Lessons from Chamberlain: Can appeasement ever be the right strategy?

Did prime minister Neville Chamberlain really know what he was doing when he met Hitler in Munich on 29 September 1938?

It’s said that we decide whether or not we can trust someone within the first few seconds of meeting them. It’s where sayings such as It was love at first sight or I never forget a friendly face come from.

Today, on the anniversary of Chamberlain’s triumphant return from Munich, it’s time to examine the idea of I knew straight away I could work with him.

History is littered with people who seem to have got this wrong. Chamberlain, for example, is widely criticized for falling under Hitler’s spell. He went to meet the Führer three times before flying back from Munich, famously waving a paper signed by Hitler that said the two countries desired never to go to war again.

But of course, as Hitler continued his march across Europe, they did.

Churchill on the other hand, himself a bitter critic of appeasement, never met Hitler. He was more interested in what the man was actually doing rather than what he was saying he would do.

Hitler had been open about his refusal to accept the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. After becoming Chancellor in 1933, he began re-arm Germany. By 1938, he had joined Germany and Austria and it was clear his next step would be the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, home to three million ethnic Germans.

In Munich, Chamberlain was on the last of his three missions to avert war. While there he managed to secure an international agreement that said Hitler would have Sudetenland in exchange for Germany making no further demands for land in Europe.

In a speech on his triumphant return to London, Chamberlain said it was “Peace for our time,” and that he believed Hitler to be a man of his word.

Was Chamberlain’s approach wrong? By visiting Hitler three times in as many months he bought valuable time. Because, while he was signing the Munich Agreement, he was also agreeing to a huge increase in armament spending.

Six months after the meeting in Munich, Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia and it was obvious he was heading for Poland next. Although Chamberlain had made an agreement with Poland that we would defend them, Hitler didn’t think Britain would go to war. He was wrong.

I don’t know whether Chamberlain was actually an appeaser or whether he was really a clever tactician who deliberately deceived Hitler in order to stall an invasion of Britain and buy time to prepare for war.

But imagine this passage of history was repeated in a dispute negotiation today. What should you do?

Firstly, in deciding whether or not you are going into battle, whether in defence or attack, you need to know everything the other side is doing. You need to know what you have in your fighting fund and is it enough? Where your team’s strengths and weaknesses lie and what is your strategy to win.

Secondly, in establishing all of the above, you should decide on how you’re going to engage. Tactically, are you drawing your foe into a modest discussion and sowing the seeds of your discontent? Or are you sending them a letter before you take full-on action, articulating everything that is rotten in your relationship that you expect them to address.

Thirdly, how can you work with them? Are you going to put on a really good show when you first get together in an effort to get them to trust you? Or are you going to stand back and demonstrate that you are fully prepared for any eventuality?

At Moot, when we negotiate disputes, we explain to our clients that, in order to gain a sound, voluntarily negotiated agreement or settlement, it’s vital, even in very difficult and stressful times, that they form a bond of trust with the other side.

In 1938, Hitler thought he had formed a bond of trust with Chamberlain that would keep Britain out of the war when he invaded Poland.

This is a clear illustration that a successful negotiation takes more than putting on a shiny suit, fixing a smile and showing a brave face. What you need is full knowledge of the facts – to know what is actually happening, not just what is being said will happen – and a plan that will fix the problem.

If you’re involved in a dispute, we can help you make and execute a plan that will help you win, on your terms.

Get in touch today.


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