Historical revisionism is always in season and is generally a useful, or at least diverting, activity. But Nick Baumann’s effort, in Slate last week, to resuscitate the strategic reputation of Neville Chamberlain (British prime minister, 1937–40), on the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, was a bridge too far in historical myth-making.
It is correct that Britain and France could not go to war to prevent Germans in Czechoslovakia, especially concentrated in Sudetenland, from becoming Germans in fact; and that, as a practical matter, this meant conceding Sudetenland to Germany, as the Czechs could not deport a million Germans without justifying and bringing down on themselves an irresistible German invasion.
Baumann breathlessly revealed what every even slightly informed person on the subject already knew: that Britain and France had no ability to stop Germany on the ground in Central Europe. Even at the end of World War II, Britain had only 25 divisions engaged against Germany in Northwest Europe and Italy (compared with 80 U.S. and 16 French and Canadian combined). The British army (like all other armies) could defeat the formidable Germans only when they had they had a heavy numerical and armament advantage, as at El Alamein in Egypt in November 1942. No sane person ever suggested that Czechoslovakia could be successfully defended from Hitler militarily if he attacked it.
As Baumann rightly recorded, in his meticulous construction of the straw man of a direct military contest for that country, the British were just bringing a new generation of fighter aircraft into full production: Spitfires and advanced Hurricanes that would be the equal of the German Messerschmidt. The Commonwealth countries — especially Canada and Australia, two countries that, with India, contributed almost 40 percent of the combined Imperial war effort (almost all of them volunteers, an astonishing fact given that their homelands were not under direct threat of attack) — would not have joined such a war. The U.S. was bound by statute and the weight of public and official opinion to remain neutral, and France, so magnificent in World War I, was now much less robust and reliable. Italy was antagonistic and the USSR was an enigma.
Baumann concludes that, with Chamberlain’s military advisers opposed to war, allies unlikely or uncertain, and public opinion opposed, he was right not to go to war. And, inexorably, he then places the bridegroom on the wedding cake: Appeasement is often a misnomer and should not be a dirty word, and war should not be undertaken over-hastily. Those who at this point have that ghastly, sinking feeling that what impends is a labored apologia for the trans-red-line dithering, lane-changing, buck-passing, straw-grasping pall of official prevarication of the Obama administration in current and recent foreign-policy matters are right to reach for the sick bag.
Fortunately, the premise is bunk. No one, and certainly not Winston Churchill, was advocating plunging straight into war over Sudetenland. Nor were conditions quite as daunting as Baumann describes. Contrary to what he wrote in Slate, no one then confused Hitler with the bellicose, Ruritanian buffoonery of Mussolini. The first lord of the British Admiralty, Lord Strabolgi, famously said in 1935: “The British Mediterranean Fleet could blow the Italian Navy out of the water in 15 minutes, and every naval person in the world knows it.” So it could, and a few years later, more or less did. But no such comments were ever uttered about the armed forces of Germany, and it was precisely because everyone knew what a struggle war with Germany would be that the prospect of it was so dreadful.