(Virtual) Event: Tim Bouverie in conversation with Sir Nicholas Soames

posted 20 Jan 2021 7 mins

On Wednesday 20th January we welcomed our largest virtual audience yet for the first talk in our WW2 history series.

Hosted by Venetia Hoare, this special event featured historian Tim Bouverie, bestselling author of Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War, in conversation with Sir Nicholas Soames, former Conservative MP and grandson of Winston Churchill.

Tim’s book, published to widespread critical acclaim in 2019, offers a nuanced reappraisal of British politics and diplomacy in the 1930s, and this was reflected in his discussion with Sir Nicholas.

‘Appeasement was a disaster,’ he acknowledged. ‘It’s hard to think of any policy which had such calamitous consequences on the basis that it led to the Second Word War, the greatest war the world has ever known and, hopefully, ever will know. I think, however, that were no easy options for the political leaders in the 1930s and it was extremely difficult to avoid a war when there was one man, Adolf Hitler, who was absolutely determined to start one.’

Churchill’s unwavering opposition to appeasement, both men agreed, sprang from deep knowledge of European history. As Tim explained:

‘His very eloquent speeches on the German danger coincide at the time when Churchill was writing the biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, who prevented the Continent from being dominated by Louis XIV. Churchill was a great admirer of Napoleon – the next person who tried to dominate the Continent – but he nevertheless rejoiced in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. He fought viciously against the Kaiserreich which tried to dominate the Continent, and he could see the same thing happening with the Third Reich. He believed there was no parleying with evil. He was an early and consistent advocate of the Zionist cause and he was really repulsed by the German treatment of the Jews in ways that not all of the rest of the British establishment were.’

In Tim’s view, the espousal of appeasement – and, in some cases, sympathy with the Nazi regime - by significant numbers of British aristocrats and businessmen was motivated largely by the desire to protect their interests: ‘Prior to the late 1930s,  the greatest danger, according to the British establishment, was not fascism, but communism: communism was what was going to take your wealth and your house; it was what was going to lead to bloody revolution and the execution of your royal family as had occurred in Russia in 1917.  So the presence of a large fascist block in the centre of Europe, implacably opposed to communism, was thought to be a good thing, just as many Conservatives – and Churchill had an ambiguous attitude towards this – thought that the victory of Franco might be a good thing in Spain.’

Tim rejects the simplistic view of Neville Chamberlain as a kind of ‘anti-Churchill’, a waverer lacking in moral resolve. ‘In fact,’ he argued, ‘if it wasn’t for the foreign crises that Chamberlain had to deal with, he would go down as one our great reforming prime ministers; he had a very impressive record as Minister of Health and believed deeply in what is now known, in a rather crass way, as “levelling up”. He was, like Churchill, an autodidact; he didn’t go to university and he was not given the gilded path to Downing Street that others were. He therefore learned to rely on his own judgement to an extraordinary degree and this closed his mind to others who were offering alternative advice and alternative points of view. But it is a great mistake to think Neville Chamberlain was a weak man or a weak prime minister.’

While Tim felt Churchill’s becoming prime minister was not inevitable (‘a series of other candidates had to fall out of the way first’), Sir Nicholas recalled his grandfather’s clear sense of destiny:

‘There’s a charming story about Harold Macmillan finding himself at Chartwell when my grandfather was First Lord of the Admiralty. News came through after lunch of some potential high-seas action with the Royal Navy. Macmillan describes my grandfather issuing orders to colleagues – on his hands and knees on the study floor, surrounded by maps – and remarks that it was quite extraordinary to see him grasping the command of power, the immense authority that flowed from his energy and experience and understanding. So he must have seen the prime ministership coming his way, almost from day to day – I don’t know whether he wanted it or not, but he knew he was the right person to do it: everything he had done throughout his life equipped him for this moment.’

Much energy has been expended by historians on identifying the turning point on the road to WW2. In Tim’s opinion, Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, while significant, was not the definitive event that swung policy and public opinion against appeasement.

‘I think if you study it a little more carefully, you can see that the turning point is a little sooner than that. It’s generally believed there was vast support for the policy of appeasement and, throughout the 1930s, I think there was. But I think it’s wrong to take the adulation that greeted Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich at face value. What I think the British people were showing at this time was not celebration, but relief. They had believed that they were about to have to jump into shelters in their back gardens because the German air force would soon be overhead. They were spared that, and they were relieved, but that relief wore off very quickly. The government started to get hammered in by-elections and opinion polls show that the majority of the British people did not trust Hitler as Chamberlain did; they did not think the Sudetenland was his last territorial demand. And then there was deep and profound shock, in this country and around the world, at the events of November 1938 - the massive pogrom against the German Jews, Kristallnacht. It’s at this point that the future Duke of Hamilton recants his belief in the benign nature of the Nazi regime and it’s at this point that George Ward Price, diplomatic correspondent to one of Britain’s leading conservative popular newspapers, recants his previous championship of Hitler and Mussolini.’

In conclusion, Sir Nicholas wished to explore ‘the lessons that can learned in our dangerously unanchored world today from the events of the 1930s’. For Tim, the moral is to treat hindsight with caution:

‘It is important to judge the persons, governments and regimes with whom you’re dealing on their own terms and in their own time. Immediately after the Second World War, we thought we had learned the lessons that Hitler was a dictator who had been able to get away with it for near-on a decade before he unleashed a terrible war; that this must not happen again; and that the world must stamp on dictators acting outlandishly. This has led to consistent foreign-policy disasters from Suez to the Bay of Pigs, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. At every single Western intervention, the spectre of Munich has been raised as an example and, actually, it’s taking the wrong example because the right example is to understand that Colonel Nasser was not Adolf Hitler. The only other thing I would say is not to treat your allies frivolously – as I’m afraid Chamberlain treated his – or take them for granted. Allies may be exasperating – this is the subject of my next book – but it’s a lot better to have them with you than against you.’

The many knowledgeable questions fielded by the audience proved the enduring fascination of this period of history and we look forward to welcoming Tim back to talk about his new book in due course. In the meantime, warm thanks are due to Audrey Hoare for arranging this memorable event, and to Tim and Sir Nicholas for a most illuminating discussion.