I’m a keen student of World War II and recently have been encouraged via Peter Hitchins who has recommended several books that question conclusions that a layman such as myself have believed:
1) That there was no alternative but to go to war with Germany in 1939.
2) Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was the wrong one.
3) That Britain was a victor in 1945.
These deductions in my own experience are embedded from traditional history teaching, a myriad of good vs evil war films and other media that fail to really challenge the causes, or explore alternative outcomes of the war.
Charmley’s book produces fine evidence that Chamberlain was a thoughtful, rational politician and looked to defend the interests of Great Britain and her Empire throughout the discourse with Germany. Without a continental land army but a defensive and (in the case of bombers) obsolete air force and an over-stretched (especially in the far-east as the outcome of the war there shows) navy, how could we possible guarantee the safety of Czechoslovakia, Poland or any other European country? Chamberlain realised this, and continued to provide funds for the RAF first and Navy second. There simply wasn’t enough money for all three.
The only country with a large enough land force on the continent to be able to even consider this was France. History again proved the infallibility of the Maginot line and an easy beaten French army – perhaps this was known at the time and why the French politicians ducked their own responsibilities leaving the British to finally stand alone?
In hindsight, eventually war would have knocked on our door, but Hitler showed his immediate desire to reverse Versailles, reclaim lost land and make an immediate push east. If Britain had showed restraint and delay, accelerating rearmament, and allowed Germany to slug it out with the USSR first perhaps the resulting outcomes would have been much different?
Britain ended the war bankrupt, with bombed cities, industries and infrastructure in disarray, armed forces it could no longer afford, and indebted to our “special relationship” partner via lend-lease and Marshall Aid. Europe instead of becoming dominated by Germany, headed into a USSR/US cold war front with Britain continuing to be a phantom “power” mainly through more debt and our own “bomb”.
Perhaps the final telling lesson of the book, deals with a chapter called “Why die for Danzig?”. Its thoughts echo to the present day, and the latest governments ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan and now Mali. The security of people on the streets of our country would be no different (or maybe increased if the defence budget was spent on foot patrolling police) if our troops never set a foot on African soil – it could be argued the same applied to Poland in 1939.
I’d recommend this book to anyone (though in places very dry and academic) interested in the events that led to the outbreak of the Second World War, along with reading Peter Hitchins excellent thoughts, and the eye-opening Churchill-Hitler and the Unnecessary War by Patrick Buchanan.