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Outbreak of the Second World War: Who were the ‘guilty men’?

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On the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, Chris Bambery examines the role of the British establishment in appeasing Hitler
Issue 2167
Chamberlain (left) attempted to cut a deal with Hitler
Chamberlain (left) attempted to cut a deal with Hitler

Prime minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast that Britain was in a state of war with Germany at 11.12am on 3 September 1939. The Second World War had begun two days earlier when the German dictator, Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland.

After the invasion, the House of Commons met. Chamberlain failed to say that Britain and its ally France would declare war. MPs rose in rebellion.

When the Labour deputy leader, Arthur Greenwood, stood to speak an arch-imperialist Tory, Leo Amery, shouted across the chamber “speak for England Arthur”.

The government whips advised Chamberlain he could not survive another rebellion.

The prime minister tried to broker an agreement with Hitler that the “Polish question” be discussed at a summit between the two countries plus Italy and France. When Hitler refused, ministers demanded Chamberlain convene a late night cabinet which set a deadline of 11am the next day.

The government had championed appeasing Hitler by offering up territory in central and eastern Europe and urging him to attack Russia. Chamberlain was a hardline Tory who hated Labour and the trade unions and believed that the US represented a greater threat to Britain and its empire than Germany.

Today opponents of the Anglo-American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are branded “appeasers” by the White House and Downing Street. Yet the appeasers of Hitler belonged firmly to the right and included not just Chamberlain but a firm majority of the Tory Party and the Royal family.

In November 1937 Chamberlain sent his close cabinet colleague, Lord Halifax, to meet Hitler. Halifax began their discussions by praising Hitler for “performing great services in Germany,” adding that critics of the Nazis “were not fully informed about what was taking place in Germany”.


He continued by saying that public opinion was misinformed about the Nazi dictatorship which was “a bulwark against Bolshevism”.

Britain and France stood by as Hitler expanded the borders of his Third Reich incorporating the Rhineland and then Austria.

The next target of Nazi aggression was Czechoslovakia – a country which both Britain and France had helped create in the wake of First World War and which both Britain and France were treaty-bound to defend.

The Czech state, formed in 1918, incorporated a German minority in the western Sudetenland. Hitler claimed these Germans were oppressed and demanded the Sudetenland be handed over to Germany.

Chamberlain wrote to Hitler, “I propose to come over at once to see you with a view to try and find a peaceful solution. I propose to come by air and am ready to start tomorrow.”

Chamberlain only told three of his cabinet colleagues about his visit. He flew to meet Hitler and assured him that, “From the moment of my appointment as British prime minister I have been constantly occupied with the question of Anglo-German rapprochement.”

He agreed to the handing over of the Sudetenland following a referendum. Hitler then concluded that right wing govern­ments in London and Paris would not offer resistance to his plans.

Chamberlain wrote about the meeting, “I have had a conversation with a man and one with whom I can do business. I am the most popular man in Germany.”

Chamberlain won his cabinet and the French government to insisting that the Czechoslovakian government surrender territory to the Nazi regime, making it clear they would not defend it from German aggression.

He announced a “new understanding between England and Germany” saying of Hitler, “it was impossible not to be impressed with the power of the man. His objectives were strictly ­limited – when he had included the Sudeten Germans in the Reich he would be satisfied.”

Hitler informed Chamberlain he was not prepared to wait on a referendum to approve the matter and his troops were ready to invade. Chamberlain had a private meeting with Hitler which ended in agreement that the Sudetenland would be handed over.


But this time the British prime minister, faced with Hitler’s brazen blackmail, could not carry his cabinet colleagues. They had grasped the fact that Hitler threatened to dominate Europe and eclipse Britain as the dominant power there.

Chamberlain held onto his post. In a radio broadcast he said, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a ­far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Then on 28 September Chamberlain flew to a conference brokered by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Munich, with Hitler and the French premier.

The Munich summit was a stage managed affair.

At the close of the meeting the decision to surrender a fifth of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany was communicated to the Czech government in the dead of night – they were not invited to the conference.

Before he left Munich, Chamberlain had another private meeting with Hitler. He secured a piece of paper promising Britain and Germany would never fight each other again. As he stepped off the plane in London he waved it and declared he had secured “peace in our time”.

Chamberlain was feted by the king and queen and lauded by the press.

Then in March 1939 Hitler invaded the rump Czechoslovakian state, breaking his pledge to Chamberlain.

Until this time Chamberlain had carried a majority in the ruling Tory Party. From the spring of 1938 the minority wing of that party, centred on Winston Churchill, began to bloc with the Labour opposition against appeasement.

Churchill had no problem with fascism, but he understood that Hitler represented a threat to Britain’s position in Europe and the world. He also saw that Hitler would not be bought off because he sought European and global domination.

Until this date Churchill had been isolated and ignored by Chamberlain’s associates. Under pressure the Tory government ordered re-armament, introduced conscription and ended a naval agreement with Germany.

Hitler now demanded that swathes of Polish territory also be handed over to Germany.

France and Britain signed treaties with Poland and Romania promising to aid them if they faced German aggression.

Even so Chamberlain was clear he was not guaranteeing Poland’s existing borders and was prepared to urge its leaders to sacrifice territory in an attempt to buy off Hitler.

The US ambassador in London reported back to his government that Chamberlain was “more worried about getting the Poles to be reasonable than the Germans.”

Pressure from the British and French governments stopped the Poles from carrying out a full mobilisation of their army until 30 August, with the result that a quarter of Polish troops never reached their units following the German attack.

After Britain and France declared war they did not attack in the west, despite the fact the vast bulk of German troops were engaged in conquering Poland.

The British cabinet meeting discussed air attacks on Germany in support of the Poles. On 30 September the air minister, Sir Kingsley Wood, rejected setting fire to the Black Forest, explaining, “Are you aware it is private property? Why, you’ll be asking be to bomb Essen next.” Essen was home to the giant Krupps arms plant.

Britain’s case for going to war was set out in The British Case, written by top Tory Lord Lloyd and published at the start of 1940 with an introduction by the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax.

The book pleaded that there was “no frontier in eastern Europe which need be a cause for conflict between Britain and Germany” if only Hitler would cooperate with the British government.


Lloyd made it clear the British government was not fighting fascism or asking the German people to rid themselves of Nazism. He praised the Italian and Spanish fascist dictators, Mussolini and Franco.

British and French forces sat tight on the defensive in the west hoping they could face down Germany and oust Hitler in a long war of attrition. They were still there when Hitler took the initiative in May 1940.

Many Tories, including government ministers, were still determined to secure peace with the Nazi führer.

In May 1940 Chamberlain was forced from office when Labour and the Liberals refused to join his government. Churchill was appointed premier despite King George Vl favouring Halifax.

A majority in the Tory party made clear their hostility to Churchill. He only faced down a pro-peace faction in the cabinet led by Halifax by sanctioning a public campaign against those responsible for appeasement, who were labelled “the Guilty Men”.

Churchill was fighting an imperialist war to save the British Empire but he was ready to trade in anti-fascist rhetoric in order to prosecute that war. He played on the anti-fascist stance of the vast bulk of the British people.

The 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war has seen a flurry of articles from Tory historians seeking to rehabilitate Chamberlain.

Their argument was that Britain was faced with a choice between two evils.

It could stand up to Hitler and risk defeat or it could ally itself, firstly, with the US, which was intent on stripping away its empire, and secondly with Stalin’s Russia, which they considered to be a greater threat than Hitler.

This argument skips over the fact that Hitler was determined to prosecute a racial, genocidal war. Hitler began this on day one of the Second World War.

He ordered the Geneva convention scrapped, the elimination of Polish intellectuals and that Polish civilians be treated as slave labour.

For the country’s large Jewish population a worse fate lay ahead.

With the invasion of Russia in June 1941 that genocidal war moved up a gear. The spectre of the Holocaust was already coming into view.

Chamberlain and the Tory government in London were the real “guilty men” who helped Hitler on the road to a horror never seen before or since.

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