Chamberlain and Churchill: Empathy, Judgment, and Hindsight Bias

Wainwright, Remembrance #4
Mark Wainwright, “Remembrance #4” (shot on battlefield in Belgium) – Licensed by Creative Commons

Last Friday I posted a Wilfred Owen poem, Owen being the greatest poet of World War I and November 11 being the day (a week after Owen’s death) that the fighting on the Western Front ended — and the day that people around the world still commemorate as Remembrance Day (or, in this country, Veterans’ Day).

Then this week Philip White wrote about WWI and 11/11/11 at the Historical Society’s blog. I was taken by his essay in particular because of its closing description of visiting Ypres as a student: “one of the most moving experiences of my life,” he called it, which is how I hope my own students recall their visit to the same places when I start taking my World War I class to Europe in January 2013. White wrote movingly about the gruesome, inglorious nature of the conflict, describing the horrors that awaited those who reported for duty at the front lines:

Trench foot, rat bites, and typhoid were rampant, as the soldiers literally rotted in their water-logged holes, to say nothing of the mustard gas. There was no sanitation, no clean facilities to treat the wounded, no place to bury the dead. Then, when they were sent over the top, the weak, despairing bunch were greeted by machine gun fire that toppled their ranks like contorted dominoes and, if they advanced to the enemy lines, were ensnared as if they were game in barbed wire, or run through by enemy bayonets. Those who did not capture their foes’ positions yet could not make it back to their own trenches were sometimes so stunned by the clamor, the fear and the firework flashes of barking muzzles that they wandered around in “No Man’s Land” until captured, finished off or, for a lucky few, retrieved by their comrades. Some opposing trenches gained or lost a total of mere inches over the course of the war.

White shares this evocative description to remind us not to judge those who sought to appease Adolf Hitler too quickly or harshly:

Though it is easy with hindsight to slam those who, like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, signed such treaties and they must certainly be held accountable for inaction and, in some cases, capitulation, it is just as easy to forget how horrendous the trench-based battles of World War I were, and the impact they had on the collective psyches of both the victors and the vanquished….

…can we blame Chamberlain and his ilk for wanting to never repeat such brutality? Even Winston Churchill, his most outspoken critic and the man whose vision highlighted his predecessor’s short-sighted foreign policy, could not condemn Chamberlain, saying at his funeral, “It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? . . . They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace.

By coincidence, the same issue came before my Modern Europe students the day before White’s piece appeared. We spent this past Monday role-playing the British response to the Sudeten Crisis in 1938, with some students playing the side of Chamberlain and his government and others playing the role of anti-appeasement critics.

Chamberlain in Munich
Neville Chamberlain in Munich, September 1938 – Bundesarchiv

The exercise helped set up one of our guiding questions for this portion of the course: if historians are supposed to have empathy for those of the past, can they also render (however humbly) the moral judgments that seem to be inescapable if we’re to make meaning of, say, a world war or a genocide? Here Churchill is a good model, but not quite for the reasons that White suggests.

First, it’s misleading to write, as White does, that “Even Winston Churchill… could not condemn Chamberlain, saying at his funeral….” More appropriate would be “Churchill… could not condemn Chamberlain at his funeral, saying….” Not because he didn’t believe Chamberlain’s policies foolish, but because Churchill possessed a sense of decorum: a man’s funeral is the wrong place and the wrong time to call him a fool, particularly in wartime when one prime minister was speaking of the preceding leader. That was the upshot of the Forbes piece quoted by White, arguing for the value of politeness, cordiality, and professionalism.

Elsewhere — e.g., as the author of one of the great, if self-serving, histories of World War II, and in his own memoirs — Churchill did not hesitate to “condemn” his predecessor and the other advocates of appeasement. The Gathering Storm (1948), the first volume of his six-volume history of the war, proclaims as its theme: “How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.” His brief sketch of Chamberlain is not wholly unkind, but that leader of many English-speakers does come off as being unwise, careless, and good-natured (and more than a little conceited):

His all-pervading hope was to go down to history as the Great Peacemaker; and for this he was prepared to strive continually in the teeth of facts, and face great risks for himself and his country. Unhappily, he ran into tides the force of which he could not measure, and met hurricanes from which he did not flinch, but with which he could not cope. (p. 222)

At the same time (and even in that book), Churchill was perfectly capable of understanding and (per the funeral statement) empathizing with Chamberlain. Even to the extent that Churchill did come to disdain a leader who would rather avoid or postpone war than confront one such as Hitler, he was still able to step back and recognize why Chamberlain might have thought and felt the way he did.

More than that, Churchill, in succeeding Chamberlain, was keenly aware of another problem that historians face when trying to render judgment. Here’s how he put it in a speech to the House of Commons, paying tribute to Chamberlain just three days after his death:

It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering light stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days. (quoted in David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, p. 37)

As just one of many reasons that historians can see the past but dimly, Churchill pointed to the problem of hindsight bias. Here it’s described by psychologist John Tauer:

The hindsight bias occurs when we say those famous words: “I knew it all along”. We hear these words Monday morning after football games.

“I knew the Giants would upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl.”

“I knew they should have punted the ball.”

“I knew they should have changed quarterbacks.”

The hindsight bias is pervasive – it is certainly not limited to the world of sports. Whether it is gamblers saying after the fact they knew what would happen, or the media after a tragedy explaining how we should have known it would happen, we all fall prey to the hindsight bias.

Whenever I give an exam back, several students can be heard muttering to themselves, “I knew the answer to #42 was (b).” My typical response is to tell them that I’ve never had a student intentionally answer a question incorrectly, so why, if they knew the answer was (b), did they circle (a)? This usually brings a chuckle from them, and reminds them gently of how common the hindsight bias can be. The danger of this bias is that rather than addressing why they answered a question incorrectly, it can lead students to mistakenly assume they actually knew the answer.

Now, Churchill had given enough anti-appeasement speeches before 1939 that he could, with some plausibility, look back after “the perspective of time [had] lengthened” and still say that he had known all along that the price of peace was too high.

Churchill during the Blitz
Winston Churchill, during the Blitz – Library of Congress

But did he know how high? Did he know that fifty million people would die in the ensuing war, more than half civilians? Did he know that Britain would suffer the Blitz and then inflict the damages inflicted on Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945? Did he know that Hitler and the other perpetrators were capable of a Holocaust?

The challenge is a bit different for historians, but the cause is similar. Except in the case of participant-observers like Churchill, historians weren’t even there in the first place to give the incorrect answer and then claim retrospectively that they knew it all along. But when we do look back from a time when “all stands in a different setting,” historical empathy compels us not to ask “Why didn’t they know it all along?” as a rhetorical question.

So after our class on appeasement, I complimented the student who spoke as Chamberlain, telling him that he did a nice job getting inside the head of the appeasers. The student demurred, “I guess I did a good job of being totally wrong.”

In an objective sense, I tend to agree: appeasement was absolutely the wrong approach in that it rested on the false assumption that Hitler was a mere nationalist who could be satisfied by a few callous but relatively small concessions. It emboldened Hitler to pursue still more dangerous policies (and helped convince the German military to follow Hitler’s lead), which led to the death of millions. But it was an entirely understandable policy, and an admirable one to the extent that it was motivated by a desire to preserve human life.


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