A total and unmitigated defeat

On Wednesday, 5 October 1938, Winston Churchill delivered a speech entitled A Total and Unmitigated Defeat to the House of Commons.[1][2] The speech was given on the third day of the Munich Debate and lasted 45 minutes. Churchill, a Conservative back-bencher at the time, was critical of the Munich Agreement which had been signed six days earlier by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain under terms largely favourable to German dictator Adolf Hitler.


As part of a debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill, then the member from Epping, disputed Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon's motion to affirm "the policy of His Majesty's Government by which war was averted in the recent crisis." For members of parliament at the time, a vote for John Simon's motion would signal approval for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's signing of the Munich Agreement on 30 September 1938, which ceded the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany, and more broadly, approval of the strategy of appeasement that Chamberlain had adopted towards Hitler. Though Churchill vehemently opposed both the Munich Agreement and Britain's appeasement policies, he was in the minority, and the day after he gave his speech, the House of Commons voted 366 to 144 to affirm the motion.[3][4]

Summary of the arguments of the speechEdit

Churchill used this speech to expose Hitler's expansionist tendencies directly after Germany annexed Austria and the Sudetenland. He heavily criticised Neville Chamberlain and his administration for agreeing to Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland saying "instead of snatching his victuals from the table, [Hitler] has been content to have them served to him course by course." Churchill viewed the Munich Agreement as a show of weakness, which upset the balance of continental power, and he argued that the agreement would fail to prevent the outbreak of war or guarantee that Hitler would change his behaviour.

In this speech, Churchill also offered suggestions for dealing with the increasingly belligerent German state. He called for greater regional cooperation, criticising Chamberlain's administration for only collaborating with France and not Russia in the Munich negotiations. His view was that, as the three dominant powers in Europe, it was the responsibility of France, Russia, and Britain to prevent Germany from annexing other countries. Because of the Munich Agreement, the smaller nations of Europe were left unsure of their safety from German influence, which potentially stretched deep into the east. Churchill already saw the lands of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia as future victims of German annexation. He warned that if Hitler were not stopped he would soon turn towards western Europe and that Britain's acts of appeasement would only add to Germany's desire for more territory. [5][6][7]

Churchill's major disagreement with John Simon and Chamberlain was over the value of going to war with Germany to defend Czechoslovakia. Churchill felt that Czechoslovakia had been sacrificed to keep peace with Germany and that if they were not "left to themselves and told they were going to get no help from the Western Powers, [the Czechs] would have been able to make better terms than they have got." Churchill also used his speech to highlight the hypocrisy of forcing Czechoslovakia to give up part of its sovereign territory without a popular vote. He said "however you put it, this particular block of land, this mass of human beings to be handed over, has never expressed the desire to go into the Nazi rule." This violated the principle of self-determination, which stated "liberal and democratic" nations must be protected from being taken over by totalitarian governments, an idea Churchill staunchly supported.


  • I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and that France has suffered even more than we have.[7]
  • We in this country, as in other Liberal and democratic countries, have a perfect right to exalt the principle of self-determination, but it comes ill out of the mouths of those in totalitarian states who deny even the smallest element of toleration to every section and creed within their bounds.[8]
  • It is the most grievous consequence of what we have done and of what we have left undone in the last five years – five years of futile good intentions, five years of eager search for the line of least resistance, five years of uninterrupted retreat of British power, five years of neglect of our air defences.[8]
  • You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.[5]

(Text as given in Hansard)


Churchill was one of the biggest supporters of British rearmament. In A Total and Unmitigated Defeat, Churchill emphasised the necessity of swift rearmament and a buildup of national defences. To the British public, the idea of rearmament was dangerous, due to the belief that it caused arms races, secret diplomacy, and military imperialism. To many, these were the actions of a country with nothing to gain and much to lose by being involved in war; peace was the greatest of national interests.[9] Yet following Churchill's speech, the tide of British public opinion shifted towards a buildup of national defences – specifically the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.

Duff Cooper, another Conservative Member of Parliament, resigned from the Cabinet in the wake of the signing of the Munich Agreement. Speaking before Chamberlain's first parliamentary appearance after Munich was signed, Cooper believed that Britain had "lost the courage to see things as they are." He says in another portion of his resignation speech that Britain had been "drifting, day by day, nearer into war with Germany, and we have never said, until the last moment, and then in most uncertain terms, that we were prepared to fight."[10]

The Manchester Guardian made a similar statement by printing a letter sent to them by a reader called F. L. Lucas, a professor of literature at the University of Cambridge who had been a wounded veteran of World War I. Lucas later worked at Bletchley Park in World War II. His letter was headed "The Funeral of British Honour":[11]

The flowers piled before 10, Downing Street are very fitting for the funeral of British honour and, it may be, of the British Empire. I appreciate the Prime Minister’s love of peace. I know the horrors of war – a great deal better than he can. But when he returns from saving our skins from a blackmailer at the price of other people’s flesh, and waves a piece of paper with Herr Hitler’s name on it, if it were not ghastly, it would be grotesque. No doubt he has never read Mein Kampf in German. But to forget, so utterly, the Reichstag fire, and the occupation of the Rhineland, and 30 June 1934 (the Night of the Long Knives), and the fall of Austria! We have lost the courage to see things as they are. And yet Herr Hitler has kindly put down for us in black and white that programme he is so faithfully carrying out.

Historian Bruce Kauffman describes Churchill's Munich Speech as a "little-known speech" that shows his "under-appreciated gift of foresight." He continues, saying Churchill's speeches, "leading up to (and during) World War II were great not only because of the matchless rhetoric he seemed to call forth effortlessly, but also because – as history would show – he was dead right in his assessment of the issue at hand, even though that assessment was invariably unpopular with, and unheeded by, his countrymen."[12]

Interruptions to Churchill's speechEdit

Viscountess Nancy Astor, the member for Plymouth Sutton, interrupted Churchill twice. As Churchill said, "We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and that France has suffered even more than we have." She interjected, saying "Nonsense." Churchill acknowledged her and continued speaking. Later Churchill began to mention her, saying "The noble Lady says that that very harmless allusion is—" but she interrupted him saying "Rude". Churchill quipped back, saying, "She must very recently have been receiving her finishing course in manners."[6]

Astor and Churchill had a famously adversarial relationship and often used cleverly worded insults against each other, so this exchange would not have been unique. As a brash American heiress, Astor clashed with Churchill, who reportedly did not feel that women should be in Parliament. Another possible reason for Astor's opposition to Churchill's points in his speech was her alleged ties to Nazism.[13][14]

Cultural allusionsEdit

Churchill uses the metaphor of Ethelred the Unready, the old English king who succeeded Alfred the Great; his inability to live up to his predecessor represents how the Allies did not build on success in the Great War.[15]

Churchill said: "In my holiday I thought it was a chance to study the reign of King Ethelred the Unready. The House will remember that that was a period of great misfortune, in which, from the strong position which we had gained under the descendants of King Alfred, we fell very swiftly into chaos. It was the period of Danegeld and of foreign pressure. I must say that the rugged words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written a thousand years ago, seem to me apposite, at least as apposite as those quotations from Shakespeare with which we have been regaled by the last speaker from the Opposition Bench. Here is what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said, and I think the words apply very much to our treatment of Germany and our relations with her:

'All these calamities fell upon us because of evil counsel, because tribute was not offered to them at the right time nor yet were they resisted; but when they had done the most evil, then was peace made with them.'

That is the wisdom of the past, for all wisdom is not new wisdom."

See alsoEdit


  • Jenkins, Roy (2001). Churchill. London: MacMillan Press. ISBN 0330-48805-8.


  1. ^ Jenkins, p. 527.
  2. ^ "Churchill's Wartime Speeches – "A Total and Unmitigated Defeat"". The Churchill Society, London. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  3. ^ "Policy of His Majestys Government (1938)". House of Commons. Historic Hansard. 6 October 1938. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  4. ^ "Policy of His Majestys Government (1938)". House of Commons. Historic Hansard. 5 October 1938. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  5. ^ a b "Policy of His Majestys Government (1938)". House of Commons. Historic Hansard. 5 October 1938. c369. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  6. ^ a b "Policy of His Majestys Government (1938)". House of Commons. Historic Hansard. 5 October 1938. c360. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  7. ^ a b "Policy of His Majestys Government (1938)". House of Commons. Historic Hansard. 5 October 1938. c362. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  8. ^ a b "Policy of His Majestys Government (1938)". House of Commons. Historic Hansard. 5 October 1938. c365. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  9. ^ Kennedy, Paul M. Strategy and Diplomacy, 1870–1945: Eight Studies. London: Allen & Unwin in association with Fontana Paperbacks, 1983 p. 89
  10. ^ "Personal Explanation (1938)". House of Commons. Historic Hansard. 3 October 1938. c33. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  11. ^ Lucas, F. L. (4 October 1938). "The Funeral of British Honour". Manchester Guardian. p. 7.
  12. ^ Winston Churchill | Mediander | Connects." Mediander. N.p., n.d. Web.
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ https://www.thedailybeast.com/i-am-the-kind-of-woman-i-would-run-from-the-life-of-nancy-astor?ref=scroll
  15. ^ "King Aethelred II The Unready." King Aethelred II The Unready. N.p., n.d. Web.