Spike Milligan, in his book Adolf Hitler – My Part in his Downfall, remembered the moment well:
... a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said “As from eleven o’clock we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE) “War?” said Mother. “It must have been something we said,” said Father.
Seventy years ago today, we did indeed declare war on Germany, and thus began a conflict that confirmed what Churchill’s disastrous return to the Gold Standard in 1925 had already told us – that Britain was in decline, and we ultimately needed the USA to join in if we were to emerge victorious.
Poor Neville Chamberlain. He got all the stick about “appeasement”, but the only ones who wanted the scrap were the Germans. At least he bought us some time, but even so, our armed forces were not ready for the task of holding back the Wehrmacht, let alone defeating it.
Chamberlain was not alone in trying to keep the peace with the Third Reich: Stalin did a rather more explicitly nasty deal in agreeing to carve up Poland with them. But the Russians, too, weren’t up for a full scale war – not at first, anyhow.
So why were the Germans so keen? Ah well. After the Great War, they got the blame for starting it, simply because they ended up on the losing side. It was their generals who had to undergo the humiliation of surrender, and their leaders who had the “Carthaginian Peace” of Versailles imposed upon them. Not long after, Germany suffered the pain of hyperinflation, and then years of high unemployment. And they were forbidden any significant rearmament.
The Nazis came to power in 1933, and started to spend on public works programs. By 1936, unemployment had almost disappeared, and, being a dictatorship, the Government had no difficulty imposing a wage and price ceiling, thus avoiding any risk of further inflation. Yes, the underlying economy was at times shaky, but the average German family had work, and stable prices.
Then, their armies – Hitler having long ago decided to ignore any sanction against rearmament – trounced the Allies and forced their generals to sign the surrender, in the same railway carriage used after the Great War. Thus was Versailles expunged. Small wonder the German public supported Hitler. He was, after the fall of France, genuinely popular.
Unfortunately for those same German people, they then trusted their leader rather too much.