Hitler's patsy: Is Neville Chamberlain really to blame for bowing down to Nazis?
As his aeroplane came in to land on Heston Aerodrome on a mild September evening, the Prime Minister could see that the airfield was awash with the world’s press and hundreds of people waiting to greet him. Neville Chamberlain believed that he had in his hand an agreement that would prevent Europe from descending into war for the second time in a generation.
As he stepped onto the runway, with the crowds cheering wildly, Chamberlain addressed those in attendance. He said, “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you: … ‘We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again’.”
Later that evening, Chamberlain travelled to Buckingham Palace for an audience with King George VI. The crowd that had gathered outside the palace was so large and excitable that the King invited the Prime Minister to join him and the Queen on the balcony, which was unheard of, to take the plaudits. Chamberlain then travelled back to 10 Downing Street, where he gave another speech from the window and uttered the famous phrase, “I believe it is peace for our time.”
The date was September 30, 1938 and Chamberlain had just returned from Munich. Whilst there, he had negotiated a deal with Adolf Hitler to allow Nazi Germany to incorporate the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland into the Third Reich. In return, he believed he had assured peace, at least for the time being.
Never had a Prime Minister been so popular, not only with his own people, but also around the world. Congratulations for his preserving “peace for our time” came from across the globe. The prime ministers of Canada, Australia, and South Africa offered their support, as did the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called Chamberlain a “good man.”
Although history has proven Chamberlain’s statements wrong, it was seen at the time as a great victory not only for the British prime minister, but for the democratic world. Since then, however, ‘Munich’ has become a by-word for capitulation and shame, and Chamberlain tarred as a weak, foolish, unsuspecting lackey of Europe’s worst dictator.
Chamberlain’s career, however, is once again coming under microscope thanks to a new film, ‘Munich: The Edge of War’, which was released in British cinemas last week and lands on Netflix on January 21. Although the film is a work of fiction, adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, ‘Munich,’ the sympathetic portrayal of Chamberlain by Jeremy Irons is leading to a reevaluation of the much-maligned former prime minister.
Chamberlain was born into a political family. He was the second son of Joseph Chamberlain, Britain’s most iconic politician of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. His older brother was Austen Chamberlain, who briefly led the Conservative Party in the early 1920s and became Foreign Secretary later in that decade. He then served as the First Lord of the Admiralty in the early 1930s before his retirement and death in 1937.
In contrast, a political career was not planned for the youngest of the Chamberlain clan. Instead, it was believed that a life in business lay ahead. Nonetheless, Chamberlain became a local councillor in 1911 and Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1915, a role his father had previously occupied. He entered the House of Commons in 1918 and, by the mid-1920s, Chamberlain had become a reforming Minister of Health.
He really made his name in the early 1930s, guiding Britain through the Great Depression as a frugal Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in doing so became the “heir apparent” when the ageing Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, chose to retire. This came in May 1937 and Chamberlain had achieved what his father and older brother had not, successfully making it to the top of “the greasy pole.”
Unfortunately for Chamberlain, he was unable to utilise his impressive administrative experience, as his time in office was dominated by his dealings with Europe’s belligerent dictators – Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini – both of whom were bent on military expansion. So, rather than dealing with the UK’s financial deficit and housing shortages, for which he was amply suited, in the first 18 months of his premiership, Chamberlain was forced to face up to the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss, and Hitler’s designs on Czechoslovakia.
History has not been kind to Chamberlain. He is often portrayed as a naive fool who was all too willing to believe the empty promises of Hitler. His policy of appeasement became a byword for weakness, gullibility, and ultimately shame. But is this really true, or is it a case of 20/20 hindsight?
It is widely forgotten today, but Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was an expression of the views of the British people at the time. Polls regularly showed that the public, still scarred by the horrors of the First World War, were willing to go to almost any lengths to prevent another.
People were terrified that a new war would result in the deaths of millions of civilians, as Baldwin had earlier warned, “it is well … for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through.”
People also forget that the peace movement in the UK in the 1930s was a powerful body. In 1934-35, it had conducted a ballot calling for the country to adhere to the principles of the League of Nations. Over 11.5 million voted in the ballot, with the overwhelming majority reaffirming a commitment to disarmament and opposition to future wars. It was essentially a vote for peace. In addition, in 1933, the Oxford Union passed a provocative motion stating, “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.”
This was the political environment in which Chamberlain was operating: a public opposed to rearmament and in favour of what Churchill would later call “jaw jaw” rather than “war war.” With this in mind, one can see why Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler was greeted with such relief and why he became a figure of adulation.
Nevertheless, contrary to the commonly accepted post-war narrative, it seems Chamberlain privately suspected that the agreement with Hitler was not worth the paper it was written on. He told his sister, “We have avoided a great catastrophe … [but cannot] put all thoughts of war out of our minds and settle down to make the world a better place.”
Chamberlain also appeared to back up his private words with his public deeds. In the months following the Munich agreement, Britain’s rearmament program gathered pace. In September 1938, Britain could only have raised two divisions to fight on the continent, compared to Germany’s thirty-six. Yet, by the end of 1939, Britain had an army that was in excess of one million men.
As early as February 1939, Chamberlain confided in his sister that he was “beginning to feel at last that we are getting on top of the dictators,” and claimed that the rearmament program had already ensured that “they [the dictators] could not nearly make such a mess of us now … while we could make much more of a mess of them.”
The following month, however, Hitler ripped up the Munich agreement and Nazi Germany swallowed up what was left of Czechoslovakia. With that, Hitler ceded any moral argument that he was merely righting the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. As a side note, it is largely forgotten today that Poland and Hungary also took a chunk of the Czech booty.
Chamberlain was humiliated and, from this moment on, he knew that Hitler could not be trusted. Military guarantees were thus provided to Greece, Romania, and (most famously) to Poland, which, the renowned revisionist historian A.J.P. Taylor has argued, was an act of absolute folly, as Britain had no way of ever coming to Poland’s aid.
Chamberlain was now, contrary to the traditional historical narrative, invested in war and preparations began in earnest. He had bought Britain vital time, as the country was by no means ready for war in 1938.
Evidence from the time seems to show Chamberlain knew exactly what he was doing. As he had said in January 1938, “in the absence of any powerful ally, and until our armaments are completed, we must adjust our foreign policy to our circumstances, and even bear with patience and good humour actions which we should like to treat in a very different fashion.” Munich was part of that holding position.
These words were backed by action. For example, at the time of the Munich agreement, the Royal Air Force (RAF) only had twenty-five squadrons made up of obsolete fighter planes. Yet, between Munich and the Battle of Britain in August 1940, Chamberlain had ensured that not only was aircraft production increased, but that the primary focus was switched from the building of bombers to fighters. Thus, on the eve of the Battle of Britain, there were fifty-eight squadrons at the disposal of Fighter Command, all equipped with the new Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires.
However, to a large extent, it was too little, too late. Britain and France had shown themselves to be weak and outplayed at Munich, thus when, belatedly, they reached out to the Soviets for an alliance to curtail German expansionism, Moscow was understandably reluctant. As one Soviet diplomat said at the time, “We nearly put our foot on the rotten plank. Now we are going elsewhere.” That “elsewhere” was into the arms of Hitler and, in August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, which in effect sealed the fate of Poland, regardless of Chamberlain’s guarantee.
When Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Chamberlain was compelled to declare war 48 hours later. Although he had prepared for such an eventuality, Chamberlain was shattered. He admitted to the House of Commons that “everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins.” He had worked for peace, which was noble in itself, but instead he got war.
Nevertheless, on the day war was declared, Britain announced the conscription of all able men between 18 and 41. Compare this to the fact that, although Britain had gone to war in 1914, conscription had not been introduced until 1916. This was a newfound sense of urgency in wartime under Chamberlain.
Moreover, one of the first things Chamberlain did was to reconstruct his ministry, with a move which saw the return of Winston Churchill as the First Lord of Admiralty. At a stroke, Chamberlain had resurrected Churchill’s ailing career and brought him in from the wilderness. Indeed, without Chamberlain, a future Churchill premiership would have been, at best, unlikely.
Chamberlain proved a competent leader during the eight months of relative inaction, christened the “Phoney War,” as it suited his administrative abilities. He proved, however, a failure when the conflict came. Churchill was pushing behind the scenes for a proactive campaign in Scandinavia. When he got his wish, it was a complete fiasco, and Chamberlain was the fall-guy.
In early April 1940, Chamberlain claimed that Hitler had “missed the bus,” yet nine days later, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. The Churchill-inspired counter-offensive was a fiasco, and Allied forces conducted an embarrassing evacuation, leaving Norway to the mercy of the invading German divisions. As a result, Chamberlain’s unwise statement was thrown back in his face.
Never before, or since, has a Prime Minister been run out of office in such spectacular style. Indeed, the showdown in the House of Commons – known as the Norway Debate – which led to Chamberlain’s fall, was probably the most significant in that chamber’s thousand-year history. The debate regarding the Norway debacle took place between May 7 and 9 of 1940, and Chamberlain was a lamb to the slaughter.
He was castigated for the failure by all sides. He was told by one of his own MPs, Leopold Amery (whose son was hanged after the war for being a Nazi collaborator), “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” On May 10, Chamberlain resigned, which was the same day that the Wehrmacht marched into the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.
In some ways, Chamberlain fell from power because he followed Churchill’s adventurism. Norway was Churchill’s plan, not Chamberlain’s, although, as the Prime Minister, the buck stopped with him. It is one of history’s quirks that, whereas Churchill was sacked for his folly in Gallipoli in 1915, he was promoted to Prime Minister for his ill-advised exuberance in Norway in 1940.
Churchill brought renewed vigour to the war effort through his many iconic speeches. Who hasn’t heard the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech, or the barnstorming “we shall fight on the beaches”? And when hearing them, whose hairs do not stand on end?
Those speeches, and the hope they invoked, were a welcome change from the dour seriousness of Chamberlain. But being dour and serious does not necessarily mean Chamberlain deserves to be condemned. Indeed, it could be argued that Chamberlain was the leader Britain needed in the years before the war, even if he was not the leader the country required in wartime.
Once Churchill was in power, Chamberlain continued to work with him in the Cabinet. It was agreed that Churchill would oversee the war effort and Chamberlain would work on domestic issues. The two men got along cordially, and Chamberlain enjoyed Churchill’s company. There was not a hint that Churchill would later go out of his way to destroy Chamberlain’s reputation once the war was over.
Unfortunately, Chamberlain did not see the full result of his labours, as he died of bowel cancer in November 1940. He did, however, live long enough to witness British Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes outperform the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and win the Battle of Britain. Thanks, in large part, to policies he had pursued in 1939 and 1940.
Had the Battle of Britain been lost, it would have led to the initiation of Operation Sealion – the planned German invasion. If the Wehrmacht’s Panzers had made it to Britain's shores, many agree that peace movements would have gathered pace and Churchill would have been removed as Prime Minister. The result would have been Britain leaving the war (or worse) and the Soviet Union would have been left to face Nazi Germany alone.
With Nazi Germany not fighting a war on two fronts, it could have put all its vast military resources into Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Although around three million Axis forces invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, there were another million men occupying the West, the Balkans, and fighting in Africa at the time.
Thankfully, this did not happen, and Britain remained in the war, keeping the Axis powers preoccupied in the West and in North Africa. It also allowed Britain to provide the Soviet Union with a substantial amount of military materiel through the Arctic convoys and Iran.
This is by no means to suggest the Soviets may not have defeated Germany eventually, but the task would have been all the more difficult with Britain out of the war in 1941; and, in part, they were able to hold out thanks to Chamberlain.
However, writers and historians have traduced Chamberlain’s reputation for the best part of eighty years. Before he was even in the grave, in July 1940, Cato’s ‘Guilty Men’ was published and became a best-seller, naming Chamberlan as the principal guilty man for appeasing Nazi Germany.
Chamberlain’s reputation was also dragged through the mud by the man who replaced him. Churchill, a wordsmith par excellence, wrote what is widely considered the official history of the war and is supposed to have said, “Poor Neville will come badly out of history. I know, I will write that history.” His six-volume ‘Second World War’ portrays Chamberlain as a well-meaning man, but easily fooled and hopelessly out of his depth when dealing with Hitler.
Chamberlain has not fared much better in recent times. Hollywood films, such as 2017’s ‘Darkest Hour’, have depicted him as weak and self-serving, willing, even in 1940, to capitulate to Hitler, ignoring the fact that Chamberlain had in fact encouraged a reluctant King George to appoint Churchill as his successor.
Neville Chamberlain clearly had his faults. He was fussy, inflexible, abrupt, and difficult to work with. He was also a prime minister suited for peacetime and in no way a war leader. Chamberlain was more comfortable working on domestic issues such as health and housing than having to deal with unscrupulous dictators and pushy generals.
But how many men really would be up to facing down Hitler? One of Britain’s greatest peacetime prime ministers, H.H. Asquith, was found lacking as a war leader in 1916. He was then undermined and replaced by Churchill’s mentor, David Lloyd George. History does have a habit of repeating itself.
Perhaps, Neville Chamberlain’s reputation deserves rehabilitation? Yes, in the immediate years following the war there had to be scapegoats and Chamberlain, who was not around to defend himself, fitted the bill perfectly. However, now that enough time has elapsed, maybe his career can be viewed in a less harsh light?
Though the likes of Professor Ian Kershaw, who wrote a seminal two-volume biography of Hitler, believe that Chamberlain’s “reputation cannot be rescued,” perhaps they are wrong? Netflix’s ‘Munich: The Edge of War’ goes some way to salvaging his legacy. Jeremy Irons portrays Chamberlain as a decent and honourable man, who was willing to do everything within his power to prevent another generation of young men being slaughtered on the battlefield.
Perhaps this sympathetic performance will initiate a debate about the legacy of Neville Chamberlain; and one which goes far beyond the lazy historical interpretations that were posited in the immediate aftermath of the war?