Many readers will have seen the iconic images of Chamberlain arriving at Heston aerodrome, in the autumn of 1938, brandishing his “piece of paper” and proclaiming “peace for our time”, but the deeper story of that document is an intriguing one.
The piece of paper itself has aroused some speculation over the years. It was not – as some wits suggested at the time – the prime minister’s laundry list, pressed into service as a prop; neither was it a copy of the broader Munich Agreement, by which Czechoslovakia was dismembered by the western Allies to appease Nazi Germany.
It was, in fact, a private accord, signed earlier that day by Chamberlain and Hitler. Its three short paragraphs stressed the importance of Anglo-German relations, expressed the “desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again” and stated the common resolve to use negotiation in all future disagreements.
As such, the accord can be seen as central to Chamberlain’s noble but doomed attempt to exert a moderating influence on Hitler, by fostering a working relationship with him.
Unlike most other government documents – which are consigned to the National Archive in Kew – the piece of paper was sent direct to the Imperial War Museum, in January 1940, less than 18 months after being brandished in triumph by its author at Heston. Britain was already at war with Germany by that time, of course, so the accord was very much a dead letter.
Fittingly, the note, which accompanied it to the museum, stated that while the document “seemed of the highest significance then… its implications are now ironical”.
The piece of paper was kept on display at the Imperial War Museum until being replaced by a facsimile copy in the early 1990s. The original – still remarkably well-preserved – is now kept in a temperature-controlled strong room in the museum’s archive.
Answered by Roger Moorhouse, author of Killing Hitler (Vintage, 2007).