The strategy that London and Paris followed, up to 1939, towards Nazi Germany seems in many respects incomprehensible. Far from adopting a firm policy towards a country still vacillating, the two Allies practiced theappeasement, an ineffective diplomacy of abandonment since it combined the woes of war with the bitter fruits of dishonor. Rather, however, than to wither French and British leaders, Tim Bouverie, a journalist, prefers to understand this astonishing blindness.
In fact, there was much to be said for conciliation against Berlin. The peoples, first of all, had just come out of the Great War and refused to imagine that the carnage, the barely silent guns, would resume immediately. Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin cynically confessed in 1935 that if he had fought for rearmament, he would have lost the legislative elections. Similarly, the drained finances of France and the United Kingdom encouraged savings to be made on the backs of Defense, a short-sighted policy that was impossible to quickly redress: in the fall of 1938, the Royal Air Force was only lining up two Spitfires ready to fight. Many heads, on the other hand, were mistaken about the hierarchy of emergencies. Many refused the alliance with the red Russia, so much so that when the chancelleries, alerted to the German maneuvers, dispatched a delegation to the Soviet Union to negotiate an alliance, London chose to lead its plenipotentiaries a complete stranger and had this little world embarked on a sluggish freighter, to be sure not to hurry. Stalin regarded this double measure as a snub – not without reason. Conversely, a significant part of the elite regarded Herr Hitler as a character all the more frequentable since he had the good taste to break the communist peril. Finally, there was added weight. The radical innovation that Nazism embodied was only very rarely perceived, even if some penetrating minds, like the sagacious ambassador Horace Rumbold, harbored no illusions about the monster in April 1933.
But the role that egos played is just as overwhelming. Arrogant and conceited, Neville Chamberlain was fortunate to have forged a special relationship with Adolf Hitler and returned from Munich convinced that he had saved the peace for his time. After the declaration of war in September 1939, he still cherished the hope of putting the pieces together. On a more trivial note, David Lloyd George had tea with the dictator in his retirement from the Berghof on September 4, 1936, a highly publicized event: the former Prime Minister was burning to appear in the spotlight! These pathetic manifestations show, in envy, that vanity also contributed to mislead the spirits, a terrible report of which Tim Bouverie is the scrupulous clerk.
Tim Bouverie Soothe Hitler Translated from English by Séverine Weiss. Flammarion, 672 pp., € 29.