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Public Opinion and the End of Appeasement in Britain and France


Daniel Hucker


Farnham: Ashgate, 2011

Hardcover. vii + 295 p. ISBN 978-1409406259. £65.00


Reviewed by Robert Boyce

London School of Economics and Political Science


Public opinion, as Daniel Hucker acknowledges, is an elusive concept which is almost as hard to define as it is to measure or evaluate. Scientific polling marked an important advance, but it was introduced in Britain only in 1937 and in France in 1938, and as Hucker establishes its potential was largely overlooked by decision-makers on both sides of the Channel in the brief period before the war with which his book is concerned. But Hucker eschews the challenge of evaluating public opinion itself, and instead seeks to identify the decision-makers’ perceptions of public opinion, which he claims are capable of fairly precise definition. To do this he draws upon the methodology employed by Pierre Laborie in L’Opinion française sous Vichy (1990) and Les Français des années troubles (2003), wherein the immediate reports and commentary on current events are gathered under the heading of ‘reactive representations’, and lingering assumptions about underlying public attitudes or opinion become ‘residual representations’. By identifying these categories of information, Hucker claims to be able to demonstrate the influence of public opinion upon foreign policy-making in Britain and France in the year between the Munich conference of September 1938 and the outbreak of war. Not only did perceptions of public opinion constantly exert an important, indeed decisive, influence upon the foreign policy of both powers, he asserts, but perceptions of public opinion in one country critically affected policy decisions in the other.

This would be a valuable contribution to our understanding of the shift in French and British policy from the appeasement of Germany to deterrence and ultimately to war, if the evidence that Hucker adduces actually supported his claims. On the eve of the Munich conference, he asserts, ‘the [French] press persuaded their ministers that a war without guaranteed British assistance was an unthinkable proposition’. And since French statesmen feared that a display of firmness vis-à-vis Germany would lead the British to believe that France did not need Britain’s support, ‘the French had little option but to toe London’s line’ [48]. Thus perceptions of public opinion crucially affected French policy, and at the same time the hardening of British public opinion against further concessions to Germany allegedly altered British policy. ‘How the [British] elites judged this transition within public opinion is difficult to ascertain’, Hucker writes, ‘but the press was certainly pivotal’ [48]. Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, was persuaded to turn away from appeasement. However, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, held fast because he ‘continued to believe that “next war” anxiety [among the British public] justified his attempts to prevent conflict’ [50]. Besides, he and cabinet colleagues believed that France would not honour its treaty commitment to Czechoslovakia after they received reports of French public opinion that portrayed it as pacifist or defeatist; meanwhile French decision-makers held back on account of reports that British opinion was isolationist. Thus British policy was shaped by perceptions of public opinion in both Britain and France, while French policy was influenced by similar perceptions.

Unfortunately, Hucker adduces little if any evidence for these various claims, and in several instances he undercuts his argument with conflicting claims. Since before the First World War French strategists remained grimly aware that France was unlikely to withstand German military aggression without Britain’s support. Referring to the spring of 1938, Hucker himself writes, ‘the [French] Defence Ministry (sic) noted that in the event of a European war, British support was crucial’ [38]. Indeed, he accepts that, ‘While Britain stood steadfastly aloof from continental affairs, France was largely impotent’, and that ‘British assistance in an eventual conflict with Germany was essential’ [38, 75]. This being the case, it is inconsistent and wrong to claim that it was the French press that persuaded French ministers of the need for Britain’s support. The same objection arises over Hucker’s claims about the influence of public opinion upon British policy. He is able to demonstrate that British leaders paid some attention to public opinion in Britain and France. But he can cite no evidence that this played a decisive or even important role in their decisions. Ever since the collapse of the German empire in 1918 Britain had engaged in appeasing Germany and containing French influence in Europe. He is aware that nothing Hitler did in 1938 substantially altered the assumptions of British policy-makers about the validity of their appeasement policy. Hence, whatever slight shifts might have occurred in British or French public opinion made no difference to their policy.

Following the Munich conference, Hucker claims, public opinion forced a change in British and French policies towards Germany. In the case of Britain, ‘public disillusionment with Munich at home, coupled with French scare-mongering abroad, compelled London to question the efficacy of appeasement and re-evaluate its commitment to France’ [64]. In the case of France, leaders were constrained by evidence of overwhelming popular support for the Munich agreement which ‘reinforced the residual perception of a society so infused with pacifist sentiment that recourse to war was unthinkable’ [64]. But he also claims that French leaders ‘cleverly played upon British apprehensions, invoking the spectre of French defeatism to compel London to take measures that would satisfy a French public demand’. This supposedly proved successful, for ‘[British] perceptions of French opinion contributed to a re-evaluation of the continental commitment’, and eventually ‘forced [British leaders] to re-evaluate the pros and cons of implementing compulsory national service’ [72].

Once again, these claims are sheer hyperbole, unsupported by any substantial evidence. As for French manipulation of British opinion, Hucker’s attempt to fit his thesis to the facts becomes thoroughly muddled. Paris, he writes, ‘intentionally cultivated British fears of French defeatism in order to force London to extend their continental commitment, even at the cost of conscription’ [99]. Chamberlain and Halifax visited Paris on 10 January 1939, ‘partly to assuage French anxieties’. Yet two days before their visit, we learn, the French foreign ministry ‘made it explicitly clear that Chamberlain and Halifax must “leave Paris wholly convinced of our considered and unshakeable will” ’. At the meeting itself Édouard Daladier, the French premier, insisted upon the absolute determination of the French people to resist further aggression [100]. And a few pages later, we are told, Daladier ‘convinced the British that France was resolute, united and strong’ [102].

At the same time, allegedly, French leaders were intensifying their ‘demands’ that Britain accept conscription, a ‘campaign’ which reached ‘fever pitch’ in the spring [106, 107, 142]. Practically the only direct evidence Hucker offers of French pressure is this vaguely worded statement: ‘The French Government, for their part, are ready for this community of efforts and sacrifices which, corresponding with a real community of responsibilities, will give Franco-British collaboration its full material efficacy’ [110]. Yet he repeats that because of fears of French defeatism, ‘Chamberlain was... compelled to provide a clear pledge of British support for France on 6 February’ [111]. Two weeks later, ‘a fusion of French pressure and perceptions of public opinion (both British and French)’ forced the British government to abandon ‘ “limited liability” as the guiding mantra of British policy’ in favour of a continental commitment. ‘This commitment,’ Hucker writes, ‘was not only necessary to mitigate French concerns; it was also intended to satisfy the demands of British opinion’ [117].

As before, Hucker adduces practically no evidence to support these claims, and subsequently he mentions without elaboration ‘the January war scares’ that emanated from Germany [125], which other historians point to as the decisive factor in Britain’s change of policy. The next step came in April 1939 when, we learn, ‘a fusion of French pressure and the perceived demands of British public opinion compelled Chamberlain to introduce peacetime conscription’. This is despite Hucker’s acknowledgement that Chamberlain and the whole British government had been shaken by Hitler’s march on Prague on 15 March, and, ‘[w]ith appeasement discredited, a “Grand Alliance” offered the best hope of maintaining peace through deterrence’ [252].

Hucker, like many historians before him, proceeds from the entirely reasonable supposition that in modern parliamentary democracies such as inter-war Britain and France expressions of public opinion may have some influence upon the shaping of national foreign policy. He is also no doubt right to assume that what matters are the decision-makers’ perceptions of public opinion rather than public opinion itself. But he loses sight of the fact that perceptions are subjective matters and not susceptible of precise measurement. Thus it may be possible to characterise with reasonable accuracy the ‘reactive representations’ of a specific event, such as the German seizure of Prague in March 1939 or the German-Soviet pact of August 1939. But there is almost certainly no way of establishing with any precision how decision-makers took in various representations of public opinion about the event and what weight they gave them when taking their decisions.

Hucker does not distinguish between parliamentary and public opinion. This is unfortunate because the evidence he cites strongly suggests that British and French political leaders were more sensitive to the opinion of parliamentary colleagues on which their government majorities depended than the opinion of the general public. In fact, had Hucker adopted a properly critical approach, he might have advanced a more satisfactory and more interesting conclusion: the very opposite of the one he reaches. In brief, rather than claiming that British and French decision-makers were constantly driven to act, or constrained, by their perceptions of public opinion, the evidence points to the conclusion that, notwithstanding public interest in the worsening European crisis and the decision-makers’ awareness of shifting public opinion, their key policy decisions can all be explained without reference to public opinion.

Some comment seems necessary about the form as well as the content of this book. Hucker’s methodology is not in itself objectionable, but the attempt to summarise information about public opinion under two headings leads to tiresome repetitiveness. Thus, for instance, we learn that in January 1939, ‘Reactive representations suggested that a firmer foreign policy was demanded.... However...the residual representations continued to linger. ...Daladier was alert to the reactive representations.... Chamberlain, by contrast, continued to be informed by the residuals’ [98]. After Hitler’s march on Prague, ‘reactive representations [in Britain] had not superseded the residuals entirely’ [131]. But Charles Corbin, the French ambassador in London, affirmed that ‘reactive representations since Prague had superseded the residual perception of public opposition to continental commitments’ [160]. This is not helped by the repeated use of a clutch of adverbs including however, moreover, furthermore, similarly, certainly and unsurprisingly in almost every paragraph. More seriously, it seems that neither readers nor editors have alerted Hucker to the danger of employing the passive voice, since the book is replete with instances of this construction which frequently leaves his statements ambiguous or obscure. This glaring problem is probably a reflection of longstanding shortcomings in the English public education system. But it is especially disappointing to find it in a study based upon English and French sources that were clearly and often eloquently written.


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