Chamberlain and Hitler 1938

Neville Chamberlain, 1940
(CH11/6/26)

What was Chamberlain trying to do?

After the First World War, the map of Europe was re-drawn and several new countries were formed. As a result of this, three million Germans found themselves now living in part of Czechoslovakia. When Adolf Hitler came to power, he wanted to unite all Germans into one nation.

In September 1938 he turned his attention to the three million Germans living in part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. Sudeten Germans began protests and provoked violence from the Czech police. Hitler claimed that 300 Sudeten Germans had been killed. This was not actually the case, but Hitler used it as an excuse to place German troops along the Czech border.

During this situation, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to meet Hitler at his private mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden in an attempt to resolve the crisis. Three of the documents here are extracts from Chamberlain’s own record of the meeting. The other two documents are useful evidence of the kind of advice Chamberlain was getting at home in Britain.


Tasks

1. These sources are extracts from a letter written by Nevile Henderson, British Ambassador in Germany, 6th September 1938.

Do you think the German people were nervous about the outcome of the Sudetenland talks?

  • What makes you think that?
  • What do you think that Nevile Henderson means when he says that ‘Benes will never go far enough till he is made to do so’?
  • What did Nevile Henderson want the British press to do about Hitler?
  • What do you think Henderson’s opinion was of Hitler?
  • How might Henderson’s view affect what Chamberlain did when he met Hitler?

2. These three sources are extracts from the minutes of the conversation between Chamberlain and Hitler at Berchtesgaden.

Look at Source 2a. Write a summary of this part of the meeting by adding one sentence to each of these three starters:

  • Hitler said: “…”
  • Chamberlain queried: “…”
  • Hitler replied: “…”

Look at Source 2b

  • What threat does Hitler make here?
  • How does Chamberlain respond?

Look at Source 2c

  • What does Chamberlain suggest to Hitler?
  • Sudetenland was part of Czechoslovakia. No Czech representative was present at this meeting. Did Chamberlain have the right to make this offer?

Hitler was capable of being charming, of lying and of bullying. Find examples of all three of these aspects of his personality in all three sources.

3. This is the conclusion of a note from General Ismay to the British Cabinet sent on 20th September 1938, marked ‘Secret’. Ismay was Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence.

  • What does General Ismay, writing in September 1938, assume will happen to Czechoslovakia? (Remember that at this time Czechoslovakia was still an independent country which included the Sudetenland)
  • What effect does he think the German conquest of Czechoslovakia will have on German military strength?
  • Does he recommend that Britain should fight Germany now, or later?
  • What are his reasons?
  • How might General Ismay’s views affect what Chamberlain did when he met Hitler later, at Munich on 29 September?

4. Use the sources above as well as any other knowledge you may have about the situation in the Sudetenland to answer the following:

  • What are the arguments for and against each of these statements about appeasement?
  • Which one do you think is the most accurate and give reasons for your choice

‘Chamberlain’s appeasement policy made war more likely because Hitler thought he could get away with anything.’

‘Chamberlain’s appeasement policy bought a valuable year for Britain to get ready for the war which was bound to come.’

‘Chamberlain believed that Hitler was a man of his word.’

‘The decision to give the Sudetenland to Germany let down the Czech people.’


Background

The Treaty of Versailles, made in 1919 at the end of the First World War, was intended to make a lasting peace. Many people felt that the Treaty had caused terrible resentment in Germany on which Hitler had been able to play in order to achieve power. The government believed that Hitler and Germany had genuine grievances, but that if these could be met (‘appeased’) Hitler would be satisfied and become less demanding.

Hitler was open about his refusal to accept many of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Soon after he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 he began to re-arm the country, breaking the restrictions placed on the German armed forces. In 1936, he sent German troops into the Rhineland and in March 1938 he joined Germany and Austria. Czechoslovakia was the logical next step for his aggression and German Nazis in the Sudetenland were told to stir up the trouble that led to the crisis examined here. Edvard Benes, the leader of Czechoslovakia, was concerned that if Germany was given the Sudetenland, most of the Czech defences would be handed over to the Germans and they would be left defenceless.

Chamberlain’s flight to Berchtesgaden was followed by another to Godesberg a week later and then another to Munich on 29 September. At Munich, Chamberlain got an international agreement that Hitler should have the Sudetenland in exchange for Germany making no further demands for land in Europe. Chamberlain said it was ‘Peace for our time’. Hitler said he had ‘No more territorial demands to make in Europe.’ On 1 October German troops occupied the Sudetenland: Hitler had got what he wanted without firing a shot.

Although people in Britain were relieved that war had been averted, many now wondered if appeasement was the best decision. They did not think it would stop Hitler, and simply delayed the war, rather than prevented it. Even while Chamberlain was signing the Munich Agreement, he was agreeing a huge increase in spending to increase Britain’s armament in preparation for war. He must have known from the situation outlined to him by General Ismay, that Czechoslovakia was lost, that war was bound to come.

Six months later, in March 1939, German troops took over the rest of Czechoslovakia. Poland seemed to be the next most likely victim of Nazi aggression and Chamberlain made an agreement with the Poles to defend them in Germany invaded. Hitler did not think Britain would go to war over Poland, having failed to do so over Czechoslovakia. He sent his soldiers into Poland in September 1939. The same day, Britain declared war on Germany.

Chamberlain struggled on as Prime Minister until May 1940 when he resigned and Winston Churchill, a bitter critic of appeasement, took over. Chamberlain died in November 1940; however he continued to be vilified for appeasement in general and for his actions in September 1938 in particular long after his death and the conclusion of the war.


Teachers' notes

Students can use the sources provided to build up a picture of both Chamberlain and Hitler’s character. Chamberlain’s account of his meeting with Hitler forms the centre of this enquiry and reveals how Hitler argued forcefully, then angrily, then reasonably again to gain maximum effect.

Students could add up the criticisms which could be levelled at Chamberlain, from naivety in his view of Hitler, to national self-centredness in his failure to consult with his allies and his readiness to sacrifice the Czechs. Time and the opening of documents that were secret at the time, add different perspectives to this issue. Chamberlain was of the generation which survived but was deeply revolted by the First World War. Is it unfair of us to criticise him for mis-judging Hitler?

Students could try to construct the case for Chamberlain. Is this the same as a case for appeasement?

Sources

Image : CN 11/6 – Neville Chamberlain in France

Source 1 : FO 371/21737 – Letter from Nevile Henderson, the German Ambassador

Source 2a, b & c : FO 371/21738 – Chamberlain’s notes from his meeting with Hitler.

Source 3 : CAB 21/544 – Report by General Ismay on the potential outcomes if Czechosolvakia is given to the Germans.


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