In the case of my new book, Guilty Women, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain – to twist around a well-worn cliché – you can tell a book by its cover. In less than a thousand words, as per the upper limits of any self-respecting blog, I will attempt to tell you what that picture is worth.
The timing of these musings is significant, on the anniversary of the Sudeten Crisis and the Munich Agreement – the Four Power Pact was signed by Germany, Britain, France and Italy on 30 September, 1938. It is now 77 years since Neville Chamberlain invented ‘shuttle diplomacy’ and initiated three meetings with Hitler on German soil in his bid to appease the dictators and avert war.
The well-known story is of the great and more often ‘Guilty Men’, and the related diplomatic and international intrigue. It is this aspect of the history of appeasement that has been cited as the object lesson in what NOT to do in negotiating with autocrats. It has been used as an analogy for international crises from Suez (1956) to Syria (2013) to the Ukraine (2014) and the Iran deal (2015). Only two years ago John Kerry felt strongly that the world was again facing a ‘Munich moment’ over whether to intervene in Syria — and, given the yet unresolved and deepening crisis there, history may yet acknowledge him as the Cassandra figure.
At another level, and one that is only starting to be unearthed, the Munich Crisis should be read as a ‘People’s Crisis.’ The autumn of 1938 was a moment of national, international, psychological and very personal reckoning. It needs to be understood as the opening act of Britain’s ‘People’s war.’ As events unfolded, public anxiety climaxed, together with some scenes of hysteria and other very un-English public displays of emotion, only to be relieved by mass celebration and rejoicing when Chamberlain returned (momentarily) triumphant with the piece of paper that promised ‘Peace in our time’.
It is that narrative that Guilty Women tries to tell, especially by turning attention to that half of the population that was excluded by dint of sex from formal diplomacy. Many women exercised power behind the throne, as femme fatales and as go-betweens, but others worked in more official capacities as the first generation of women MPs and as activists in international politics at the League of Nations, or through transnational feminist networks.
Therefore the first thing that needed to be done was to put women into the picture of high politics, and two chapters uncover the roles of celebrity and/or notorious ‘Guilty Women’: Neville Chamberlain’s wife and privately influential sisters; Nancy Astor and the Cliveden Set; Edith Lady Londonderry who, with her husband, ‘made friends with Hitler’; and a collection of women fellow-travellers of appeasement. In the book’s cover image, the figure in the middle, looking down, is the PM’s wife, Annie Chamberlain. She typified many women of her generation and her party. As we see here literally, she stood by her man and was the first lady of appeasement. Throughout her married life she was also an energetic and efficient party worker.
The last chapter retains the top down approach yet seeks to recognize the important contribution of the women Churchillians, those whose humanitarian, ethical and strategic opposition to the policy of appeasement would be vindicated by events: the Duchess of Atholl, Ellen Wilkinson, Eleanor Rathbone, Violet Bonham-Carter, and Shiela [sic] Grant Duff, among others.
But there is also a very public story, the story of public opinion and the popular response to the Munich Agreement. In this story women are absolutely crucial. By remaining male-centred up till now, historians have failed to appreciate just how important the support of women, and the desperation they expressed for peace (at any price), were in setting Chamberlain on his course.
Chamberlain has always been characterised and caricatured as an emotionally restrained English businessman-cum-gentleman, as stiff as his signature umbrella. And yet on several occasions he played up just how moved he was by the pent up anxiety and feeling of the wives and mothers of the world as the war clouds thickened over Europe. In his famous BBC address of 27 September that included his unfortunate description of the Czechoslovakian crisis “as a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”, just before saying that he confessed:
“First of all I must say something to those who have written to my wife or myself in these last weeks to tell us of their gratitude for my efforts and to assure us of their prayers for my success. Most of these letters have come from women – mothers or sisters of our own countrymen. But there are countless others besides – from France, from Belgium, from Italy, and even from Germany, and it has been heartbreaking to read the growing anxiety they reveal and their intense relief when they thought, too soon, that the danger of war was past.”
On his return from Munich both men but more conspicuously women filled the streets with displays of enthusiastic support. Women’s deep gratitude for the ‘Man of Peace’ was expressed in their letters to newspaper columns and their missives that filled the postbags addressed to the Chamberlains at No.10 Downing Street.
Nor were these scenes confined to the PM’s compatriots. Chamberlain was, for the moment, raised as a messianic figure by the women of France, Italy, Greece, and from throughout the British Empire, and even from Nazi Germany. The crowds that greeted him on his ‘victory tours’ to France in November, 1938, and to Italy in January, 1939, were both heavily feminine and feminised.
The book’s cover image captures this phenomenon: the feminization of appeasement. An otherwise anonymous young woman, this ‘Jane Public’ (she looks be in her twenties and too young to have experienced the First World War) is fixing a floral buttonhole to the PM’s lapel. Meanwhile, the gesture evidently fills the recipient with deep satisfaction.
It was my good luck that this picture was already touched up with colour in the original, and it first appeared in a popular Italian newspaper, Il Mattino Illustrato, a few months before the crisis. Again, we are reminded of Chamberlain’s international celebrity. It also speaks loudly for that supra-national conflation of women with a policy of peace (at any price).
I dare say that this book is the first study of appeasement that puts women in the picture, both on the cover and within.
 See Helen McCarthy, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
 See Karina Urbach, Go Betweens for Hitler (Oxford: OUP, 2015)
 See Ian Kershaw, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Hitler’s Road to War (New York: Penguin, 2004)
Julie V. Gottlieb is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield.
*Special offer until 31 December 2015: To order your copy at a 30% discount visit www.palgrave.com and quote discount code PM15THIRTY*