It’s not 1938, Ed Miliband is not Chamberlain, Cameron is not Churchill, Assad is not the danger to Britain that Hitler was, and the Munich Conference is not any kind of decent analogy for the events of this week. But considering the current popular and political resistance to military action against the mass-murdering Syrian regime, and wondering how it will be perceived in future years, I think it’s worth remembering just how popular appeasement was in 1938 - remembering just how many people thought it fine and good and worth celebrating.
The following snippets are from Lynne Olson’s book, Troublesome Young Men, an account of the anti-appeasement Tory rebels who eventually brought Churchill to power. From Chapter Eight:
Most Britons greeted the news with an almost hysterical outpouring of relief and thanksgiving. The newspaper coverage, lavish in its praise of Chamberlain, helped orchestrate the jubilant mood. In two-inch type, the single word “PEACE!” was emblazoned across the front page of the Daily Express. Of the prime minister, The Times declared: “No conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield had come adorned with nobler laurels.” Lord Castlerosse, the portly socialite gossip columnist for the Sunday Express, exulted: “Thanks to Chamberlain, thousands of young men will live. I shall live.”
When Chamberlain’s plane returned from Munich on the afternoon of September 30, a delirious crowd of several thousand people stood in a driving rainstorm at Heston Airport, waving newspapers and Union Jacks, waiting to greet the man they considered the saviour of the world. The crowds went wild when the prime minister, carrying his signature umbrella, emerged from the plane. The dozens of policemen on horseback had a difficult time holding back the surging mass; everyone, it seemed, wanted to shake Chamberlain’s hand.
From Heston, Chamberlain was whisked away by car to Buckingham Palace, where King George and Queen Elizabeth waited to offer their congratulations. Through the car’s rain-streaked windows, Chamberlain looked out at thousands of cheering, flag-waving Britons lining the streets, some of whom, in their exuberance, leaped onto the running boards of the car and banged on the windows. At the palace another huge throng waited, and when Chamberlain and his wife stepped out onto the palace balcony with the smiling king and queen, there was an earsplitting ovation. It was an unprecedented event, the first time a ruling monarch had allowed a commoner to be acknowledged from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. According to Tory MP Edward Grigg, it was also “the biggest constitutional blunder that has ever been made by any sovereign this century.” By appearing on the balcony with Chamberlain, George VI was publicly associating himself with the prime minister’s policy, a violation of the political impartiality required of a sovereign in a constitutional monarchy.
But few people were thinking of such issues that day. Continuing his triumphal procession, Chamberlain returned at last to Downing Street, which was jammed by hundreds of people who had been waiting in the rain for hours. Across the street from the prime minister’s residence, Orme Sargent, an assistant foreign affairs undersecretary and a strong opponent of appeasement, watched the crowd from a first-floor balcony of the Foreign Office. Turning to a colleague, he acidly observed: “You might think that we had won a major victory instead of betraying a minor country.”
From Chapter Nine:
For weeks after Munich it was impossible to escape from Neville Chamberlain. Everywhere one went in Britain, it seemed, there were reminders of the prime minister and his historic journey. Toy shops featured booted Chamberlain dolls, holding a rod and reel in one hand and a little sign saying PEACEMAKER in the other. Candy stores sold sugar umbrellas, while florists displayed Chamberlain’s picture framed by flowers and bearing the inscription WE ARE PROUD OF YOU. Companies took out large newspaper advertisements lauding the prime minister, and the poet laureate, John Masefield, wrote a poem comparing him to the tragic Greek hero Priam and declaring that he had been “divinely led.”
Ten Downing Street meanwhile was flooded with letters, telegrams, flowers, umbrellas, toys, trinkets, and other items celebrating Chamberlain’s achievement. He put many of these articles on display in a large showcase, which he loved to show off to visitors. When Kenneth Clark and his wife came to lunch one day, Chamberlain proudly led them to the showcase, explaining that the articles “were sent to me in gratitude for the Munich agreement.”
As John Colville noted in his diary, Munich fed the prime minister’s vanity as well as his arrogance. With Chamberlain “almost canonised” because of Munich, it was “small wonder,” Violet Bonham Carter dryly remarked, “that he began to see himself as a Messiah sent down from heaven...”
The events of 1938 are seen in a very different light now. I wonder how will 29 August 2013 be remembered?
Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill To Power And Helped Save England is copyright © 2007 by Lynne Olson.
The still of Conrad Veidt surrounded by plaster statues of Chamberlain is from the Powell and Pressburger film Contraband, via the blog in so many words...