Appeasement to War: Public Opinions and Private Fears in Leicester 1938-39

This is no more than an idea and a sketch on a page at the moment, but here goes:

Czechoslovakia was a creation of the Versailles Settlement. The inclusion of the Sudeten German minority within the border of the new state was a clear breach of the concept of self-determination for peoples. Self determination had been identified by Woodrow Wilson as a key cause of WW1 and the concept runs through his ‘Fourteen Points’. If you accept Wilson’s view, then a realignment of borders would be necessary in due course; which was, of course, the ultimate outcome of the Munich Conference. Wilson’s primacy of self determination is perhaps the single most significant element underpinning the theoretical framework of the policy of appeasement, accommodation, call it what you will.

Chamberlain’s foreign policy was widely acclaimed at the time. As well as being justified by the Wilsonian worldview, the policy was clearly fair to the Germans trapped in the Sudetenland, as the Versailles Settlement Treaties (Versailles, Trianon and Ste-Germain-en-Laye) were clearly fair to the desire for self-determination throughout Central Europe and the Balkans (less so to the losers, Austria and Hungary, of course; but this was victor’s justice, after all). France had no appetite for conflict. British public opinion, less than twenty years since a million home and empire deaths, had no appetite for conflict either. Popular film (H G Wells ‘Things to Come’ 1936), literature (Nevil Shute’s ‘What Happened to the Corbetts’ 1939) and Baldwin’s statement that ‘the bomber will always get through’ (1932), created a supportive atmosphere for the policy in Britain. Neither appetite and nor, for that matter, means; Chamberlain’s Birmingham heritage was oriented towards social spending and Britain was woefully equipped for a conflict.

So what changed? It was less than a year from ‘Peace in Our Time’ and cheering crowds at Heston Aerodrome (30 September 1938) to the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street (3 September 1939): “You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more, or anything different, that I could have done and that would have been more successful.”

The change was the annexation of the Czech Lands and Hitler’s declaration of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia on 16 March 1939. The incorporation of non-nationals into the Reich and expansion beyond the homelands of the German ‘nation’ was a fundamental change in the nature and threat of German policy; both unjustifiable and unfair. Chamberlain had planned to make a run-of-the-mill speech to Birmingham business leaders on 17 March 1939; instead, he asked “What has become of the assurance ‘We don’t want Czechs in the Reich’? What regard had been paid here to that principle of self-determination on which Herr Hitler argued so vehemently with me at Berchtesgaden when he was asking for the severance of Sudetenland from Czecho-Slovakia and its inclusion in the German Reich? … Is this the end of an old adventure, or is it the beginning of a new? Is this the last attack upon a small State, or is it to be followed by others? Is this, in fact, a step in the direction of an attempt to dominate the world by force?”

“No greater mistake could be made than to suppose that, because it believes war to be a senseless and cruel thing, this nation has so lost its fibre that it will not take part to the utmost of its power in resisting such a challenge if it ever were made.”

The plan is to read through the Leicester Mercury for those twelve months, from elation to despair, with close reference to leader articles, letters pages, comments from interviewees, international news articles, but also matters of local concern; planning and preparation for the conflict, the gradual development of awareness of the storm as it approached a provincial town in the English Midlands. To what extent did public opinions and private fears recognise the significance of 16 March 1939; ‘the still point of the turning world’, perhaps. I’ll try to tease out differences of opinion and supplement the public opinions with private fears; diaries, journals, letters.