The Munich Agreement as History and Analogy

, September 5, 2018

Good morning, everybody. Boker tov. Thank you for inviting me here today. I’m supposed to be speaking to you about the role the media played in shaping public opinion to support the Munich Agreement. I should make a disclaimer at the very beginning that I am a journalist. I’m not a historian, and even more than my shame and ignominy at being a journalist, I’m someone who has worked and do work for some of the newspapers who played a totally inglorious role in the Munich debacle.

When people think of Britain and the Second World War, they think of 1940 and the Blitz, and if you’ve seen the movie Churchill, which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it, you will think of Britain in the way that Britain likes think of itself as we stood alone. We stood alone in 1940 against the Nazi threat, and we were vital in the defeat of Hitler, and that’s entirely true. But what’s less known and certainly not talked about in Britain, I think at all, is that until the beginning of the Second World War, Britain was the country of appeasement, the country of Munich, the Munich Agreement. When Chamberlain returned from Munich, waving his piece of paper and saying, “Peace in our time,” he was cheered by Britain to the rafters. So much is reasonably well known. So the question is why appeasement was so much in vogue in Britain, and how important was the media in shaping that view? Now, much has been made of the actual support for Fascism by certain newspapers and politicians and their support of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, otherwise known as the Blackshirts. In 1933, the Daily Mail, for which I have worked, claimed that British newspapers had been full of, quote, “rabid reports of Nazi excesses.” Instead, the newspaper claimed of these, that these rabid reports weren’t true. Instead, Hitler had saved Germany from, quote, “Israelites of international attachments and that the minor misdeeds of individual Nazis will be submerged by the immense benefits that the new regime is already bestowing upon Germany.” In January 1934, Lord Rothermere, who owned both the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, wrote under his own byline articles that appeared in both papers, which were headlined “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” and “Give the Blackshirts a helping hand.”

Although his support for Mosley in Britain duly waned, Lord Rothermere remained an admirer of both Hitler and Mussolini, and he met and corresponded with Hitler, even congratulating him on his annexation of Czechoslovakia. But as soon as the war started, however, in 1939, the Mail turned on a dime and it reversed its position. Rothermere, that Lord Rothermere, died in 1940. His son Esmond assumed control of the paper the previous year, and from the outbreak of the war the Mail did not express any support for Hitler at all. Now, the Mail wasn’t the most influential paper. The most influential paper, you could say, was The Times because it was the mouthpiece of the establishment. The editor of The Times until 1941, Geoffrey Dawson, who’s already been mentioned, was actually a member of a pro-Hitler group called “the Anglo-German fellowship.” It’s been claimed, I think very authoritatively, that Dawson censored the reports by The Times’ own correspondent in Berlin at the time, Norman Ebbutt. An American journalist in Berlin at the same time, William Shirer, commented, quote: “The trouble for Ebbutt was that his newspaper, the most esteemed in England, would not publish much of what he reported. The Times in those days was doing its best to appease Hitler and to induce the British government to do likewise. The unpleasant truths that Ebbutt telephones nightly to London from Berlin were often kept out of the great newspaper.” But in March 1939, The Times also reversed course and called for war preparations.

Now, in the political class, there were some members of Parliament who supported Fascism. Others gave speeches which appear to defend the Nazi regime, or they had contact with British Fascists in Mosley’s outfit. Yet others had sympathies with Italian Fascism. To a certain extent, this support for Fascism was influenced by the fear of Bolshevism and the belief that Fascism was a bulwark against Bolshevism. But in the main, appeasement in Britain and in Britain’s media was not driven by support for Fascism. There were two principal factors behind the Thirties appeasement mindset. The first was widespread pessimism about Britain itself and a deep and fearful certainty of national decline. The second was, as we’ve heard already referred to – the extremely deep national trauma inflicted on Britain by the First World War. Now I know mention has been made of this already, but it’s really hard to overstate the impact of the Great War on the British psyche, an impact which is felt, I would suggest, very much today and changed everything in Britain and for the worse. The terrible carnage in the trenches wiped out virtually an entire generation of the brightest and best. It destroyed Britain’s sense of itself forever. It destroyed its religious faith. It destroyed its faith in the future. It destroyed its belief in the political class. It destroyed its belief in European civilization, and it destroyed its belief in itself.  That remains true today. The war that was supposed to end all wars, the Great War of 1914-18, was viewed as it is today, as senseless slaughter. It was believed, as we’ve heard, that the harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty at the end of that war to prevent Germany from ever again becoming a threat had caused Hitler to come to power and to cause Germany to become one of the most strong nations in the world, and it was believed that there was simply no way ever to stop the dominance of Germany. If you were going to go to war to stop Germany, you would have to have a war, somebody said, every 20 years to stop Germany. It was hopeless. World War I, in other words, was Britain’s own never again moment. Never again would Britain embark on a world war and risk further carnage. Anything would be better than that.

Now this post-traumatic war phobia was amplified by a chronic pessimism about Britain itself. The late Twenties and the early Thirties saw Britain struggling with the Great Depression. The empire, the British Empire, was beginning to fall apart with uprisings in India and of course here. Economically, Britain was losing out to an expanding Italy, an expanding Germany, and an expanding Japan. So, most of the support for appeasement came from a perception of the national interest. With hindsight, we can say this perception of the national interest was wrong. People at the time also said it was wrong. But it was a perception that the national interest would not be served by going to war. Lord Beaverbrook, perhaps the most influential press baron of them all, who owned the Daily Express, he was personally anti-Fascist. He also thought a European war was not only possible, but even likely, but nevertheless according to his biographer, A.J.P. Taylor, what Beaverbrook insisted was that Britain need not be involved in such a war, provided she kept clear of European alliances and built up her armaments. So, he was against Hitler. He was no Fascist, but he was a strong appeaser, and he was, I would suggest, he was certainly the most influential press individual of the time. So, they started from the position that war was unthinkable. Anything was better than that, and as a result they constructed arguments to justify the fact that war was unthinkable, and that’s the mindset of appeasers, isn’t it? You start with a proposition that the war is unthinkable and then you find arguments to make it appear that that is a very rational and logical position.

So, in the Thirties, the appeasers told themselves, for example, that once Hitler’s territorial designs on Czechoslovakia were met, his aggression would diminish. A number of appeasers believed that Germany was entitled to rule the Sudetenland. They believed the Sudeten Germans were under foreign domination in Czechoslovakia, and The Times ran an editorial supporting the partition of Czechoslovakia. All these appeasers believed that Czechoslovakia was not worth the destruction of the civilization that they believed would be the result of another terrible war. You could not say that Czechoslovakia’s fate was more important than saving civilization. That’s what they thought appeasement was: saving civilization because it would prevent war. They did not see that they were between a rock and a hard place, that Hitler was intent on destroying civilization, and that in order to save civilization they had to fight Hitler and defeat him. Now, there were many voices against appeasement. Many writers in periodicals, such as The Fortnightly or Contemporary Review, the New Statesman and The Nation, they all wrote in support of Czechoslovakia. They said Czechoslovakia was being abandoned. They said it was being used as an excuse for Nazi aggression. Letters to The Times expressed horror at The Timess own editorial position.

The main critic of Hitler in British newspapers was a cartoonist, David Low. Now, David Low was a Socialist and his cartoons, however, were so popular he was employed by the London Evening Standard, which was owned by the Conservative grandee and arch appeaser Lord Beaverbrook, because he was so popular. Now, Lowe’s cartoons attacked Hitler and Mussolini so effectively that his work was banned in Germany and Italy, and after the war it was revealed that in 1937 the German government had asked the British government to have discussions with the notorious Low to get him to stop attacking appeasement. However, most printed opinion was in favor of appeasement. The press overplayed Germany’s military invincibility and underplayed Hitler’s fanatical and unassuageable ambition to conquer Europe.

Now the great question is this: Does the media shape public opinion, or is the media shaped by it? Now I can tell you that any successful newspaper editor pays very, very careful attention to what his or her readers actually think. High-minded newspapers such as The Guardian make it their business to tell readers what to think because The Guardian knows better than anyone what people should think, and the readers say they are very happy with being told what to think by The Guardian because they know that that is unarguably right. Popular newspapers who are read by millions and millions of people, unlike high-minded newspapers, which are read by a few people, popular newspapers wouldn’t dream of telling their readers what to think because they would not have any readers left. They reflect what readers actually think, so the idea that the media’s narrative actually changes people’s opinion is actually a more- that’s not true. There’s a more complex dynamic that is involved.

Now, in the Thirties, it was very different from the situation today. The situation today is that people now dismiss the media, the mainstream media, as telling lies, fake news and all that, because there’s social media. But in the Thirties, there was no alternative to the mainstream media. They had a monopoly of information and they were a cozy cartel in the Thirties with politicians. It’s been argued by historians that the press in Britain was manipulated by Chamberlain’s government to publish only pro-appeasement articles and news, and so no alternative to the policy of appeasement was ever consistently articulated in the press. That was true not just of the press, of the national press, but also you could say of the BBC, which was perhaps even more guilty of toeing the government line regarding appeasement. Now, the process leading up to the Munich Agreement was a tortuous and controversial one. It looked as if there was going to be peace. Then Hitler reneged on what he had said to Chamberlain, and so on, and the press went up and down. It was “peace in our time,” and then it was terrible, and then it was “peace in our time” again. The Munich Agreement was signed, the press and everybody cheered Chamberlain to the rafters, except for certain newspapers. The Guardian, on the day that the paper was signed, The Guardian said, “No one in this country who examines carefully the terms under which Hitler’s troops begin their march into Czechoslovakia today can feel other than unhappy. Certainly, the Czechs will hardly appreciate Mr. Chamberlain’s phrase, that it is peace with honor politically. Czechoslovakia is rendered helpless and Hitler will be able to advance again when he chooses with greatly increased power.”

Virtually, as soon as that piece of paper was signed, dissenting voices started making themselves heard, and once the war started, of course it became considered very, very important. To win the war, you had to ensure that there was no loss of morale and defeatism. It was considered absolutely essential that the press should keep the public cheerful, optimistic, and committed because it was understood very, very clearly that public demoralization had contributed to the defeat of Germany in the First World War, that public demoralization had contributed to the fall of France in the Second World War, and that morale had to be kept up.

So finally, what conclusions can we reach as far as today is concerned? Well, as I’ve said, the public no longer believes the mainstream media to a large extent, but nevertheless the media has an insidious effect in creating a narrative which sticks, particularly if it’s one homogeneous narrative, and the BBC in particular is exceptionally important in this respect because the BBC, unlike newspapers, which are considered to be, you know, fake news, the BBC is regarded still as, broadly, entirely trustworthy. What the BBC says is true, and unfortunately what the BBC says is actually a groupthink narrative, which twists reality in accordance with a very highly ideological position. During the Iraq war, when I think it was the Ark Royal, the flagship battleship of the British Navy, was it the Iraq war or the Falklands War? One of the recent wars in which Britain was involved, involving its navy, the crew threw its radio into the sea because what the BBC was transmitting was so demoralizing that they couldn’t fight a war listening to the BBC. That was today.

So, there’s a groupthink that the BBC reflects, a groupthink about Israel, a groupthink about the nation-state, a groupthink about the West, a groupthink about war. The BBC is against them all, and they are all linked, and it’s not just the BBC. It’s the newspapers in general. It’s the intellectual class in general. They all basically agree on one crucial thing. The whole entire intellectual class thinks this, and has thought this, I would suggest, going back to the Great War of 1914-18, but certainly today, that war is unthinkable, that war is senseless, that the slaughter of war is senseless, and nothing can be any better.  Nothing can be worse than war, and so you have now conflict resolution, which is all the rage. Instead of war, you sit down and negotiate, and so as a result, because war is unthinkable you find a number of groupthink ideas which take root, which are all false, but which add to the impression that there was a logical reason to avoid war. So, for example, in the United Kingdom today you will not find really any newspaper coverage of the threat from Iran. If you ask the public, are they frightened about Iran, they will say, “Yes, I am very frightened about Iran,” and what are they frightened of? They’re not frightened that Iran’s terrorist regime will do them harm. They’re not frightened that Iran will, can be successful, in its genocidal aims to destroy Israel. They are frightened that there will be war against Iran because then innocent people will die. In Britain, there is virtually no coverage of the thousands of rockets coming in from the South, from Gaza, into the south of Israel. That is not a story. The story is only if Israel starts killing Palestinians. Why? Because the only terrible thing is war, when people die who are innocent.

So, you have a situation today in which, with these and many other topics, you have a suppression of information which is important, and in the vacuum a promotion of a narrative which minimizes, for example, the danger of Iran, which promotes lies about Israel in the Middle East, which labels concern about the Islamization of Europe as Islamophobia  – all of which are playing exactly the same role in society as the media did in the Thirties. So, if Britain were fighting World War II today, I’m afraid Britain would lose.

About Melanie Phillips

Melanie Phillips is a journalist and columnist for The Times (UK) and the Jerusalem Post.