Today (September 30) in London History – “peace for our time”

On September 30, 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, arriving back from Munich with ‘the agreement’ in his hand, declared, “it is peace for our time.” This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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Story time. History time.

The headline reminded me of a famous short story I read when I was a freshman in college. Many years ago. The story was The Jilting of Granny Weatherall. It was written, nearly a hundred years ago, by the American writer Katherine Anne Porter. Granny Weatherall is a very old lady. She’s in her 80s. She’s on her deathbed. All kinds of things are going through her mind. Including thoughts of a lover, who jilted her sixty years previously. She’s a devout Christian. She takes comfort in the thought that she’ll be reunited with her husband John. And she imagines seeing her dead child Hapsy – dead but brought back to life. Standing there with a baby on her arm and saying, “I thought you’d never come.” The priest arrives to administer last rites but Granny Weatherall feels at peace with God, says she doesn’t need the priest.

She asks God for a sign of assurance that He’s there and she is loved and accepted. The sign she prays for isn’t forthcoming. It’s the revelation she spent her whole life not preparing for it, it’s the most terrible jilting of all. She’s devastated. She dies stricken with grief.

Funny how the mind works.

I’m sitting here on September 29th, 2022, reading a 1938 newspaper. I turn a page and there’s a headline that reads, “I believe it is peace for our time.” And whoosh, just like that Granny Weatherall – the jilting of Granny Weatherall – comes streaking up from oceanic depths of my mind and breaks the surface. I hadn’t thought about that story in nearly 60 years. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain landing at Heston airport on this day, September 30th, 1938 – he’d flown from, well, you know from where, Munich – getting off the aeroplane, a huge, cheering crowd there to greet him. He holds up a piece of paper – it’s a declaration bearing his and Herr Hitler’s signatures. He’s a conquering hero and that piece of paper, which he waves triumphantly, is the proof.

He’ll sign off on that day of delusions by making that pronouncement, “I believe it is peace for our time.” Well, Granny Weatherall was a believer as well. Chamberlain believed a surrender at Munich would do the trick. It did the trick all right – but for Hitler not for peace. He’d disarmed Czechoslovakia by handing over her powerful frontier defences to Germany. He’d swung the military balance in Europe decisively in Hitler’s favour. He’d paved the way for Hitler’s occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in six months’ time. That was some day’s work. 

The great American novelist William Faulkner said, “the past is not dead, it is not even past.”

Surely he’s right. I look at those photos at Heston airport and then at Downing Street and it’s patently obvious what those people were feeling, and in some very real sense, that’s not past – 84 years later I can feel their Joy, their elation, their relief. But the omniscience of the historical vantage point complicates things no end. Because you know what they didn’t know. You know that “for our time” as Chamberlain put it, was not happily ever after. It wasn’t even this time next year. If you want to think of peace as quality time – well their quality time was already carrying a terrible, fast-moving, terminal disease.

Millions of people were going to be slaughtered in the next seven years. Millions. That figure – that loss of life – is almost inconceivable. If only it were a nightmare. 30 per cent of this country’s wealth would be flushed down the war toilet. Its power, its standing in the world, its empire – it would be emaciated on all of those counts. It would be paying its war debts to the United States well into the 21st century. The end of 2006 to be exact.

So this moment, September 30th, 1938, it’s bittersweet in the extreme.

Let’s follow it through, though. 

Let’s go there. And at the same time be glad that unlike everybody else there, we can take our leave of the late 1930s and the first half of the 1940s. Well, sort of take our leave. For 33 years some of the taxes I paid went toward settling that war debt.

Anyway, it’s September 30th, 1938. We’re there. At the airport at Heston. The plane lands. The Prime Minister steps down from the plane. He’s greeted by VIPs – colleagues and foreign representatives – and by that huge, cheering crowd. The Lord Chancellor hands him a letter from the King.

Then he makes his short speech. He says, “The settlement of the Czechoslovak problem is, in my view, only a prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace.” [Aside here, it was a prelude all right but not to what he envisioned]. Mr. Chamberlain says, “I had another talk with Herr Hitler, and here is a paper which bears his name as well as mine.” He then reads the joint declaration.

Then it’s into the limo for the drive to Buckingham Palace and eventually to Downing Street. Progress is slow because of the surging crowds lining the way. The premier gets ovation after ovation.

Finally, at day’s end – the last act and curtain down – at Downing Street. He appears at a second-floor window. There’s a huge, jubilant crowd outside Number 10. He says to them, “This is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time…and now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.”

“Peace with honour…peace for our time” we all know how that worked out. But the way to get those delusions into the sharpest possible focus is to fast forward to 11 am September 3rd, 1939. The Prime Minister’s five-minute broadcast to the nation announcing that “this country is at war with Germany” is very well known. His statement that same day to the House of Commons is more impactful. He says we’re at war with Germany. And then he adds, “Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins.”

Right there, that remark, is where the joy, elation and relief of September 30th ran out of road.

And a Today in London recommendation, I think a visit to the Strangers’ Gallery in the House of Commons. Maybe when you’re in there think about what Neville Chamberlain’s successor – Winston Churchill – said about the place. I’ll save you having to look it up. Here it is:

‘This little place is what makes the difference between us and Germany. It is in virtue of this that we shall muddle through to success and for lack of this Germany’s brilliant efficiency leads her to final destruction. This little room is the shrine of the world’s liberties.’”

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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