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 was certain that he had a contract that would keep Europe safe from going to war the second time in their history.
Chamberlain addressed the people as he entered the runway. Chamberlain 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’.”
Chamberlain later that night travelled to Buckingham Palace where he had an audience with King George VI. Because the crowd outside of the palace had been so big and excited, the King asked Chamberlain to travel to Buckingham Palace to have an audience with King George VI. 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.”
Chamberlain was just back from Munich on September 30, 1938. He had made a deal to Adolf Hitler while he was there to let Nazi Germany incorporate the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland in the Third Reich. He claimed that he was able to guarantee peace at least temporarily.
A Prime Minister has never been more popular than he was with his countrymen and all over the world. We are proud of his preservation efforts. “peace for our time”They came from all over the world. They came from all over the globe, including South Africa, Australia and Canada’s prime ministers. Franklin D. Roosevelt also offered his support. “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 the second son of Joseph Chamberlain, a politician. 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. After his retirement, he was the first Lord of Admiralty until 1937 when he died.
The youngest Chamberlain family member, however, was not destined for a career in politics. Instead, Chamberlain believed that his future was in business. Chamberlain, his father, was a former Lord Mayor of Birmingham and a local councillor. Chamberlain entered the House of Commons on 1918. By the middle of the 1920s, he was a reforming Minister of Health.
In the 1930s, he made his mark as the frugal Chancellor at the Exchequer who steered Britain through the Great Depression. “heir apparent” when the ageing Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, chose to retire. Chamberlain was able to achieve what his older brother and father had failed, achieving the summit of politics. “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.
Chamberlain has been a victim of history. Chamberlain is frequently portrayed as a foolish fool who believed the hollow promises made by Hitler. His appeasement policy became synonymous with weakness, gullibility and, ultimately, shame. This is a matter of 20/20 vision.
It is widely forgotten today, but Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was an expression of the views of the British people at the time. According to polls, the people still traumatized by the First World War were ready to do almost anything to stop 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.”
It is also important to remember that in the 1930s, the UK’s peace movement was very powerful. In 1934-35, it had conducted a ballot calling for the country to adhere to the principles of the League of Nations. More than 11.5million voted, with the majority affirming their support for disarmament and opposing future wars. The vote was basically a vote in favor of 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.”
Chamberlain’s political environment was this: opposed to rearmament but in favor of Churchill’s later name “jaw jaw”Instead of “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.
Chamberlain may have privately believed that Hitler’s deal with him was not worth what he wrote on it, contrary to common post-war narrative. His sister was told by him. “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 was also seen to back up his private statements with public actions. 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, Britain still had an army of over one million men at the close of 1939.
Chamberlain told his sister, in February 1939. “beginning to feel at last that we are getting on top of the dictators,”He claimed that the rearmament programme had already made that possible. “they [the dictators] could not nearly make such a mess of us now … while we could make much more of a mess of them.”
Hitler tore up the Munich Agreement and Nazi Germany absorbed Czechoslovakia. With that, Hitler ceded any moral argument that he was merely righting the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It is often forgotten that Poland and Hungary took part in the Czech booty.
Chamberlain felt humiliated, and he realized that Hitler was not to be trusted. These military guarantees were given to Greece, Romania and, most famously, to Poland. This was according to the well-known 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, in contrast to what the historical record suggests, was actually now involved in war, and preparations started in earnest. As the country wasn’t ready for war, Chamberlain had purchased Britain essential time.
Chamberlain may have known exactly what was going on from evidence at that time. He had already stated this 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 a part of this holding position.
These words were supported by actions. At the Munich Agreement, for example, there were only 25 squadrons of fighter aircraft-equipped Royal Air Force units. Chamberlain, however, had made sure that aircraft production was increased between Munich and August 1940’s Battle of Britain. He also changed the main focus from building bombers to making fighters. On the eve of Battle of Britain there were fifty-eight Squadrons available to Fighter Command equipped with Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.
It was, however, too little and too late. Britain and France had already shown weakness and underplayed themselves at Munich. Thus, Moscow reluctantly reached out late to Soviets to form an alliance against German expansionism. According to a Soviet diplomat, “We nearly put our foot on the rotten plank. Now we are going elsewhere.”It is 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. Chamberlain lost his mind, even though he was prepared for it. The House of Commons heard his confession. “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.”Although he had tried to make peace which is noble, he ended up with war.
Britain did announce conscription on the date of declaration. This is in contrast to the fact, that although Britain went to war in 1914 and conscription was not introduced until 1916. Chamberlain had a renewed sense of urgency when it came to wartime.
Chamberlain was also able to rebuild his ministry. It led to Winston Churchill being elected the First Lord and Admiralty. At a stroke, Chamberlain had resurrected Churchill’s ailing career and brought him in from the wilderness. Without Chamberlain, Churchill’s future premiership might have seemed unlikely.
Chamberlain was a capable leader throughout the eight months of relative silence, and was christened The “Phoney War,”It was a good fit for his administrative skills. However, his administrative abilities proved to be a disaster when conflict broke out. Churchill had been working behind-the scenes to organize a campaign in Scandinavia. Chamberlain, however, was the man who got him his wish.
Chamberlain stated that Hitler was dead in early April 1940. “missed the bus,”Nine days later, Germany invaded Denmark und Norway. The Churchill-inspirated counter-offensive failed to materialize and the Allied forces had to evacuate Norway, leaving Norway open for the German invaders. As a result, Chamberlain’s unwise statement was thrown back in his face.
A Prime Minister has never been elected in this manner before. 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. Chamberlain was the lamb to the slaughter during the Norway Debate, which took place May 7-9 1940.
His failure to succeed was a matter of shame on all sides. Leopold Amery was one of his closest MPs and told him (whose son, who was a Nazi collaborator was executed after the war). “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Let us go, I tell you. In the name of God, go!”Chamberlain quit on May 10th, the day the Wehrmacht entered France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
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.
Through his numerous iconic speeches, Churchill gave new life to the war effort and renewed enthusiasm. Who hasn’t heard the “blood, toil, tears and sweat”The barnstorming or speech “we shall fight on the beaches”?They are so beautiful that they make you wonder if your hairs don’t stand up on their ends.
Chamberlain was dreadful in his dourness. Chamberlain is not to be condemned just because he seems serious and grave. Even though he wasn’t the leader Britain needed during wartime, one could argue that Chamberlain was effective in leading Britain in years preceding the war.
Chamberlain continued his work in the Cabinet with Churchill once he had been elected to power. Chamberlain was to handle domestic problems while Churchill would be in charge of the war effort. 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.
Chamberlain, unfortunately, did not get to see all of the fruits of his labors. He died from bowel cancer on November 4, 1940. He lived to see British Supermarine Spitfires (and Hawker Hurricanes) outperform German Messerschmitt Bf 109 in the Battle of Britain. He was largely responsible for the policies that he pursued in 1940 and 1939.
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. Britain might have ended war or been worse off, and the Soviet Union could have remained neutral in its fight against Nazi Germany.
Nazi Germany did not fight on two fronts so it could have put its huge military resources into Operation Barbarossa which took place in June 1941. The Soviet Union was invaded by three million Axis troops in June 1941. However, another one million soldiers were occupying West Europe, the Balkans and fighting in Africa.
It didn’t happen. Britain was still in the war and kept the Axis powers in North Africa, West, and the Middle East preoccupied. Through the Arctic convoys, Iran and Britain, it allowed Britain access to a significant amount of military equipment.
While this does not mean that they could not defeat Germany, the Soviets would still have to face the challenge of bringing Britain out from war in 1941. They were, however, able to keep their heads above water thanks in large part 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 was a master wordsmith and wrote the official war history. “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.
Recent history has shown that Chamberlain is not doing much better. 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 had many faults. Neville Chamberlain was inflexible and abrupt. He made it difficult for others to get along with him. Chamberlain was also an ideal prime minister for peacetime, and not a war leader. Chamberlain found it easier to focus on domestic problems like housing and health, than dealing with untrustworthy dictators and pushy Generals.
How many men would actually be able to face down Hitler? One of Britain’s greatest peacetime prime ministers, H.H. Asquith in 1916 was found to be a weak war leader. He was then undermined and replaced by Churchill’s mentor, David Lloyd George. The history of the world is prone to repeat itself.
Perhaps, Neville Chamberlain’s reputation deserves rehabilitation? Chamberlain was a perfect scapegoat in the years immediately following war. Perhaps his career is now less harsh after enough time.
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’re wrong. Netflix’s ‘Munich: The Edge of War’ goes some way to salvaging his legacy. Jeremy Irons plays Chamberlain as a kind and decent man who did everything he could to keep another generation of soldiers from dying on the field.
This sympathetic performance may spark a discussion about Neville Chamberlain’s legacy, one that goes beyond lazy historical interpretations made in the immediate aftermath.