September 2017 – The Forgotten Northumbrian Appeaser – Viscount Runciman of Doxford’s Mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938

Mike Fraser was the speaker at the first meeting of the 2017/18 season for the Alnwick and District Local History Society, speaking about “The Forgotten Northumbrian Appeaser – Viscount Runciman of Doxford’s Mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938.”

Viscount Walter Runciman was born in 1870, the only son of a shipping magnate. After graduating from Cambridge in 1895, Walter was taken as a full partner into his father’s very successful business, but was keen on a political life.  He was a Liberal MP for over 30 years holding various offices.  He married Hilda Stevenson in 1898, who was also an MP until, in 1922, she gave up her seat, St Ives, in favour of her husband.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he succeeded John Burns as President of the Board of Trade.  He was opposed to involvement in the war, and was unhappy with policies, led by Lloyd George, for more active involvement in Europe.  When Lloyd George became PM in December 1916, he refused to serve under him.

In 1931, he joined the National Government led by Ramsey MacDonald, and was again appointed President of the Board of Trade.  When Chamberlain took office in 1937, he was offered the sinecure post of Lord Privy Seal, which he declined.

Chamberlain was determined not to get involved in a war in European.  He believed that diplomacy was a way forward, and thought he could work with Hitler.

In May 1938, Austria was annexed by Germany (the Anschluss), leaving Czechoslovakia exposed.    Churchill favoured war, but Chamberlain thought this militarily impossible.  To secure peace, he wished to coerce the Czechs into making concessions to the Sudeten Germans, who occupied the western borders of Czechoslovakia in large numbers.  They were represented by the Sudeten German Party (SdP), a Nazi party with close links to Hitler, who told them to make increasing demands, assuming that they would not be met, and that he would have an excuse to invade.

Henlein, the SdP leader, put forward a series of demands (the Carlsbad programme) which included full autonomy for the German minority in Czechoslovakia.  In August 1938, the British Government decided to send Runciman on a Mission to Czechoslovakia to “mediate” between the Czech govenment and SdP.

The mission was a PR disaster.  The SdP feted the delegation, and Runciman spent most of his weekends there on great estates in Sudetenland. In his suit, top hat and high-wing collar – worn in the height of summer – Runciman was thought cold and impassive.  Hilda spoke German, which was useful, but at a dinner, talked with “understanding” about the Sudeten Germans, and was concerned about Bolshevik influence in the country.  Runciman’s secretary , Peto, said that he had “great understanding” about the Sudeten German’s dislike of Jews.

By the beginning of September, no progress had been made.  The British Ambassador told Beneš, the Czech President, that he needed to accept great sacrifices.  He had little choice other than to agree to all the Carlsbad demands.  This did not suit many in the SdP!  A minor incident was used as an excuse by them to break off the talks.

Runciman’s final report was sympathetic to the Sudeten Germans, and recommended that they should be given a full right of self-determination.  It provided justification for Chamberlain’s visit to Hitler, and the Munich Agreement, handing over the Sudetenland to Germany, was signed.

Runciman returned from his Mission looking 10 years older.  Never a well man, he was tired and felt that he was a failure, but agreed to continue in government, becoming Lord President of the Council, a post he held until the outbreak of the war.  He died in November 1949 at the age of 78.

The next meeting of the Society will be on 24th October at 7.30pm at Bailiffgate Museum (doors open at 7pm), when Eleanor George will be speaking about the Bainbridges.