British Prime Ministers in the 1920s and 1930s inherited a world created for them by David Lloyd George between 1919 and 1923, and were unable to cope with its challenges, complexities and risks.
In the case of Stanley Baldwin, who ruled for most of the period as leader of a Conservative or National Government, the strain of dealing with a rapidly worsening international situation led to his resignation in 1937 and his replacement with Neville Chamberlain.
The British public was steadfastly against war and rearmament, the memories of the First World War, which broke out to the shock and horror of many in the late summer of 1914 and most MPs of both parties knew that their reputations and careers rested on not appearing to sabre-rattle.
In 1933 the East Fulham by-election demonstrated to Baldwin the depth of feeling regarding war and rearmament, with a massive swing away from the National Government towards Labour. Baldwin, who had begun to consider a programme of rearmament in response to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January that year saw it as electoral suicide to do so. Baldwin had been particularly concerned with the development of air power and the fact that the sea was no longer a defence in the age of mass bombing. In 1932 he famously argued in Parliament that ‘the bomber will always get through’, meaning that air defences would never be a complete protection against the Luftwaffe or any other enemy aircraft.
Chamberlain agreed with much of what Baldwin had argued, but was convinced that there was a solution to these problems, and saw them in a series of grand interlocking treaties, not dissimilar to those almost achieved by Lloyd George. By 1937 the three powers, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan who presented an existential threat to the British Empire could, Chamberlain believed, be negotiated with successfully and the mounting tensions that had existed since 1919 could finally be laid to rest. Chamberlain’s embrace of appeasement seems to contemporary audiences both naive and a gross betrayal of the Czechs by 1938.
There is no denying the latter charge, but the first accusation must be judged within the context of the time. Chamberlain had inherited a weakened negotiating position, as by 1935 not only had the League of Nations been shown to be ineffectual, but the British and French had conspired during the
Abyssinia Crisis to undermine the very organisation they notionally led. Appeasement itself by 1937 was not seen as the folly it is regarded as now, and popular and elite attitudes alike had softened towards Germany, regarding the remilitarisation of the Rhineland if not entirely justified, then at least not worth fighting over. Chamberlain himself believed that he could negotiate with Hitler and that the Fuhrer was a rational actor who would not seek to risk war unless there was no other choice. It was on this last point that he was most mistaken, and he failed to understand the centrality of war in Hitler’s thinking and its desireability.