Arts & Books Books

Why was Britain’s elite willing to swallow Hitler’s lies?

Adolf Hitler inspects a regiment of troops in the mid 1930s

It took far too long to grasp his unique evil, says Thelma Lovell

Appeasing Hitler
By Tim Bouverie
Bodley Head, 512pp, £20/$25

“Not another book on Hitler,” you protest. “Can there be anything more to say?” But the spotlight of Tim Bouverie’s richly detailed Appeasing Hitler is directed less towards the man himself than upon an elite British contingent – diplomats, politicians, socialites and thinkers – who, for one reason or another, misjudged the course of events that led to the Second World War.

How was it that some – notably Churchill – were convinced that appeasement was both futile and wrong, while others clung to the idea that reason and a sympathetic man-to-man chat was sufficient to deflect Hitler from his aims? In other words, human psychology is at the core of this book: specifically, the types of mental framework that led so many to disregard the signposts to inevitable conflict.

There was lack of imagination, in the sense of a failure to envisage what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a black swan event – that is, an unprecedented and seemingly counterintuitive phenomenon. To a British aristocrat, it was beyond belief that a low-class individual with an absurd moustache and a badly cut suit (noted by Viscount Cranborne in 1935) could not be cajoled into seeing sense. And how on earth could the shocking stories about concentration camps and the treatment of the Jews possibly be true? That sort of thing, they persuaded themselves, just doesn’t happen in a civilised place like Germany, full of people rather like us (give or take a few temporary lapses into over-excitability).

From other quarters – notably the older generation – there was a pacifist sentiment arising from the best of motives. No price seemed too high to avoid a repeat of the slaughter of the last war.

Yet vanity, too, had more than a walk-on part, especially the messianic sort possessed by those convinced of their unique ability to lead the world from darkness into light. Neville Chamberlain was the most egregious but not the only one in the grip of this particular self-delusion; amateur diplomats such as the MP Sir Arnold Wilson were always ready to teach the professionals a thing or two. Meanwhile, pro-Nazi associations such as the Anglo-German Fellowship followed the inglorious tradition of being willing propaganda stooges. Money-making was another powerful factor: industry and the City had no wish to see profits succumb to the inconvenience of principle. Both the press and John Reith’s BBC tended to follow the government policy of appeasement.

To the admirers of Nazi Germany, power, and the order it creates, had an especial lure. Not only did Germany apparently possess a thriving economy with jobs for everyone, but there was also glamour in the choreographed rallies that acted as a metaphor for the disciplined human hive. Everyone had a purpose, it seemed, and knew their place. Here was the technology of modernity without its social disjunctures.

The appeal to upper-class onlookers was obvious. A further all-too-familiar mode of self-bamboozlement lay in being impressed by Hitler’s “sincerity”, as if that were some sort of character testimony. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out in The Coddling of the American Mind, “always trust your feelings” is not a reliable guide to good judgment. And even as the final crisis approached, confirmation bias held sway in Chamberlain’s thinking: he clung to any shred of evidence that he was right, discounting information that suggested otherwise.

Nonetheless, for some the compass pointed in a different direction. They had either personally observed or credited accounts of intolerable brutality and coercion. While politicians and diplomats had to operate within the constraints of realpolitik, there were limits. Ultimately, the trimming and gamesmanship struck a bedrock of moral disgust that insisted, “Thus far and no further.” Such eventually was the conclusion of Lord Halifax over the terrible betrayal of Czechoslovakia. The way forward can never be ideal but, as Churchill knew, the line of least resistance, while superficially attractive, is often the most dangerous.

The study of history is always work in progress, giving us at its best a judicious combination of information and (one hopes) fresh insight. Bouverie’s Appeasing Hitler provides a meticulous picture of a Britain that faced very different problems from our own and which, though less than a century away, now retains only a few traces.

Yet the dilemmas faced by his vividly drawn characters, and the range of responses that these elicited, have resonance. If we are inclined to turn the other cheek in the face of provocation, we are not entitled to do this on behalf of others; their needs and preferences must also be respected.

Political decisions will always present a moral challenge, for there will be times when we have to come off the fence. Like a good historian we must try to research the facts before making our judgment. Sadly, we may always be at risk of complacency, snobbery, insularity, and a sneaking admiration for the bully.