BOOK REVIEW / The stuff of tragedy in history's dark corners: Chamberlain and appeasement - R A C Parker: Macmillan, pounds 11.99

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IT IS extraordinary how the concept of appeasement still holds the entirely pejorative meaning that it acquired after what Neville Chamberlain regarded as his greatest achievement. The Munich agreement of 30 September 1938 averted a major European war between Britain, France and Nazi Germany, and possibly Poland and the Soviet Union - at the cost of abandoning Czechoslovakia to Hitler's sphere of influence.

Even today, the more bellicose American commentators on the current Bosnian imbroglio cannot resist raising the ghosts of Munich, forgetting that then, as now, the American press and American opinion condemned the mere idea of involvement. Appeasement, so runs the dogma, is always wrong, and always immoral.

This is a view to which Alastair Parker, on the whole, accedes. His book is in part aimed at those British historians who, in his words, have been overwhelmed by the 'abundant, well-arranged, lucid documentation' available to them into 'interpretative surrender', and in whose view Chamberlain 'managed public affairs as well as anyone could have done'.

To illustrate his views he has provided as clear, as lucidly written, as unvarnished and as thoroughly documented an account of British foreign policy towards Germany from 1933 to the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 as can be imagined.

Neville Chamberlain is very difficult to like. His copious letters to his sisters, his intermittent diaries and his speeches reveal a man convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that his way was the only sensible, reasonable way, and that any other counsels were born of a marriage between emotionalism and folie de grandeur, where they were not actively self-promoting.

In truth, Chamberlain is the stuff of which classical tragedy was made. But even a Sophocles could not make his self-regarding and ungenerous personality attractive.

And yet, was there a viable alternative policy? This is a question that Parker, confined as he is by his brief to purely English evidence, does not really answer, save in one respect, that British rearmament could have been pursued more actively and with more speed.

He is a well-known expert on the practicality of such an alternative, less so on the opportunity costs in terms of loss of overseas markets and sterling balances. He does not really answer those who argue that Italian and Japanese neutrality in September 1939 indicated that appeasement could on occasion pay off, though his references to Hitler's 'suicidal irrationality' show that he knows well that no policy could have diverted Hitler for long from his determination on world dominion.

This is all on a par with his refusal to speculate beyond his evidence. There are, for example, indications that among Chamberlain's private camarilla, most notably Sir Joseph Ball, and George Steward, Downing Street's press secretary, there was an inclination to go much further in passing conciliatory messages to Germany than the surviving records make clear.

And there is something very odd about the number of MI6 operatives who got caught up in direct attempts at intervention to avoid war in August 1939, if not thereafter.

There are still doors that are closed to the historian, still dark corners that could bear the light of history. Until that day, which we must hope will precede the sea giving up its dead, Parker's work sets a standard at which any dissident, any peddler of new lamps for old, will have to aim.