Peace For Our Time

The Munich Agreement was signed in the early hours of 30 September 1938 (but dated 29 September). It was negotiated and signed by the heads of government of Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

The agreement allowed Nazi Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia, along the border between those two countries, which were mainly inhabited by German speakers and for which the Nazis had coined the term "Sudetenland". It is widely seen as a failed attempt to appease Hitler, and in Czechoslovakia as a betrayal.

Neville Chamberlain had flown to visit Hitler three times in the previous two weeks. On 30 September he returned to Heston Aerodrome, in West London, where he addressed the assembled crowd:

"The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved, is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. [Cheers.] Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you: 'We, the German Führer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today, and are agreed in recognising that the question of Anglo–German relations is of the first importance for the two countries, and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo–German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again. [More cheers.]"

Later that day, outside 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain addressed a crowd of some 5,000 people. He again read from the document, and concluded:

"My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep."

By saying "for the second time in our history ... ", Chamberlain was referring to Disraeli's return from the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which had been led by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck's aims had been to stabilise the Balkans, recognise the reduced power of the Ottoman Empire, diminish Russian gains in the region, and prevent the rise of a Greater Bulgaria. The Congress reduced Ottoman holdings, establishing Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro as independent states. Bosnia and Herzegovina were allocated to Austria–Hungary, and Cyprus to Britain. It left most of its participants unsatisfied, and the grievances it generated led ultimately to the First World War.

Chamberlain's return from Munich sixty years later was not universally celebrated. 15,000 people protested in Trafalgar Square, but this news was largely suppressed at the time. The Labour Party's spokesman on foreign affairs, Hugh Dalton (a bitter opponent of Chamberlain, and of appeasement), publicly suggested that the piece of paper that Chamberlain had waved ("here is the paper", above) was "torn from the pages of Mein Kamf."

Joseph P. Kennedy, who was US Ambassador to Britain at the time, was a supporter of appeasement. His son, John F. Kennedy, later struggled to distance himself from this aspect of his father's legacy.

Chamberlain's words are often misquoted as "Peace in our time". Chamberlain was probably aware that this is actually a quotation from the Order for Daily Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer: "Give peace in our time, O Lord". The words are reflected in the Russian hymn God the Omnipotent: "Give to us peace in our time, O Lord". This hymn uses the same tune as the National Anthem of Imperial Russia – God Save the Tsar – which is quoted by Tchaikovsky in the 1812 Overture. Peace In Our Time was also used in 1947 by Noël Coward, as the title of a play set in an alternative 1940 when the Battle of Britain has been lost and Britain is under Nazi occupation.

© Haydn Thompson 2017