December 03, 2019

Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler

By Adrian Phillips
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When Neville Chamberlain became prime minister in May 1937, he faced a growing threat to Great Britain’s security from Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy. His strategy was to “appease”—which meant, at that time, “bring peace” or “calm someone who was angry”—those leaders, to gain their trust and engage in rational dialogue. That approach was considered ill-advised by Winston Churchill, who understood the situation more realistically and encouraged rearmament. How Chamberlain dealt with the threats from afar and from within is the subject of Adrian Phillips’ fascinating Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler, which shows how the decisions made by men who were determined to avoid war instead made it almost inevitable.

The focus here is on the substantial foreign policy role played by Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s closest advisor who was head of the country’s civil service but had no prior diplomatic experience. Wilson was a master of bureaucracy and instrumental in the ongoing and seriously damaging rift between the PM and the foreign office. Both men were careful not to offend the other countries’ dictators by government action or comments in the media, and they failed to appreciate that Hitler and Mussolini were not serious about England’s efforts at either public or back-channel diplomacy. Meanwhile, Wilson’s efforts at propaganda and rearming the Royal Air Force indicated that he was not expecting war.

Chamberlain was vain and saw everything he did as a triumph. He had a forbidding image and had no friends among politicians. By contrast, Wilson had people skills and made many friends among those with whom he worked. But both were definitely convinced that their foreign policy approach was right, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. And both were determined to use almost any means to weaken Churchill’s influence and keep him out of the government, which, of course, was a goal of the Nazi regime as well.

This very readable and detailed description of how policy was made and implemented gives us a unique way to look at fateful decisions that helped advance events leading to World War II.

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