...Chamberlain's inner circle backed his ill-judged 'Z Plan' – a flight to Germany to make a face-to-face appeal to, of all things, Hitler's vanity ... 'The right course", the Prime Minister argued, 'was to open by an appeal to Herr Hitler on the grounds that he had a great chance of obtaining fame for himself by making peace in Europe ..." In truth, this was the kind of fame Chamberlain coveted for himself.
The War of the World, Niall Ferguson, 2006.
It is a matter on which there is very general agreement that, in the period leading up to Britain's declaration of war on Nazi Germany, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pursued a disastrous course.
Chamberlain's catastrophic errors, so it is held, were threefold.
First, he induced the Government of Czechoslovakia to cede the ethnically German Sudetenland to Hitler's Reich. By this action he claimed to have secured peace by appeasing Germany resentment of the harsh terms of the post-World War I Versailles Treaty. But as a consequence of this transfer of territory, Czechoslovakia sacrificed the border fortifications it had constructed in response to the rising threat of Nazi Germany. It could not, therefore, have surprised many that within six months, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and annexed much of that country's remaining territory.
Second, Chamberlain declined to create the million-man ground force that some, including Winston Churchill, deemed necessary to contain Germany. Instead, Chamberlain, who served as both Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, applied the bulk of Britain's defense expenditure to the Air Force and Navy. Thus:
In October 1936, ... Chamberlain had told the Cabinet, "Air power was the most formidable deterrent to war that could be devised". ...The importance of the RAF to Chamberlain can be seen by noting that its budget rose from £16.78 million in 1933 to £105.702 million in 1939, surpassing the British Army's budget in 1937 and the Royal Navy's in 1938.(Source).
Third, following Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain gave Poland an unconditional guarantee of British armed assistance should Hitler resort to force in pursuit of access to, and control of, the formerly German city of Danzig. Thus, when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain was automatically at war with Germany on behalf of Poland, a country of essentially zero geopolitical significance to Britain, and to which Britain had no means of providing military aid.
For these reasons, Chamberlain's diplomatic course has been widely viewed as not only foolish but catastrophic. Yet there is a striking contradiction between that judgement of Chamberlain's response to the rise of Nazi Germany, and the actual consequences of his actions.
And yes, by enabling Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain's policy of appeasement substantially enhanced Germany's military might by providing access to Czechoslovakia's substantial inventory of armaments, including the Czechoslovakia-developed Panzerkampfwagen 38(t) tank, which was superior to anye tank then in possession of the German army. Furthermore, occupation of Czechoslovakia gave Germany control of that country's substantial armaments industry.
However, a fact this critique fails to address is that, prior to the outbreak of World War II, there was not one, but two brutal expansionist tyrannies in Europe, both arming at breakneck speed. Of these, one was headed by the megalomaniac Adolph Hitler, the other by the cold-blooded mass murderer, Joseph Stalin, who was firmly committed to the goal of world Communist revolution. Not only was Stalin providing material aid to the ultimately triumphant Communist revolutionaries in China, he was also providing financial aid to Communists in Europe, including crypto-communist members of Britain's Labour Party, British trades union leaders, and Britain's Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker.
What then to do? Destroy German power through a pre-emptive war in a joint operation with France? But that would have left the way clear for Soviet expansion to the West? Or was it better to allow and even assist Germany in matching the Soviet military build-up, the latter achieved at the cost of millions of lives lost due to starvation as grain was exported to pay for strategically vital Western technology. Such imports included 16 oil refineries provided by America's Koch Industries, automotive production lines provided by Henry Ford that were soon converted to the production of tanks, hydro-electric turbines and generators supplied by General Electric, plus steel mills, tank designs and much else sold to the USSR by American, German and British companies.
Whatever may have been in Neville Chamberlain's mind when he sought to appease Hitler's appetite for territorial expansion, the consequences are indisputable. His actions facilitated Germany's breakneck rearmament, thereby creating a huge impediment to Soviet ambitions for territorial aggrandizement.
That, to Chamberlain, failed to anticipated this outcome is not credible. There were abundant reasons to expect that, under Hitler's leadership, Germany would not merely block Soviet Westward expansion, but would invade the Soviet Union to fulfill Hitler's long-known objective, which was to gain Lebensraum in Eastern Europe. Confirming that this remained the plan, when Hitler's soon-to-be foreign Minister, Joachim Ribbentrop, visited England in 1937 and met with Winston Churchill at the German embassy, Ribbentrop showed Churchill a map indicating the swath of Russian territory Germany intended to seize. The vast extent of Germany's planned occupation of Russian territory is evident from Churchill's reaction: "We don't like the Russians, but we don't hate them that much."
Thus, to Chamberlain, the alternative to confronting Hitler, would have been obvious: point Germany to the East and let the totalitarian bastards fight one another to exhaustion. Moreover, to assuage Hitler's fear of a two-front war, resist pressure for a build-up of British ground forces. As for Chamberlain's declaration of war on Germany, it was essentially meaningless, resulting, for more than a year, in nothing more than deploying heavy bombers to drop leaflets over Germany.
But whatever its objective, Chamberlain's policy did much to facilitate war between the tyrannies of Left and Right, which threatened the Western world. Moreover, as that stupendous clash evolved, its outcome was materially influenced by Western intervention. At the outset, as German forces advanced deep into Russian territory, killing and capturing literally millions of Russian troops, both Britain and the United States shipped vast quantities of military equipment to the Russians. But then, as Russia turned the tide and advanced into Western Europe, the Anglo-American invasion force was there, in Berlin, to block further movement West. Four months later, reminding Stalin of what he was up against, the US exploded an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Though despised by all and sundry, it may thus be said that Neville Chamberlain was, more than any other statesman, the architect of victory by the free nations of the West against the threat of Nazi or Soviet domination.