Tim Bouverie's book "Appeasing Hitler" (describes how Chamberlain went beyond reason to appease)

I’ve just finished what I regard to be an excellent book, called “Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the road to war”.

Tim Bouverie basically gives an excellent summary of his own book at the end of chapter 9 (“hunting for peace”, the chapter that describes how fox hunting aficionado lord Halifax went to see Hitler in late 1937).

Here is that summary (the final two paragraphs of chapter 9):

Thus the new, or rather the evangelical, appeasers began their mission. The doctrine was not original, but the fervour, the conviction, the ruthless determination were. What was previously a reactive and desultory policy, tempered by scepticism, was now an active, positive policy, which would carry all before it. Above all, the evangelical appeasers were optimists who placed an extraordinary amount of faith in a combination of goodwill and reasonable discussion. As Halifax had written just before his visit to Hitler (in a statement which might just as easily have come from Chamberlain), ‘I feel that if we could once convince them [the Germans] that we wanted to be friends we might find many questions less intractable than they now appear.’
Unfortunately, this was the precise moment when the Germans were reaching the opposite conclusion. After waiting so long for the elusive Anglo-German alliance, Hitler had come to view Britain less as a potential friend and more as a probable enemy. Not unconnected with this state of mind was the transformation of Ribbentrop from chief Anglophile to leading Anglophobe. Embittered by his lack of success, both diplomatic and social, the German Ambassador spent December 1937 hidden away in his study, writing a monster report for Hitler explaining that his mission had failed and that Germany must henceforth count England among her most implacable enemies. The British would never abandon their commitment to the balance of power, nor their friendship with France. German policy, therefore, should be directed to cementing that series of alliances which could counter ‘our most dangerous enemy’ and, if necessary, dismember her Empire. As the year 1937 drew to a close, British and German policies were therefore moving in opposite directions: an increasing polarity which would set the tone for the following year and take Europe to the very brink of war.

I basically could not have given a better summary than Mr. Bouverie himself effectively provides with those two paragraphs. To make sure that the term ‘evangelical appeasers’ is understood correctly, it refers not necessarily to anyone’s religious beliefs, but to the fervor with which the leading appeasers pursued their policy from late 1937 on forward all the way to September 1939 where Chamberlain had to announce the declaration of war. But even by May 1940, some were still grasping at straws to save the policy from becoming the historic folly it turned out to be.

Bouverie’s use of ‘evangelical appeasers’ refers above all to Chamberlain himself, Edward Wood (lord Halifax) and the newly appointed British ambassador in Berlin, Nevile Henderson, along with a host of ‘unofficial diplomats’ which were mostly upper class conservatives who would visit various German government officials throughout the process (often with Chamberlain’s encouragement).

Two other things from the book I wanted to highlight. When the German government complained to Chamberlain and Halifax that the British press (or at least, parts thereof) was basically giving them a hard time, Chamberlain and especially Halifax went out of their way to put pressure on leading publishers, editors, journalists and even cartoonists to ‘refrain from offending Herr Hitler’. Though it must be said that it seems the conservative press needed little persuasion. While Bouverie notes that appeasement was certainly not the exclusive realm of upper class conservatives, they were disproportionately overrepresented. The anti appeasement coalition Churchill was gathering around him consisted of more moderate conservatives, liberals and labourites. However, it wasn’t until September 1939 that the anti appeasers managed to get traction.

The second of those other things is from the chapter ‘Bowlers are back’ which is chapter 10. Background here is that part of Chamberlain’s idea was to detach Italy from Germany and try to work both dictators at the same time whilst preventing them from getting together to make deals to which Britain wasn’t privy. Chamberlain didn’t trust his foreign minister, Anthony Eden (this is still late 1937, early 1938) to be enough of a “pro-appeaser” and sought ways of bypassing Eden altogether.

In order to open talks with Italy, Chamberlain had been vigorously pursuing his own unofficial diplomacy with Mussolini. For this there were two channels. There was Ivy Chamberlain [widow of his deceased half brother Austen Chamberlain] - of whose flirtations with the Duce Eden was broadly aware and, increasingly annoyed at - and then there were the shadowy activities of Sir Joseph Ball - of which the Foreign Secretary was almost entirely unaware.
In mid-1937, Ball was approached by Adrian Dingli, a British barrister of Maltese-Italian-British heritage and legal counsellor at the Italian Embassy [in London]. According to Ball, Dingli offered to supply him with ‘information’ about Italian diplomatic moves; in Dingli’s version, the two men discussed ways in which Anglo-Italian relations could be ‘improved’. Either way, the meeting led to the creation of an unofficial diplomatic channel which allowed Chamberlain to communicate with the Italian government behind the backs of the Foreign Office and vice versa.
This development, as events were to prove, was almost entirely to the Italians’ advantage. The fact was that it was the British and not the Italian Foreign Office which the pair [Ball and Dingli]; along with Chamberlain, were conspiring to undermine. This point was immediately realised by the Italian Ambassador, Count [Dino] Grandi, who saw in the Ball-Dingli relationship not only a heaven-sent means to catechise those close to the Prime Minister, but also an opportunity to ‘drive a wedge into the incipient split between Chamberlain and Eden [of which Grandi was fully aware] and to enlarge it if possible’.
To this obvious danger Chamberlain was oblivious. On 10 January 1938, taking advantage of Eden’s absence in the south of France, he asked Ball to get in touch with Grandi to find out whether he could ‘obtain permission from Rome to start “talks” in London with the PM’, then in sole charge of the Foreign Office.
On 17 January, he [Chamberlain] took the extraordinary and surely unprecedented step of drafting, together with Ball, a letter for Grandi to sent to Eden [which was to be a letter officially on behalf of the Italian government], requesting a meeting with himself and the Foreign Secretary. Initially, Dingli had his doubts about this ruse, which, he feared, placed the Italians in the role of suppliants. Yet when Ball appeared with the letter, on Downing Street writing paper, this ridiculous misconception of the situation evaporated. After imposing only minor changes, [Ambassador] Grandi had the letter typed and signed it.
Two events occurred which threatened to scupper the entire scheme. On Friday 21 January 1938, the British merchant ship Endymion was sunk by a [Spanish] Nationalist submarine off the coast of Spain and, in the evening, the BBC’s news bulletin announced that ‘no efforts to improve Anglo-Italian relations were at all contemplated’ by the Government.
Meanwhile, Ivy Chamberlain, having been chided by Ciano about Britain’s unwillingness to start talks, decided to show him a letter she had recently received from her brother-in-law [PM Chamberlain] in which he expressed his belief that conversations would start before the end of February. Summoned for an audience with the Duce, Ivy was asked if she would mind reading the letter to him. This, of course, was pure charade. Thanks to the Italian Secret Service, Mussolini was well acquainted with the contents.
The Italians were, however, anxious to cover their backs and Ciano instructed Grandi ‘to give a touch of the accelerator to the London negotiations’.
On 15 February, he [Grandi] warned Dingli - and in effect Chamberlain - that if the meeting did not occur within the next few days, he planned to abandon his efforts towards improving Anglo-Italian relations and leave London indefinitely. Worse, he [Grandi] threatened to reveal that if ‘his’ letter to Eden were ever to be made public then he would, in the interests of Italian honor, be forced to reveal Chamberlain as its true author.
Chamberlain, confronted with this blackmail moved quickly to bring the meeting forward.

Quite extraordinary, if you ask me, how Chamberlain sought to undermine and bypass anyone, in this case Foreign Secretary Eden, in his zeal to keep appeasing the dictators. As a closing note, the relationship between Dingli and Ball did not end well. Though it was never proven, Ball, as a former MI5 agent, is suspected to have murdered Dingli in May 1945 and stolen his diary.


Thanks for the extended quotations from the book. I haven’t read it myself, but I’ll clearly have to put it on my list for the future.


I’ve read an alternate interpretation of Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy – that he was playing for time, in the highest-of-high-handed ‘realpolitic’

Once Germany started rearming, its Luftwaffe began growing at an alarming rate, and the German air threat was judged the most dangerous. Nevertheless, production of aircraft was lackluster (as were many of the aircraft, to be fair); the Government planned on being ready for a war in October, 1939. Even so, production (including “shadow factories” - factories built intending to be converted to aircraft manufacturing after the war began) would not be able to withstand an air campaign until early 1940. (Number of Spitfires built Sept-Dec 1939: 171. Number of Hurricanes: 237)

So, what is Chamberlain and the Government to do? Maybe play for time. Give time for the RAF (still obsessed with bombers) to build fighters to defend England. Now, this that this was done with a very British-centric view is undeniable. But that the planned-war date and the declaration of war are close together
and that Poland was suddenly a-country-too-far may have more to do with each other than is commonly thought.

Another thing to remember is that before he left the Prime Minister office, Chamberlain led the country for an additional 9 months. After he resigned because of ill health, he would die six months after that from cancer (so, it really was ‘iill health.’). After leaving the PM, Chamberlain was Lord President of the War Council, led the country when Churchill was out of the country, and strongly supported Churchill while he was alive, notably when a peace-faction in the Cabinet tried to force negotiations with Germany (and remove of Churchill as PM in favor of Halifax.)

So, Chamberlain was instrumental in making it possible for England to win the Battle of Britain, and keeping Churchill in office. But the ‘official history’ (including Churchill’s) allowed a dead man to be made a scapegoat for letting Hitler get what he wanted before hostilities. (Let’s also not forget Churchill was cheered in England after the Munich Agreement.)


In his book, Tim Bouverie addresses a number of the points you mention.

He rejects the idea that Chamberlain sought to ‘buy time for rearmament’ for two principal reasons:

a) Chamberlain was firmly committed to appeasement and genuinely believed he had been called by destiny to prevent war from breaking out. In this he was, alas, cruelly deceived by Hitler (a point Churchill brings up in his 1940 eulogy for Chamberlain). Also, it was Chamberlain, first as chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) and later as Prime Minister who had always tried to keep military preparations and building programs to a minimum (no more than what Britain could afford). Though it must be stated that it was Chamberlain who supported RAF head honcho Hugh Dowding in promoting the Spitfire and Hurricane as the backbone of the ‘new’ RAF.
Ironically this reluctance to fully commit to building planes in 1936-1938 worked to Britain’s advantage. In 1940 it was not stuck with a mass of obsolete and obsolescent planes and instead could focus on Spitfires and Hurricanes.

b) Germany’s relative position in September 1939 up to June 1940 was better than it had been in September 1938. If any country ‘benefitted’ from the year of delay, it was Germany. It is true that Britain and France were not ready for war in 1938, but neither was Germany. And in 1938, the western powers would have had a strong ally in Czechoslovakia which had a fairly modern army which (unlike the French) was highly motivated and possessed strong natural defenses which Germany would have struggled to overcome quickly. Even without Soviet support Germany could and probably would have been contained or forced to fight a protracted battle whilst its meagre forces defending the western border would be overrun.

It was also Chamberlain’s reluctance which prevented a deal between the western powers and the Soviet Union in 1939. France had wanted an alliance ‘at any price’ but Britain basically sent only relatively junior officials to negotiate who, much to Soviet annoyance, didn’t even possess letters from the British government authorizing them to make an agreement (unlike the French, who did). This caused Molotov to advise Stalin that Britain wasn’t serious about negotiating, and Stalin then decided to shift his interest towards a deal with Germany (in this case the chief goal was to actually buy time).

Chamberlain’s reluctance combined with French low morale combined also to create the ‘Phoney War’ where little happened on land between September 39 and April 40. The only active front was the navy, where the new (and old) First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill was once again in charge. Chamberlain may have still believed in negotiating a way out of the war, however by this time he did specifically rule out making deals as long as Hitler was in charge.

Chamberlain also didn’t really resign because of ill health, but because he knew that Britain needed another ‘national government’ which was to be a coalition of all the major parties (Conservative, Liberal, Labour). Although Chamberlain did win a vote of confidence in May 1940, it was with a reduced majority of only 81 and in fact counted for less than half of the members of the House of Commons (because of absences and abstentions). Whereas Chamberlain, the King, right wing conservatives, the upper class, the conservative press and various cabinet members all wanted Halifax as Chamberlain’s successor, it ended up being Churchill. The main reasons for that are:

a) Halifax himself had repeatedly told friends and colleagues ever since ‘Munich’ that he wasn’t really interested in becoming PM and also that the fact that he wasn’t a member of the House of Commons which would limit his potential effectiveness, also he felt his association with ‘appeasement’ would serve as a distraction from the important business of war.

b) the opposition, and especially Labour leader Clement Attlee told the King that Labour would serve in a national government, but it could under no circumstances be led by someone who was strongly associated with ‘appeasement’ which Halifax clearly was. Chamberlain, upon being told this, urged the King to ‘send for Winston’. Former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (still an MP) had also publicly called on Chamberlain to resign.

It is certainly true that Chamberlain was cheered when he returned from Munich. But as Bouverie notes in his book, this ‘honeymoon’ didn’t last very long. By the end of 1938 the government was losing by-elections to various anti-appeasement candidates (especially once Kristallnacht happened, which shifted much support away from appeasement) and it seems that once the reality of the Munich deal sunk in, many people felt it was shameful to have betrayed Britain’s (unofficial) commitment to a country that it had helped create in the aftermath of World War I.

Interestingly, early 1939 Chamberlain once more sought to bypass the Foreign Office (by then led by foreign secretary Halifax) and opened a channel of communication with Germany via a German embassy official. However, MI5 (domestic intelligence) caught on to it and a report by them landed on the desk of the permanent undersecretary of the foreign office Alexander Cadogan who shared it with Halifax who confronted Chamberlain, who then denied it all, Cadogan stated that he didn’t believe the denial.

All throughout the secret channels with both the German and Italian embassies, and him encouraging ‘unofficial’ diplomacy by various members of the upper class (who visited Germany), Chamberlain bypassed the foreign office, bypassed the house of commons and ignored long standing British diplomatic traditions in order to seek the elusive ‘peace in our time’.

Though Chamberlain was undoubtedly sincere in wanting to preserve peace (a noble pursuit, certainly) he went beyond all reasonability to try and obtain it, long after it should have been clear that the other side (especially Hitler) could not be trusted to hold its end of any deal.

But one last note, I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall on one of the last meetings between British ambassador Neville Henderson and Adolf Hitler, which, in Henderson’s report to London, ended in a shouting match. Henderson admitted to shouting back at Hitler and told the Foreign Office he hoped it wouldn’t set their efforts back too much. Henderson would often send reports to London about meetings with Hitler, which he would invariably start with “after the usual histrionics” referring to Hitler’s erratic temper.