: “This is hell. It is the end of the British empire.” In private, Winston Churchill was excited, knowing that the only way he would ever be invited to return to office was if a new government was “forced upon us” should “the foreign situation darken”. Even loyal Conservatives were “appalled by the force of opinion”, as one MP noted.
All of this made a major impression on Halifax. When he heard that Chamberlain’s response to Hitler’s intransigence had been to offer him yet more Czech territory, he sent a telegram to the prime minister saying that he was “profoundly disturbed”. He advised Chamberlain that the “great mass” of opinion both in parliament and the country felt that “we have gone to the limit of concession”. He wanted Czechoslovakia to mobilise its army and for the prime minister to warn Hitler that Britain would fight.
Halifax’s own civil servants in the Foreign Office recognised that, for “internal political reasons”, British strategy had to be radically amended. Moreover, as his biographer Andrew Roberts observes, Halifax would have had to be “superhuman” not to at least entertain the notion that resisting Chamberlain might lead to him becoming prime minister himself.
Chamberlain raced home to London a couple of days later in order to confront his cabinet. The stage was set for a showdown between the prime minister and the foreign secretary. Halifax endured a sleepless night before deciding to come out against Chamberlain. At the crucial cabinet meeting the next day, he carefully explained that he was “not quite sure” that he and Chamberlain were “still working as one”. He also made clear his opposition to the prime minister’s policy. This was a political hand grenade tossed into Chamberlain’s lap, who lamented it as “a horrible blow”.
Halifax argued that if the Czechs chose to resist Germany, Britain and France should fight with them. His stance was probably rooted more in politics – anxiety about how the government was perceived at home – than strategic disagreement with Chamberlain. He believed that there loomed a confrontation in eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union that Britain should steer clear of. Yet now he declared that “the ultimate aim” of policy should be the “destruction of Nazism”. Cynics thought this rather opportunistic. One of Chamberlain’s friends concluded that Halifax possessed “eel-like qualities” and a capacity for “sublime treachery”. Yet this was a climate in which several cabinet ministers were contemplating resignation, and backbench critics including Churchill and another future prime minister, Harold Macmillan, were preparing to press for a new government if “Chamberlain rats again”.
Neville Chamberlain (centre) and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (right) in Munich. The diplomatic ground that the prime minister ceded during his visits to Germany appalled many of his colleagues back home. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The prime minister felt “all over the place” and, seeing little alternative, agreed to send a stern warning to Hitler. The armed forces were mobilised, gas masks were distributed among the civilian population, and antiaircraft guns were deployed in central London. Chamberlain then dispatched his most trusted aide, the civil servant Sir Horace Wilson, to Germany to see Hitler on his behalf. Wilson warned the führer that the “situation in England” was “extremely serious”, and a new government might declare war. The outbreak of a major conflict seemed likely – and over a border that few in Britain actually considered a vital national interest. It was an extraordinary situation. To a considerable extent, it was a product of high-political conflict at Westminster.
A smouldering volcano
On the afternoon of 28 September, Chamberlain went to the House of Commons to explain his policy. He knew his future was at stake. Churchill was planning to strike openly at him, and others would likely do the same. While the prime minister spoke for an hour, Churchill sat on the backbenches smouldering like a volcano. So many MPs passed him notes urging him to attack the government that he had to tie them all together with an elastic band.
Towards the end of Chamberlain’s speech, however, another note appeared. Hastily passed along the front bench to the prime minister, the folded piece of paper carried a new offer from Hitler. The führer was convening a conference, to be held at Munich the next day. One observer noted that, having read it, Chamberlain’s “whole face, his whole body, seemed to change… he appeared 10 years younger and triumphant”.
Considering the matter for a moment, the prime minister relayed this news to the chamber. Hitler had backed down. The relief was palpable. MPs on both sides of the house suddenly erupted into a roar of spontaneous cheering. Harold Nicolson thought it was “one of the most dramatic moments I have ever witnessed”. When the prime minister took his seat, “the whole house rose as a man to pay tribute”. Chamberlain told his sister that it was “a piece of drama that no work of fiction has ever surpassed”. Churchill, in contrast, “looked very much upset”.
Residents of a Sudetenland town greet German troops in October 1938. The Munich agreement had seen Britain giving its assent to the Nazi absorption of German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia. (Photo by Getty Images)
Dashing to Munich to meet Hitler for the third – and final – time, on 29 September, Chamberlain entered into a 14-hour negotiation completed in the middle of the night. Under the agreement, the German-speaking areas of the Sudetenland were to be incorporated into the Reich and an international commission would oversee plebiscites elsewhere along the border. Chamberlain and Hitler also signed the Anglo-German declaration affirming “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again”. The prime minister returned home a national hero.
Chamberlain had escaped the trap his political rivals had set for him. True to form, many of them interpreted the Munich agreement in terms of what it meant for their own prospects. Some feared Chamberlain would call a snap general election in which he would romp to victory. A panicked Churchill explored building an alliance with Labour, the Liberals and rebel Conservatives, proposing that a commitment to the League of Nations and “collective security” might form the basis for a joint campaign. When Macmillan protested: “That is not our jargon,” Churchill roared back: “It is a jargon we may all have to learn!”
The choice of evils
The prime minister’s spectacular triumph proved fleeting. Within weeks, the Munich settlement unravelled. The plebiscites were never held and Hitler simply absorbed the disputed territories. Some had predicted this all along. Indeed, Halifax hardly offered a ringing endorsement of Munich when he publicly described the agreement as merely the best “of a hideous choice of evils”. Churchill predicted: “This is only the beginning of the reckoning.”
In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was absorbed into the Reich. In the aftermath, Halifax forced a weakened Chamberlain to erect a series of military tripwires in the form of British guarantees of Poland, Greece and Romania. Halifax again calculated that a show of British strength was essential – both for peace abroad and political stability at home. These guarantees paved the way for the declaration of war in September 1939, and the fall of Chamberlain eight months later (by the end of 1940, he was dead).
The Munich agreement is entrenched in popular memory as a diplomatic disaster and a source of enduring lessons for the future. The political crisis in Britain provoked by Hitler’s ambitions towards the Sudetenland is much less familiar. Yet it was one of the most consequential of the century. It highlights that, even in moments of great danger, politicians will naturally look out for themselves. However it also reminds us to pay close attention to the interaction between foreign and domestic policy. More often than we might imagine, these two are intertwined.
Robert Crowcroft is a senior lecturer in contemporary history at Edinburgh University
ON THE PODCAST: Historical novelist Robert Harris discussed the Munich crisis of 1938 on our podcast. Listen to this episode here.
Read more on the Munich crisis in issue 12 of BBC World Histories magazine. For further details, go to historyextra.com/bbc-world-histories-magazine
This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine