“Appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later . . . We cannot turn our backs on . . . the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”
– Tony Blair,
“Doctrine of the International Community,” April 22, 1999
Speaking to the Chicago Economic Club in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of Britain, challenged the international community to look beyond questions of sovereignty, and to focus instead on the protection of freedoms abroad.
Blair recalled the infamy of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis – the British betrayal of Czechoslavakia and the dangerous pacifism of the British public. How, he asked, could domestic will for peace be squared with the costs necessary to ensure freedom?
This question pervades Clifford Olson’s new book, Troublesome Young Men – a series of interconnected biographies that follow the anti-appeasement struggle waged by a small cadre of rebel conservatives (led by Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill), at the dawn of the Second World War.
At the outset, Olson’s book tracks the rebels’ growing opposition to the policies of then-Prime Minister Chamberlain. We are guided through Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria, the British betrayal of Czechoslovakia, and the lackluster defense of Poland and France. All the while, Olson records the growing disenchantment, anger and panic of men whose country and party seemed to have mixed cowardice with a dangerous brand of self-delusion.
One knows from the outset that Churchill’s “Troublesome Young Men” are destined for victory. But, Olson’s book is written with such craft and flare that this well-traveled ground becomes almost new again. One feels the rebels’ disgust at Britain’s betrayal of the Czechs, and their horror at the ignoble pacifism of the British establishment.
Unlike many authors, Olson does not eulogize the rebel leaders:
Anthony Eden, later a Prime Minister, is painted as vacillating and weak; a man handed the keys to 10 Downing Street, but unwilling to seize them. Churchill, for his part, comes off as a failed politician, torn between a love of the perquisites of power and respect for the rightness of the rebel cause.
For Olson, the campaign’s real heroes against appeasement are those who operated in the shadows. At the core of his narrative are the intertwined biographies of seven Conservative MPs [ . . . ] who instigated a putsch against a sitting prime minister for the good of their nation.
Against a backdrop of country manors and pastoral scenery, Olson
centres his book on the Tory revolt within the House of Commons.
This seems fitting; because parliament was the soil wherein the seeds of Chamberlain’s defeat were sewn. It was a time when Prime Ministers could still be made or defeated on the content of their oratory. And, Olson records with no small satisfaction how Chamberlain’s near total dominance of the House withered root and branch under the weight of the rebel rhetoric.
But Chamberlain was not one to be easily defeated and, although unwilling to risk conflict on the world stage, he was more than willing to indulge his sense of pique against enemies closer to home.
Olson records the many snares and hurdles set down for the rebel MPs. Whether opposing Tories at election, expelling critics from
Cabinet, or phone-tapping opponents, Chamberlain’s pettiness is given full display.
Olson’s most important contribution might well be his portrayal of the British public. Few now remember the strength of the desire in British society to accommodate a Nazi Europe if it meant a continued peace for the island nation. Many forget how thin a line lies between pacifism and ignominy, Olson’s book is a stark reminder of the often-daunting price of freedom.
It is commonplace these days to note that, had Churchill and his rebels been successful – had they toppled Chamberlain in 1938 and gone to war with Hitler shortly thereafter – the second world war might well have been avoided.
But Churchill’s taste for war ran well ahead of the public’s. If he had his way in 1937, Churchill might have invaded Germany before the Nazi threat ever materialized – saving millions of lives at the cost of dragging an unwilling nation into an unprovoked war.
Quoting Boothby, Olson notes that, “had Chamberlain retired in
1937, he would have been remembered as one of history’s great humanitarians.” In the same spirit, it’s worth considering that had
Chamberlain done so, Churchill and the other rebels would now be remembered as belligerents and warmongers who sent British troops to die on foreign soil.
It is an irony that Tony Blair would no doubt appreciate.