Why did Neville Chamberlain appease Nazi Germany? by Philipp Müller

Last Monday (30th September) was the 75th anniversary of the return to Britain of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain had returned from the Munich conference, where Germany, Italy, France and Britain had decided the fate of the Sudetenland. This area was part of Czechoslovakia but mainly populated by Germans. Germany wanted it to become part of the German Reich and threatened with an invasion if its wishes were ignored. France and Britain acquiesced and Czechoslovakia, which had not even been invited to the Munich conference, had to give up the Sudetenland. The so-called Munich agreement became the most famous example of British and French appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Nowadays, most people think that Chamberlain was a coward and that his policy of appeasing Nazi Germany was both foolish and morally wrong. Most are of the opinion that Chamberlain and the French Prime Minster Daladier should have resisted Hitler and, if Hitler did not back down, should have gone to war with Germany. They scorn the policy of appeasement as foolish, naive, cowardly and dangerous.

I will argue, on the contrary, that there were legitimate reasons in favour of appeasement.

Neville Chamberlain

First a few words about Neville Chamberlain. He was prime minister from May 1937 to May 1940. His policy towards Nazi Germany was called appeasement. To appease means to give way to somebody’s complaints in hope that this person then behaves reasonably after his demands are fulfilled. Chamberlain was prepared to go a very long way in order to strike a deal with Hitler. He thought that appeasement was in British national interest.

Reasons for appeasement

There were several reasons for appeasement. First of all, there was great fear in Britain that standing up to Hitler would mean war. The First World War had caused huge casualties and nobody wanted another war. Thus, there was a huge aversion to go to war in Britain in the 1920s and the 1930s. War had to be avoided at almost all costs. The great progress in the capabilities of planes and air warfare that had been made since 1918 made the prospect of bombing of towns possible and very frightening.

Many people in Britain and France believed that Germany had been too harshly treated at the Versailles Peace Conference. They believed that Germany’s grieve was legitimated and that its cause was justified. Britain had been willing to modify the Versailles Treaty in 1920s. In this regard, British policy towards Germany did not change after 1933. Many British felt guilty about the harsh peace terms and were ready to make concessions.


Like many of his contemporaries, Chamberlain believed that Britain needed the empire to remain a great power. Trade with the empire outnumbered trade with the rest of the world in 1930s. However, the First World War had given the empire a serious jolt; imperialists feared that another such shock would easily destroy it. During the Great War, Britain had to wind down its imperial garrisons overseas and anti-imperial movements had demanded concessions for their support of Britain during the war. In another war, they would demand more concessions or even independence. The British had already a great deal of problems ruling India, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq during the 1930s. Thus, Chamberlain feared that another war in Europe would cause the disintegration of the British Empire.

There were also problems with the “White Dominions”. In 1914, when Britain had declared war on Germany, the whole empire had automatically been at war too. But in 1931 the Westminster Status was signed and Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand had now an autonomous foreign policy. Their governments could now decide themselves if they declared war or not. Even if they did, it would be their decision how many troops, warships and planes they would send to Europe to support a British war against Germany. The Chanak crisis in 1922 was a worrying precedent. The Dominions had refused to support the British during the crisis with Turkey. Central European affairs did not matter for the Dominions.

In the 1930s, after a decade of cutting the manpower and the budgets of the army and the Royal Navy and increasing social spending, partly due to the Great Depression, Britain did not have enough troops, ships, planes and money to defend the entire empire. Germany was not a threat to the empire but Italy and Japan were. The Italians had re-established their control over Libya in the 1920s and then conquered Ethiopia in 1935/36. They had modernised their air force and navy and were able to threaten the British possessions of Malta, Egypt and Aden. The loss of any of these strongholds, especially the Suez Canal, would have meant that the British would have lost control over the supply line to their crown colony, India. Japan was a British ally until 1921 but the British government decided not to renew their alliance with Japan under pressure from the United States. The Japanese economy suffered from imperial preference. The governments of Australia and New Zealand were worried about Japanese expansionism and demanded British support. There were moral and legal reasons for Britain to defend Australia and New Zealand. The moral reason was that Australia and New Zealand had sent troops to Europe and the Middle East to fight for Britain in the Great War although they were not threatened by the Germans or their allies. The legal reason was simple: Australians and New Zealanders were subjects of the Crown and Britain had to defend them. In contrast, there were no legal or moral reasons to defend Czechs or Poles against Germany. Australia and New Zealand urged the British to strengthen the fortifications of Singapore and to send more ships of the Royal Navy to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

If the British government wanted to defend the Empire, it would have meant sending more warships, planes and troops to the Mediterranean, India, South East Asia and Australia. These assets would not be available any more for a war against Germany in Europe. It would have also meant to spend most of the budget for the armed services on the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The army, which would be the main fighting service in the case of a land war against Germany on the plains of northern France and Belgium, would have been neglected.

Prospects of winning a war against Germany and the consequences of a war

The biggest reason for appeasement, however, was the doubt that Britain could actually win a war against Germany. In 1938, Nazi Germany, which had started to rearm several years before, had better and more modern planes, tanks and arms than Britain.

Germany had almost won the First World War against a coalition of Britain, the Dominions, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, the United States and various smaller countries without receiving much help from its allies Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. In Churchill’s words:

“Germany had fought almost alone, against almost the whole world and had almost won.”

In 1914, when British government declared war on Germany, Britain had many allies. In the late 1930s, the situation for Britain was radically different. Its only ally, France, was weak and did not want to go to war either. The United States was isolationist (at least when it came to Europe). The Soviet Union was Communist, anti-imperialist and hated the capitalist powers as much as it hated Nazi Germany. Its former allies, Italy and Japan, were now hostile. If Britain had to fight without any allies except for France, it faced the prospect of losing the war.

Even if the United States came to rescue, the Americans would make demands after the end of the war. They would demand that Britain ended Imperial Preference, a system of British trade policy, which hurt American business interests by keeping American firms out from the lucrative markets of the empire. The American President Franklin D. Roosevelt was known to be an anti-imperialist; he might have demanded that Britain should grant independence to India and other colonies. Chamberlain was a fervent anti-Communist. He saw Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Soviet expansion westwards and the spread of Communism. If Britain went to war against Germany with the Soviet Union as its ally, then the result of a victorious war would be that the Soviets ruled over Eastern and Central Europe. Therefore, the consequences of a victorious war would be more power for the United States and the Soviet Union. If Britain fought alone, then it might very well lose a war against Nazi Germany.


There were very good geopolitical, strategic and military reasons for appeasement. At the time, Chamberlain and appeasement had great public support. The policy made sense and it would have worked if Hitler had been a rational actor or if somebody else had ruled Germany at that time (somebody like Bismarck or General Franco). But Chamberlain’s calculation that you could make a deal with Hitler turned out to be wrong.

The results of the Second World War were exactly the ones that Chamberlain had feared: The United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers and the Soviets ended up controlling Central and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, a weakened Britain had to give up the empire.

It is also important to point out that Chamberlain was bright and hard-headed; he was neither a fool nor a coward. He disliked Hitler and had serious doubts if he could trust him. Chamberlain also recognized the importance of the radar and the air force. After the Munich Agreement, he increased armament spending and allocated lots of money to the Royal Air Force and the development of the radar. As a result, the British planes were better than the German ones in 1940. Chamberlain should get (but hardly ever gets) a good deal of the credit for the British victory in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

A final point: For an overwhelming majority of people today, Hitler is the personification of all evil. To appease him and not resist him or go to war against him is seen as morally repulsive. However, people living in the 1930s saw Hitler differently. Surely, Chamberlain and other British and French leaders regarded Hitler as a nasty piece of work and felt contempt for him. They disliked the treatment of his political enemies and were horrified by the murder of the SA leader Röhm and dozens others in 1934. However, by 1938 the holocaust and all the atrocities that the Germans would commit during the war were still in the future. Most people could not imagine the Germans embarking on genocide. On the other hand, Stalin had already committed mass murder long before the outbreak of the war. Stalin had butchered millions of his own countrymen and killed thousands of members of the Communist Party in the Great Terror in the late 1930s. According to the historian Anne Applebaum, Stalin killed more Ukrainians than Hitler did Jews. Seen from the perspective of most Europeans in 1938, Stalin and Communism were a worse option than Hitler and Fascism. This is something which one has to bear in mind when judging Chamberlain and other British and French supporters of appeasement.