The memory of the First World War was still fresh in the minds of every adult in England. That war had been a political folly that killed a million British and wounded another 1.3 million. 2.2% of the population killed and 3.7% wounded. The war left a deep psychic scar on the country. With that fresh in their minds the people of England were in no mood for a fight in Europe. The same sentiment was alive and thriving in the United States too.
The government of Neville Chamberlain sought out ways to stay clear of the war. In a famous move Chamberlain flew to Berlin and agreed to a pact with Hitler declaring “peace in our time” and to a policy of appeasement to Hitler and Nazism. While most of the English public agreed with the policy, many did not and spoke out about the policy. Tensions built and a deep political divide formed. It took an iron hand of political control on the part of Chamberlain and his thug of a party whip, David Margesson, to keep the Appeasement policy intact.
The events that led to Chamberlain’s downfall and to King George installing Churchill as Prime Minister were helped along by a disorganized group of Tory rebels who were openly opposed to the government’s appeasement policy. Described in a letter to Churchill by Harold Macmillan as “troublesome young men”, this restless group of young Conservative politicians kept up the pressure until history dealt them the right hand.
In our time, with the history behind us, the appeasement policy of Chamberlain looks like insane willful self-delusion. But at the time it was the opponents of appeasement that were painted as the crazy war mongering fools that would drag Britain into a conflict to be avoided. The dissident opinions of Churchill, Macmillan, and the core group of “troublesome young men” faced not only withering scorn of their peers but the ruthless retaliation of Chamberlain’s thug, Margesson. Chamberlain played party politics for keeps, attacking his critics with a full bag of dirty tricks-spying, wiretapping, denial of advancement, and other cutthroat parliamentary politics.
Still, under this withering attack the “troublesome young men” stood their ground. The machinery was stacked against them as were most of the press and the BBC. Reporters that wanted to report the build-up of the German forces found their work unpublished by editors who feared provoking Hitler or Chamberlain. Churchill, regarded as a gifted orator but politically unreliable and emotionally unstable, would turn down invitations to lead the challenge to appeasement, tempering his criticism of Chamberlain, and waiting for the right time. When he entered the government, as the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, he would leave the plotting to others.
Things had to get much worse before the overmatched, anti-appeasement Tories could move. As things got worse, with each debacle they shifted public opinion, added converts to the movement, and turned the tide. After British forces were routed in Norway, the general public became aware with a “sudden and paralyzing revelation that Chamberlain was a vain old man with nothing up his sleeve”. On May 7th & 8th, during a brutal Parliamentary debate, Chamberlain realized he had lost control of the House of Commons and his government was voted out of power, bringing appeasement to an end.