In 1938, during the Munich (Czech) Crisis, then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressed his distaste for making war preparations over "a quarrel in a faraway land between people of which we know nothing."

That remark seems strange for just before the dawn of the jet age, during an era when Britain had a global empire, because the distance between London and Prague was a little over 600 miles. For comparison, the distances between London and capitals of former colonies were 3000 miles for Ottawa, 3600 miles for Washington, and 10,000 miles for Canberra.

Perhaps a more plausible explanation was the reference to "foreign" German and Czech people. But that doesn't seem to make sense, given that the British Royal Family was largely of German origin, including Queen Victoria's Prince Albert, and Mary of Teck, wife of King George V.

Perhaps I'm taking the phrase out of context, but in the 19th century, the Know Nothings were a group of anti "foreign" (immigrant) Americans, who professed to "know nothing" about their positions.

Otherwise, why would Chamberlain refer to Germans and Czechs as "far away" peoples of whom his contemporaries would know nothing? Did most of them actually feel that way, or was that sentiment more or less particular to Chamberlain? Put another way, was he addressing a large British contingent with a quasi-American "know nothing" mentality (Lady Astor comes to mind.)

Apparently, David Lloyd George opined that "Mr Chamberlain views everything through the wrong end of a municipal drain-pipe."

  • 1
    @sempaiscuba: Changed it to "just before the dawn of the jet age." Thanks for your help.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 8, 2017 at 13:09
  • 1
    Note that 1938 was only about 70% of the way from the first powered flight (December 1903) to the introduction of the first jet airliner (May 1952). Whittle had only tested the first jet engine in 1937 and the Royal Air Force wasn't remotely interested. So I'm not sure it really qualifies as "just before the dawn of the jet age". Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 14:39
  • 'of which we know nothing' might have referred to the quarrel, rather than to the land or people
    – marina
    Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 11:41
  • Great Britain was a naval global empire. Central mainland Europe is thus practically more remote than e.g. South Africa or Canada. So, when viewed as sort of jest, Chamberlain was somewhat justified.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 8:26

3 Answers 3


Actually, in 1938, for most Britons, anywhere East of the Rhine was "a faraway land" of which they knew nothing. Only the rich travelled even to continental Europe; most people took their summer holidays in Margate or Scarborough - my parents had their honeymoon in Slough!

The Commonwealth - particularly, I'm afraid, the white Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, New Zealand) were different, honorary Brits who shared a common language and, to an extent, a culture. India and parts of Africa were "ours", and the US was a kind of errant child with which we had a love-hate relationship.

But Eastern Europeans were "different", speaking strange languages (most Britons didn't even speak French!) and having no connection with Britain.

And, while it's true the Royal Family was largely German, George V had done an excellent job rebranding it as quintessentially British - changing the name to Windsor (you couldn't get more English!) and portraying the Royals as middle-class Britons writ large.

The Empire, as it was then, was ours, sharing a sovereign, language and trade links. Eastern Europe, by comparison, was foreign, confusing, and nothing to do with us.

  • 5
    My grandmother is 100 years old and she definitely has the attitudes akin to the latter days of the British Empire regarding other countries and people.
    – user13203
    Commented Oct 8, 2017 at 21:07
  • @BadBishop When Britain joined the (then) Common Market, there was a good deal of ill-will/angst on both sides at Britain "abandoning" the Commonwealth for European foreigners.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Oct 8, 2017 at 22:40
  • 6
    IIRC, there's a scene in the movie Topkapi where the character played by Peter Ustinov is crossing the border from Greece into Turkey. "Are you foreign?" the border guard asks. "Certainly not! I'm British!", is the reply. Commented Oct 8, 2017 at 23:41
  • 4
    @WalterMitty Read How to be an Alien by George Mikes - he says much the same. Everyone, everywhere is foreign - except the British! ;)
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 0:05

I suspect that it was political hyperbole intended to boost public support for his policy of appeasement, particularly if you consider the quote in full:

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

As James Taulbee observed in his recent book Genocide, Mass Atrocity, and War Crimes in Modern History: Blood and Conscience:

"... taken out of context, [it] suggests indifference. In context, while unfortunately phrased, it reflected a deep-seated fear of another major war."

Memories of the First World War were still fresh in the minds of many in Britain in 1938. As a politician, Chamberlain chose his words with care to garner support for his policy from those who shared his fears.

  • Does "fantastic" have a different meaning then than it does nowadays?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 6:33
  • 8
    @AndrewGrimm The word fantastic can mean "Imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality", even today. Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 9:51
  • 1
    @sempaiscuba: True, but it does carry a positive connotation in modern usage. Similarly, I would today suggest "incredulous" instead of "incredible".
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 13:31
  • 3
    @MSalters Except that incredulous means something completely different from incredible. Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 17:11
  • 1
    @MSalters the positive connotations of "fantastic" date from around the 1960s,AFAIK - cf "fab" (short for "fabulous") which originally meant fabled, unreal. Incredulous means disbelieving, incredible means unbelievable, inconceivable.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 21:05

IMO don't take "faraway land" and "people of which we know nothing" too literally.

It reads like he's referring to Sudetenland and the crisis' immediate stakeholders as something the British have no direct stakes or interests in, and thus not something they'd want to go to war over.

Put another way, a crisis involving territory and people closer to its border (e.g. the Low Countries) or those of its colonies might have warranted making war preparations. Sudetenland, not so much.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.