Tomorrow is the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, the now infamous meeting where Britain and France agreed to hand over part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in order to avoid war. Yet despite the cheering crowds greeting Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his ‘piece of paper’ that guaranteed ‘peace for our time’, the deal was not without opposition, as described by our Assistant Director, Emma Peplow…
The Munich Agreement, and the British government’s ‘appeasement’ policy that led to it, has become a byword for spinelessness in international affairs. As with many things in history, it was perhaps more complicated than this narrative suggests, and a policy not without opposition at the time, including stridently from the HPT’s founder, Josiah C. Wedgwood, who we are commemorating this year.
By 1938 Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was re-arming fast and beginning to expand. High on Hitler’s list of targets was the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia – a strategically important region with a high proportion of ethnic Germans in the population. The small state knew that it would be unable to stand up to German pressure on its own, so looked to Britain and France for support. As pressure mounted in early September, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Germany to try to resolve the crisis.
Chamberlain’s solution was to extract concessions from the Czechoslovakian government to give Hitler what he wanted – concessions that the Czechoslovaks had little choice but to accept. Returning once again to Germany on 22 September, Chamberlain was horrified when Hitler demanded even more. This was too much for both the Czechoslovak government and the British cabinet, who refused to concede any more to Hitler. All sides prepared for war.
At this moment, however, Hitler changed his mind – historians believe this was in part due to his attendance at a military parade in Berlin where the crowds were subdued, not cheering for war as he expected. A further conference was arranged – at Munich on 29 September 1938 – and Hitler accepted a deal. It was a deal that handed over large areas of Czechoslovakian territory to Germany without a shot being fired. In hindsight it appears strange that Hitler was unenthusiastic, whereas Chamberlain was greeted by cheering crowds, treated as a hero for averting the war that seemed imminent just a few days before.
Despite perhaps a more complicated historical narrative than we are used to, history proved to be a hard judge on Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement. Within months the Munich agreement was in tatters and Nazi armies marched in to what remained of Czechoslovakia. Historians continue to argue whether the extra year before war broke out was crucial to British and French rearmament efforts, leaving them better prepared to fight in 1939. Yet it seems likely that Chamberlain acted in good faith: he felt Hitler would stop when his – in some eyes – ‘legitimate’ demands had been met and Germany was restored to its pre-First World War position. In this Chamberlain made a serious error and his historical reputation has to live with that.
Chamberlain’s policy was criticised at the time, and for the very reason history judged him so harshly: that he did not correctly anticipate Hitler’s expansionist agenda or understand the threat of the Nazi regime. By Munich opposition to his policies was growing – from Winston Churchill, of course, Anthony Eden, many in the Labour movement – but also Josiah C. Wedgwood, then Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Wedgwood had been a long-standing opponent of fascism and Nazism, and was horrified by the treatment of Jews in Nazi territories in particular. He believed that liberal democracy was under real threat, and that the parliamentary tradition so long fought-for in Britain was being risked by a reluctance to fight this threat. He campaigned passionately for the rights of refugees, and in vain called for a relaxation of British immigration laws.
Munich horrified Wedgwood as another opportunity lost to stand up to fascism and defend liberal democracy. He spoke against the deal at Labour rallies across the country, and forcefully in Parliament. Although in many ways Wedgwood was an idiosyncratic and controversial figure, with some opinions (particularly towards the Catholic community) that do not stand up to modern scrutiny, in this instance history has proved considerably kinder to him and his judgement:
The important thing is that the British people should not think it wrong to fight for their rights, because we are getting to a time now when we have got to make up our minds whether or not there is something worth fighting for, and to my mind the freedom of this country, the democracy of the world, is something that is worth fighting for. I think we may turn over the page that has recently been written, and turn it over with some shame, with some fear, as to what history will say of the course taken by the British Government in the last three weeks. But let the past be past and let us look towards the future. The future sketched out by those who trust Hitler is the [Munich] Pact. The future as envisaged by those who do not trust him is the reconstruction of some form of league of the people who are opposed to Hitlerism in order to enforce the rule of law instead of the rule of force. [Hansard, October 4 1938]
This year we are commemorating our founder, Josiah C. Wedgwood, on the 75th anniversary of his death with a HLF-funded project based in Staffordshire. This includes a touring exhibition on Wedgwood’s campaigns in the 1930s and a set of Key Stage 3 schools materials currently available to schools in the local area (and later to be added on the HPT website). For more information about our events or for schools materials please contact Sammy Sturgess at firstname.lastname@example.org.