Blair or Churchill: who told the truth?

Chamberlani, Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini prepare to sign the Munich agreement (picture German Federal Archives)

Chamberlani, Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini prepare to sign the Munich agreement (picture German Federal Archives)

Can Tony Blair really be compared to Winston Churchill?  A recent talk by Mr Blair’s former communications chief Alastair Campbell noted that Winston Churchill actively and shamelessly engaged in deception during the second world war, but that in contrast to his former boss, nobody holds it against him now.

There was in the press a furious response.  Winston Churchill’s lies were in wartime, said Sir Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, to confuse the enemy in advance of major operations like the Normandy landings.  There is a world of difference between this and over-egging the peacetime case for starting a war.

I agree.  The comparison between Blair and Churchill does not work, but there is a different comparison which makes a lot more sense.  This is to look at the deceptions practised by Winston Churchill’s predecessor as prime minister, Neville Chamberlain.

Neville Chamberlain’s overriding objective was to avoid war with Germany.  He trembled at the thought of a return to the trenches of the Great War, or the prospect of aerial bombing that would devastate London.  On 3 July, he declared:

“In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers,”

It would be far better, he thought, to reach what he termed a “General Settlement” with Germany to adjust the unfairnesses of the Versailles treaty of 1919.  It was the search for this General Settlement that led to the Munich agreement of 30 September 1938.

This website knows and cares about this because it was anger about the Munich agreement that gave birth to Federal Union itself.  (Read about the birth of Federal Union here.)  And Chamberlain’s methods to get to the Munich agreement deserve some scrutiny.

The immediate issue to be settled at Munich was that of Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia along the German border that had been predominantly inhabited by Germans since the middle of the 19th century, (that is to say, not an issue created by Versailles).  Nevertheless, Hitler demanded that territory transferred to Germany by 1 October 1938, and Chamberlain was ready to agree.  The Czech government, of course, was completely opposed, but how could its views be counted against the peace of the whole of Europe?  It was, as Chamberlain was later to say, “a far away country” of “people of whom we know nothing”.

Chamberlain tried to engineer an arrangement to provide autonomy for the Sudeten Germans short of outright secession, even sending one of his trusted advisers, Viscount Runciman, in July 1938 to press this idea on the unwilling Czechs, but in truth there was nothing the Czechs could have offered that would have satisfied Hitler.

So, in the absence of an agreement with a dictator, what to do?

Chamberlain made a secret arrangement with an ally which he then used to force the hand of his own government and party

The two major democratic powers in Europe were Britain and France.  To deal with Germany effectively meant that they had to be in agreement.  So, at a meeting on 18 September, Neville Chamberlain convinced French prime minister Daladier and foreign minister Bonnet that Sudetenland should be ceded to Germany, to placate the Nazis.  The following day, at a meeting of the British cabinet, he told them that this was a French plan that the UK really ought to support.

He cherry-picked the intelligence to present the most favourable case, rather than the most accurate one

At the height of the crisis, just before the crucial Munich summit, a special cabinet meeting on 27 September was presented with evidence on the state of the Czech armed forces: how well would they be able to fight should no agreement be reached?  Mason Macfarlane, British military attaché at the embassy in Berlin, was asked to present his views based on a brief visit to Czechoslovakia, views which were very pessimistic and dismissive of the Czech ability to resist invasion.  The evidence was, in effect, sexed down.

If the Czechs were likely to crumble in the event of war, that made the case for concessions at Munich stronger.  The British military attaché in Prague, who was much better informed and much more positive about the Czech armed forces, was not asked for his views, so the cabinet was not given the full picture.  Foreign office officials were not impressed:  Macfarlane’s deputy subsequently described that evidence as “superficial” and the head of diplomatic service asked in his diary. “What does Mason Macfarlane know about it?”

Speaking to the House of Commons, he misrepresented the true nature of the threat

Immediately before travelling to Munich on 28 September, Neville Chamberlain addressed the House of Commons with an update on the tense and difficult diplomatic situation.  Among his claims that afternoon was that he had received from Adolf Hitler, in a letter the previous evening, “reassuring statements”.  Given that this letter had in fact done nothing more than repeat the same old demands for the cession of Sudetenland and the importance of the deadline of 1 October for this to take place, there was nothing that could be taken as being reassuring.

He misled the Cabinet regarding the concerns of the French

Whatever else Munich led to, it most certainly was not peace in our time.  Anxiety in France over a possible war with Germany continued and grew with the French government worried that it would not get enough support from Britain.  This was raised by Daladier at a meeting with Chamberlain in Paris in late November 1938.  On his return to London, though, Chamberlain completely misled the cabinet by reporting that “no point of difficulty had cropped up except the Czechoslovak guarantee”.

Here was a series of occasions in which the prime minister used distorted or selectively presented evidence in order to suit his political case.  Facts and opinions that might have contradicted him were silenced or marginalised, in order that he could have the policy on which he had set himself.  The result was Britain plunged ill-prepared into war; not, it seems, for the last time.

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