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Munich 1938: Appeasement and World War II

By David Faber. 512 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2009. $30.

In September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain heralded the Munich Conference as bringing “peace in our time,” while Adolf Hitler, then chancellor of Germany, flew into a carpet-biting rage at being denied the war of conquest he sought. For decades afterwards, Munich epitomized the folly of appeasement: the policy Winston Churchill described as feeding the crocodile in the hope that you will be the last one eaten. Beginning in the 1980s, however, revisionist scholarship described Chamberlain as a prudent statesman, pursuing appeasement as a rational actor in the context of Britain’s military and economic weakness.

Using a broad spectrum of archival and printed sources, Munich 1938 revives the idea that appeasement was the product of Chamberlain’s self-delusion regarding Hitler’s intentions, combined with feckless overestimation of his own talents. Hitler always believed that Germany’s “problems” could only be solved by force, and force involved risk. So as Chamberlain’s government demonstrated its commitment to discussing a general European settlement, Hitler saw sincerity underpinned by weakness. David Faber shows how the führer gambled for high stakes despite opposition from his generals, diplomats, and even German public opinion, which affirmed the Third Reich was hoping for change, not another Great War.

Hitler played Chamberlain like a fiddle—although it is more accurate to say that Chamberlain played himself. For months Hitler pressured the Czechs to allow the German districts of the Sudetenland to return “home to the Reich,” insisting that it would defuse German-Czech tensions. Stem-winding speeches, brutally delivered, their impact enhanced by radio, mobilized public opinion.

Military preparations had reached a point where—at least to Chamberlain and his supporters—war was certain unless Britain stopped it. And so Chamberlain bent Britain’s constitution, sidetracking his cabinet in an unprecedented arrogation of power. He used that power to pressure the Czechs directly, then to summon an international conference at Munich. Czechoslovakia was not invited.

The Munich settlement swapped the Sudetenland for Hitler’s promise that it would be his last territorial demand. Chamberlain “felt that we could now regard the crisis as ended.” Hitler called it final proof his enemies were “little worms” to be bluffed, baited, and bullied at will. In the end, of course, both were horribly wrong, and millions died. But Faber has written a model case study of how mutual self-delusion can influence international relations.


Originally published in the September 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here