Let’s Give Neville Chamberlain a Break

Arthur-Neville-Chamberlain, US National Archive

Photo of British PM Neville Chamberlain from the US National Archive

In the year of our Lord 1938,

A man named Neville caught a bad break.

He sought to bring us peace for our time,

But as it turned out, he was blind –

Blind to evil that grew by the day,

To the Führer who feared not to betray.

We remember him for all he failed to be,

For his optimism and naïvety.

The peace he brought was none too long.

The gathering storm was just too strong.

He sought a madman to appease,

And avoid war by saying “please”.

No courage did this man possess,

Of duty and honor he knew less;

For no war would have come to be,

Dear reader, were it not for he!

Poor Neville Chamberlain!  The man had a pretty good career in British politics, even rising to the post of prime minister in 1937.  Yet, he was not destined to be remembered for any of his successes.  History has associated one word with Chamberlain, and that word is “appeasement”.

The word “appease” does not necessarily have to be negative.  The Latin root word is pacem, which literally means “peace”.  An “appeaser” is one who brings peace.  But when most people refer to Chamberlain as an appeaser, they do not mean it in a positive way.  In fact, what they are really implying is that he sought to appease but failed.

Just last week, in the middle of his 21-hour non-filibuster filibuster, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) briefly paused from reading from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham to take a shot at Chamberlain.  “Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, ‘Accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.’” (I think it’s safe to say that those exact words never exited Chamberlain’s mouth.)

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had the misfortune of coming to power at a time when the world was about to erupt into the most destructive, deadly conflict in history.  When he announced that his policy in Europe would be one of appeasement, he meant that he was hoping to avoid such a war.

British PM Chamberlain is seen on the far right of this photo of the Munich conference participants.  From L-R are Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Paul Otto Schmidt, and Chamberlain.  Photo from the German Federal Archive

British PM Chamberlain is seen on the far right of this photo of the Munich conference participants. From L-R are Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Paul-Otto Schmidt, and Chamberlain. Photo from the German Federal Archive

In September 1938, Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler, then Chancellor of Germany, and the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini in Munich.  The Germans expressed their demand to unite (or in some cases reunite) ethnic German populations in some of their neighboring countries with Germany itself.  Hitler’s first move was to pressure Austria, his own boyhood home, into merging with Germany.  He then sought to bring a significant portion of western Czechoslovakia (known as “Sudetenland”), much of which was home to ethnic Germans, into the fold.

Chamberlain and the British government ultimately decided to sign a pact with Hitler which granted approval to Germany’s takeover of this section of Czechoslovakia in exchange for the assurance that this would be the last of any such moves by Berlin.  The British and German leaders signed an agreement pledging that they would never go to war with each other – a piece of paper that Chamberlain proudly waved in the air upon his return to England, proclaiming to the overjoyed British people that it insured they would have “peace for our time”.

Of course, the Munich agreement did not bring an end to the Nazi regime’s expansion efforts.  Less than a year later, Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland from opposite directions, thus triggering a conflict that would envelope not only Europe, but also the entire world. (To be fair, some count Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 as the true start of WWII, while others believe that WWI and WWII were both one massive war with an intermission in between.)

Within a few years of this debacle, Chamberlain’s decision to sign the Munich Pact with Hitler was seen as an ultimate act of cowardice, betrayal, and naivety by many in Britain and beyond.  Chamberlain suffered particularly when compared to his successor as prime minister, Winston Churchill, who many regarded as the lone “voice in the wilderness” who had understood Hitler’s true belligerence and insisted on standing up to him.

In more recent decades, some historians have attempted to defend Chamberlain’s decision making.  I would submit that while his appeasement policy does seem both wrongheaded and dangerous in hindsight, it is much more understandable when one considers some lesser known information about Chamberlain and the world in which he lived at the time.  It may not be possible to completely exonerate him, but at least it will bring some nuance to the situation.

This photo was taken during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, part of WWI.  British dead can be scene laying in the mud amid those fighting.  Photo from the British Imperial War Museum

This photo was taken during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, part of WWI. British dead can be seen laying in the mud amid those still alive. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum

1. He didn’t want a repeat of World War I.

It is difficult for Americans to grasp just how damaging the First World War, referred to in the 1930s simply as The Great War, was to the collective European psyche.  An entire generation of European men was nearly wiped out in this conflict, which proved to be a rather pointless bloodletting.  The United Kingdom alone suffered an estimated 886,939 military fatalities during this war, accounting for 2.19% of its total population.¹  By comparison, the total number of combat deaths for both sides in the U.S. Civil War (the deadliest war in American history) was less than 700,000.²

Given this very recent history and the fact that military technology had become even more deadly by 1938, it seems perfectly reasonable that Chamberlain would have gone to great lengths to avoid another such war.  A generation of fathers broken by their combat experiences did not want to see the same thing happen to their sons.  Pursuing the path of diplomacy as far as possible seemed like the only responsible option.

PM Chamberlain inspecting the British army in France in late 1939.  The resistance they put up failed to stop the German advance.

PM Chamberlain (center, with one striped sock) inspecting the British army in France in late 1939. The resistance they put up failed to stop the German advance. Photo from the British Imperial War Museum

2. Britain was in no position to defeat Germany in a military conflict.

The British armed forces were simply not well prepared to face a reinvigorated Germany.  While the Nazi regime in Germany had put in place a program of rearmament, industrial expansion, and scientific research as a method of stimulating the moribund national economy (as well as preparing for a possible conflict in Europe), the British were far behind.  Chamberlain undoubtedly knew that it would take a few years before his country could match the total output of the German industrial machine.  If a conflict had to happen, later would be better than sooner.

Consider this passage from Robert Self’s book British Foreign & Defence Policy since 1945:

In these circumstances, British policymakers were obliged to accept that skillful diplomacy in support of a policy of “appeasement” designed to redress the legitimate grievances of Germany and the revisionist powers was essential.  As Chamberlain argued repeatedly, this was not “a peace at any price” policy, but “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.”  If diplomacy was successful, the threat of war would be averted; if it failed it would have still bought the time needed to complete the necessary programme of rearmament.

If you need further proof that the British were not ready to pose a serious threat to Nazi expansionism, just look what happened when the Germans invaded Western Europe.  The German blitzkrieg swept through the Netherlands and Belgium fairly easily and ended up crushing the French resistance, occupying much of France in just a matter of days.  The British were also stationed in France as part of an international defensive force.  However, they were no match for the Germans and ended up retreating until they hit the Atlantic coast, where a hurriedly assembled band of military and civilian vessels rushed to ferry them across the English Channel.

The Dunkirk evacuation ended up providing a great morale boost for the British, but in reality it was simply a chaotic retreat that worked better than expected.  Even when defending their own island in the Battle of Britain, the British relied heavily on semi-covert American support.  Had Hitler never opened up a second front in Russia and the U.S. never joined the war effort entirely, it is impossible to say how long Britain would have been able to hold out against the German bombing campaign.

3. British war debt threatened to bankrupt the empire.

This aspect of Chamberlain’s thinking seems particularly appropriate given the current political climate in the United States.  The prime minister would have been aware of the heavy debt burden taken on by Britain in order to win the First World War.  Just take a look at the table below, which details the state of the British government’s financial situation around the time of World War I (1914-1918).

British Budget Situation by Fiscal Year (1913-1920)


Except for fiscal year, all numbers are in millions of British pounds. Information taken from “British Foreign and Defence Policy since 1945” by Robert Self (2010).

The war effort forced the government to spend more than 10 times the annual rate from before the war.  Robert Self writes, “By the end of the war, Britain’s overseas debt stood at ₤1241 million, of which ₤840 million was owed to the US government.”  He also notes that annual interest payment on the country’s national debt “absorbed some 40 per cent of total central government expenditure until 1931 after which it slowly declined, although even in 1939 it still accounted for over a quarter of gross public expenditure.”  I would guess that if Sen. Ted Cruz had been a member of the British parliament in 1938, he would have been giving a long-winded speech about how the British government could not endure another massive increase in debt brought on by war.

If Chamberlain was at all worried about debt bringing an end to the British Empire, he would have been right.  “Britain had emerged victorious from the Second World War only by accepting the financial, industrial and commercial devastation of its economy,” Robert Self wrote.  Indeed, just four years after the end of WWII, the British Empire effectively came to an end with the creation of the British Commonwealth, a collection of 54 “free and equal” states.

The actual piece of paper signed by Chamberlain and Hitler on the final day of their conference, which the British PM subsequently waved for the public to see upon his return home.  Their signatures can be seen in the close-up on the right (Hitler's on top).

The actual piece of paper signed by Chamberlain and Hitler on the final day of their conference, which the British PM subsequently waved for the public to see upon his return home. Their signatures can be seen in the close-up on the right (Hitler’s is on top).

4. The United States did not stand up to Hitler.

If Chamberlain was a wimp for not taking a stronger stand against Hitler pre-1939, then the United States was at least equally wimpy.  The U.S. had adopted a firm policy of neutrality and isolationism with regard to European affairs.  In the days surrounding Hitler and Chamberlain’s Munich negotiations, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt exchanged letters with the German leader urging him to embrace diplomacy and peace with regard to Czechoslovakia.  After receiving assurances from Hitler, Roosevelt replied with another letter on September 27, 1939, which is summarized on the History Channel’s website.

In his letter of September 27, Roosevelt expressed relief at Hitler’s assurances but re-emphasized his desire that “negotiations [between Germany and Czechoslovakia] be continued until a peaceful settlement is found.” FDR also suggested that a conference of all nations concerned with the current conflict be convened as soon as possible.

He appealed to Hitler’s ego, saying “should you agree to a solution in this peaceful manner I am convinced that hundreds of millions throughout the world would recognize your action as an outstanding historic service to all humanity.” FDR then assured Hitler that the U.S. would remain neutral regarding European politics, but that America recognized a responsibility to be involved “as part of a world of neighbors.”

It appears that Roosevelt’s treatment of Hitler and his policy of expansion was much the same as Chamberlain’s.  The American president was eager to maintain peace, and he seemed to think that Hitler was a reasonable person capable of performing “an outstanding historic service to all humanity”.  The U.S. did not have a delegation participating in the Munich negotiations, but if there had been one, I’m willing to bet that they would have acted in exactly the same way as the British.  Even after Hitler had invaded much of Europe, the U.S. did not declare war on Germany until the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan, more than two years after the war in Europe had begun.

598px-Churchill_on_the_east_bank_of_the_Rhine, UK Government Imperial War Museum

British PM Winston Churchill with victorious British troops on the east bank of the Rhine River in Germany. Photo from the Imperial War Museum

5. Churchill did not have a great war track record.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is beloved by many in both the UK and the US for his strength in the midst of adversity, his quick wit, and his apparently prophetic ability to discern developing threats.  However, the toughness and lack of hesitation with regard to war that we often admire in Churchill could also have negative effects.

While he was First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, Churchill suggested an Allied operation against the Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Britain’s enemies) in the area known as the Dardenelles.  The resulting Gallipolli Campaign, named for the Turkish peninsula on which much of the fighting took place, ended in defeat for the British and French, with 252,000 casualties.

Largely as a result of this defeat, the majority Liberal government in the British Parliament (of which Churchill was then a member) was forced to form a coalition with the Conservatives.  As part of the coalition agreement, Churchill was demoted from his position, eventually ending up as Minister of Munitions.  He did perform some good work during the war, helping to push the introduction of the tank (a new technology at the time), but it’s safe to say that in the 1930s, Churchill’s war record was not exactly impressive.  There would have been good reason to doubt the judgment of a man whose main claim to fame was a military disaster.

Day War Declared, IWM

Chamberlain waves his hat to the crowd standing outside his official residence at 10 Downing Street on the day Britain declared war on Germany. Photo from the Imperial War Museum

6. Chamberlain declared war on Germany.

So much has been made of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement that it is easy to forget that he actually did declare war on Hitler.  On September 3, 1939, following the German and Soviet invasion of Poland, Chamberlain addressed the British people via radio to inform them that the country was at war.  What he said that day provides another level of insight into his thinking.

You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.

Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it. He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland, whatever happened, and although he now says he put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.

The proposals were never shown to the Poles, nor to us, and though they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to hear comments on them but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier the next morning.

His action shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.

Neville Chamberlain was a man caught in an impossible situation.  It is quite likely that nothing he could have done would have changed the ultimate course of events.  While his claim that the Munich Pact would provide “peace for our time” turned out to be incorrect, no one could blame him for doing what he could to prevent war from breaking out.  Churchill is usually remembered as a great critic of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, and that is certainly true.  However, he also had a good deal of respect for the man.  This is what Churchill said upon the death of Neville Chamberlain in 1940.

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.

Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

If that explanation was good enough for Winston Churchill, then it is good enough for me.

¹ Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission Annual Report 2009-2010

² Source: The Oxford Companion to American Military History

4 thoughts on “Let’s Give Neville Chamberlain a Break

  1. Another excellent review with insightful, thought-provoking writing. Mr. Chamberlain was no-doubt a humble and sincere man who could not have realized how evil Mr. Hitler was and would go on to become. He could not realize how badly Mr. Hitler would treat his own citizens and what was planned for them in the near future. And certainly Mr. Chamberlain was concerned about any future war that would cost not only many lives, but many pounds.

  2. Amy, you are simply amazing! Another stunning article. Very timely, as well. Although you do not draw the parallel, directly, with our current president, it is hinted, in the words of Senator Cruz..
    I can still “hear” my dad scoffing at Neville Chamberlain in 1938, and at FDR, too.
    Are you allowed to correct typos in quotes? If so there are two. Under the picture of the British dead lying in the mud: ‘scene’ should be ‘seen’.
    In Robert Self’s book quote, ‘ins’ should be ‘in’.
    You are welcome.
    Grama “Eagle Eye” Mercer
    PS. Happy to see your dad chiming in.

  3. I have just come across your article on Neville Chamberlain and would like to thank you for seeking to put right some of the grievous wrongs done to the memory of a man who, whilst having honourable intentions, was no match for the criminal duplicity of Adolf Hitler. As you pointed out, the anti-war sentiments of the 1930s were as strong in Europe as they were in the US, but if Chamberlain was a dupe, he was an honest one and FDR must have also believed that Hitler could be persuaded to follow a more peaceful path by writing to him as he did.
    I do have one criticism however with the article and that is that you have repeated the myth that after Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, America declared war on Nazi Germany; which she did not.
    The USA only became involved in the European war because Hitler, having already been stupid enough to invade the USSR, in a moment of extreme hubris chose on 11th December 1941 to declare war on the USA; without consulting anyone else in the Nazi hierarchy or even his generals!
    Had Hitler not done this, I am certain that public and Military opinion in the USA would have ensured that your country fought only against Japan, whilst (as in 1914-1917) maintaining it’s highly profitable ‘benevolent neutrality’ in the European war and thus defraying most of the costs of the war against Japan.
    Whilst the peace-makers may be blessed, the arms-makers are always enriched.

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