My post ‘1938 – The World Turns’ discussed some of the issues of Neville Chamberlain and the British Government’s policy of appeasement towards European dictators in the 1930’s, particularly Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
I portrayed Chamberlain as a somewhat misdirected figure, arrogant and naive in his belief that war could be avoided by meeting Hitler’s demands, even at the expense of smaller nations. I accept that fear of another global conflict so soon after the last one played a part, and also that the failure of successive Governments to maintain armed strength, (understandably so since a repeat of 1914-1918 was unthinkable,) put added pressure on Britain and France to buy time to rearm. However, Chamberlain’s disdain for the opinions of others, and his preference only for voices which chimed with his was a major weakness; and I’m still of the same mind toward his time in office.
However, (there’s nearly always a ‘however’ in discussing history), students of the causes of the Second World War might find an alternative view to be of interest. As I said in my last piece, Chamberlain’s actions, and motives and the policy of appeasement have undergone revision in recent years, and an early and important contribution to this is John Charmley’s “Chamberlain and the Lost Peace” from 1989. This is a well written, well-argued study which seeks to present the views of the main protagonists – Chamberlain, Churchill and Eden – from the contemporary 1930’s standpoint, and then puts forward the view that Chamberlain’s efforts were motivated more by a fear of what a long-term war would do to British interests, and a desire to ensure that Britain was able to protect and strengthen its grip on its Empire. Of course, to my way of thinking, the British Empire is anathema; however most British people in the 1930’s simply accepted Britain’s right to have colonial possessions, and never questioned the arrogant belief that the people under British rule were inferior, and it was our moral duty to keep huge swathes of the map that peculiar shade of pink even my generation learnt about at school. “White man’s burden”, and all that. In fact, my teachers, an older generation, saw it as a matter of pride that we’d once been an Imperial powerhouse.
There’s a lot to commend Charmley’s book. He presents a defence of Chamberlain, and seeks to offer an understanding of what he sought to do in those heady months of 1938, and does it quite successfully. It’s a long while since I read this book. Someday I might read it again and perhaps come to a reassessment. However, my take on Chamberlain is that I feel there was an arrogance about him, and a resentment of the Tory Party who may have looked down on his provincial achievements, which drove him to be stubborn and to outdo the likes of Churchill. To be fair, he did work very closely with the patrician Henderson until close to the end, so maybe I do him a disservice. And of course, Churchill wasn’t always driven by altruism!
On a human level, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Chamberlain. He’d placed such great store on being the one man who would handle Hitler, who had understood him, and who would deliver the world into a peaceful future. This, of course, was with a certain diffidence towards other, smaller European nations. But when war came, it carried a terrible price for Chamberlain, both political and personal. In his speech to the Country at 11.15 a.m. on the 3rd of September 1939, he said, “You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.” At noon that day, he spoke to the House of Commons: “Everything that 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 hadn’t entered politics to be the man who, twenty years after one cataclysmic conflict from which the Country had still not fully recovered, bore the task of leading Britain into another. After his beliefs, his hopes, his efforts, it must have been shattering.
Life and the history it becomes is never black and white; moral ambiguities abound, and trying to evaluate the motives, fears, ambitions of men now long dead is a Rubik’s Cube without a solution. The best we can do is to try and put ourselves in their shoes; we often think we’d have acted more nobly, or with greater success, but in truth, I doubt it.