Useful Notes: Neville Chamberlain

Yes, in fact, this is the same image used to illustrate the Head-in-the-Sand Management article.

"The only shield to the man is his memory. The only guide to his conscience the rectitude and sincerity of his actions."
Winston Churchill, on Neville Chamberlain

Born Arthur Neville Chamberlain on 18 March 1869 in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham. Died on 9 November 1940 in Highfield Park, in Heckfield (village), Hampshire from bowel cancer.

An often misunderstood politician, this article will very briefly cover what the media will tell you, and then the truth.

Chamberlain's history in the modern media almost begins and ends with the "peace in our time" quote.note  He became Prime Minister of the UK, signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler, declared there would be 'peace for our time', stuck his head in the sand and ignored Hitler's aggression, and then had to resign when Hitler declared war on Europe.

That's good enough for highschool history, but there's a lot more to him - and his decisions - than that. For a start, whilst he was a member of the Conservative party he was not really a Conservative. He described himself as a Unionist, referencing the defunct Liberal Unionist party his father had been in.

Whilst his quote is mostly recalled for its ironic value, Chamberlain was neither naive nor stupid. 'Appeasement' was the only politically-acceptable option, and Hitler's megalomania was not apparent thanks to his meticulous management of his public image. Though he publicly proclaimed that the move would avert war, he started Britain's programme of re-armament just to be on the safe side. His wisdom and foresight paid off when he was forced to declare war upon Germany in aid of Poland in September 1939... and the public rallied behind him and a war they then understood was inevitable note .

The most important factor in his decision not to risk war was undoubtedly his (correct) judgement that the British and particularly French public would not support war if he had been seen to reject diplomacy. A big part of the popular support behind the later coup by Marshall Petain and Admiral Darlan, and the complete absence of any French partisan movements until 1943, was a widespread belief that Britain had selfishly dragged France into a war that wasn't in her interests. The USSR's rhetorical willingness to defend Czechoslovakia's sovereignty would not have translated into a Soviet-German war either, as the military dictatorship of Polandnote  would never have given their greatest enemy military access.

Munich was also not a clear-cut example of NSDAP-German aggression or expansionism - the ethnic Germans of Bohemia-Moravia had consistently voted for extremist nationalist parties (Communist or Fascist) who had advocated independence or political union with Germany in every general election since the country's formation in the aftermath of World War One. The demands for Polish territory in 1939 were very different as The World had had a very dramatic insight into Hitler's actual and astonishingly radical agenda (re: the annexation of Bohemia-Moravia and the subjugation of Slovakia).

On a final note, while Germany was far more unprepared for war than The Allies in 1938 Chamberlain was quite right to think - thanks in large part to the advice of Stanley Baldwin - that The Allies' material advantage would only increase over time, and that Britain would in any case need at least two years of all-out armament (as she had last time, in 1916) before she would be able to field armies of comparable size to those of France and Germany. In fact, by 1935 he had already realized Hitler was a danger to European peace and advocated strengthening the Royal Air Force, and immediately after Munich he commenced such a program of rearmament. The very first thing he did on his return was meet with representatives of various industries to get them to ready for war; many factory workers did their first overtime ever in the weeks following the Munich treaty to meet the government's new orders. Whether this was the 'right' thing to do or not (given France's poor Operational-level performance against German forces in 1940, something greater German un-preparedness could have rendered moot) is still a matter of historical debate, though the wisdom of his decision at the time should be quite apparent from what we've brought up so far (for your browsing-pleasure).

It's worth noting that the Germans were well aware of this strategic imbalance as well, with German generals so petrified of war in the fall of 1938 that they seriously considered (but ultimately rejected due to faith in National Socialist principles and Hitler) a coup against Hitler before Chamberlain's agreement made that unnecessary. The Czechs, incidentally, see Chamberlain as one of the great traitors of history, calling his agreement the "Munich Betrayal", as it was their nation-state that was handed over to Hitler without them even being represented at the negotiations.

There was also the matter that the UK didn't want to go to war if it could avoid it at all - a war over the Czech Germans wouldn't have just been controversial, it would have been deeply unpopular if not unjustifiable to the French leadership and public. Chamberlain wasn't the only Allied leader at Munich, it must be remembered - Prime Minister Édouard Daladier also approved of negotiation for the same reasons. World War I had killed a million each of both countries' best and brightest young men, and even though their reserves of trained manpower had been replenished (and stood at nearly a dozen times that of Germany's) the psychological aversion to warfare hadn't. The anti-war stance was the one which best represented public opinion at the time, the Munich Agreement being wildly popular in Britain and France with Winston Churchill being the most famous of a mere handful of dissenters.

Following the fall of Norway, Chamberlain faced an extremely stormy debate on the whole issue in the House of Commons and calls for his resignation. The Government won, but only with a majority of 31, which Chamberlain felt was enough for him to resign, with Churchill taking over on 10 May 1940 (the day the Germans started their long-anticipated invasion of France). It also helps that Chamberlain did not have very good relations with a number of Parliament members - he just wasn't a very sociable person, though only a few actively despised him. Chamberlain remained a respected member of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet and had a key role in forming the Special Operations Executive until his death from cancer six months afterwards.

Despite the agreement, there are a number of historians who have a more positive view of Chamberlain today with many noting that his contributions to working conditions in factories and the time he bought for Britain were absolutely vital in letting the country prepare for war.

You will have noticed that thus far this page has been primarily concerned with Chamberlain's foreign policy. This would have greatly annoyed him. Neville Chamberlain was first and foremost a domestic politician, viewing his Prime Ministership as the jewel in the crown of a domestic reformer and a tireless campaigner for social issues. His premiership saw the passing of: the Factories Act of 1937 placing limits on the working hours of women and children; the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, giving workers ten days paid holiday a year; the Coal Act of 1938, (kind of) nationalizing the coal industry; the Housing Act 1938, introducing slum clearance and rent control; and several other measures aimed at alleviating poverty and want in the UK. Sadly, most had to be shelved due to the outbreak of the war; two other policies he wanted to push through but couldn't due to the war were a reform of local government procedures and raising the school-leaving age to 15.

Prior to his premiership, he held a variety of government positions (notably two terms as Chancellor and three terms as Minister of Health) where he consistently advocated such reform measures, notably his passionate support for unemployment compensation. He was roughly in the middle of British politics during his age - he advocated a restructuring of the economic system and welfare payments to the needy, unlike many other Conservatives, but was against the nationalising of industries and redistribution of wealth advocated by the Labour Party. Unlike the (very) aristocratic Churchill, Chamberlain's father (Joseph Chamberlain, himself a very influential politician) was a self-made businessman, Unitarian, and keen radical reformer who passed his passion for improvement down to his son. Notably, Chamberlain was more fondly remembered by the British working classes than Churchill, who was hated by many (even after the war) for his suggestion that tanks be deployed against strikers. He also oversaw the first significant improvement in relations between the UK and Ireland since Irish independence in 1922.

That Other Wiki has plenty of information about him.

Neville Chamberlain in fiction:

  • A shortsighted human official in Babylon 5 who pushes for a non-aggression pact with the Centari uses the Chamberlain misquote "Peace in our time" and is clearly meant to be a reference to Chamberlain's nonexistent appeasing stance. Predictably, the results are exactly the same this time around.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Before Dishonor, a Federation diplomat attempts to negotiate with the Borg—and comes back declaring that "There will be peace in our time." Then the Borg blow his ship out of space.
  • In Are You Being Served?, Mrs Slocombe is hit in the head with a faulty golf ball thingy and loses (or pretends to lose) her memory. When asked who the current prime minister is, she replies, "Mr Chamberlain!" Mr Spooner makes a joke about expecting her to say Gladstone.
  • The Onion's book "Our Dumb Century", which recounts the 20th. century through fake news articles, has two articles from 1943 and 1945 respectively: "Neville Chamberlain increasingly suspicious of Hitler: I believe he may be up to something" and "Neville Chamberlain slapped silly by little girl." In real life, of course, Chamberlain died in 1940.
  • The classic MGM Wartime Cartoon "Blitz Wolf" parodied The Three Little Pigs by having the Smart Pig build bunkers and buy savings bonds, while the Foolish Pigs signed a non-aggression act with the Big Bad Wolf (who was modeled after Hitler). Chamberlain wasn't mentioned, but the Munich Agreement was clearly being satirized.
  • In the David Zucker comedy, An American Carol, Chamberlain is portrayed as a pacifistic suck-up who shines Hitler's boots as he's signing the Munich Agreement.
  • He makes a brief appearance in The King's Speech, congratulating George VI after his first wartime speech.