Churchill Archive Platform - Appeasament

In contemporary international relations, the word ‘appeasement’ has come to mean the shameful and cowardly capitulation to enemies and the ignominious failure to stand up to bullies. Yet in the 1930s, the period from which the term is most associated, the word ‘appeasement’ had a much less judgmental meaning. For Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, widely reviled as one of the ‘guilty men’ who allowed Adolf Hitler to march into Czechoslovakia unopposed, appeasement was the only sensible and reasonable policy to adopt.

The ‘classic’ period of appeasement ran from the accession to power of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 to the Munich Crisis of September 1938. Following the absorption of the rest of Czechoslovakia into the Reich the following March, the British Government gave a security guarantee to Poland, which was activated following the German invasion in September 1939. Thus appeasement failed to prevent war in Europe; indeed, the failure to stand firm earlier arguably cost Europe any chance of resisting Nazi Germany without recourse to military force.

The desire to appease Germany stemmed from a range of factors, including Britain’s tradition of maintaining a balance of power in Europe, a recognition of growing German military and economic strength (vis a vis British weakness), as well as a widely-held belief that Germany had been ill-treated after the Great War. The claim that Germany was only asking for ‘respect’ and fair treatment was particularly strong among elite groups within British society – from both the left and right, including The Times and the BBC – who saw the Treaty of Versailles (1919) as being a vindictive and cruel assault upon Germany’s right to exist. For Chamberlain, the appeasement of Germany was about umpiring a new and fair settlement, as well as ensuring that Europe did not descend into another world war that could imperil civilization.

In many respects, Churchill’s so-called ‘locust’ or ‘wilderness’ years fighting against the appeasement of Nazi Germany has become one of the defining periods of his life. Churchill certainly saw it that way, and it has become almost as memorable as his ‘finest hour’ in the summer of 1940, when his speeches kept alive the flame of resistance to Nazi tyranny. Churchill’s long and, at times, lonely struggle against appeasement – detailed in The Gathering Storm – was defined by his belief that peace in Europe depended upon strong military guarantees, a formidable French Army and firmness in the face of provocation or threats. Moreover, Churchill believed that the policy towards Nazi Germany was undermined by a fatal unwillingness to acknowledge Hitler’s motives of conquest and domination.

Churchill’s campaign against appeasement was not, however, limited to Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. It formed part of a broader campaign against what he regarded as a lack of energy and vigour towards maintaining Britain’s position in the world that had become increasingly beleaguered by the early 1930s. He campaigned for almost five years against moves towards greater self-government in India, believing that the Empire was being betrayed by a group of politicians (many of whom would later become eminent appeasers of Germany) who lacked the strength of will to rule and who did not recognise that Britain was in an urgent struggle for survival. For Churchill, the need to ‘hold the line’ – whether in Europe or elsewhere – would become the foremost mission of his life.

Where to Find Documents within the Churchill Archive

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.

CHAR 9: Speeches

  • CHAR 9/98: A copy of India, a printed collection of nine speeches and an article on India by Churchill, 1920-31, with revised rough proofs. An early indication of Churchill’s thoughts on the root cause of the appeasement of Britain’s enemies can be found in a speech, ‘A Disease of the Will’, which he gave at Liverpool in March 1931.
  • CHAR 9/112A-B: Churchill’s notes for the defence debate (11 March 1935) on defence spending and German military strength and notes for Churchill’s speech (2 May 1935) on foreign policy, the German threat in Europe and Germany’s air strength.
  • CHAR 9/113: House of Commons speech notes and source material, including brief notes for Churchill’s speech (22 May 1935) comparing German and British military strength, and rough notes for his speech (31 May 1935) entitled ‘Deepening and Darkening Danger’ on Germany’s threat in Europe.
  • CHAR 9/119A-B: Notes for Churchill’s speeches (28 and 29 July 1936) on the relative strengths of British and German Air Forces, the war-making capacity of British and German industry, and German power to bomb British cities. There are also notes for Churchill’s speech (12 November 1936) entitled ‘the locust years’ on deficiencies in Britain’s defences.
  • CHAR 9/120: Notes for Churchill’s speech (14 March 1936) on the German reoccupation of the Rhineland and notes for Churchill’s speech (8 May 1936) on the Abyssinian Crisis.
  • CHAR 9/123: Rough notes for Churchill’s speech (27 January 1937) on air defence, comparing British and German air strength.
  • CHAR 9/130/354-379: ‘A total and unmitigated defeat’: notes for Churchill’s speech (5 October 1938) on the Munich Agreement and the acceptance of German occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
  • CHAR 9/132/94-110: Draft speaking notes for Churchill’s broadcast to the United States entitled ‘The Defence of Freedom and Peace’ (16 October 1938), on the need for the democracies, including the US, to unite against the dictatorships.
  • CHAR 9/144/71-75: ‘Mr Churchill to the Czechs: Be of Good Cheer’: extract from The Times (30 September 1940) containing the text of Churchill’s broadcast to the people of Czechoslovakia on the second anniversary of the Munich Agreement.