Exercise: Churchill, rearmament and appeasement

Part A: Introduction

What effect did Churchill have on British foreign policy and defence policy 1931-39?

Churchill’s role in British defence planning and foreign policy during the 1930s is of crucial importance for any understanding of the period. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to look at the issue now without hindsight. Churchill identified the growing strength of Germany’s armed forces, and he was proved right; he predicted that the situation in Europe would lead to war and it did; he said Britain was far behind Germany in its programme of rearmament and especially in air power, and he was right in this too. The case for honouring his foresight and condemning those on both sides in parliament who ignored and even derided him can seem unanswerable.

This issue matters because it affects the whole way in which we view British foreign policy in the 1930s. Historical accounts today are usually much more understanding than formerly of the limited options that British governments in the 1930s had at their disposal, and we now have more of an understanding that Britain was in fact rearming, albeit in secret. However, this more sympathetic view of Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement is – apparently – shot out of the water when Churchill’s warnings are taken into account, for if Churchill was correctly highlighting Germany’s military strength and pointing out her hostile intentions, many of the explanations for appeasement seem to collapse. If governments knew – because Churchill was telling them – exactly what a threat Hitler posed, then allowing him to walk into Austria and negotiating with him over the fate of the Sudetenland appears to be wilful folly. It is easy to see the period as if Baldwin and Chamberlain were deliberately shutting their ears and eyes to the inconvenient truths that Churchill was bellowing out into their earholes.

Moreover, we cannot hide from the esteem in which Churchill himself is held nowadays. No other British politician of the twentieth century, possibly no other politician in modern history, can match his eminence and worldwide reputation. We know he was proved right about German war preparations, and we know that he would shortly go on to become, as even the usually critical historian AJP Taylor called him, “the saviour of his country”. How, we might ask, could men of such lesser stature like Baldwin and Chamberlain have been so foolish – so presumptuous, even – as to ignore a warning coming from Churchill himself?