A large audience at Bolton School Girls’ Division enjoyed a fascinating insight from author and political journalist Tim Bouverie into how the policy of appeasement failed in the run up to World War Two.
With his debut book Appeasing Hitler set for a launch on 18 April, Tim took the gathering through the 1920s and ‘30s and the build up to the Second World War. Whilst the horrors of the First World War were still fresh in people’s minds and led to the policy of pacifism being popular, there was a range of political views in Britain on how Hitler should be dealt with. Winston Churchill, who, having changed his political allegiances more than once was seen as untrustworthy and a maverick, was one of the few English people who had read the full version of Mein Kampf (the only pre-1939 version in English was a third of the original size) in which Hitler sets out his vision of world domination. Churchill believed war was inevitable, either ‘now or later’. At the other end of the spectrum, George Lansbury of the Labour Party sought disarmament.
Hitler built up a case that the Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War, had treat Germany poorly as he sought to develop German military power to that of other European nations and increase their dominion. The talk recapped how Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia was permitted by the West (including the use of mustard gas which was against the Geneva Convention) and gave impetus and belief to Hitler that his own expansion would go unchallenged. He re-militarised the Rhineland, which closed off “an open door” to France, annexed Austria and, again with Western accession, annexed the Sudetenland in Western Czechoslovakia. Even at this point, Tim argued Hitler could have been stopped. If the Czech army, which was strong, had gone to war with Germany, this would have left the German Western Front exposed to British and French attack. However, the policy of appeasement conducted by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who said Germany must be given the right to self-determination, was to befriend Hitler, to find out what he wanted and to appease him.
The 1938 Munich Agreement, which allowed the annexing of Sudetenland, was very popular in England at the time but is arguably the most controversial British foreign policy agreement ever. Returning to Downing Street, Chamberlain talked of having secured ‘peace for our time’. However, the Pact was disastrous for the Czechs who, along with the Russians were not invited to the meeting. Stalin had, by this time, come to realise an anti-Nazi pact with the French and British was not going to happen and a year later signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact which allowed Germany to concentrate their war effort against Western powers. As Hitler went on to take over the rest of Czechoslovakia it became apparent that appeasement had failed and when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, World War Two began.
Drawing lessons from the failure of appeasement, Tim concluded that Chamberlain (who had never been to war, during WW1 he had been the Mayor of Birmingham) had failed to realise what he was dealing with and simply could not understand someone as duplicitous and evil as Hitler. He also said that if the Western powers had acted decisively and together from the very start of Hitler’s rise then he could have been stopped. The War illustrated the importance of countries working in alliances and groups and that a policy of isolationism is when the problems begin.
Tim read History at Christ Church, Oxford. From 2013-2017 he was a political journalist at Channel 4 News, where he worked alongside Michael Crick, as his producer, and covered all major political events, including both the 2015 and 2017 General Elections and the EU Referendum. He regularly reviews history and politics books, and has written for the Spectator, Observer and Daily Telegraph.
The presentation was the latest in a series of enrichment lectures held at Bolton School and open to the general public.